Cavett, No Need For Emptor


I have to confess, I frequently watched Johnny Carson for the monologue, then switched quickly over to Dick Cavett. Sort of like eating desert before the steak and potatoes.

That dates me, of course, which is more than most girls would do in the early 1970's.

Yes I was old enough to stay up late enough in 1971 to watch Dick Cavett chat, which is what he did, with the stars and politicians of the day. I can even hum the staccato theme: Bum (rest) Bum. Bum bum bum bum. (would a "bum rest" be a chair, which would certainly be appropriate to a talk show).

Cavett did for the TV talker what George Plimpton did for sports journalism, which was to do it thoughtfully and well, attempting to elevate the genre in the process–and, yes, it was sometimes a little self-consciously, pinky-elevatingly erudite, like a guy from Yale showing you the proper way to cook barbecue.

But I didn't take offense that he acted and sounded like he was smarter than me (or is it "I"?), because I could tell he was. Which meant if I listened, which he always did well when interviewing, maybe I would learn something.

I don't know about barbecue, but he had the "thoughtful talk" recipe down, bringing out the more introspective sides of people used to plugging and mugging and moving over a seat, and with the best questions in the biz.

The spartan set–his name flanked by a flower as the central graphic, a couple of chairs–set the tone. No Mighty Cavett Art Players, no Ed aiming at the crotch of an indian with a tomahawk. Just talk, often banter both witty and serious, sometimes political.

He has been criticized for being smug, and for fawning on guests, but I think when he liked or admired a guest, it showed. What's not to like in Katherine Hepburn or Groucho Marx.

That is why I was pleased to see that TCM is reviving some of the classic interviews this fall, including a couple with the wonderful Katherine Hepburn and one with the irrascible Groucho Marx–Marx and Cavett became friends during Marx' rediscovery by a generation of Ivy leaguers and others via TV airings and college screenings of classic Marx Bros. films.

It makes me want to go out and buy a DVD of the old shows and put it in my library right between the red leather-bound copy of Paradise Lost and the Green Acres episode guide.

By John Eggerton