Interviewing the Interviewer: A Conversation with Dick Cavett

I recently had the great thrill of talking to Dick Cavett, the legendary talk show host. Cavett got his big break in 1960, when he was hired as a comedy writer for Jack Paar—who was then the host of the The Tonight Show)—and later went on to become the show's talent coordinator. Cavett has said that he never fancied himself the hosting type. But in 1968, he was offered his own program and became the host of The Dick Cavett Show, a job which lasted a strong three decades.

His new book, Talk Show—which compiles many of the blog entries Cavett has written for the New York Times over the past three years—chronicles his most memorable moments from his time as a host. And given that the man's interview history reads like a who's who of the most influential figures of the 20th century (featuring Katherine Hepburn, Norman Mailer, Bobby Fischer, and John and Yoko, to name a few), it's no wonder he has some hilarious and insightful tales to tell.

In the book, Cavett refers to a bit of advice he once received from Jack Paar: "Don't do interviews. Make it a conversation." And what unfolded during my 15-minute phone call with Cavett was just that—a conversation. We spoke about his new book, writing habits, earthquakes, and the great Groucho Marx. I feel like I should be asking you how to conduct this interview.

Dick Cavett: Oh, I don’t really have any pointers. I always feel like I’m still learning when I do something like that. (laughs)

Well, can you describe your new book, Talk Show? What motivated you to write it?

Well, I didn’t write it as a book. It’s, as you know, [blog entries] from the New York Times, that I’ve written over the last three years. And originally it came about because somebody said, "The Times wants to know if you want to do an online column." And that’s nothing that I ever particularly wanted to do. But I thought, why not try it, it’s only for a month, two a week. And it turns out that two a week is easy for the first three columns. The next five, you sweat, thinking I’ve said everything I know in the world. (laughs) And here we are, almost three years later.

You eventually realize you have a lot to talk about.

Steve Allen said something once about how people say, "Comedy writing, how do you do it?" And he said, "Start writing it. The more you write, the more you can write." And there’s something to that.

Like getting into the habit?

I don’t know, certain muscles come into play that you haven’t used before or something. Which saves you. But you still worry. I don’t know how people write two [columns] a week all the time like other op-ed columnists for papers do. They must not have any outside lives. And some of them look it. (laughs)

Before you started blogging, you landed some pretty hard-to-get interviews during your hosting days. How did you do it?

I don’t know. I always thought it might be dangerous to try think how you do it. Like the tightrope walker thinking, "Now wait a minute, what is it I do to keep my balance?" It’s just something that was devilishly hard at first and started to get easier. Then I actually did a show or two that I enjoyed in those first awful two weeks. And being on the air five times a week, caught in the tide, getting knocked down by a wave and then getting up and getting hit by the next one. And eventually it eased out. And then I could enjoy three shows in a row. And so forth.

It was a matter of getting your footing?

It really was, yeah. [Considering I was doing it] without having a technique. I’d have been happy to have one if someone told me what it was! One of them, which sounds too obvious to be true, is to listen to the guests—and that’s not as easy as you might think. Because on the screen [viewers] see two people talking, but in the studio, the host is being frantically signaled and pulled, and signs flashed that you missed seeing, and you're wondering if you’re supposed to go to commercial, and Oh, my God, the guest's lips have stopped moving. What could they have been saying?

And you have no idea where they left off.

Yeah, somebody said, when you blank like that—and everybody does, Jack [Paar], Johnny [Carson], everybody—those [are the] moments when you say, "Whoops, My turn to talk!" (laughs) I think it was Johnny, who said, "There’s kind of a general question that fits everybody," and I said, "Like what?" And he said, "Well, you know, do you pee in the shower?"

I suppose that one will shock just about anybody into changing the subject.

It’s almost universally understood.

Did you ever have any guests that you simply couldn’t connect to?

With all those thousands of guests, there are bound to some that are harder than others. But in general people would tell me, "You made me feel more comfortable than I ever have in this situation." Or sometimes they'd ask, "How in the hell did you get me to talk about that?" Whatever it was. And I seemed to have the knack for that which made it easier.

During this run-through in 1973, Cavett managed to get Katharine Hepburn, an actress notoriously disdainful of celebrity culture, to open up about her personal life.

Watching clips of your show, it’s clear that you regularly achieved a certain level of intimacy with your guests, who would often talk to you about rather personal things. Conversations generally seemed—

Yeah, I don’t know—

Oh, sorry, go ahead.

One rule is, don’t interrupt the person who is talking to you as I just did.

It's quite alright! I was going to ask, do you think that very candid sort of talk show experience is still possible? What with branding and messaging and publicists?

You know, I don’t know about that. Every so often there is an article saying the old kind of talk show isn’t possible now. In the oldest kind of talk show, you only had the choice of that or two other channels! The days of Steve Allen and Jack over the years. And the pace seems to be so nervously jumpy now on so many shows. And nobody’s on for more than six minutes, or ten maybe, and rarely two full segments. And there are the young ladies that Dave Letterman parodied one night. An actress was hilarious, coming on and using the word excited every sentence. "I’m excited about my new movie and I’m excited about the most exciting director and costumes." People would do that to me and I said, "Have you ever had an exciting nap?" They didn’t get it. It was rather cruel of me. But there’s a lot of that.

And I was on dear Joy Behar’s show [recently]. I don’t know why she puts up with certain aspects of it. The screen is constantly being filled with inserts and just as I was getting off a good line about—what was it—about Sarah Palin, they show a film clip of the person that’s being talked about while your talking. And it filled the screen. The viewer then loses track of what you’re saying and then it kills your punchline. I like [Joy], but I think she should pare down her distractions. I don’t know how she puts up with it. And it’s not just on her show. It’s every place. Somebody mentions the late Hop Along Cassidy and they feel the need to put up a picture of him and his white horse, and then you forget what is being said about Hop Along Cassidy.

What it says is, "Nothing on this screen is worth your entire attention." Sometimes the speaker fills the screen and then shoots up to the right-hand corner, [shrunk down to] the size of a postage stamp, while they show something similar to what he’s talking about.

Radio, which was a much better medium than television will ever be, was easy and pleasant to listen to. Your mind filled automatically with images. But anyway, enough about me. Let’s talk about you.

What would you like to know?

What do you do in San Francisco to avoid fear of earthquakes?

Well, what can I do? I try not to think about them too much.

That’s all you can do. I was talking to an agent out there once and he said, "Oh, we’re having an earthquake, I gotta get off the phone."

Are you sure he didn’t just want to get off the phone quickly?

I think it was indigestion. Trying to dramatize his life.

A personal earthquake.

Ed. note: At this point Cavett laughed, loudly—which for me was a real tables-have-turned, "Is this how he felt when he made his famous guests laugh?" kind of moment.

If you were hosting a show today, do you think you’d try to book talent differently than you used to?

No, how I would do it, I would try to have on as interesting people as could, in any field. I would not ever try to be a show intellectual, which I was accused of doing a while on ABC. I thought you were supposed to read the guests’ books. And I always welcome comedy and music and rock people and eccentrics. And one murderer, and all sorts of people from every walk of life... and death.

And one murderer?

Oh, I’m thinking of Captain Jeffrey McDonald. I never got a chance to have O.J. Simpson on and I would have loved to.

I’m sure he has some tales to tell.

Yeah, I doubt that we’ll ever hear those. I sort of had a fantasy of meeting him at a party at some point, before he was back in the slammer. And talking pleasantly, and then saying, "Will you excuse me, I’d like to talk to some people who haven’t murdered anyone yet." But that is just a fantasy I never got to fulfill.

Do you often find yourself thinking about what you'd like to say to certain people? Or coming up with things you wished you'd said when you had the chance?

In putting the Talk Show book together, I had to re-read all the pieces for various reasons. Minor changes and things. And I kept thinking, why didn’t I say this better? There are five boxes of DVDs of the old Cavett shows—a lot of people don’t know this and ought to go to Amazon to buy them—and when I watch them, I’m delighted at things I said, and then alternately, thinking, "Oh surely I’m going to say... I didn’t... Missed a great possibility! Oh no!" And there’s nothing you can do about it unless you want to re-edit it and re-record it. But in going through these pieces I also thought, "Did I write this? I don’t remember having this thought... I guess I did."

Hindsight is always 20-20.

But I don’t know that it is. There’s a fallacy in that, because 20/20 is not the best vision.

Here's Cavett reflecting on the importance of asking Jimi Hendrix about his experience in the army during this September, 1969 interview.

[Ed. note: True to his roots, Cavett again kicks off our next discussion.]

Thank you for not asking me who my favorite guest was.

Have you been getting that a lot?

People like to deal in those silly "most" questions. What’s the greatest movie you’ve ever seen? What’s the most fun you’ve ever had? What’s the greatest piece of music in the world? Who can say. If I’m pressed I’d say Groucho meant the most to me. In just a deep personal, admiring fan-drooling drooling fan of Groucho way and then getting to know him over the last years of his life. And having him on shows was a great great thrill.

During one of Groucho's early appearances on The Dick Cavett Show, he commended Cavett for being "one of the best and wittiest conversationalists."

In your book, you talk about writing for Groucho Marx on The Tonight Show, when he filled in for Johnny Carson. How did that come about?

They had guest hosts for weeks and weeks between Jack and Johnny’s taking the show over. It was smart on Johnny’s part, and a lot of people hosted. Groucho was delightful for two weeks. And a lot of people did it who were disastrous.

You've written a great deal for other comedians. Can you explain the importance of having a good ear for the people who are delivering your lines?

Yeah, you have to. The trick to writing for people is, you have to be able to turn them on in your head. And know how they’d word something or how they’d inflect it.

Are there any comedians or shows you’d consider writing for today?

I think that part of my life is over, but what a break to be able to write daily for Paar and Carson and Merv [Griffin], and—

The pause of of a "Call Waiting" click on a landline cuts him off.

Is it possible that the call I hear coming in is my next interview? Did they give you a time structure when you have to kiss me good luck?

I don't think I received a time limit.

Well, let me look at my calendar—it says that you will be on at 2pm til 2:15pm.

Goodness, we’ve gone over.

Could this be goodbye between you and me? I don’t know what to do here, this is beyond my experience.

I'd gladly continue talking with you, but I don't want to keep you from your next call.

Yeah, you’re fun to talk to. Well, try me again some time, okay?

Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Comments, and Off-Screen Secrets is in stores now.

Comments (4)
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Dec 08, 2010
I was a guest on Cavett's show twice, plugging a couple of my books. And he DID read them, as opposed to most of the other talk show hosts who relied on readers to write interview questions for them. I'd love to contact him again. What are the chances?
Ruth Dickson
Dec 08, 2010
Great interview. Cavett's ABC show was a groundbreaker - wittier and more daring than what we are fed today. It's nice to see that he can still converse in the same style. Good work!
Dec 04, 2010
What a great interview! I was amazed at the interchange between Cavitt and the TV.Com interviewer, Ilana Diamond. I felt like I was sitting in on a conversation. Those video clip were a great touch - haven't seen that done before as part of an interview.
Great job!!
Dec 04, 2010
Loved this. Good thing Tim Surette didn't do this one, I mean, given his fear of all things old... :o}