Dick Cavett

Dick Cavett, PBS Pioneers of TelevisionWriter and comedian Dick Cavett got his big break when he heard through the grapevine that popular late-night show host Jack Paar struggled to write a crisp, engaging monologue each day. Cavett, who then worked as a copywriter for TIME magazine, wrote some material for the famous comedian, stuffed it into an envelope, tracked down Paar personally and handed it to him.

Later that night, Cavett snuck into the studio audience of the Paar show to see what the iconic host would do with his material.

“I was so full of myself that I had given Jack material, and he came out at the beginning [of the show], and he reached into his pocket and took out folded, white, typing-sized paper. And I knew what he was going to say: ‘This kid came up to me in the hall, and I don’t know who he is [or] if he’s any good or not. Anyway, here’s some of his jokes.’ And then, I shrank and shrunk down in the seat,” he remembers.

But the young wannabe-writer’s joke worked, and Cavett was soon hired to pen material for Paar on a regular basis. Cavett’s behind-the-scenes career would bloom as he wrote jokes for Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” and Groucho Marx. But the comedian’s on-screen break came when ABC offered him his own talk show in 1968, and he quickly became known as a cerebral late-night alternative show.

Cavett distinguished himself with his intellectual interviews with newsmakers of the day. On the air, he made it look easy, but Cavett laughs at how he privately felt ill-at-ease in the spotlight.

“In trying to concentrate so hard and being sure to look like you’re listening,” recalls Cavett of his TV hosting gig, “you forget to be actually listening, and then the guest’s lips have stopped moving, and it’s, ‘Oh God, what was he saying?’ … I think I said it’s a great job for people who haven’t had a nervous breakdown but would like to see what it feels like.”

Dick Cavett’s Early Life

Cavett was born in Nebraska and attended Yale School of Drama, where he met his future wife, actress Carrie Nye. Like his older contemporary, Johnny Carson, a young Cavett became a performing magician for a bit before trying his hand at stand-up comedy in New York City. Cavett’s trademark dry wit was a perfect complement to the turbulent news of the day, and as a late night television host, he thrived by interviewing controversial political and cultural figures.

“I sometimes wonder: Would it have been a whole other experience if I had done the shows ten years earlier — in less interesting times — because you not only had the fun of your show biz guests and the show itself … but the disruptions, sometimes, literally, in your audience,” Cavett says.