Former talk show host Dick Cavett

Former TV show host and Talk Show author explains why, when he began his career, listening was the most difficult part of the job.

Dick Cavett can look back on his failure to get an NBC page job as good fortune. He used his distinctive voice, dry wit, unique interviewing style and diverse guest roster to become a TV talk show legend, winning 3 Emmys in the process. He majored in drama at Yale and acted in Army training films. A Time copy boy stint led to a comedy writing career, and the Nebraska native wrote for some of the best, including Johnny Carson. Cavett's voice is still heard in radio and TV ads. He also writes an online opinion column for The New York Times.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Pleased to welcome Dick Cavett back to this program. The legendary talk show host is a three-time Emmy winner, but if you have read this new book, as I have, then you know that he is far more proud of being the Nebraska state gymnastics championship in the pommel horse. Do I get love for that?
Dick Cavett: Thank you for that.
Tavis: You’ve been waiting all your career to hear somebody say that, haven’t you?
Cavett: Yes. When they say “Emmy-winner,” I think, “Get past that, get to gymnastics pommel horse champion.” (Laughter)
Tavis: So it’s out there now. His terrific new book is a collection of essays he’s written for “the New York Times.” It’s called, “Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary and Off-Screen Secrets.” Dick Cavett, always an honor to have you on this program.
Cavett: Well, I’m honored because you had me on three years ago and you had me right back on three years later. (Laughter) I’ve been waiting outside for two years of that time. (Laughter)
Tavis: Tell me about -
Cavett: Yeah, those are – they’re blogs, I guess. I don’t know the precise definition or difference between a blog and a column, but since they were written for the online reader. One of the great funs about that, if there’s such a word, is you get to read the reactions. As soon as the column appears online, then the letters start coming in.
You know what’s amazing, Tavis, is the number of people who write well, intelligently, have something to say, compose a beautiful paragraph, who are not in the profession out there. There must be something good about American education, though few people can think of what it is at times. It’s just remarkable.
I don’t just mean the ones that say – well, they’re good and bad, of course, for seasoning. (Laughter) “So you wrote a column on obesity. So you hate me because I’m fat. Goodbye forever, Mr. Cavett.” (Laughter) That brightens up the day a little bit. But so many intelligent people can write.
Tavis: What got you interested in even putting yourself out there, putting your thoughts out there in this public way via the Internet?
Cavett: I wasn’t clever enough to have that interest. (Laughs) The phone rang (laughter) and somebody said, “The ‘Times’ wants to know if you’d write a column. And I said, “But their op-ed page is full of good writers.” They said, “This is online, and you can write – try it for August,” they said. Two a week for four weeks.
The first three were a snap. Fourth one, I had to dig a little. By five, I thought I’ve said everything I have to say in this world. (Laughter) There are about 70 or more in there, so apparently I got going.
Tavis: I’ve gone through this, of course, but I’m trying to figure out what the common denominator is for what it takes to get on your – my phrase, not yours – your hit list.
Cavett: My hit list.
Tavis: Yeah. There’s some people that – Karl Rove is on your hit list, Cheney’s on your hit list.
Cavett: I don’t recognize any of these names. Go on. (Laughter)
Tavis: What does one have to do – Sarah Palin, you’ve taken some shots at.
Cavett: Well, yeah. I’ve never met Sarah Palin, but -
Tavis: I love your line about her, though.
Cavett: Oh, do you?
Tavis: That she doesn’t appear to have a first language.
Cavett: Thank you for not misquoting it. (Laughter) You know how you hold your breath when somebody quotes your line?
Tavis: Yeah, I shouldn’t have done that, especially to a genius of your -
Cavett: My notorious line to Norman Mailer always gets misquoted. He made me furious, and Gore Vidal furious and Janet Flanner furious, and I didn’t realize – and you might be able to identify with this – what could make you angriest on the air in front of an audience as the host. (Laughter) It would be Norman Mailer saying, “Why don’t you just read the next question off the question sheet?” (Laughter)
And heard myself say, “Why don’t you fold it five ways and put it where the moon don’t shine?” This got the longest laugh of my career so far, and it infuriated Norman.” “Cavett, Cavett, is that something that you’ve had canned for years, waiting for an opportunity to use it? Waiting for an opportunity to use it?” I said, “I have to tell you a quote from Tolstoy?” (Laughter)
Well, that got an even bigger laugh, and Norman was not happy. (Laughter) So my point was it gets misquoted. People will get the wrong verb. They’ll say, “Why don’t you fold it five ways and stick it where the sun don’t -” both wrong. Because you’ll agree, I’m sure, that would be vulgar.
Tavis: Yes, it would. (Laughter) That indeed would be vulgar.
Cavett: But you really read books. A biggest mistake I made when I started doing a talk show was I thought you had to read the books. (Laughter)
Tavis: Slows you down sometimes.
Cavett: Well, it helps, but I’ve read 435-page books and had the guest on for eight minutes and realized, there went my weekend and I (unintelligible). (Laughter) It’s good to be acquainted with the book, though.
Tavis: No, I read the good ones, I read the good ones.
Cavett: Yeah.
Tavis: So yesterday – today’s, yeah – so yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the death of John Lennon and you have a – you talk about your -
Cavett: You must have been a tiny boy.
Tavis: I was – what, about 15.
Cavett: Fifteen?
Tavis: Yeah, about 15.
Cavett: Old enough to know what had happened, clearly.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
Cavett: Yeah, when I got the Lennons on it made everybody jealous, of course, in the talk show business, because nobody had, and they were just wonderful. I guess John and I got off on the right foot, because he said to me – I said, “I’m glad you want to do this,” and he said, “You’ve got the only halfway intelligent talk show on television.” I said, “Why would you want to be on a halfway intelligent talk show?” (Laughter)
As you did, gracefully, he laughed. From then on, we were good friends. The upshot, the big upshot, the one that has caused an item on YouTube to be titled “Nixon Administration Wants Revenge on Cavett Show,” a hair-raising few moments to watch, was that John was being deported. The great unindicted co-conspirator was trying to deport him.
There’s a still there of Nixon and his lickspittle – it’s okay to use a Shakespeare word on your show, is it not?
Tavis: It’s PBS, I think that’s okay.
Cavett: Yeah, his lickspittle, HR Haldeman, planning this. “What is Cavett?” “Oh, he’s the worst, he fills every show with (unintelligible).” It’s a little scary to see the leader of the free world, the most powerful man in America – and you can supply your own name here, and viewers – “Cavett – how can we screw him?” One of Nixon’s wittier moments. (Laughter)
That’s about – he found out how to screw me; he screwed my entire staff. I learned years later – like two people talking coincidentally – “Were you audited?” “Were you audited too?” (Laughter)
Tavis: Everybody got audited.
Cavett: Yeah, one of Yorba Linda’s citizens’ favorite hobbies was illegally using the IRS to punish people, as we remember.
Tavis: For a book that’s called “Talk Show,” it raises this question for me, and you don’t have to call names, and please don’t if my name is on your hit list.
Cavett: Or even answer it.
Tavis: Yeah, exactly. (Laughter) But when you are as regarded a talk show host as you have been and you are as good as you are, how do you watch talk shows? Is it difficult to watch stuff that you think is just so not good?
Cavett: Oh, no one’s ever asked me that. It is, in a way, yeah, partly because – I assume you’re meaning watching other people’s talk shows, not my DVDs of “The Cavett Show.” (Laughter)
Yeah, it is, in a way, because I think I hope they do this, and oh, well, they didn’t, and I would have done that, or would I have done that, and so on. Johnny Carson said one night, “Richard, do you ever forget who you had on?” I was on his show. When “The Cavett Show” went off, Johnny would have me on on Monday and say, “It’s going to be Armed Forces Radio for Dick.” (Laughter)
We were very, very good friends. He said, he was scared, he was worried. It was during a break. He said, “Do you ever forget?” And I said, “Oh, yeah, there’s so many people, you can’t remember them all.” He said, “No, no, no, Richard, I mean that night.” (Laughter) He had forgotten all four guests the night before, when his doorman asked him who was on.
I said, “I came home one night after one of my one-person shows and somebody said, “How’d the taping go?” I said, “Fine.” They said, “Who was it?” I said, “Oh, they sat right there.” (Laughter) It took about 15 minutes to come up with the obscure name Lucille Ball. (Laughter)
Now, what do you make of that? To me, that means the you that does the show – and I bet you know this, too – is not exactly the you that people meet out there or in your home, in some important ways.
Tavis: Can I just tell you the thing that I have taken away most from watching your DVDs – I have the set – is I don’t know that there’s anybody in television who has ever been a more generous listener than you are.
Cavett: Listener.
Tavis: A very generous listener.
Cavett: That’s the key word, and it’s – the beginning, it was the hardest thing. Happen to you? The hardest thing, when you begin. It’s a discipline. It’s all right to – easy to listen in your kitchen, but with five people bugging you and indigestion and lack of sleep from doing guest notes the night before, it can be tough.
Tavis: Yeah. We would never have known it.
Cavett: You seem to have no problem with this.
Tavis: No, we would never have known it from watching you all those years, and I am always delighted to have you here.
Cavett: Well, luckily, it passed after a time. But you still – do you ever get a nasty note from the public?
Tavis: Yeah.
Cavett: Did you ever get this one, after having Jane Fonda on? “Dear Dick Cavett, Waco, Texas. You little sawed-off faggot communist shrimp.” (Laughter) I wrote right straight back – there was a return address – “I am not sawed-off.”
Tavis: And that’s why we love Dick Cavett. For more of my conversation with Dick Cavett, visit our website at PBS.org. His new book is called Dick Cavett, “Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary and Off-Screen Secrets.” I haven’t scratched the surface on the brilliance of his commentary, but I’m sure you can tell, given his commentary this evening, that you’ll want to read this and dig a little deeper. Dick Cavett, always honored to have you here, sir.
Cavett: You have a future in television.
Tavis: I’ll take that from you. (Laughter)
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm