The genius of Dick Cavett.

A guide to 20th-century culture.
Feb. 9 2007 7:17 AM

Dick Cavett

The secret art of the talk-show host

(Continued from Page 1)

But Cavett had been so nice about the book on-air that I allowed myself to imagine he had actually read it. He asked me to lunch at the Algonquin, where he was delightfully fast and funny; and then later in the week he asked me home for drinks, where he was even better, because he was ready to talk his business instead of mine. I learned a lot from him in a tearing hurry. Discussing his disasters on-air ­(self-­deprecation was one of his charms), he put on a tape of an old show and ­fast-­forwarded to an illustrative moment. I can't remember who the guests were or what they were doing—it could have been Truman Capote attacking Sonny Liston with a handkerchief—but I can remember the question Cavett asked me: "Why did my voice get louder just then?" When I hazarded that it was because the sound engineer had racked up the level, Cavett rewound a minute of the tape and showed me the moment again. "It didn't get louder," he said. "The director cut to the close shot." Then he played me an example of a line getting lost because his director cut to the wide shot. Suddenly I saw it: The closeness of the shot varies the volume. I had already done years of television without figuring that one out for myself. That was the night I learned to wait for the red light on my camera before launching a ­would-­be zinger. The red light meant go. In later years, isolated individual tapes (called ­iso-­tapes in the trade) did away with the problem, but at the time it was vital information. Cavett, who did a minimum of four shows a week, knew everything about talking on television.

It made him famous. He was never as famous as Carson, but he was famous enough not to be able to go out except in disguise. With a fishing hat pulled down over his ears he walked me along to Fifth Avenue so I could hail a cab. Years later I did his show again. He was just as welcoming, but he had even less time to spare; his show was fighting for renewal. The network executives thought he was finished and they might have been right. Those hundreds of shows a year had worn him out. In Britain and Australia, most of the talk shows go on the air once a week for a limited season. In America, it is more like once a day forever. The host's huge salary is his compensation for never being free to spend it. The ­joke-­telling machines can take that kind of schedule, because nothing troubles them in their interior lives except the problem of finding time to spend the money.

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Cavett's interior life was more complicated. For too long he had been questioning the value of what he did for a living. I think he really wanted to be a writer but couldn't face the risk of failing at it. The idea that he was born for television secretly appalled him. But born for television he was; even his comedy specials would have been enough to establish him as one of the most original ­small-­screen talents since Ernie Kovacs. I particularly treasure the blissful moment when Cavett was being loomed over by a luscious ­6-­foot blonde. Sheltering under her magnificent bosom, Cavett addressed the audience: "Allow me to present Admiral Harvey Q. Beeswanger USN, master of disguise." He had the wit's gift of making the language the hero—the gift of playful seriousness.

In America, however, play and seriousness make uneasy bedfellows. Even a supposedly urbane magazine will contract a severe case of editorial nerves if a contributor cracks wise on a serious theme, and in show business the two elements, as time goes on, grow more and more separate instead of closer together. It might be said that the United States is the first known case of a civilization developing through disintegration. It might be said, but you wouldn't want to say it on an entertainment talk show. A licensed iconoclast like Gore Vidal could perhaps get away with it, but no Tonight Show host would dare try—or even, alas, be capable of thinking such a thing. There are special shows for that sort of stuff; Charlie Rose has the seriousness business all sewn up.

There will be no Dick Cavett of the future. We should count ourselves lucky that there was one in the past. I count myself blessed that I knew him when he was still a small but seductive part of the American landscape. Eventually that landscape seemed to change its mind about wanting to include him, but it is possible that he had the idea first. At one point, toward the end, he was scheduled to do a set of programs in England for later transmission in America. I was one of the many admirers looking forward to his arrival, but he never showed up. Apparently he boarded the Concorde at Kennedy, had a breakdown before the plane took off, and was taken home. I never found out what happened to him afterward, and have never tried to find out. He would always have been a melancholic if he had given himself time, and perhaps he finally had time. A man looking for oblivion should be allowed to have it. Like Dick Diver at the end of Tender Is the Night, Dick Cavett sank back into America. He had already taught me my biggest lesson about television, far bigger than the one about the light on the camera: Doing television can be wonderfully rewarding in every sense, but if there is nothing else in your life, watch out.

Clive James, the author of numerous books of criticism, autobiography, and poetry, writes for the New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker. He lives in London.

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