Cavett Survives the Dread Clayhead Menace
Cavett also interviewed Bill Wyman:
“Are you a chain smoker?”
“You smoke very much?”
“You’re burning the filter there.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Well, one of us is right.”
“It looks like I’m burning the filter.”
“I don’t make the assumption that Jagger is more important than I am,” Cavett said later, but he seemed to see nothing strange in the fact that he was worried about who was “more important” in the first place.
“I don’t see it [egoism] as a problem,” he added. “But maybe it is. Perhaps the fact that I can’t see it is significant.”
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A more serious problem may be the format within which Cavett works. The talk-show skeleton has been prancing around five nights a week, at the hands of various puppeteers, for more than 15 years. It still works all right for the Carson show – where rumor has it that everybody shoots up novocain backstage – but it may well have exhausted itself for anything much more ambitious.
The fact that Cavett’s staff has done little to innovate may be because so many of them are Carson replants. John Gilroy, the producer, came from the Tonight show. So did associate producers Mike Zannella and Dick Romagnola. Marshall Brickman, the creative director, was head writer for the Tonight show, and Al Husted, who handles Cavett’s publicity, was Carson’s PR man. David Lloyd, hired away from Carson, writes Cavett’s monologues; like Carson’s, they are often so bad they draw hisses and boos not only from the studio audience but from the people in the control room. He often skips the routines.
Cavett is impatient with much of the criticism:
“It’s very hard for the viewer to really know what’s going on, just as they can’t imagine what it feels like to sit there. Even I can’t imagine it when I watch it. I can watch a show that night – or especially if it’s on a week later – and all the psychological atmosphere that I felt doing it will be missing from the picture. It’s utterly different. The tension doesn’t show, or the anger seems forced whereas it was real, or the humor seems spontaneous when it wasn’t.
“The camera lies so constantly and frequently that even I am amazed by it. By ‘even I,’ I mean I who do it five days a week. Sometimes I think almost nothing intelligent and coherent can be said.”
What makes Cavett’s show important, of course, is that intelligent, coherent and funny things actually do get said. In television, this is like the miracle of the loaves and fishes.
Substantiation can be had by flipping the dial. On one evening recently Cavett was interviewing Thomas Eagleton (“This isn’t a loaded question, but how are you?”) while Carson showed baby pictures of Jack Benny, who responded with a five-minute plug for a life insurance company which pays him a salary. Cavett presented Randy Newman; Carson had Harry Chapin. Cavett has interviewed John Lennon, Orson Welles, George Harrison and Alfred Hitchcock while CBS ground out films on the level of Airport. The mosaic projected by Cavett is that of a planet which, if generally bland, yet retains pockets of delight, irony, wretchedness and grace. Carson’s world seems to consist of golf courses, Las Vegas saloons, interstate highways and sycophants.
The Cavett show has a certain funkiness. The boom mike is always jutting down into the picture. An occasional fly buzzes around the tiny studio. Film cues never seem to be on time, and Cavett is perpetually yelling “Roll it!” like an oldtime Hollywood bigshot. When a dog barking outside interrupted his monologue recently, Cavett stepped through the audience, opened one of the theater’s big steel firedoors and confronted a startled man in a sleeveless undershirt with a dog.
“Look, we’re trying to do a show here, could you hold it down?” Cavett yelled, to the dog. “There’s a can of Alpo in it for you.”
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For some reason magicians and mimics seem to make the best talk show hosts. Paar does impersonations, as do Cavett and Carson. Carson was a touring magician; Cavett once saw him perform in a church basement in Lincoln, Nebraska. (“He was very good at the hand manipulating stuff–coins and cards.”) Growing up in Lincoln – shy and unathletic, his father read him Shakespeare aloud from the time he was four years old, his earliest playmates were girls – Cavett first brought himself to confront the public as a teenage magician.
“I think the hobby of magic may appeal to a certain kind of kid who spends time alone,” Cavett said. “Once it hits you, you want time alone. It justifies it. You can’t wait to get back to your books and catalogs. It’s a perfect mechanism for leading you into show business. Maybe you go into it out of loneliness or maybe you find a magic book in a library, but eventually you have to perform. That’s the nerve-wracking part.”
Cavett did magic shows and a radio program in high school, went to Yale and graduated in English, knocked around New York picking up bit parts and spots on quiz shows, worked as a typist for Office Temporaries and as a copy boy for Time, sent some jokes to Paar, got hired as a writer, and ended up with his own show. Now a limousine ferries him to his East Side apartment or to his summer home in Montauk, Long Island, where he and his wife, Carrie Nye, read the latest books and screen new films, and so on.