Cavett, by Dick Cavett and Christopher Porterfield

Cavett

I can’t decide if I like Dick Cavett. Before reading this book, I was kind of on the fence leaning toward liking him. I figured the book would help me decide, and my guess was that it would push me more firmly toward liking him, since I tend to naturally feel more sympathetic toward someone when I read something from their point of view, and walk in their shoes as it were. But no, I find my position unchanged. I’m still on the fence, leaning toward liking him.

I saw his ABC show (on opposite the Tonight Show) on TV here and there as a kid, but I wasn’t a nightly viewer. I remember mostly liking those old shows, and when I go on YouTube now and watch clips I think he and his show come across quite well. His shows had a little more substance to them than what we’ve come to expect from talk shows, including the Tonight Show during Johnny Carson’s long reign. Yes there were the usual jokes and interviews with the usual comedians and singers, but there was also occasional journalism, and interviews with political figures, edgy cultural figures, serious authors, etc.

So I think there’s something to his reputation as more of an intellectual than most TV personalities. He’s clearly a well-educated and at least fairly bright guy. On the other hand, there could also be an element of myth to that. He acquired that reputation early, and that’s one of those things that then just sticks to you for life without receiving a lot of critical re-assessment.

I suspect plenty of other folks from TV are of comparable education and intelligence; they just aren’t as prone to wear it on their sleeve. I recall a friend of mine mentioning that he had heard Monty Hall of all people (of Let’s Make a Deal) guest host a serious radio program, and had been quite surprised and impressed that Hall was so articulate and well-informed, better than the norm for even serious media.

In this context I always think of Howard Cosell’s comments in his autobiography about the talk shows he’d appeared on. He said that one of the most insightful, intelligent interviewers he encountered was Mike Douglas, who most folks would dismiss as just a bland, superficial, mainstream guy, whereas Cavett had been a dud—not interesting, not funny, just an unengaged interviewer reading a few prepared questions from his notes. (Then again, that may tell us less about Cavett’s intellect than about his disdain for Cosell. He’s a hero-worshipping, name-dropping sort, and it may be that he only gets “up” for those he considers elite, like Groucho Marx.)

Cavett is from 1974, the first of multiple books about his life and career.

The format of this book doesn’t work for me. Most of it is in dialogue form between Cavett and Christopher Porterfield (a friend and college roommate who worked on some of Cavett’s shows). Some sections are by Porterfield about Cavett. Typically the two of them try to play off each other and display wit, but it falls flat more often than not. If Cavett wrote seriously in his own voice I suspect I’d like it considerably more than overhearing him and his buddy perform for each other.

Substantively though, I mostly enjoyed learning more about Cavett and hearing some of his stories. I won’t recount them here, but there are plenty of good ones.

He has a wider range of talents than I realized; I don’t know that he would be considered nearly as accomplished at any of them as at being a talk show host and interviewer, but he’s been a stand-up comedian, comedy writer, and stage actor.

In addition to his reputation as more intellectual than the run of the mill TV personality, he also has a reputation as something of a snob or a prick. There’s some evidence for that in this book, but more often he comes across favorably. Some of that depends on whether you read his “I’m just a kid from Nebraska; I can’t believe I’m cavorting with these giants” shtick as false or genuine humility. I can see it either way, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

Cavett isn’t a great read by a long shot, in part due to the format that was chosen for the book. But there are enough interesting anecdotes told with thoughtfulness, humor, and insight into the people involved to make it worthwhile. It was good enough, narrowly, to encourage me to read more of his books. Maybe by then I’ll decide whether I like Dick Cavett.

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