Eye on Cavett, by Dick Cavett and Christopher Porterfield

Eye on Cavett

Eye on Cavett was the second Dick Cavett book I read, as I got caught up on Mr. Cavett after a few decades. (Cavett was from 1974; Eye on Cavett from 1983).

I think overall I liked Eye on Cavett slightly more of the two. Cavett drew me in just enough to try Eye on Cavett, while the latter then drew me in slightly more.

One thing I preferred about this book is the style. Much of Cavett is presented as a dialogue between him and his co-author Christopher Porterfield. Eye on Cavett, though it too lists Porterfield as a co-author, is in the conventional first person autobiography format. I found that I felt vaguely closer to Cavett as the subject of an autobiography, or better able to empathize with him, when he was addressing me the reader directly, than when I was listening in on a conversation he was having with someone else.

It probably also helped that the first chapter very much held my interest, and presumably put me in a more receptive frame of mind for the rest of the book.

The book opens with Cavett’s return to Nebraska for his twentieth high school reunion. It’s partly about what he experiences, but more about what’s going on in his head. So it’s more an analysis and assessment of events—and of himself—than just a relating of them, which I like. I like a sign that someone’s mind is working as they go through life, that they can experience things and contemplate their meaning at the same time.

I found his way of doing that intelligent and interesting. Yes, there are the usual little Cavett signs of snobbery and pretention if you’re inclined to look for them, starting with the fact that the chapter title itself is in French. (A La Recherche de Nebraska.) But he’s upfront about that and his other traits, and self-questioning about them, which makes even the less appealing ones more forgivable.

So he admits that the main reason he was greatly looking forward to the reunion is that he’d be treated as a big shot, that people would get a thrill from being able to interact with a celebrity and be acknowledged by him. But then that sets off a chapter full of musings, about what that expectation says about him, how his celebrity status could also cause some of the other attendees to feel resentful, and on and on.

He wonders about how his status in the high school hierarchy way back when psychologically affects how he anticipates and experiences the reunion.

In a sense, he was already a big shot back then, a big frog in a small pond—president of the student council, the lead actor in all the school plays, academically accomplished, etc. Yet in another sense—that sense of social geography that people in an environment like a high school have an intuitive grasp of even if they can’t articulate it, that sense of who’s in and who’s out, that sense of whether being close to this person, or especially having sex with him/her, will improve your social standing or damage it—he knows he was never one of the true members of high school royalty.

So was he the one everyone expected was most likely to achieve the most success because he was already so accomplished in high school, and he’s returning to bask in the glory of having lived up to his promise, or was he the little nerd excluded from the inner circle of the high school elite, returning in his triumphant (or petty) way now to show them just how wrong they were about him? Well, some of each maybe. Or something in between.

While in town, he seeks out a former schoolmate, one crippled by polio, that Cavett has long felt creepy about having once insulted. He’s determined to apologize, to finally make it up to him.

He does, and it’s all very awkward. The guy brushes it off, and it’s not clear he even remembers it. Cavett leaves wondering whether he’s done something noble, or just made a fool of himself. Has he insulted the guy all the more by implying that the one thing he remembers about their interaction as children is that he once insulted him about his disability, and further insulted him by implying that the big shot important celebrity is now through an act of grace going to remove this hurt that must have been experienced as a big deal by the lowly victim?

Cavett finds that as interesting as the people back home regard him because he’s a celebrity, he’s genuinely curious about and interested in certain of his schoolmates’ lives. So he seeks them out and converses with them.

Like the woman who has—scandal of scandals in the heartland of the 1970s—left her husband and taken up with a black man. Or just people who’ve maybe achieved a different kind of success from what he has, say a conventional white collar 9-to-5 job that gives them a decent income and enables them to raise a family in relative anonymity.

As I say, I found it enjoyable taking this journey back into his past with him, because he’s reflective and at times self-doubting in a way that drew me in.

I won’t go into as much detail about the remainder of the book, but for me it was mildly interesting or better throughout.

For readers more interested in anecdotes about the guests on his shows and other famous folks than his personal life, there are plenty of those. For instance, he admiringly describes how John Wayne turned out to be quite the intelligent, cultured fellow.

Being something of a stickler for proper language, he includes some rants on some of the common errors that most get under his skin.

I’m of two minds about that kind of thing. I routinely and consciously break (things that in some circles at least are considered) linguistic rules all the time, when I think it improves the flow or will better get across what I’m trying to say than the formally correct version would.

Just as one small example, I often use “and” in between all the words in a list rather than just the final two, because it feels to me like the separation of the list items gives each of them a little more emphasis, a little more importance. So I might say “She’s intelligent, charming, and beautiful,” but I also might say “She’s intelligent, and charming, and beautiful.” The latter focuses for that extra split second on each of the traits, making it a little more of a compliment to attribute all three to someone. To make it more obvious, one could emphasize the impressiveness of having all three with italics: “She’s intelligent, and charming, and beautiful,” or “She’s intelligent, and she’s charming, and she’s beautiful.”

I give myself the leeway to use any of these, not just the one that certain grammar zealots would insist is the only correct one.

So sometimes I respond negatively to language critiques, because they seem prissy, restrictive, and unpleasantly judgmental like that.

But other times, I can totally get on board with such rants. I myself have plenty of things like that that can irritate the hell out of me.

(I’ll single out one, because it absolutely drives me up the wall. Somehow it has become increasingly common for people to pluralize words by adding an apostrophe and an ‘s,’ as in—and it causes me pain to even write this way for example purposes—“You can get great deal’s there,” “My office has no window’s,” or “They’re not behaving like responsible adult’s.” I’m not saying you’ll see it much in published books, newspapers, etc., but in more informal or I suppose uneducated contexts, like online writing, correspondence, sometimes advertising, etc., it seems to have gone from something people did maybe 1% of the time they pluralized a word to more like 30% or 40%.)

When people point out language errors that I agree are simple, unambiguous errors, rather than a potentially justifiable stylistic choice, and if they can do it without sounding like an asshole, then I’m generally cool with that.

And I would say Cavett mostly falls into that more tolerable category. (By the way, that’s another rule I routinely, knowingly, violate: starting a sentence with “and.” Sometimes when I’m making two distinct but related points, I want to connect them by using an “and,” but keep them apart and let one be digested before the other commences by coming to a full stop between them and putting them in different sentences or paragraphs.)

Most of his examples are of people just blatantly using the wrong word because they’re confused, like using “fortuitous” as if it were a synonym for “fortunate,” or using “appraise” as if it were a synonym for “apprise.” People don’t write things like that because they think informal or unconventional wording will give the point they’re making a certain nuance they’re striving for, but because they are mistaken about what those words mean.

Cavett also has plenty to say about how to craft a joke, specifically how the wording is absolutely crucial. You need, he says, to be aware of the number of syllables, which syllables are naturally accented, etc. when you’re deciding whether to word a joke this way or that way. Get it right, and the timing and rhythm work. Get it wrong and even if people can’t articulate quite why, it’ll sound “off” to them and they won’t laugh.

The ironic thing is that Cavett himself is regarded as well short of a superstar comedian. His stand-up career was brief and as far as I know not wildly successful, and most critics and viewers thought the weakest part of his talk show was the beginning when he would come out and do a Carson-like monologue.

Maybe the response would be that he got lukewarm response for his jokes not because the wording was mediocre but because the delivery was. But I doubt that. He’s a pretty smooth communicator; I don’t think he’d have trouble getting laughs if his material was as perfectly crafted to connect with people as he seems to think.

It’s kind of like getting a lecture on how successful hitting in baseball depends on gripping the bat precisely this way, and holding it at precisely this angle, and so on, and then finding out the guy who is so confidently explaining all this to you is, yes, a major leaguer so not completely lacking in credibility, but has a .240 lifetime batting average.

Among the other things in the book are his musings on the pros and cons of fame, the inside story of the debacle that was his short-lived variety show on CBS, and his love of New Orleans and its French Quarter (which I share).

All-in-all, Eye on Cavett isn’t a book I’d put in my favorite 10% or favorite 20% I’ve read, but it is intelligent, witty, and interesting enough to clearly be worthwhile. An easy and entertaining read.

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