Talk Show, by Dick Cavett

Talk Show

Talk Show is the third book written or co-written by Dick Cavett. It differs markedly in form from the first two.

Cavett and Eye on Cavett were conventional books, written with co-author Christopher Porterfield. Talk Show is a collection of New York Times columns, written by Cavett alone.

The subject matter is largely the same—Cavett’s musings on growing up in Nebraska, anecdotes about his talk shows, anecdotes about show business and the various celebrities he’s interacted with outside his talk shows, and occasional social and political commentary including chiding people for their poor language skills.

There’s a modest amount of repetition if you’ve already read his earlier two books, and of course considerably more repetition if you’ve seen a lot of his shows and his appearances on other shows telling various stories.

He seems like a perfectly good writer. I’m not sure why he felt he needed a co-author for his first two books. Maybe short, self-contained columns are more his style, whereas he wasn’t confident he could handle alone the organization and big picture stuff of book-length writing, I don’t know.

Perhaps due to its format of a collection of short pieces, I found this the most enjoyable of the three books. Or maybe it’s better to say it’s the easiest read rather than necessarily the most enjoyable.

I don’t think the collection was put together ideally well. It mostly reads fine, but it might have been better had he written a book based on the subject matter of these columns, rather than just stacking the pieces as is and sticking a cover on it. (Of course I don’t know that the columns are literally unchanged, but the book doesn’t read like they were changed much.)

He remarks here and there in the pieces, for instance, about reader comments that were posted online. (Evidently the column is an online blog; I don’t know if it also appears in the print version of the newspaper.) But given that we haven’t read those comments—including, for context, the ones he’s not explicitly referencing—it’s like listening to half of a conversation. He says enough so you can certainly get the gist of what the comments were that he’s responding to, but if you imagine watching someone talking on the phone, it’s a little unsatisfying even when the person is saying enough that you can infer roughly what the person at the other end of the line is saying.

Anyway, as I’d expect from Cavett, the writing is generally intelligent, interesting, and, where intended, humorous. Not to a degree that blew me away, but enough to make it a worthwhile read.

When I read anything by Cavett, though, I find myself thinking as much about what I like and don’t like about him and how he expresses himself as I do about the substance that he’s actually writing about.

The Cavett of this book is very consistent with that of the first two books and his public persona in general. All the things that some people find so irritating about him are on display. There’s that smart alecky arrogance, that sense that he’s calling attention to his cleverness even when on the surface he’s being humble and self-deprecating. There’s the constant name dropping—you’d think he has more celebrity big shots as close personal friends than Sammy Davis, Jr.

He clearly delights in recounting every insulting bon mot he’s dropped on some hapless victim, which might not be so bad except that invariably he prefaces the tale with assurances of just how bad he feels about what he said and how he just can’t understand what could have compelled him to forget his manners so badly.

Some of the witty comebacks he relates are pretty funny though. On one occasion he was aggressively questioned by some officious woman on a boat about why he was in an area where only crew members were allowed. He responded that he was a crew member. (As a paid performer, he technically counted as a crew member.) Pointing at her ID badge on her imposing bosom, she demanded, “Why don’t you have one of these?!” He replied, “Men don’t have those.”

I’ve been trying to figure out what is off-putting or arrogant about his celebrity anecdotes, and I think it may be that they nearly always seem to be as much about him as about the celebrity, and especially about how important he was to the celebrity. So on the surface an anecdote may be about some great line that Groucho Marx got off in his presence, but it’s worded in such a way that it insistently conveys the additional message, “Groucho really liked and respected me, and loved hanging out with me.”

Having read, and very much enjoyed, a biography of Bobby Fischer last year, I found the pieces about Fischer in this book among the most interesting. Cavett reminds us that when Fischer was on top of the world he had great charisma, and could be quite personable.

Here again, though, the self-aggrandizing side of Cavett is on display, as much or more than anywhere else in the book. He recounts how the allegedly cold and peculiar Fischer was so comfortable and friendly with him, on and off camera, how he would let his guard down and laugh. He speaks of the surprising connection that developed between them, the kind of connection Fischer seemed to have with few other people, and no other television personalities. He even worries about whether he could have intervened to save Fischer as his mental and physical health later deteriorated so alarmingly, speculating about what the consequences may have been if when he had received the first indications that something was seriously wrong with Fischer he had taken the initiative to fly to him and have a serious talk with him.

This really is taking things to the level of parody. From my reading, my understanding is that Fischer was a kook to a significant degree beginning in childhood, and that as he got older his mental illness grew increasingly more severe. I hardly think a heart-to-heart chat with his close personal friend Dick Cavett (whom he apparently only met and interacted with a handful of times) would have cured him.

In the end, though, in describing Cavett’s more egotistical side, I do it more in the sense of “I can understand why some people find him so irritating” rather than “Here’s why I find him so irritating.” The constant name dropping and such really doesn’t bother me more than a little.

I kind of think of it as, that’s just Dick Cavett. He has these certain flaws, or at least foibles, and at his age I seriously doubt that’s going to change. You either accept his brand of arrogance as a part of what makes him who he is, or you don’t. I think when you look at the whole package, there’s more to like than dislike, and overall I’ve enjoyed reading his take on things in the three books of his I’ve read.

One final thing I’ll mention about Talk Show is that I found the two pieces on depression to be particularly thought-provoking.

Cavett suffered, or suffers I suppose, from depression. He describes it as extraordinarily painful (he’s offended when people claim they understand how depressed people feel because they know how sad they were when a family member died, aghast that they don’t realize how depression dwarfs such normal grief), and as triggering extreme apathy and lack of energy (he describes how depression resulted in the actor Rod Steiger barely getting out of bed for months—“If I brushed my teeth it was a big day”).

That got my attention, because I’ve had the second of those symptoms (though not to that extreme a degree) and very little of the first, and it’s the first that I think most people associate with depression.

I’ve always hesitated to accept the depression label, because I don’t want to trivialize what truly depressed people feel. Since I rarely if ever have that really overwhelming, painful kind of sadness, I’m more inclined to say that I’m borderline depressed, or that I’m depressed in more of an informal, layman sense.

But when I’m down I do experience that debilitating apathy, that inability to rouse myself to do much of anything.

Really it’s more the exception than the rule that I don’t feel at least some of that listlessness and lack of initiative. Because they stand out to me, I treasure those exceptional moments (playing sports, editing video, being with one of my amazing goddaughters/nieces that I love so much) when I feel truly engaged in what I’m doing and where I just naturally do what I need to do without having to consciously force it and overcome that internal inertia.

If that’s depression—that feeling that you’re just sort of drifting through the day, having to really push yourself even to get a minimal amount of stuff done—then I probably do suffer from at least some degree of depression.

People associate depression with suicide, but again for me that’s a little tricky.

I rarely if ever have that feeling that I’m in so much pain, so much discomfort, that I’d welcome any release from it, including death. I’m not suicidal in that sense.

What I have is more of an indifference to life, a lack of will to live—more ennui than pain.

One thing that Cavett says about depression and its connection to suicide stood out to me, as it’s something I’ve noticed in me and remarked upon.

He says that suicide is more of a risk just before or just after bottoming out, because when you’re at the lowest point of depression you probably won’t be able to bring yourself to make the necessary effort to commit suicide.

That’s kind of how I feel when I’m depressed—if indeed it is depression. At such a time, the idea of suicide doesn’t appeal to me, because it feels like it would be too much bother.

Killing yourself is an active thing that requires making a tough choice and carrying it through. When I’m depressed, that’s precisely the kind of thing I feel incapable of doing.

I mean, when I think of suicide, I think in terms of “putting my affairs in order” and all the rest. I think about writing a will, contacting the people who are most important in my life to say some final thing to them (preferably in person, which necessitates making travel plans), wrapping up my current projects (like if I’m making a film or engaged in some significant writing project), figuring out what kind of weapon or whatever to use and obtaining one, and on and on and on.

The whole thing seems like a big production, at a time when, like Rod Steiger says, it’s a real achievement to get out of bed to brush my teeth, or to not sit indefinitely at the computer in a funk, aimlessly browsing YouTube and other sites.

But then on the rare occasions when I do have plenty of energy and am capable of committing to some large task, suicide is unlikely to be on my mind.

So I can kind of understand what Cavett is saying about depression, and there’s some of that “Hey, he’s talking about me” feeling, but I’m also aware of significant differences in intensity if not in kind.

Anyway, Cavett doesn’t provoke uncomplicatedly warm feelings in me, but on the whole I think he’s an interesting and decent guy. I’d give Talk Show at least a modest thumbs up, as I would his other two books I’ve read.

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