Brief Encounters, by Dick Cavett

Brief Encounters

I wasn’t even a huge Dick Cavett fan back when he was at his peak on TV—though I had a more favorable than not opinion of him and his show, and kind of wonder why I didn’t watch it more—but in recent times I’ve now gone back and read all four of his books.

The two most recent ones—Talk Show, and now Brief Encounters—are compilations of his New York Times blog posts. I’m not wild about that format. The pieces are necessarily superficial because of their modest length. He makes reference here and there to responses that were posted on the blog that we don’t see, kind of reminding you that a blog can be conversational in a way that a book is not, so the transition of these pieces to book form is imperfect.

On the other hand, this format does make for an easy read. Brief Encounters held my interest from start to finish, as well or better than any of his previous three books. My attention span might not be quite as short as that of most people who grew up in the computer age, but it can still be pleasing to have that attention span not challenged at all.

Apparently Cavett’s blog is the kind I thing I’d most like to have, where he’s not limited to a certain subject matter. Basically the topics for his blog posts are whatever happens to be on his mind at a given time that he wants to share. In general terms it’s mostly the same kind of stuff as in Talk Show and his earlier books—show business and the celebrities he has known, autobiographical memories from his youth, a little politics and social commentary, etc.—but it can be anything. He has pieces on alcoholism and on the psychology of dreams, for instance.

As a sampling, I’ll mention just a few things that got my attention in this book, but there are a lot more.

Though I’ve certainly heard of Arthur Godfrey, and I’m pretty sure I saw him on TV at the tail end of his career, I really didn’t appreciate how big a deal he was until I read what Cavett has to say about him here. Apparently in his (long) heyday he was a truly dominant figure in radio and TV. But whereas some people’s reputations grow after they’re gone, and if anything they become even more famous and more appreciated, others fade and are rarely talked about anymore. I take it Godfrey is of the latter type.

Cavett mentions that Godfrey’s key broadcasting insight was extremely simple yet profound. It was to address the radio listeners or TV viewers in the second person, which creates the impression you are singling each of them out and speaking directly to them. So not, “Welcome ladies and gentlemen of the radio audience,” or “Good evening everybody,” but “How are you?”

I did not know that Jack Paar’s classic line introducing busty sex symbol Jayne Mansfield—“Here they are, Jayne Mansfield!”—was written by Cavett.

There is a touching piece about his looking up Stan Laurel well into Laurel’s retirement from show business, and finding him to be a wonderfully classy, kindly, appreciative old gentleman.

No Dick Cavett book would be complete without some insistence of just how close he was to the biggest of the big. In Brief Encounters he actually claims that for a time he and Muhammad Ali were “best friends.”

But once you get past that delusional silliness, there are some good Ali anecdotes, and a more serious point about how he feels a certain amount of guilt for giving in to the common temptation to avoid someone whose health is deteriorating. For years he put off contacting Ali, assuming that the contrast between what he was and what he is would just be too sad. I can understand completely both why he would do that, and why he wouldn’t be fully comfortable with himself for doing that.

A Dick Cavett book also must have some Groucho Marx stories, and Brief Encounters is no exception. Among other things he recounts how Groucho’s much younger companion in the final years of his life, Erin Fleming, probably deserved all the criticism she got for manipulating the fading Groucho back into the spotlight (and putting herself in the spotlight in the process) when he pretty clearly wasn’t up to it, but also probably deserved praise and appreciation for giving him that opportunity that he still craved. “I once heard Henry Kissinger say about Richard Nixon something like ‘Just about anything you could say about him would be true.’ So of Erin. For better or worse, she brought a near-dead man back to life repeatedly, even if she seemed to risk killing him in the process.”

There are a few people in show business who are comedians’ comedians, people who not only can kill when performing for a conventional audience, but who are riotously funny in real life, able to consistently break up others in the business. Two such comedy giants that Cavett praises here are Mel Brooks and Jonathan Winters. I have to agree that they are two of the genuinely funniest people of my life. Jonathan Winters especially is underappreciated.

Oh, and great call on Cavett’s part advocating Stephen Colbert to replace David Letterman if and when he decides to retire. He wrote that back in 2013—not just that Colbert would be a good host for a late night talk show, but that specifically he’d be ideal in Letterman’s slot—two years before it happened.

Moving beyond the show business pieces, I appreciate his bashing of political correctness. I know that’s become something of a cliché for straight white guys especially, but Jesus a lot of that stuff is ridiculous—the idea that the highest priority in communication is to make sure you never say anything that could possibly offend anyone (though in practice it’s limited to not offending those in the politically favored groups).

I like Cavett’s frankness on political matters. For instance, on the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy, I don’t know that substantively there’s anything here that wasn’t said by countless other pundits, but I like how he comes right out and says that he can’t imagine any even minimally plausible argument for the other side, that it’s just so clearly moronic and demagogic.

Some of the pieces that are more about his personal life and past are fine too. One that stands out is about how when you grow up as he did as a middle class Nebraska lad in the 1940s and 50s, it all feels like a Norman Rockwell world until suddenly it doesn’t. One Christmas his grandmother exploded in fury at his grandfather, seemingly out of nowhere, in a way that was impossible to square with the impression of their marriage that had been created over the years. Cavett, a young boy at the time, was eventually able to prevail upon his mother to help him understand what had happened, and she shared with him some context that put that relationship in a very different light. There’s an emotional intensity to that, and to some of the other memories he recounts.

Brief Encounters is well written and consistently interesting. I don’t know that it would be nearly as appealing to younger people who have never heard of half or more of the things and people Cavett discusses, but at least for those of us whose life span and interests overlap significantly with his, the book deserves a recommendation.

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