Tune in for Judge Chris Claro's lecture on ancient TV technology such as rabbit ears, channel selectors, and gasbags.
"But enough about me. What do you think of me?"
Herewith, the curious case of Dick Cavett. Hailing from the same Nebraska as the legendary Carson, the Yale-educated Cavett began his TV career selling jokes to Jack Paar alongside Woody Allen. Sitting in for Johnny ensued. Then came a daytime talk show, leading to a slot on ABC facing off against the King of Latenight.
Facts of the Case
Comprised of four discs, each containing three episodes, The Dick Cavett Show: Comic Legends is a trippy time capsule of what 1970s late-night was like. It was long, for one thing. Watching these shows reminded me of my inability, in my youth, to stay awake long enough to see a new comic, buried in the last slot on the Carson show. Ninety minutes seemed an absolute eternity, no matter how interesting the guests. Without commercials, Cavett's shows clock in at 66 minutes, compared to 21st-century talk shows, which are about 42 minutes minus ads.
Despite Dick's tendency to be insufferable, The Dick Cavett Show: Comic Legends scores points on the strength of his guests. Watching this host spend 90 minutes alone with Bill Cosby or Carol Burnett recalls a time when the once-standard 90-minute talk show offered a relaxed forum. So relaxed, it seems, that sometimes Cavett lets the conversation meander to a complete stop. The leisurely pacing of the interviews is a marked contrast to today's Letterman-Leno-Conan ethos of "get 'em on and get 'em off" between commercials.
For all his seeming similarities to Carson, Cavett's persona was diametrically different. Where Carson was warm and self-effacing, Cavett often seemed a name-dropping toady. He constantly undercut his wit and perceptiveness with a narcissistic preoccupation with showing his audience and guests how much he knew. Self-absorption and insecurity were less-than-attractive characteristics in a talk show host. Yet Cavett spent five years on ABC, first on a nightly basis and ultimately one or two weeks per month.
Television, of course, has long had its share of pedantic gasbags. They're probably at a record high now thanks to the bottomless maw that is the cable news channels. Honestly, Charlie Rose probably emits enough hot air to fly the Met Life blimp for a year. But Rose's show and others like it are smaller, intimate affairs, conceived more for conversation than entertainment. Cavett was playing on the same field as the effortless Carson with a house band, monologue, and a parade of actors, comics, singers and authors. But Cavett was so busy promoting his agenda of reminding the audience of his esoteric reference base that he often forgot to entertain them.
It's a shame, too, because Cavett's show attracted many relevant and thoughtful personalities of the era, from Georgia governor Lester Maddox, who stormed off the set when challenged by Truman Capote, to rock legends Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Cavett was genuinely interested in his guests, but he gave the whiff that no one impressed him more than he impressed himself.
Though shows like Later with Bob Costas maintained the single-guest model through the 80s, the tradition faded as face time became more and more valuable as a promotion vehicle. David Letterman's memorable hour with Warren Zevon not withstanding, a host chatting with one guest for an hour—or 90 minutes!—on TV is something that seems to have gone out with rabbit ears and channel selectors.
Cavett opens each show with either a brief monologue or by answering questions the studio audience has submitted. Quick-witted and elfin, Cavett is at his most accessible during this portion of the show. He appears to enjoy the interplay with the crowd and is more intent on entertaining that pontificating.
Another throwback to an earlier video age is the fact that guests collect on the stage throughout the show, rather than exiting after their segments. Consequently, one show finds Cavett navigating the waters among the can't-make-this-stuff-up triumvirate of Groucho Marx, Jim Fowler, and Truman Capote.
As its title indicates, though, this box is focused on comic legends, and, on that front, it delivers. Cavett's respect for guests like Jack Benny, George Burns and Bob Hope is evident and, though he sometimes seems to lose the audience due to digressions and dithering, his guests are old pros who know how to hold the crowd's attention.
It's no surprise that those veterans score in their appearances. What does shock, though, is how loose and funny Woody Allen is when he shares the stage with Cavett in a show from 1971. For all the mannered glumness we've come to expect from the Woodman—as we see when he trudges through the motions of promoting his films—his appearance opposite his old friend is a delight. Relaxed and charming, he trades jokes and anecdotes with Cavett and plays a couple of tunes on his clarinet. Additionally, Cavett is more relaxed and animated than on any of the other episodes in the set.
Though the conversations sometimes drag, the set is worthy as an artifact of 1970s TV, and as a reminder of how our expectations of talk shows have evolved. Each episode is introduced by Cavett, whose smugness seems to have dissipated over the last 30 years.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Though the packaging is handsome, the video and audio are representative of the age of the program. Flat sound and streaky, muddy visuals throughout are constant reminders of the age of the source material. Indeed, the studio in which the Cavett shows were shot was insufficiently soundproofed and fire engines are often heard racing by which adds to the set's back-in-the-day quality.
For fans of comedy that spans the 20th century, The Dick Cavett Show: Comic Legends is a great addition to a DVD library.
The Dick Cavett Show: Comic Legends is found not guilty, its star's pomposity notwithstanding.
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