Today with Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Myers and so many others we, the audience, certainly have a bagful of choices on who to watch on late night TV. Out of all these choices no one has come along in all these years to fill the shoes of Dick Cavett. Cavett’s late night show went up against Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and The Merv Griffin Show. It was a rare evening when Dick beat Johnny in the ratings war. Most evenings he not only ran behind Johnny but also behind Merv “Mr. Bland” Merv Griffin. Now I am not here to knock Johnny Carson. Let me say it right up front that I loved Carson’s Tonight Show. To this day, he remains the King of Late Night Talk Shows. Griffin I always found to be a bore. He was someone to watch when you had trouble sleeping. He was better than a sedative. Cavett though was an alternative. His show lent itself to more thoughtful audiences and guests. Carson and Griffin rarely, if ever, touched on the more important or sensitive topics of the day. Cavett on the other hand, during his five years on ABC between 1969 and 1974, courted intellectuals like Gore Vidal and discussed controversial subjects like the Vietnam War. The following example is from Wikipedia which will give you a taste of just how controversial and fascinating Cavett’s show could be…
One particularly controversial show from June 1971 featured a debate between future senator and presidential candidate John Kerry and fellow veteran John O’Neill over the Vietnam War. O’Neill had been approached by the Nixon administration to work through the Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace to counter Kerry’s influence on the public. The debate went poorly for the pro-war side, so angering President Nixon that he is heard discussing the incident on the Watergate tapes, saying, “Well, is there any way we can screw him [Cavett]? That’s what I mean. There must be ways.” To which H.R. Halderman, White House Chief of Staff answered, “We’ve been trying to.”
I recently finished reading, or more correctly I should say just finished listening to, Dick Cavett’s Brief Encounters: Conversations, Magic Moments and Assorted Hijinks. It’s a collection of essays that originally appeared in his weekly New York Times column. It’s filled with witty, intelligent, charming and sometimes outrageous insights and observations. His encounters with the famous included legendary folks such as Stan Laurel, John Lennon, James Gandolfini, Mel Brooks, Jonathan Winters, Groucho Marx and so many others too numerous to name. Along with all this name dropping, Cavett also addresses a variety of topics such as alcoholism, school reunions, politics, gun control, sex education and so much more. Cavett was the thinking man’s late night talk show host. Never shying away from controversial topics despite plenty of pressure from his network.
Cavett was also clairvoyant! In one 2013 article, he raves on about Stephen Colbert and prophetically suggests that CBS, upon David Letterman’s retirement, don’t blow it by passing up on the host of The Colbert Report as Dave’s replacement to take over the New York based show which is exactly what happened on September 8, 2015.
If anyone reading this decides to pick up the book I highly recommend instead you get a copy of the audio book instead. It will give you the added pleasure of hearing Cavett speak. He’s a great conversationalist and listening to him in his own voice discuss these tales only enhances the experience. I tend to believe much of Cavett’s humor and insight comes across better when you are hearing it in his own voice. This is especially true when he imitates such greats as Stan Laurel and Groucho. The audio book contains seven discs. Listening to it while driving to and from work or wherever will provide some excellent conversation to keep you company during those boring rush hour traffic jams.