Friday, January 04, 2013
First book of the year...
I've got a confession to make: I grew up watching talk shows on television, and I love them.
Not, I hasten to add, the crap that passes for talk shows today. I'm talking about the shows that were on in the 1960s and 1970s, where people actually talked about things, and told stories, and didn't necessarily show up only to plug their latest project or to see which celebrity could be the most outrageous. My favorites were always Merv Griffin and Dick Cavett, who would often get a guest on and just let them talk.
So, when I was in the library the other day and saw Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary, and Off-Screen Secrets (Times Books/Henry Holt and Company, 2010; 279 pages), by Dick Cavett, on the shelf, I had to check it out and read it.
Cavett has had talk shows on a variety of networks and in a variety of formats through the years, but I mostly watched his show when it was first on, on ABC late at night, from 1968 through 1974. I had one summer, especially, when I was about thirteen years old, when I had horrible insomnia (there was a reason for it, which is another post for another day), where I slept maybe one night per week. Cavett's show got me through that sleepless summer. He had all the best guests, including many figures from the rock world as well as literary guests who wouldn't have turned up on any of the other shows. If I had to be awake, watching these interviews was a great way to pass the time.
Talk Show is comprised of a series of columns written for The New York Times online between 2007 and 2010. Some of the columns recall Cavett's talk shows and the guests he hosted, while others are personal recollections from his childhood or exercises in political or social commentary. A few are disappointing - the man has an aversion to fat people that he isn't shy about expressing - but most are fascinating. I was disappointed that he didn't write more about hosting people like Janis Joplin and John Lennon. On the other hand, he writes at length about interviewing Richard Burton (you can see those shows on YouTube, if you're interested, and some of Cavett's interviews with others), about the show in which writers Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer appeared to nearly come to blows.
The audience at the time, of course, loved it. Cavett's interviews were sometimes not for the faint of heart, at a time when political correctness had not yet been invented.
Surprisingly, perhaps, some of the most moving columns revolved around when Cavett met John Wayne during the time when Wayne was already sick with the cancer that killed him. At the time, Wayne was making his final film, The Shootist, and Cavett recalls being on the set during filming of the famous scene where a doctor, played by James Stewart, tells Wayne's character, who was also dying of cancer, exactly what he could expect the rest of his life to be like. It was no secret that Wayne was sick, and according to Cavett's description, some of those watching the filming had difficulty holding it together during the filming of the scene, including, I suspect, Cavett, although he doesn't say so.
I really liked this book. I must have; I was awake until three this morning finishing it. Maybe you have to have been there, in the sense of having seen Cavett's interviews at the time they were first broadcast, to find his recollections interesting. I'm not silly enough to think that someone who was born in the 1990s is going to be fascinated by Cavett's apparent delight at having been at least a casual member of Richard Nixon's enemies list in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The thing is, Cavett is at least as good a storyteller as some of the guests on his shows, some of whom were consummate storytellers. That alone makes Talk Show worth reading.
I started with a confession, and I'll end with another. It has taken me an unconscionably lengthy period to write today's post. I got distracted by You Tube clips of Cavett's old shows and spent quite a bit of time watching them rather than writing. If you're interested, I'd recommend going over to YouTube and finding some of these clips and full shows. You might be surprised, especially if you weren't around in the sixties and seventies, at what a real talk show could be.