Everybody knows who Dick Cavett is. He's the guy who does the voiceovers on those Courtyard by Marriott radio commercials. Yeah, and he had a talk show on one network or another for what seemed like most of my youth. But not just a talk show. He had conversations with people who weren't plugging anything other than their fascinating lives and their wit and their track records. Groucho Marx and Orson Welles and people like that. And things happened. Small dustups, not among tattoothless, Jerry Springer-types, but between chaps like Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal. Can you imagine Jay Leno inviting Germaine Greer onto The Tonight Show?
When you were first starting out, you got your writing job with Jack Paar after you handed him an envelope containing jokes that you thought he could use for his monologue. How would you react if an aspiring comic did the same to you?
I seem to recall the great S.J. Perelman's telling me about the numerous unsolicited manuscripts that "arrive by every post" and how they "keep the incinerator humming merrily." I probably would give it a quick read, knowing the joke-writing skill is a rare one, in hopes that it might be the exception among the dross.
Since you are primarily known for your interviewing prowess, do you think most people are surprised to learn that you were a standup comic?
They shouldn't be surprised if they've done their homework and read "Cavett" (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich $8.95 1974) I'm not sure how to take the fact that there are so many copies of it on Bibliofind,etc. I assume people want to give others the chance to laugh. I recall some valuable rapping in there about comedy writing. Not to mention the laughter and tears saga of becoming a club comic. (And watching Woody become one.)
When and where did you make your standup comedy debut?
I debuted (funny looking word) at the Bitter End and tell in the book the gory details of how my first night was a bitter beginning. Not even triumphant later appearances there and elsewhere can erase the memory.
How do you think your standup material would work in today's comedy climate? Have you been in a comedy club in the "modern era" (Post Comedy Boom, 1981 or thereabouts)?
I recently found a notebook I thought was lost and there was my old act, not written out but with abbreviations ("Chinese-German food," "Wedding gifts," etc.) and in one margin I had noted: "Woody said, 'Great joke, Cavett' " It reminded me of the sweat and labor of getting a second show, something I'd not foreseen. I used to stretch my Richard Loo impression nearly fifteen minutes to have something new for the bastards who stayed to see me twice. What struck me was that virtually all of it would work today. I'm trying manfully not to say, "Funny is funny," but I'm afraid it's true. I might update the act some by uttering "motherfucker" every few minutes. Years have passed since I have set foot in a comedy club. If the comic is doing badly it's painful, and if the comic is doing brilliantly, it's extremely painful.
When you first began doing standup, you said you could write in someone else's voice, but it was difficult to write in your own. Once you learned how to write in your own voice, was it then difficult to write for someone else?
Very astute question. I'm not sure why writing for others became harder. Probably a reluctance to give away anything you might conceivably use yourself caused a block. I did it, but it remained hard when it had once been easy. And what a rude shock it was to first sit and try to write for myself. Who am I? What am I? Those were the questions. Of course now with Scientology, all that is easy.
Do you think it's easy for someone to write for Dick Cavett?
I think I'd be pretty easy to write for. Anyone you've seen and heard should be writeable(sp?) for. The mistake people have made in writing for me has been to make the false assumption that I don't need hard jokes, just 'observations'. My Chinese-German restaurant joke was my most stolen joke. "Chinese-German food is wonderful. The only problem is, an hour later you're hungry for power." That's a solid joke and I needed 200 like it. That's not to say that I can't also get a laugh by something that, out of context isn't a joke--like "...and there I stood." What's ahead of that can make it a knock-out 'joke.'
Is there any contemporary comedian that you think you would want to write for?
Barry Humphries. His "Dame Edna," soon on tour, may be the funniest evening of my life in the theatre. I went three times and got to know Humphries. There is not a particle of female or resemblance to Dame Edna in him and thank God my inborn aversion to most drag and all camp didn't override a director friend's insistence that I go. Every student of comedy should see Dame Edna at least twice. And have your paper on my desk by Friday.
What surprised you most about doing standup comedy?
I don't think anyone ever gets over the surprise of how differently one audience's reaction is from another. The old refrain, "They hated me on the first show and cheered me on the second" keeps happening when there is no earthly, detectable reason for it. On your bad show, I found it useful to say to myself mentally, "What a dimwit, stupid bunch of assholes you are!" I said it once aloud in San Francisco and it did not win them over but it made me feel marvelous. Today, of course, I'd be shot.
You've appeared on talk shows many times as a standup comic. Did your attitude towards comics change when you eventually became the host of your own show?
I'm afraid there was never much standup on my shows, except for the comics who really wanted to do it. And then you get more credit for the laughs you get seated than in what is clearly your well-rehearsed act. Jack Rollins insisted I do my act seated on my first Griffin and Carson appearances and it made all the difference and moved me along much, much faster. I did standup on Ed Sullivan. It was my only Sullivan, it went well, and I couldn't wait to see what it was he said when he awkwardly held the comic by the elbow when he had finished, letting the exit applause die and then releasing him to walk off in silence. What he said to me was, "Nice to have you back, youngster." I cross my heart.
Most people are familiar with Woody Allen the filmaker, not Woody Allen the standup comic. What should people know about his standup career?
What impressed me most was the way Woody labored at what he calls 'the hard-ass work of sitting there at the t.w. until you've got a joke'. I once saw him coming toward me in Central Park. I meant to speak but could see that he was deeply concentrated and he didn't even see me (I hope). He suffered vomit-causing agony in forcing himself onstage--it was easy for me because I had been a magician--and I recall the great Jack Rollins saying wearily one day, "I guess putting Woody onstage wasn't one of our genius ideas." And nowhere has there been such a concentration of genius jokes, one after the other. Hard to believe, I know, that I was frequently the only one laughing.
Years after his death, the legend of Lenny Bruce continues to grow. You knew Lenny and saw him work. Is this reverence justified?
Whatever you do, don't miss Bob Weide's docu on Bruce. He was an immense talent who pissed it away in drugs. He was also a great impressionist. His IQ must have been phenomenal. I forgot to mention that he was also funny.
You mention in passing (in one of your books) a period in the late 60's when the night clubs started closing down and that it curtailed your standup career a bit...Could you give any details? Would you have continued to do comedy if that hadn't happened?
There was a period where it looked like the comic wells were running dry. Word seemed to have gotten around that only the UN-chic went out to clubs. Getting back on the subway from a club to which nobody--not one person--came is not fulfilling. Luckily I began guesting on talkshows at the right time to keep me in the business even if the clubs had completely shuttered.
Boston Globe reporter, Mike Barnicle found himself in hot water when he knowingly plagiarized material from George Carlin's book "Brain Droppings." Do you think non-comics fail to appreciate how precious a comedian's material is to him? What do you think of comics who steal from each other?
Anyone who steals another comic's material should be sentenced for life to reading Aristophanes to the OJ jury. Garry Marshall said he saw a new comic do a piece right off one of Shelley Berman's albums. When Gary pointed this out, the guy said, "Yeah, I do it too." Woody's best lines would show up, while he was still confined to little Village clubs, on the Red Skelton show and that alleged entertainment, Laugh-In. Or in gossip columns, where dimwit starlets suddenly spoke with a wit worthy of Geo. S. Kaufman. There is, alas, not much you can do short of brass knuckles. Once I left out what I then considered my best line because there was a suspected column rat in the house.
You've worked with both Jack Paar and Johnny Carson. Did you understand their quirks better after getting your own show? Were you difficult to work with?
I can see influences of both Paar and Carson in myself. Jack was not only a fine comedian but had that quicksilver, neurotic sense of danger about him that made him perfect for the medium. In any two-shot you watched Jack. And his wit was like lightning. Johnny reminds me of a zen samurai who has quietly and gracefully perfected his art. I like both men very much.
When was the last time you performed live? Would you ever do it again?
Don't know when I played my last club. It might have been Mr.Kelly's in Chicago. But doing a lecture, the way I do it, feels almost identical to standup where you play it for big laughs. Incidentally, I was always best in a club when heckled. But learned quickly that it's hard to get back into your act. The thrill of topping some boob in the audience makes returning to the prepared stuff seem all wrong. It takes some experience to learn to finesse that.
You worked with Jerry Lewis on his short-lived TV show. We just dropped his name...would you care to pick it up and run with it for a few yards? What do you think about his recent comments regarding female comedians?
The reason that show bombed with megatonnage had to do with the fact that they had constructed an elegant 'home' for Jerry. No one was astute enough to dope out why it was hilarious when he, say, went on Sulllivan and ripped yards of Ed's prompt copy out of the prompter or trashed a talk show's desk and set--and why he sat bewildered, largely, on his own big show. It isn't funny when you rip up your own living room. There was no so-called comic context. Jerry is an immense raw talent and I like him.
Your first autobiography was written with a pal...it was similar to a comedy team with Porterfield as the straight man. Do you think you would have ever enjoyed being part of a comedy team?
The only thing I ever envied the double acts for was that bombing can actually be funny to you with a friend there. It's like doing a matinee of a play that they roared at the night before but today they sit staring up at you like carp in a pool. This can be hysterically funny to you--when you're not alone.
What is the name of the piece of music you always used for your show? (We used to think it was a peppy little number that Bobby Rosengarten cooked up, but we heard it on NPR once and it turns out it's classical music!)
I can almost swear I remember typing the words....The "peppy little number" as you call it was from the score of Leonard Bernstein's "Candide" It's called, "The Jewel Song" or "Glitter and be Gay" depending on what sort of bar you're in. Your smarter readers will impress their friends by pointing out that it's in 7/4 time.
After all these years in show business, have you learned any great lessons that can be summarized in one brilliant pearl (or two...pearls of wisdom are never singular!) of wisdom?
Pearls of wisdom? A single pearl? Maybe it would be the truth of the remark
by Gore Vidal, LaRochefoucauld, or me...I can't recall which..which goes, "It is not enough in life merely to succeed...One's friends must fail."
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