Dick Cavett talks about Groucho Marx, Johnny Carson and Donald Trump

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“I can’t believe he’s here now, I can’t believe I know Groucho Marx, I can’t believe there’s a Groucho Marx,” said the brilliant young Dick Cavett in 1968, as he introduced his comic idol in an early iteration of the legendary talk Cavett show.

And while I’ve known Cavett since 1979, when I started working as a production assistant on his PBS series, I confess I feel much the same way when his famous face appears on my laptop via Zoom four decades later.

“There you are, Ron,” Cavett says in a low version of the instantly recognizable voice that somehow always conveys self-aware irony.

TV shows get canceled, but as the years go by, a new Cavett show would be reborn again… and again, on PBS, ABC, USA, and CNBC, and I’ve worked on all of them.

The occasion of our virtual reunion is “Groucho & Cavett”, an episode of American Masters airs December 27 on PBS. The show combines clips from Groucho’s many appearances on Cavett’s late-night ABC show with commentary by the 86-year-old now Cavett.

What is it like, I wanted to know, for Cavett to watch his younger self with Groucho?

“It’s really nice to see myself in something that happened a long time ago, at the age I’m there, and realize how good I was,” Cavett tells me with a laugh. “And I really mean it. I am often surprised.”

Cavett shouldn’t be surprised, of course, because he was really, really good. That’s why the late critic Clive James wrote, “Cavett ruled as the most sophisticated talk show host on the small screen from the early 1970s onwards.”

When I was of age, Cavett’s show offered a nightly glimpse into a world where talented artists, writers, comedians, and journalists talked to one another. These impromptu exchanges — which I think of as a performative version of high-end conversation — were a big part of the show’s allure.

I remember a show featuring the unlikely mix of Muhammad Ali, Edward Albee, George Carlin and Jon Voight (many years before Voight’s mad crush on Donald Trump). Even more memorable, of course, were Cavett’s conversations with Marlon Brando, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Fred Astaire, Richard Burton and many others, who can still make for a fascinating evening of viewing thanks to YouTube. And few scripted dramas match the spectacle of Norman Mailer trading insults – and almost punches – with Gore Vidal as Cavett takes on the role of an extremely witty referee. Anthony Burgess, author of clockwork orange once told me: “Back then, in New York, you had to get home by 11:30 am to see who Cavett had on his show”.

September 1973: Katharine Hepburn talking to host Dick Cavett.

Photo by ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

Chatting with Cavett this past weekend, I mentioned that I recently watched an episode of his ABC show on YouTube with Bette Davis and British director/neurologist/comedian Jonathan Miller discussing method acting.

“I need to find this,” says Cavett. “You made my next day.”

Talking about Bette Davis brings up a question I’ve always wanted to ask: if he had the option of having a drink with Davis or another great Hollywood dame, Katharine Hepburn – who gave Cavett his first TV interview in 1973 – who would he choose? ? to choose?

“Oh my God, that would be difficult, each has its own rewards,” says Cavett. “I think I would be more comfortable with Bette Davis. I got along well with Hepburn. But Davis had something that made her a little more approachable.”

Accessible enough that Cavett once asked Davis on-air how she lost her virginity, and after the audience’s laughter subsided, Davis began to tell the story.

“It was a wonderful moment. But I felt so comfortable with her and probably wouldn’t have asked that question to, uhm, Ms. Lyndon Johnson,” Cavett says, adding quietly, “If indeed she had.

January 1970: Bette Davis talking to host Dick Cavett.

ABC photo files

I always thought Hepburn was a little too autocratic, I tell Cavett.

“It’s true, it’s a shame. Yes. Someone said about her – it might even have been Garson Kanin – that she’s a wonderful woman and everybody knows how amazing she is and so on, and the one thing about her is that you feel like she stands for something even though you don’t. have an idea what it is. That is. But she gives that impression.

Then I ask another question I’ve long wondered: why did all those rock and roll stars – Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, David Bowie, George Harrison and others – come to Cavett’s concert when Cavett himself was around? does not mean a music devotee of it?

“Sometimes I wonder how this happened,” he says. “I don’t give a shit about rock music, and I still got along with them.”

Cavett’s sessions with Joplin were particularly compelling. During a concert, she announced that she would soon be heading to her high school reunion – in full force.

“I can never forget the phrase,” says Cavett, quoting Joplin’s words. “’They kicked me out of school, out of town; these people kicked me out of the state, and I’m going back.’ And the public knew exactly how to respond to that.”

August 1970: Janis Joplin and Dick Cavett

Photo by ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

Cavett’s rock star guests have gone a long way to make their show the modern version of Tonight’s program starring Johnny Carson, where Cavett worked as a writer early in his career.

“I always really liked Johnny, and he grew to like me,” recalls Cavett.

How would Cavett define Carson’s nervous, electric energy—that quality that made him so irresistibly watchable on air?

“He was restless. He felt he wasn’t smart enough. That’s sure. And he had a way of saying something and saying, ‘Sometimes…’ Qualifying a little bit, almost like saying, ‘If I’m wrong about this…’ And for me that was a revelation of a feeling about him. that I always had. I always wanted to make him feel better than he did, and God knows he’s had plenty of triumphs and success. But there was that feeling of… I’m trying to avoid using the word inferiority in his case.

But back to Groucho Marx…

Cavett’s reverence for Groucho is boundless. “If Groucho had never existed,” he once said, “we would be missed in the comedy world like that planet in the solar system that astronomers say should be there.”

Cavett’s friendship with Groucho began at the funeral of writer George S. Kaufman. Cavett introduced himself afterwards and the two walked down Fifth Avenue while Groucho “insulted the doormen” along the way. Where did that Marxist impulse to throw the first verbal punch come from?

“It was a big part of his style, of course,” says Cavett. “Some of the things were harmless, and some would shock the humorless, and some would probably shock the humorous.”

The wordplay at the end of Cavett’s remark is typical of his conversational style, and leads Cavett into one of his many favorite Groucho anecdotes—a story Groucho misquoted when he told it on air.

Marx Brothers: At the Circus

Photo by FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images

“Groucho meets a priest in an elevator,” explains Cavett. “And the priest says, ‘My mom is a big fan of yours,’ and Groucho says, ‘I didn’t know you guys could have moms.’ But on air, Groucho said, ‘I didn’t know you guys had moms,’ and it was a big laugh because of the active ingredients in Groucho’s voice, Groucho’s presence that could almost make you laugh at anything.

O American Masters The episode is full of these memorable Groucho lines, but I’ll mention just one more. After Groucho introduces his wife and daughter who are sitting front row at Cavett’s concert audience, he says, “You wouldn’t think with a family like that I would cheat.”

It’s clear what attracted Cavett to Groucho, but why did the aging comic approach the Yale youth who accosted him after a funeral?

“I don’t know,” says Cavett, “I hate to say he admired education, but the fact that he had a friend who went to Yale probably meant something, and he kind of liked the way I talked.”

Groucho was an old man at the time of his appearances with Cavett, so I asked young Cavett if he worried about his old friend’s performance on air.

“I think I probably did it in a way because I was scared that a lot of people in the audience were too young to know who he was. But I don’t think I ever worried about how he was going to fuck anyone. I’m trying to imagine what kind of people would say, ‘I can’t stand Groucho Marx’, except possibly his ex-wives and, unfortunately, two of his children. As for Groucho’s worst – when he was, for example, being horrible to a niece who got Groucho a birthday present of ties Groucho didn’t like – Cavett says: “You hate to think of him doing something like that. 🇧🇷

I can’t think of such moments with Cavett. He never said an angry word to me, although I remember a few instances of him getting extremely upset.

The occasion that immediately comes to mind involves a confrontation with a network executive. Afterwards, Cavett asked me what the executive wanted. “Just be lenient with him,” I told Cavett. “If you poke your head into his office every six months and ask him how he’s doing and then have lunch with him once a year, the problem will go away.”

But I knew Cavett would never do that. He was overwhelmed by his unwavering integrity, and perhaps this incorruptible quality, along with Cavett’s wit, keen sense of irony and irreverence, is what brought Groucho and Cavett together.

They also shared a deep distrust of authority, which brings us to Richard Nixon.

Cavett had every reason to dislike Nixon. Cavett’s opposition to SST – or supersonic transport – helped put Cavett on Nixon’s “enemy list”. Anyone with Internet access can hear Nixon ask his chief of staff, HR Haldeman, if there’s any way to “screw” Cavett.

SABURDAY NIGHT LIVE: Dan Aykroyd as Richard Nixon, Dick Cavett as John Dean during the “Blonde Ambition” skit on November 13, 1976.

Photo by NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

Elsewhere, Nixon tapes reveal the President of the United States asking an aide, “What is Cavett – a Jew?” This inspired Cavett to later say, “I always feel sorry for Nixon because he died not knowing if I’m Jewish”.

On Zoom, Cavett recalled meeting Nixon in Montauk, “this dark figure like an old seabird sitting looking out to sea.” This leads me to ask who Cavett hates more – Nixon or Trump?

“It’s like the difference between liking Clark Gable and liking Hitler,” he says. “The contrast is so stark that I can almost say that Nixon wasn’t all that bad. Nixon fares well in comparison. Smarter… a lot.

So is Cavett optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?

“I am amazed at how much is wrong, how many dumb people there are, how many wrong-headed people there are.” Speaking of Americans of his generation – and mine, for that matter – Cavett put it this way: “Someone said we’re hurting to know what America was like – and it certainly isn’t that now.”

And finally, I ask my old boss — my old friend — how he’s coping with the pandemic.

“I wish I could have done without him,” he says. “I’m not afraid to say it.”

Hearing that funny response, that dry humor, I can’t help but think that American was a better place when Dick Cavett was on the air five nights a week.