Talk show host/comedian headlines Woodstock Comedy Fest
“In trying to concentrate so hard and being sure to look like you’re listening,” Dick Cavett once said of hosting a television talk show, “you forget to be actually listening, and then the guest’s lips have stopped moving, and it’s, ‘Oh God, what was he saying?’…I think I said it’s a great job for people who haven’t had a nervous breakdown, but would like to see what it feels like.”
The show of which he speaks, and which he hosted on ABC from 1968 to 1975 and then, in another version, from 1977 to 1982 on public television, is now legendary for its intelligence, comedy and provocation. In the forefront of culture, you can see his interviews with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, a whole bunch of rock stars right after their appearances at the Woodstock Festival, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Orson Welles, Frank Zappa, Mae West, Richard Burton, John Lennon and Yoko Ono…all were subject to the sharp wit of the host and revealed more about their character than in typical garden variety talk shows – and maybe more than they wanted to.
“I notice a lot of people tune into my segment with Hendrix on YouTube,” says Cavett, now 76, living out towards the end of Long Island and getting ready for his first journey to the area for the Woodstock Comedy Festival, September 20 to 22. “Shortly after he and Janis were on my show, they were both dead.”
On one astonishing show, Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal trade insults about the “intellectual pollution” that each claims the other spews. When Mailer accuses the others on the show of being intellectually smaller than he, Cavett, aligning himself with Vidal and Janet Flanner, a New Yorker writer, asks him if “perhaps you’d like two more chairs to contain your giant intellect…” Mailer tells him just to look at his piece of paper for more questions, and Cavett responds, “Why don’t you fold it five ways and put it where the moon don’t shine?”
“That show, in its full length, is absolutely riveting,” Cavett says now. “It’s like watching a drama that gets more and more chancy, and you feel your life might be in danger. The audience begins to yell at Norman and he back at them. There was one moment where he said to the audience, ‘Are you all idiots, or is it me?’ And to a man and woman, they all yelled ‘Yooooou!’ And I said, ‘Oh come on, that was the easy answer.’”
Cavett will appear twice during the Woodstock Comedy Festival: once at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, September 21 at the Woodstock Artists’ Association on a panel, “Late Night Comedy Writing,” with Eddie Brill and Rick Overton and moderated by writer Hester Mundis; and then in one of the main events, at 7 p.m. on Saturday, September 21 at the Bearsville Theater in “Stand Up and Sit Down: Comedy and Conversation with Dick Cavett and Bobcat Goldthwait.” [See sidebar for the particulars on the Festival.]
How did the organizers get Cavett to come? “I have no idea,” Cavett says. “I honestly don’t remember where the request came from. I don’t know why, but it just seemed appealing. I like the subject matter, and I hope it will be fun. Hope I’m not driven from the stage in a hail of vegetables. That’s happened very, very rarely.”
Cavett did get his start as a comedy writer for the original Tonight Show. “Am I the last person to do 90 minutes five days a week?” he says. “I’m old enough to remember when the Tonight Show was an hour and 45 minutes – a startling fact for some people. It started at 11:15 with Jack Paar.”
The story goes that Cavett was working at a menial job at Time magazine in 1960 and read that Paar was hungry for new material. So he wrote some jokes, put them in an envelope and went to the studio, where he ran into Paar and gave him the envelope.
“He took it out onstage and I thought he was going to read it, and he read something else instead and I slumped down in my seat…and then he started ad-libbing lines that I had written and I slumped back up again, and I eventually got the job…I can remember years after, hearing the news, ‘Jack is 50 years old,’ and I thought, ‘My god, I better contact him, he might not be around longer”…I was just out of college a year or so.”
“At the moment, I think I would enjoy doing a TV show again,” Cavett said. “You’d be amazed the things you forget.”