- The Washington Times - Friday, November 26, 2010

TALK SHOW: CONFRONTATIONS, POINTED COMMENTARY, AND OFF-SCREEN SECRETS
By Dick Cavett
Times Books, $25
286 pages

Cavett had the only smile that came through the valves of video looking wicked and angelic at once.” Could any description of Dick Cavett’s expression be more spot-on than this by Norman Mailer? And that smile seems to sum up the man in toto. For Cavett fans old, young and yet-to-be, “Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary, and Off-Screen Secrets” is an inviting compilation of the author’s Web column at the New York Times dating from Feb. 4, 2007, through April 9, 2010.

Applying that opening quote to Mr. Cavett’s angelic side (let’s begin with the nice adjective first, shall we?) readers get a behind-the-scenes, on-the-sets and inside-the-dressing-rooms view of the who’s who of the past 75 years. Here, in no particular order, are Paul Newman, Laurence Olivier, Muhammad Ali, Gore Vidal, Bobby Fischer, Johnny Carson, William F. Buckley Jr., John Lennon (Mr. Cavett once testified in Lennon’s defense at his deportation hearing), Noel Coward, Walter Winchell, Jack Benny, Katharine Hepburn, Richard Burton … You name them - but name them big - and Mr. Cavett has interviewed them and more on any of the various incarnations of his high-caliber talk show.

And Groucho; we can’t forget that fan favorite. Plenty of Groucho stories are sprinkled throughout, including this prize: People were always coming up to the famous Marx brother and asking him to insult them. (Imagine the verbal trophy - being insulted by Groucho Marx.) One such gentleman asked Groucho to insult his wife. Groucho, after glancing at the man’s wife, looked back at him and said: “With a wife like that, you should be able to think of your own insults.”

And John Wayne. The best John Wayne stories are saved for the last chapters. (Riding off into the sunset?) Especially touching is the message for Mr. Cavett that Mr. Wayne penned on his studio photo shortly before his death. I can’t reveal it here because context is everything.

Also personally touching are Mr. Cavett’s two chapters devoted to his comedic shows at depression wards in hospitals. Mr. Cavett, who himself had dealt with deep depression, was able to lighten the psychological load of patients profoundly afflicted by this often immobilizing disorder. Receiving instant feedback from his Web readers on this particular column, Mr. Cavett knew he had struck a nerve and delivered more insight on the subject the following week. The give-and-take that shapes the column proves that Mr. Cavett’s distinctive talk-show style is still at least partially operational.

Because the pages of“Talk Show” are lifted right from the Web, links that accompanied the initial postings are also printed in the book. Granted, it takes some effort - and accuracy - to type them into your Internet browser, but what a reward to see vintage video of Mr. Cavett’s interviews with luminaries such as Burton, Newman, the great magician Slydini and others.

For fans like me, plenty of Cavettisms abound. One of my favorites was the time on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” when the host asked Mr. Cavett what his next project would be. Mr. Cavett, panicking because the next-project cupboard was temporarily bare, reflexively responded: “I’m working on an idea for a sitcom, Johnny. It’s a humorous version of ‘Gilligan’s Island.’ “

Then there’s the other Dick Cavett, the “wicked” one seen in Mailer’s description. Here, Mr. Cavett’s obsessive annoyance with George W. Bush is boundless. No opportunities are wasted to lambaste Mr. Bush, and some are even ham-handedly shoehorned in. (For the former president’s fans, it may be literary justice that Mr. Bush’s and Mr. Cavett’s partial autobiographies hit the bookshelves and e-readers at pretty much the same time.)

Others on the Cavett hit list are those you’d expect to see: Sarah Palin, Karl Rove, Dick Cheney and Clarence Thomas. (Could it be that turnabout is fair play? Mr. Cavett was,after all, on Mr. Nixon’s famed list.) With Joe the Plumber, Mr. Cavett delights in pointing out that he’s “not even a plumber, or even a Joe.” Did Mr. Cavett honestly miss the entire redistributive point of the accidental confrontation between “the plumber” and Rudyard K’s “Man Who Would Be King”?

Alas, we should end up back on the “angelic” side, n’est-ce pas? Luther Heggs, the ace reporter played by the inimitable Don Knotts in the 1966 film “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken,” once opined: “When you work with words, words are your work.” Mr. Cavett is still working with words on and off the page in his singularly exquisite and charming style. And what Mr. Cavett said of Groucho Marx applies also to him: “He didn’t think of funny things first and then say them. They were reflexive, almost unconscious responses, and it was fun to see his surprised enjoyment of them at the same moment as ours.”

Could that be yet another explanation of that delightful, yin-yang Cavett smile?

Albin Sadar, author of several humor-book kits (his latest, “Mistletoe on the Go: Stick It and Smooch,” just released by Running Press) lives in New York City.

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