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Do you want to try it?
Always a provocative question, in any context. And one containing an implicit dare.
It was an inquiry from the New York Times about writing an opinion column, online. The phrase "penal servitude" leapt to mind, spoken by a friend who was driven just short of the madhouse by agreeing to turn out a punishing number of newspaper columns at painfully close intervals. Increasing insomnia and alcohol intake forced him to quit and take up gardening.
Given pause by his experience, I asked how often. Two a week. This sounded deceptively easy, having endured and survived the writing of five-days-a-week monologue material for Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, and Merv Griffin for years.
Not wishing to appear gutless (to myself), I decided to accept the challenge. And it was only for the month of February.
Most anybody, I should think, has at least eight interesting subjects inside him. Hadn't a famous writer—Graham Greene, perhaps—said anyone who has reached the age of twenty-five has material in him for at least four novels? I used to quote that when my book Cavett was published and I was asked by interviewers if age thirty-seven wasn't a little early for an autobiography.
The first few columns came easily. The fourth, harder. At five I sensed desperation, but managed to squeeze out the remaining three. I had done it and, in fact, found it surprisingly enjoyable.
Once they were completed, looking back on that first eight seemed like a piece of angel food cake, and I was glad to have added "journalist" to my image. Then the Times proposed that I sign on for a year. I began to sweat. A whole year.
The order, now, was down to one a week. In my dreams, the number 52 began to occur, made of concrete four stories high and marching toward me. A man I consider a real writer said, "I don't envy you. I tried thirty columns a year once and nearly perished." Was this going to kill me?
I couldn't think what the next column would be, let alone the required string of them, stretching far into the future. What else did I know? I felt written out.
Somehow, after three years, I'm still at it. Looking at that fact, like Shakespeare's Hermia, I am amazed and know not what to say.
Early on, I learned one thing. Writing lines to be spoken by famous comedians and writing for John (and Jane) Q. Public requires different sets of muscles.
Writing for Groucho Marx, or Johnny Carson, or Jack Benny, or any comic with a strong, familiar voice requires being able to turn them on in your head, so that what comes out is in their words and nobody else's. A misplaced or omitted certainly or at any rate or y'know will make the line wrong. For them. "You could have fooled me" is less Groucho than "Well, you certainly could have fooled me."
When Groucho guest-hosted The Tonight Show way back, the first laugh I got for him was an aside I wrote: "But enough of this bridled hilarity . . ." In Groucho's voice it got a laugh well out of proportion to its merits.
I found it relatively easy to write for others. It's not always easy to identify your own voice. It comes with time.
Before I ever sat down and tried to host a talk show, I had a call from Jack Paar. He had given me my first job as a comedy writer when I was still in my early twenties.
Jack was a hero of mine, more of an obsession really, and I rarely missed The Tonight Show when he was its host. When I got the job writing for Jack I thought that if there is a heaven, it will be an anticlimax. The fact that I was handsomely paid—think of it, $360 a week, and every week—barely occurred to me. I was there. On the inside of The Tonight Show. I watched the show as it was taped every night and then watched it again at home.
I think Jack sensed my obsession. He called me aside one night after the show and said, "Kid, you shouldn't hang around here through the show. It'll ruin your life. Go home." After that I watched the show from a part of the studio where he couldn't see me.
Years passed and the chance for me to host a talk show came along. This had never, ever been my ambition. My highest goal in this regard was to some day, maybe, be a guest on talk shows. Hosting was not even a dream. That was for the giants of my time: Steve Allen, Jack, and Johnny.
When the non-dream came true and I was about to do my own show, a call came from Jack. It bore the single best piece of advice I or anyone doing such a show could get: "Kid, I've only got one piece of counseling for you. Don't do interviews."
What could Jack mean? To do the whole show myself? Show movies? Read to the viewers? That exciting, nervous, famous voice continued: "I mean don't just do interviews, pal. You know. 'Interview' smacks of Q-and-A and David Frost and his clipboard and 'What's your favorite color?' and crap like 'most embarrassing moments.' Don't do any of that. Make it a conversation."
In a way, it's the whole secret. Conversation is when people simply talk; not take a test on the air with Q-and-A. It's when something said spontaneously prompts a thought and a reply in someone else. When several people's talk moves around a subject, changes directions, and produces spontaneous and entertaining comments and unexpected insights, and takes surprising turns.
How right he was. You could do a whole good show without that tired old "Let me ask you this . . ."
Feel free to pass this on to anyone about to do a talk show.
A conversation does not have to be scintillating in order to be memorable. I once met a president of the United States, and his second sentence to me was about knees.
Back when I was still persona grata at the Nixon White House—a period of time that proved of short duration—I met Richard Nixon in a reception line. It so happened that on a recent trip to England, Nixon had been told that the greatest Hamlet yet was Nicol Williamson, currently playing the Dane on the London stage. But duty called in Washington, and Nixon had to return without seeing the play; so he invited Williamson for an evening of Shakespeare at the White House. Somehow, I was invited.
Tuxedoed, I moved along the reception line until I was nose-to-nose with the president.
NIXON: Who's doing your show tonight?
CAVETT: Joe Namath.
NIXON (with a look of solemn concern): How are his knees?
Part of the psychological makeup of Yorba Linda's most famous native son was his obsession with masculinity. So-and-so was a real man, he would say. And real men knew football.
It would not be long before I stopped receiving invitations to the White House. My lack of popularity with the Great Unindicted Co-conspirator came when I testified for John Lennon—after he and Yoko Ono had been twice on my ABC show—to support the case that John should not be deported by the Nixon administration. On one of the Nixon tapes, the president's henchman and lickspittle H. R. Haldeman can be heard educating his boss—who was minimally knowledgeable of popular culture—about Lennon's vast popularity, with the words "This guy could sway an election."
It was not long ago that I learned of another Nixon tape, on which the president can be heard saying to Haldeman, "Cavett—How can we screw him?" A little disconcerting to hear yourself thus discussed by the leader of the allegedly free world. (Doubters may yet find this on YouTube.)
It was not long thereafter that my entire staff was tax audited, all but ruinously for some of them. Nixon enjoyed using the IRS—illegally, of course—to punish those his paranoia perceived as enemies.
I wrote several columns on Nixon, and some readers didn't like my assertion that he was surely the most intelligent president we had among quite a few before and after him. When Nixon was still a practicing lawyer, a friend of mine saw him present arguments before the Supreme Court and said the range of his intellect was dazzling.
His authentic accomplishments—the opening to China, the War on Cancer, and more—have to be acknowledged. Had effective psychiatry, perhaps, gotten the Nixon demons under control before he became president, he might well have been remembered as a great one, rather than as a disgraceful criminal. A tragic waste?
But imperfect chief executives serve one purpose: they are manna to comedy writers. Jon Stewart's head writer on The Daily Show confessed on the Emmys that once George W. Bush left office, they really had nothing to say.
Our recently departed president provided great material for me in the early days of my column. One such instance was when we saw those clips of Bush doing a soft-shoe at the White House while the young Americans he had sent to die in Iraq continued to arrive in their coffins at Dover Air Force Base, where photography was forbidden by the White House. Once dead, our heroes were an embarrassment.
In my column about the little dance by the commander in chief, I referred to our leader as a capering loon. Many loved it.
Lots of readers commented on the New York Times Web site that they enjoyed my various efforts to say in written words what it felt like to sit next to certain iconic figures. It's the phenomenon known variously as charisma, star quality, and personal magnetism.
Being next to the chess master Bobby Fischer, I swear you could feel the force of an IQ flirting with 200.
Sitting next to Orson Welles, I could feel in my chair the vibrating majesty of that voice. And, of course, the monumental personality.
Other felt things: Katharine Hepburn's surging energy and intelligence; Richard Burton's poetic articulacy and glowing charisma; Bette Davis's stinging humor and unflappable poise.
Without peer in my book stands the sparkling genius of Groucho Marx. Sitting next to him, I was struck with the delightful fact that he heard his witty remarks and answers at the same time we did. I need to make this point clear. 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.
Groucho was our major comic genius. That's just a fact, not an opinion.
An irritation lurks in the rereading of things you wrote some time ago. You find you originally chose the wrong word. Not entirely wrong, but one not as good as one you think of now.
Wrong-word fans will love reading my favorite essay on writing. Not by me but by Mark Twain. It can be found online and it's called "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses." It's educational and hilarious, and I read it once a year. In one long paragraph, Mr. Clemens cites dozens of examples of how the author of The Last of the Mohicans almost invariably chose a clunker instead of the mot juste. It will make you laugh and improve your writing.
Nothing prepared me for the popularity of the very first piece I wrote for the Times, "It's Only Language." It's about the abuses of our mother tongue by all of us and particularly those in high places: Donald Rumsfeld's mis-CHEEVY-us; the creeping anti-se-MET-ic; loathe for loath; flaunt for flout—and of course a certain former president's inability to master perhaps the most important word in his limited vocabulary: NUKE-you-lur, for God's sake! And I've just about given up on lay for lie in even, um, the greatest newspapers. (Note plural.)
You will, I hope, get a kick or two out of these sweated-out pieces. Seeing them collected, I'm surprised at the wide range of subjects. Not just Nixon, but Bill Buckley, Paul Newman, John Cheever and John Updike on a show together, coincidences beyond belief, multiple Groucho, Johnny Carson, the art of a great magician (Slydini), and nostalgic childhood memories, pleasant and painful.
When you have completed your reading, compare and contrast with your other reading this term. And have your paper on my desk by Friday.
Excerpted from Talk Show by Dick Cavett
Copyright 2010 by Dick Cavett
Published in 2010 by Times Books/Henry Holt and Company
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.