Recommended Re-Viewing is a series in which we make the case for re-watching an old film or TV series which you can stream without leaving your house. It might be a plot that’s so bad it’s good, a scene which deserves more interrogation or a director’s underrated gem.
Here, Esquire's deputy digital editor delves into the world of talk show's past with the Dick Cavett YouTube archive.
To offset dwindling TV ratings, America’s late-night hosts have been slugging it out on YouTube for the past few years. Except, maybe ‘slugging it out’ is too generous. They’re all heavyweights, undoubtedly – Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon et al – but it’s more of a drunken scuffle outside a Toby Carvery than a Vegas title fight. Sort of unbecoming, truthfully.
A nice sofa-side chat with Mark Ruffalo just doesn’t cut it anymore. Now we need dance-offs and sing-offs and lip-sync-offs (the worst cultural trend of the past decade? Yes!). We force our celebrities, who reach more people with a single Instagram story than any prime-time slot, to gorge on fisheyes and pull pranks and perform eerily silent monologues into the abyss. If you want to find A-list interviews of any real substance nowadays, you’re much better off turning to podcasts. Or, like me, you could travel back in time.
The Emmy Award-winning Dick Cavett Show ran, in one form or another, from 1968 to 2007. Its glory days were undoubtedly in the early Seventies, though, and even then it was beginning to look like a throwback. The immensely more popular Tonight Show with Johnny Carson traded in big laughs, and his legacy can be felt in the fact that every current late-night host is either a former comedian or writer. But Dick Cavett, despite his stand-up background, was a conversationalist first and foremost. His was a subtle, impish wit. He was simultaneously disarming and confrontational. It made for some of the greatest televised interviews ever broadcast.
Over the past two years, for reasons unexplained, vintage episodes and clips of the show have eked out onto YouTube. Slow, incisive, intelligent interviews with pop culture icons like Marlon Brando (fresh from his Oscars controversy), Muhammed Ali (fourteen times, covering every major landmark in his career), John Lennon and Yoko Ono (discussing the deportation threat hanging over their heads from president Nixon), Jimi Hendrix (a month after Woodstock) and Orson Welles (just being Orson Welles).
Dick Cavett was no firebrand griller, but he wasn’t interested in softball questions either. What's more, he would often set the show up to be as combustible as possible, and there were plenty of abrupt walk-outs – most notably Georgia governor Lester Maddox, the infamous segregationist who stormed out of the studio when challenged by Black football legend-turned-political commentator Jim Brown over his racist beliefs.
One of Cavett’s most controversial interviews even spilled over into physical violence, when former Esquire writer Norman Mailer head-butted Gore Vidal backstage. When the show eventually began, the combative author of The Fight, who had been drinking beforehand, eventually grew irritated by the host’s ripostes. "Why don't you look at your question sheet and ask your question?" he asked. Cavett’s retort? "Why don't you fold it five ways and put it where the moon don't shine?"
As Mailer waited for the laughter to die down, humbled and silenced for the first time in over fourteen minutes (perhaps even forty-eight years), he asked, clearly impressed, “On your word of honour, did you just make that up?”
Cavett smiled. "I have to tell you a quote from Tolstoy?"
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