Last summer, Shout! Factory released Rock Icons, the first in a series of The Dick Cavett Show collections that was well produced, but I thought a poor opening act given Cavett’s strength in interviewing actors and authors. With Comic Legends Shout! Factory has done a much better job of cataloging the show at its finest, primarily because it allows the host to indulge his great passion for humor writing and performing. Like a scrapbook it’s chock full of outtakes, promos, kinescopes, interviews, and extensive liner notes. In one interview Cavett says he looked forward to these guests, “there was an added zing, something about this evening could be fun.”
The set is strong on Cavett’s heroes and cohorts. Cavett grew up in Nebraska idolizing Hollywood performers, got his first big break writing for Jack Paar’s The Tonight Show, and tried stand-up after befriending Woody Allen. (The set contains a bonus clip of his act on The Ed Sullivan Show.) While he never developed a singular performing presence, Cavett is a skilled comic technician whose sense of timing and punchline set-ups pays off in playing straight man to his guests. He also has a sensitive and instinctual grasp of the comic’s psyche that, together with a patient interviewing style, stimulates many of the guests to reveal a personal side rarely seen on talk shows, where comics are usually booked to be funny and that’s it.
This approach has a notable effect on two of his idols: Bob Hope and Groucho Marx. Groucho makes two appearances but the first, in 1969, is easily the best. In the taped introduction Cavett says it was, “perhaps the last edge of Groucho’s prime,” and Marx candidly holds forth on his brothers, his movies, his relationship with Margaret DuMont, and his less than admirable history as a husband. He’s so entertaining Cavett extended the scheduled 30-minute interview to an hour. Hope, with his stolid WASP air, is a harder nut to crack, but Cavett determinedly questions him past his golfing jokes and USO stories, and he eventually opens up on his hard scrabble early years in show business.
Cavett also made a lot of famous friends in his Greenwich Village stand-up days and the interviews with two of them, Allen and Bill Cosby, are unguarded portraits of their transition from club acts to household names. Cavett and Allen’s friendship is based on charming geekiness — a propensity for swapping classic one-liners and trying to outdo the other in self-effacement. They egg each other on and Allen is more exuberant than I’ve ever seen him: he plays clarinet with Bobby Rosengarden’s house band, answers questions from the audience, and riffs extensively on sex. A typical offhand remark, in response to the question “what’s your ambition in life?”, is “I can’t tell you, but it has something to do with Kate Smith.”
Cosby’s first appearance, in 1971, catches the comedian in a weird flux, adjusting to stardom by retreating into self-protective arrogance. He comes onto the stage smoking a cigar, sporting black-rimmed glasses and a mustache and Cavett says he looks like Groucho Marx. Cosby looks seriously offended and says he doesn’t like to be told he looks like someone else. It’s a fascinating, unexpected snapshot of what appears to be a difficult, if outwardly successful moment in his career. He’s still thoughtful. His memories of hanging out with Allen, Richard Pryor, and Tiny Tim after stand-up sets will have fans drooling and when asked what he thinks about Amos & Andy, he gives a nuanced explanation of why he likes the show but doesn’t think it should be broadcast in re-runs because it gets misinterpreted. By the time of Cosby’s second appearance, two years later, he looks much more comfortable and it’s one of the funniest in the Cavett Show set.
What all of the featured comedians have in common — from Mel Brook’s 2000-year-old man to Jerry Lewis trying to fit a glass in his mouth — is a sensibility rooted in entertainment for entertainment’s sake stemming from vaudeville, Vegas, the Catskills, and old Hollywood. Hearing a name like Richard Pryor is a little jarring in the context of this set; the Smothers Brothers are the only guests with a reputation for controversy and their comedy relies more on Tom’s airhead character rather than challenging convention. Every single one of the old-timers, from Lucille Ball on back, gripes about the low standards of popular entertainment (usually right before or after telling a story about getting their ding-dong stuck in a hoo-ha). Whether they knew it or not these shows were taped as a new generation of American performers led by Pryor, Steve Martin, George Carlin, and the Not Ready for Primetime Players were in the early process of taking over the laugh factory and the pushed-asides already act resentful.
In this way the set also reflects Cavett’s sensibilities. He writes in the liner notes:
“The great George Burns lamented that, lacking vaudeville, there is ‘no place for kids to be bad anymore.’ He needn’t have worried. Now there is. And its name is cable television. One marvels at its inexhaustible outpouring of witless junk labeled ‘comedy.'”
Despite this knee-jerk aversion to modernity, The Dick Cavett Show: Comic Legends is stupendous precisely because it makes a compelling case for what Cavett calls “the true Golden Age of comedy in America.” He’s right when he says, “I can’t think of anything that makes duller reading than attempts to analyze humor… we know it when we see it.” And yet the collection acts as Cavett’s thesis statement and proves its point by highlighting performers that were just as laugh at loud funny then as today.