There are talk show hosts, and then there’s Dick Cavett.
The current late show landscape is generously stocked with sketches, songs, and other pop culture detritus, which can often be diverting and fun, but rarely informative (that is, unless you absolutely must know when Will Ferrell’s next movie is dropping). Things were different in Cavett’s heyday, however. The jokes and the guests were no better, and there has perhaps never been a greater house band than Late Night with Jimmy Fallon’s The Roots. Dick Cavett just had a way with an interview that brought out the best in his guests and transcended the format.
A skilled interviewer can make anyone sound interesting. But what if instead of a "skilled interviewer," you had a masterful one, and instead of "anyone," you had some of the most interesting people in the world? Such was the premise of The Dick Cavett Show. It elevated the discourse and paved the way for programs like Real Time with Bill Maher, in which guests with opposing views spray verbal gasoline all over the set. The free-thinking Cavett’s monologues and interviews prompted was enough to famously land him on President Nixon’s enemies list. That he managed to be entertaining at the same time is nothing short of miraculous.
It’s hard to fully appreciate Cavett’s diamond-cutter wit and social savvy, though, until you’ve actually had to conduct an interview yourself. Prying answers out of a cagey subject, groping for the next question while still listening, and knowing when to just get out of the way are but a small sample of the challenges of interviewing. Luckily, the legendary talent, who now blogs for The New York Times, has offered up some key insights into how he always managed to keep the conversation stimulating, no matter what.
My former boss and idol for many years as a viewer, Jack Paar, called me before I started doing a talk show and said, “Hey kid, don’t do interviews.” And I said, “What do I do, then, sing or just read to the audience?” And he said, “No, interviews are boring. That’s just ‘What’s your favorite color?’ and that’s dull. Make it a conversation.” And that’s almost the best secret. Throw your notes aside, if necessary.
Since I was a guest-booker at first with Jack, I learned how to make talent coordinator notes. But often the hosts like him and [Johnny] Carson and [Merv] Griffin would not use them or didn’t need them. I would do whole shows without using any notes, if I was so interested in the person—whether it was someone like Katherine Hepburn or Robert Mitchum. The best shows were when the topic just got going and you’d forget all about notes and research and just let it flow.
About six weeks into the show, I noticed that a guest would resent it if I talked at some length. The competitive feeling in them of “This guy’s doing this whole appearance, and I’m not getting anything in” would bring them out. After about two or three very brief responses, I would tell a story, and they would think, “Oh, my time on the show is going by,” and it worked like a charm most of the time. Sometimes you’d get a real stiff, though, in which case you just move the show along and say that you’ll have them back again some other time—and then make sure you don’t.
The fewer questions, the better. Otherwise, you’re David Frost and his clipboard, and "What’s your definition of love?” for God’s sake.
If there’s an obvious issue, just go for it. I had to. I couldn’t not. I couldn’t face, “Why didn’t you ask him about his divorce?” or whatever. Unless there was, of course, a death in the family or something sensitive that way. But if they’d made bad news, they better face it and it makes better television. Not necessarily good television, but more absorbing television.
It’s puzzling to me how many times illustrious and un-illustrious guests who did have a little scandal would say to me after the show, “How did you get me to talk about that?” I think it’s some kind of instinct because I didn’t plan it and it wasn’t conscious.
You can hold someone with silence and make them go on. You tend to feel you need to fill all dead air. There are times when if you just say no more than “uh-huh,” and pause, they’ll add something out of a kind of desperation that turns out to be pretty good. Let them sweat a little and then they’ll come up with something that they were perhaps not going to say. Because they too can have a sense of “time’s a-wasting here.” You’re supposed to fill that time with talk, but there’s no law that says you can’t stop every now and then and let a strategic silence fall.
If the person has strayed from an interesting topic, the direct approach usually works for getting them back. Just start that topic over again. Say, “Let’s go back to this,” or “Let me steer you back to what you were more interesting about a minute ago.”
I didn’t always remember everything we’d been talking about. I was forever thinking "Oh shit—what was it I thought of a minute ago while this other person was talking?” Eventually, I developed a memory technique from my friend, Harry Lorayne, the memory expert, of creating an outrageous image. Like if they were caught stealing an apple as a kid, but then they start talking about something else, you picture picking up an apple and throwing it in the face of, I don’t know, Mitt Romney or some prominent person. And that sort of startling image will trigger "apple" for you later on. But I wouldn’t throw an apple at Romney. Or a vote.
During the horror of my first week of doing a 90-minute show, when I mentioned to William F. Buckley that I wasn’t familiar with something, he said “You don’t seem to be familiar with anything”—which was a nasty thing to say. But I was too intimidated to tell him to put it where the moon don’t shine. You have to just keep going and not let it get to you. The audience went “Ooh,” and I think he realized he’d made one of his snotty faux pas. We became friends years later, though, and I even had the pleasure of correcting him on-air when he misquoted Oscar Wilde. He attributed a quote to Wilde that was actually La Rochefoucault. Then Buckley said, “I come here to be educated.”
The best example is what I did to Norman Mailer during the famous Gore Vidal episode. It was a tense, wonderful, dramatic, and suspenseful 90 minutes with those two. Mailer came on to gut Gore about something Gore had written about him. Mailer, who’s short on humor, was pugilistic and pissed—having been to a couple watering places, as you put it. At one point he said something like, “Everyone here is smaller than me.” And I asked “In what way, smaller,” and he said “intellectually.” You’ll have to watch the clip to see how I responded to that.