Dick Cavett: Raconteur of the Television Age

Today is the birthday of Dick Cavett (born 1936). Even as a child I appreciated his dry, understated wit, and marveled at his ability to talk to ANYBODY, from authors like Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal to rock stars like John Lennon and Janis Joplin.

While still in high school the Nebraska native began performing as a professional magician, where he met for the first time fellow Nebraska conjurer  Johnny Carson, and actually won the Best New Performer award at the 1952 convention of the International Brotherhood of Magicians. He studied drama at Yale and then moved to New York.

He then broke into television in the most amazing way possible. Hearing that Tonight Show host Jack Paar was in need of some jokes, he wrote some, then put them in an envelope bearing the stamp of Time Magazine (where he then worked as a copyboy) and simply handed them to Paar in the NBC lobby. His fortune was made. (It didn’t hurt a bit that his style of humor matched Paar’s perfectly.) From there he went on to a staff job at the Tonight Show, where he worked under both Paar and Carson before beginning his own legendary career as host in 1968.

So many of Cavett’s interviews are so enthralling I sometimes find myself surfing them for hours on Youtube. Mr. Cavett, a close personal friend of Groucho, was generous enough to be our special guest at a Marxfest event a few years back, and I appeared with him and Harpo’s son Bill on the Halli Casser-Jayne Show. I also loved Cavett’s recent book Brief Encounters; reviewed it here. 

To find out more about the variety arts past and present, including tv talk shows like Dick Cavett’s, consultNo Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous

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