Dick Cavett: Brief Encounters

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Among the reassuring pleasures of the age has been Dick Cavett’s blog for the New York Times. Reassuring because Cavett is excellent. He’s always deserved a prominent forum from which to banter and quip and pun and cajole. He seemed to go away for awhile, and then the popular conversation became measurably stupider. (It wasn’t a coincidence.) It was good to have him back when he started the column. It was also reassuring because of the medium. It was nice to know that the internet can be used for good, that this powerful tool can be better than a bunch of thirteen year olds exchanging photographs of cat shit.

A bunch of Cavett’s online columns have been published under the title Brief Encounters: Conversations, Magic Moments and Assorted Hijinx. I was lucky to receive it as a very astutely chosen Christmas present, given to me by my mother-in-law-to-be. She knows I admire Cavett and was thrilled to get to meet him a few months ago at Marxfest. Although, to be truthful, my big chance was a botch. Dressed with a modest amount of flair I stood up to shake Cavett’s hand and give him a copy of my book — only to be preceded in line by another writer dressed so as to make the same visual impression, only nattier, who pressed a copy of his book into Cavett’s hands. To emerge as the lesser-remembered of two nerd fanboys is a fate no man should have to suffer at my age. It made me want to go out and ride a motorcycle off of one of New York’s taller bridges just to scrape the memory from my skull, and God’s.

At any rate, what’s past is prologue. I enjoyed Cavett’s bundle of columns immensely. He’s always been a strange creature on the American landscape. The mixture of a mid-Western drawl and literary erudition is really rare in our pop culture, mostly because of the erudition. But Cavett is very complex. He wouldn’t have gotten as far as he has without the common touch. He is not above low comedy or the bad and corny joke, bravely told. He’s full of book-learnin’ but remains a pop culture junkie. And one of the delights of his blog (and this book) is that a guy whom one might be forgiven for pigeon-holing as callow and superficial, a cocktail party name-dropper, has unexpected depths. I don’t mean to suggest that one will come across any earth-shaking original profundity here, necessarily — just  simple, honest reflection by a man who has lived and seen much and now confronts the vulnerability of age. Death, tears, childhood memories, alcoholism, sex (even too much sex), old friends, mental illness, etc weave through the pieces as though they’d bubbled up involuntarily. It just “comes out” no matter what he’s writing about.

Because he’s known so many famous people many of the pieces are obituaries, and he’s often very insightful about the people he’s known. One of the most unexpected ones was about Muhammad Ali, whose body may have not left the stage, but whose outsized personality has been gone for decades.  Comedy fans will cherish Cavett’s front-row portraits of many of the greats. It’s nice to hear his perspective on Groucho’s waning days, when he was in the grip of that Hollywood Circe Erin Fleming. She’s usually portrayed as an unvarnished monster. It was interesting to hear the more muted views of someone who’d actually been susceptible to her charms. There are also enconia on Arthur Godfrey, John Lennon, Johnny Carson, Stan Laurel,  Jack Benny, Dick Clark, and even James Gandolfini. This latter is only one example of how Cavett seems surprisingly plugged into contemporary pop culture for a man of his age (he also seems to be a big fan of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.) Granted, there are such things as research assistants. But there’s nothing in this man’s previous behavior to indicate he might be faking it. He loves television!

But above all, melancholy notes aside, lest we forget, Dick Cavett has always been funny. He’s always been a writer’s comedian in addition to being a comedian’s writer, and he cobbles together a fine sentence, with a wit that makes you feel “improved” for having encountered it. This book is chock full of larfs on every page.

Buy it here. 

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