SXSW Turns the Tables on Comedy Connoisseur Dick Cavett
The veteran talk-show host matters because he took the art of being funny seriously
Fifty years ago this month, a diminutive Nebraskan muscled his way onto the cluttered TV talk-show landscape, carving out a tiny spot among Virginia and David and Merv and Mike and Johnny and Joey and Joe. Like the rest of them, he often booked comedians as guests, but unlike the rest of them, he didn't bring these entertainers onto his show to tell jokes. He brought them on to talk about telling jokes, to open up about the craft of comedy, how they did what they did and what made them want to do it in the first place. He was a pioneer on the talk-show circuit in taking funny business seriously. So if you want to know why this year's SXSW Comedy is kicking off with a live onstage conversation with Dick Cavett, that's the reason.
Groucho Marx. Lucille Ball. Bob Hope. Dick Gregory. Mort Sahl. Mel Brooks. Joan Rivers. Jack Benny. Woody Allen. Jerry Lewis. Carol Burnett. Zero Mostel. Lily Tomlin. The Smothers Brothers. Cavett interviewed them all and more during his first seven years on ABC, and as he bounced around to other networks in the two decades that followed (PBS, USA, CNBC), he engaged the comedians of subsequent generations in conversation about their art: George Carlin, Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, Steve Martin, Paula Poundstone, John Candy, Jay Leno, Harry Shearer, Phil Hartman, to name a few. And what distinguished his interviews from those on other chat shows was that Cavett didn't limit himself to six minutes on his guests' project du jour. He devoted 20 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour, to delving into their entire careers – careers that he knew down to dates of gigs and comments the comics had made, the way a fan would. And you could see when he was in the presence of a Groucho or a Joan, Cavett was indeed a fan. And someone who relished their talent to amuse.
That said, Cavett was no comedy dilettante. By the time ABC put him on the air – in a daytime slot initially – Cavett had logged several years as a gag writer for various comics, including Jack Paar and Johnny Carson when he worked on staff at The Tonight Show, and had also taken a shot at stand-up himself, playing such iconic clubs as the Bitter End and the Hungry I. Cavett knew just what it took to cadge a laugh from an audience and was skilled enough to be able to do it in his voice or the voice of whatever comic he was writing for. That gave him an insider's view in both the craft of comedy and how different comedians made it work, a view he used in interviews to dive deeper into the work life of a comic than most talk-show hosts, even the ones who were comics themselves. Couple that with Cavett's natural urbanity, wit, and playfulness, and you got tête-à-têtes with jokesters and clowns that were as delightful as they were insightful.
SXSW Comedy has turned the tables on the veteran interviewer, subjecting him to queries from radio host and comedian Dave Hill of Witch Taint: The Black Metal Dialogues Live! fame. But here's betting that Cavett proves every bit as engaging when he's on the receiving end of questions as he always has been asking them.
Cavett on Comedy with Dave Hill will take place Fri., March 9, 6pm, at Esther’s Follies, 525 E. Sixth.