The Dick Cavett Show: Comic Legends

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THE DICK CAVETT SHOW: COMIC LEGENDS

Shout! Factory, $39.98

"Dying is easy," Edmund Kean allegedly quipped on his deathbed. "Comedy is hard." Had he lingered a little longer, Kean might have amended his witticism to "Conversation is easy. Conversation about comedy is hard." Just ask anyone who's sat through 90 minutes of Jerry Lewis pontificating over the value of critics or Jack Benny reciting his tour schedule. The difference between being funny and talking about being funny is akin to the difference between dancing and simply talking about your feet. Something vital gets lost in the translation.

From 1969 through 1974, Dick Cavett sat through a lot of comics discoursing on their craft – some more entertainingly than others. Cavett actually began as a comedy writer for talk shows, working for Jack Paar, Groucho Marx, and Johnny Carson, before attempting his own career as a stand-up comic. Too cerebral for mainstream audiences, he unexpectedly found his niche hosting his own late-night talk show. The Dick Cavett Show never scored ratings, but it did garner the adoration of both critics and the counterculture, along with a string of guests who seldom graced Carson's stage.

Both fools and gold are here in abundance. In a sequence that totters over into the surreal, a tousle-headed Woody Allen reluctantly acquiesces to a push-up contest with his host, and candidly relates an encounter with his ex-wife ("I asked her, 'Would you be interested in, for old times' sake, making love one more time?' She said, 'Over my dead body.' I said, 'Why not? That's the way we always used to do it.'") A nearly senile Groucho Marx exasperates Truman Capote with constant interruptions, while a young Bill Cosby upstages an appreciative Jack Benny with a dazzling riff on jazz drumming. Mel Brooks is typically manic, Jerry Lewis atypically subdued, Carol Burnett charming (Cavett: "How did you lose your virginity?" Burnett: "As a nun in Switzerland."), Lucille Ball indulgent of Cavett and his confession of boyhood lust for her. There may be more laughs in a single Richard Pryor stand-up show, but where else can you hear Lucy Ricardo talking about her G-string?


ALSO OUT NOW

The Best of the Electric Company (Shout! Factory, $49.98): The Seventies PBS companion to Sesame Street taught a generation how to read and laugh, with a cast that included Rita Moreno, Bill Cosby, Morgan Freeman, and Spider-Man. Can you spell "retro"?

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