The Dick Cavett Show: Comic Legends
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The Dick Cavett Show: Comic Legends

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If you happen to be up late any give week night you might wander on to one of the many late night talk shows. Typically, a guest will speak for a few minutes with the host about the latest project he or she is out promoting. Within a commercial or two the guest is gone and a new one has come out. In the late sixties and early seventies there was a vastly different format. The guest actually stuck around for the whole show; the interview was in depth moving from one topic to another. The audience actually got to know something about the guest. One of the best hosts for this format was Dick Cavett. Cavett was a slim built man, in a time when men where dressing in jeans and wearing their hair long he was the image of conservatism. Perhaps the craziest thing I can remember about him was his calypso dance around a dining room table in Beetlejuice. By looking at him you would hardly be able to guess that he was on a first name basis with the giants of rock, comedy and acting. Without a doubt he had to have the best rolodex of his time. Cavett was known for his dry, sardonic wit, his able to usually make his guest feel at ease and answer Cavett’s questions openly and honestly. Watch his show was like attending a sophisticated cocktail party in New York, listening in on a conversation between two fascinating people.

Shout Entertainment has graces us all with the release of Dick Cavett interviewing some of the best comedians of the 20th century. Sometimes the interviews take only a single segment in a crowded show, other time the full episode is devoted to the subject. To their credit Shout provides the full, uncut episodes so we can not only enjoy the comedians that are the focus of this set but also immerse ourselves in the full Dick Cavett Show experience. There are too many ‘best of’ clip sets out there but Shout has the respect for the audience to give us the whole show.

The episode from September 5, 1969 was devoted to one man, the irrepressible Groucho Marx. Although the episode was supposed to be only thirty minutes due to a golf tournament they kept the cameras rolling. As Cavett describes in his introduction to the episode this was the last performance of Groucho in his prime. Groucho was dressed in a wacky hat and trademark cigar. He sat back with Cavett and just let it flow. Marx moved easily from topic to topic, as at ease as if he was in your living room. He spoke about censorship in his early films, that the censors where just not ready for his earthly humor. He opens his time with a brief rendition of his famous song, ‘Hello I must be going’. It was obvious that Groucho was good friends with Cavett; there is a familiarity to the two that translates so well on screen. Groucho is also shown in his May 25, 1971 episode where he shared the stage with Truman Capote. For those that have seen the recent bio-pic of Capote this is a great chance to see him in action as he trades barbs with Marx. When Cavett begins to talk to Capote Marx immediately chimes in that he wants to be part of the conversation. Here are two huge egos facing each other on the same stage.

One of the better group efforts was in the September 19, 1969 episode featuring Woody Allen, Ruth Gordon and Gina Lollobridgida. Before the guest started to come out Cavett read some viewer letters concerning a previous guest, Joan Baez. The letters where split, some denouncing Baez as anti-American and Cavett for forcing her on the public, others that saw Baez as the voice of reason during the turmoil of the Vietnam War. If Shout had decided to only show clips we would miss this moment in history when a countries divisions were aired on a talk show. Cavett and Allen where old friends, both served as writers for the Tonight Show, once again this comes out as just two buddies chatting only there just happens to be a television audience and camera watching.

The interview with The Smothers Brothers from December 15, 1971 is also provided. The Smothers Brothers where close to the cancellation of their CBS comedy hour and they had a lot to vent about. You have to remember that this was in the height of Vietnam and the country was divided. The Smothers Brothers where too outspoken in their opposition to the country’s involvement and CBS was pulling their variety series. Cavett offered them a chance to tell their side of the story.

A personal favorite of mine was the February 21, 1974 show devoted to one of the best comic talents every to appear on television, the great Carol Burnett. Her down to earth humor was great playing opposite the dryer style of Cavett. Another great lady of comedy is shown with the March 7, 1974 appearance of Lucille Ball. She goes into how she helped to capture a Japanese spy in World War II and pointed herself out in a photo from Roman Scandals (1933) where she was costumed in a skimpy little piece of wardrobe.

These shows where a lot more off the cuff than what most modern audiences are used to. You see the occasional boom microphone hanging just over the guest. In the April 6, 1970 episode things start off alright with Mel Brooks. He does his famous 2000 year old man skit and talks about his latest film, Twelve Chairs. When the cast of the film Zabriskie Point it is apparent that Cavett had not seen the film and is at a loss for questions. Film critic Rex Reed jumps in and saves the day. When Dr. Aaron Stern comes on to defend the MPAA letter rating system Reed and Brooks defend the rights of the film makers to create the art they want without an end run form of censorship. The conversations are lively and nothing like we see on television today.

Not only did Shout provide complete episode here they included some great extras sprinkled throughout the four disc set. Each episode has a little introduction by Cavett. He muses over what is to come with a nostalgic flair. Disc one has a little featurette where Cavett remembers what it was like to share the stage with such greats. Disc two has a segment outtake with Woody Allen and a special interview with Johnny Carson’s wife, Joanne. Disc 3 has an appearance by Cavett on the Ed Sullivan Show and a show promo. Finally, disc 4 has a backstage look with Cavett and a couple of promos. While some of the young set may wonder who are these people this is an excellent look at television back when it was done right.

Posted 2/28/06

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