One generation’s smartest talk show host meets another’s to discuss the rules of comedy, and how to break them.
“Wait, am I wearing a mic?” Dick Cavett pats his blue button-down searching for an imaginary wire that turns out to be a pair of glasses. Realizing his error, the talk show legend looks over at the “Late Night” host and “Saturday Night Live” alum Seth Meyers and says, smiling, “Well, there it is. That’s when you know it’s all over.” Cavett should be forgiven for assuming he’s always on: For six consecutive decades, starting in the ’60s, he has been a TV mainstay, interviewing the reigning greats of the time, from Lucille Ball to Truman Capote to David Bowie. The affable Meyers, with his dry wit and politically inflected comedy, is, in many ways, this generation’s Cavett: Both cut their teeth in show business as actors, both have hosted the Emmys and both have inspired the wrath of dubious politicians (although only one of them was name-checked more than two dozen times on the Nixon White House tapes). With genuine affection, Cavett says to Meyers, whom he’s only just met, “I feel like your dad in a way.” But the moment is fleeting and an impish smile stretches across his face. “You know,” he says jokingly, “I’m the one who told them to use you in the first place.”
Seth Meyers: How long did it take for you to walk out onstage and not feel like an actor without lines?
Dick Cavett: The first time you’re in charge of an hour and a half of television, you might as well be looking at Mount Everest. It took a few weeks to relax into it, and then it was fun, but those first shows I’d realize the guest’s lips had stopped moving and I had no idea what they’d been talking about. A tip for a young guy like you from an old hand: Have something ready that you can always say that can apply to everybody. Something like, “Do you pee in the shower?”
Meyers: I’m so jealous of how much time you had with people. Every now and then I have a seven-minute guest who feels like 90 minutes, but more often than not I’m just getting going right about the time I’m wrapping it up.
Cavett: That’s another problem. I used to laugh at Dave Letterman when he’d get an actress on, who probably was not a Rhodes scholar and whose favorite word was inevitably “exciting”: “Oh, it was such an exciting movie to work on. The director, he was exciting.” As if the world owes you exciting. We need to expunge that word.
Meyers: I’m going to take this as a personal note, because I can hear myself saying, “That must have been exciting.”
Cavett: Try instead saying, “That must have been dreary and made you feel soporific.” See how that helps.
Meyers: I don’t know if it was the era, or the guests, but you would have people on who didn’t necessarily seem like they wanted to be there.
Cavett: That often was the case, at least at first. When I had George Harrison on, people said, “You’re going to try to do 90 minutes with George? Lots of luck.” And I saw what they meant for the first few minutes, but then he got interesting. Then he got more interesting, until he turned out to be one of the best guests. And I love every second of that Brando show. People say it felt like pulling teeth, but no, it wasn’t. To get him was the victory. He wasn’t sure if he was going to come on. Then the phone rang, and I heard those wonderful words, “Dick, it’s Marlon Brando.” I thought, Don’t let this be someone imitating Marlon Brando. Don’t let this be Alec Baldwin, who sounds more like Brando than Brando. The sun was only halfway down when the call started, and the moon was up in the dark sky by the time I convinced him to do the show. My wife’s favorite Brando moment was when I said, “Were you happy with the way ‘The Godfather’ came out?” And he said, “I’d rather not talk about movies.” And to my credit, I said, “O.K., what about the book ‘The Godfather’?”
Meyers: You had some really thoughtful interviews with people, where, because of the nature of them, the audience wasn’t laughing much. Did you feel pressure to come up with a line like that to make everyone laugh?
Cavett: Sure, but it’s not necessarily something you should go for if the guest is talking about Buchenwald. Have you ever found yourself not listening to a guest? That used to happen to me all the time; I was too wedded to my notes: “So, Dick, we uncovered the old trunk and pulled it out. My fellow scientists and I lifted the lid, and you’ll never guess what was inside.” And I’d hear myself say, “Do you have any hobbies?” [Laughter.]
Meyers: The difference then and now is that talk shows have become a bit of an industry.
Cavett: There’s no honor now to have a talk show.
Meyers: Back in the day, you stood on a mountain with very few. And for the interviews that endure, you don’t get the sense that, say, Katharine Hepburn did another talk show the next night. And then the next night she did another one. So many guests now are on a promotional tour.
Cavett: There’s not much worse than a “plug-ola guest” who is so tired that he tells the same story he just told the segment before, with one eyelid drooping down to here. The best at repeating himself was Gore Vidal, because his delivery was so delicious you didn’t mind hearing something a second time. The great moment for me on the Hepburn show was when I decided to poke her a bit. I said, “Do you remember me as an actor?” And she just stopped and said, “I’ve been told I should.” I said, “We were in a play together. Stratford, Connecticut, ‘The Merchant of Venice.’ I had one line: ‘Gentlemen, my master Antonio is at his house, and desires to speak with you both.’ ” She looked at me and said, “Is that the way you said it?” It was one of the longest laughs I didn’t get.
Meyers: That’s when I’m happiest, when it feels like a conversation. But for the guest, I think there’s an added pressure now because they’re aware that whatever they say will live forever online. In your era, people were a little looser.
Cavett: Sometimes I wondered, Do they think this isn’t going beyond this room? Do you have any irritating memories where you wish you hadn’t said something?
Meyers: Not exactly, but one of my claims to fame is that I might have made the last Bin Laden joke that Bin Laden could have physically heard, when I hosted the White House Correspondents Dinner the night before he was killed.
Cavett: I was actually persona grata at the White House for a brief time. I went to an evening of Shakespeare there, and Nixon was in the receiving line. I never knew in that moment that some time later a guy out in California would find tapes of Nixon and his lickspittle H.R. Haldeman, where Nixon says, “Cavett — there must be some way we can screw him.”Continue reading the main story
Meyers: The specter of a Trump presidency is that he actively dislikes me.
Cavett: It’s the most interesting thing that this vile, no-class, ignorant man who brags that he doesn’t read and does great imitations of people with disabilities — and hates women and a few other things — is considered a presidential candidate. I was going to give Mrs. Clinton a line: “What if a great international crisis blew up in the Middle East? Don’t you want a president who knows Shiite from Shinola?”
Meyers: He’s built for late-night shows to talk about. More generally, it feels like we’re in a cycle of tragedies, and if you talk about the news every night, it can feel like you’re ignoring something if you don’t talk about it — like Dallas. But you can’t talk about it every time something happens, otherwise it stops being a comedy show.
Cavett: What about the subject of offending? I had John Lennon and Yoko Ono on the show, whose first appearance gave us some of our biggest ratings, and when they came back on, I was told that ABC was going to cut their performance of a song.
Meyers: What song was it?
Cavett: “Woman Is the Nigger of the World.”
Meyers: Well, yeah, there you go.
Cavett: ABC agreed to air it as long as I said something cautionary about it before they came on. It played, and there were about 420 complaints — none of them about the song, but about, as one woman said, “that mealy-mouthed speech you made Dick do, treating us like idiots.”
Meyers: Now, thanks to social media, we live in a world where no one can hide from hate mail.
Cavett: You’ve got to pay a little price.
Meyers: And it’s usually a price worth paying. But as much as we shouldn’t let the risk of offending guide the material, I do want to be on the right side of history with certain things.
Cavett: Among the standard topics of gag-writing back in my day were: mothers-in-law, parking problems, headaches, fags. One of the categories was fag jokes. I’d done them, but it never occurred to me that what we were doing was wrong. One day at a grocery store in Montauk, a deep voice standing next to me said right into my ear, “Really, Cavett? Fag jokes?” I turned directly into the face of the great Edward Albee and I realized, My god, yes, that time has passed. Speaking of passing, have you made up your mind what to do when a guest dies?
Meyers: Well, that’s the beauty of having done 400 shows. Some guests don’t care if they die. Some desperately want a life preserver.
Cavett: Let me put it to you again: What do you do when a guest croaks? My guess is that I’m the only person who’s ever had a guest drop dead. And who would the gods choose to die on a talk show? J. I. Rodale, a health expert. He was a lovely old gent who looked like Trotsky. I made a mental note to have him back, and then in the next segment, he joined the silent majority right there on the stage. He had made a snoring sound, and suddenly slid down in his chair.
Meyers: What did you do?
Cavett: I went over and took his wrist and realized I didn’t know what a wrist is supposed to feel like. I wanted to run and hide. Some say I said to him, “Are we boring you?”
Meyers: Well, Dick, that’s all the proof I need. I always did say you were a groundbreaking host.
Photographs by Marcelo Krasilcic. Grooming by Kristen Serafino using Chanel Les Beiges. This interview has been condensed and edited.A version of this article appears in print on September 11, 2016, on page M2107 of T Magazine with the headline: Dick Cavett & Seth Meyers.