Tuesday, May 3, 2011

In Praise of Dick Cavett

(h/t Der Fersko)

Jerry Lewis is, to this day, movie idiocy personified. But it takes a lot of intelligence to create that level of idiocy. And while egomaniacal jerk he might have been, Lewis was/is nobody's fool.

But what's equally mesmerizing about this is Dick Cavett. Dick Cavett is an ideal talk show host, and of a type unseen in today's TV-scape. Cavett is a true comic, but one who wears his intelligence lightly. Intelligence is not something which mainstream talk-show hosts are supposed to have. Both Leno and Letterman cultivate an anti-intellectual everyman persona that is at odds with the intelligence it must take to run a mainstream talk-show for decades. Sure, one can make the argument for Stewart, Colbert, and Conan being intelligent humorists of the 'Cavett' variety. But none of these three are truly 'talk-show hosts.' The guests on their programs are incidental to their shows' charms; just another small part of the whole. Their shows do not work through 'talk', each of their shows are carried by the charisma of their hosts and the sharpness of their writers' material. In today's landscape, a comic who wears his intellectual curiosity as pridefully as Cavett did would be relegated to a youtube channel.

In a true 'talk-show' the host gives his guest equal billing. Charlie Rose is a 'talk-show' but his show is hampered by the fact that its host is clearly a hundred times stupider than any of his guests. James Lipton's 'Inside The Actor's Studio' is also clearly a 'talk show,' but Lipton's show is hampered by the fact that he's less interested in interviewing his guests than in fellating them. Bob Costas had a fine talk show, but the only people in the frame of mind to watch intelligent conversation at 1:30 in the morning are college stoners. The celebrity who came closest in our time to Dick Cavett was, oddly enough, Pat Sajak. Sajak is a nice and intelligent fellow whose personality is plainly wasted on Wheel of Fortune. His talk show's brief run was surprisingly engaging, and would have probably worked if we didn't discover that beneath Sajak's amiable facade lay a right-wing kook of the Rush Limbaugh variety.

It is one of the strange 'what ifs' of TV history that neither Letterman or Leno was among the top choices to succeed Carson on the Tonight Show. According to rumor/legend, the top two choices were Billy Crystal and Jerry Seinfeld. Clearly, Seinfeld made the right choice. But every year it looks more likely that Billy Crystal made the wrong one. One can imagine a Crystal Tonight Show as everything Leno isn't. Consistently funny, engaging interviews with guests, and bringing large-scale audiences up to the level of his material rather than pandering to the level of the material a focus group wants. Granted, Leno has taken too much flak for everything he isn't rather than people realizing what he is (a first-rate comic who sold out, and even now his political jokes can be surprisingly sophisticated). But its still not as much slight on Leno as it seems to say Crystal would have been a true successor to Carson rather than a seat-warmer who makes you nostalgic for better days.

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