Monday, November 17, 2014

800 Words: Something to Say - Part 1

What we have in life is conversation - the ability to communicate to one another, to listen, and to evolve. We grew from hearing, and we grow from being heard. Conversation is the only thing in life worth a damn, because if we’re ever going to understand each other, it will only be by hearing what we all have to say.

As I was driving home last night form a concert, an interview with Dick Cavett came on the radio. I’m probably the only person under the age of 40 that knows who Dick Cavett is, but for those who don’t, he was, in so many ways, Stephen Colbert for another generation. The only difference is, Cavett didn’t have to wear a mask of ignorance. He’s an emissary from a gentler, more cultivated era, when self-consciously intelligent people needn’t be typecast as intellectuals, could be knowledgable without seeming smug, and even a standup comedian could be intelligent. Comedians are probably the world’s smartest people, but don’t try telling that to the average American, it’ll make America a much less humorous place.

(Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer)

Cavett made a great point - what makes talk shows unique is the talk, not the show. And whom among today’s celebrities do we really want to hear talk at length? We spend, at most, fifteen minutes in the company of these guests, and in that time, most of them will have exhausted whatever there is of value which they have to say. Back in Dick Cavett’s day, he would have guests on for a full half hour, and if they were especially interesting, the tape would simply keep rolling, and Cavett would get a full week’s worth of broadcasts out of it - or a whole gaggle of guests, each of whom could be fascinating in his own way. The conversation might be enlightening, it also might be a circus freak show. It was Charlie Rose by way of Letterman - it was simply every possible excitement which you could ever want out of a conversation. And like everything else in America with the temerity to combine the lighthearted with the serious, the profane with the sacred, the carnival with the temple, Cavett has been forgotten. But no matter what happened, a live audience was present, and Cavett trusted that whatever happened would be interesting enough that a live audience would stay engaged for the whole of it. This was not a format the 92nd St. Y, this was for network television! And yet it never happened again. Such is the way of America - giving us the power to create the most truthful and beautiful things, only to cover up our national treasures when they hold up a mirror to us that’s too clear.

(Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog)

Just do a youtube or wikipedia search for Dick Cavett and it becomes clear how different this show is than anything on today. Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal squaring off against each other after Mailer headbutted Vidal backstage. Comedian Mort Sahl threatening to hit the critic John Simon in the face. Truman Capote attacking Sonny Liston with a handkerchief. Oscar Peterson playing piano for an audience of millions. Weeks worth of shows devoted to pornography and depression. A roundtable with Satchel Paige, Lillian Gish, and Salvador Dali during which Dali brought an anteater onstage and deposited it into Gish’s lap. Jefferson Airplane, Joni Mitchell, David Crosby and Stephen Stills on the day after Woodstock ended.  A film director’s panel with Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Altman, Mel Brooks, and Frank Capra. Janis Joplin, Margo Kidder, and Gloria Swanson on simultaneously! Jack Benny and Bill Cosby on together. A whole show with John Cassavetes, Peter Falk, and Ben Gazarra. Full hours with Groucho Marx, Laurence Olivier, Noel Coward, Katherine Hepburn, Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard, John and Yoko, David Bowie, Ray Charles, Fred Astaire, Woody Allen, Jerry Lewis, Lucille Ball, Woody Allen, Zero Mostel.

(John Lennon premieres "Imagine")

No talk show on television today, not Stewart, not Colbert, not Letterman, not Charlie Rose, is nearly so ambitious as this. It is a show which is literally meant to take the pulse of the entire country during an age when the country was still sufficiently united that its pulse could be taken. In the ‘rough and tumble’ of an hour-long conversation, there’s no Colbert-esque hiding behind a persona with quick one liners, and no Carson-esque staff to prepare you for what you should be asking. There is only the native intelligence it takes to know your material well enough that you can talk about your subject in detail.

(John Cleese)

How many of today’s huge stars are interesting enough that we’d want to spend an hour in their company? Perhaps George Clooney or Jennifer Lawrence among movie stars, but how many others can you think of who’d be worth that chunk of your time? Tom Cruise? Brad Pitt? Kristen Stewart? Anne Hathaway? When you mention names like those, the question becomes self-answering. Movies, at least movies which come from the old star system, are almost completely dead. So their biggest stars are, almost necessarily, people who are dead on the inside.

(Marshall McLuhan and Truman Capote)

If you want to hear from interesting actors, you have to get actors who are actors first, movie stars second. Ian McKellen and especially Patrick Stewart have reached an Indian Summer on the internet, and it’s because their careers are more than simply careers - they are real human beings with real skills who have fallen into the movie business as if by accident. Stewart may be slightly wooden and hammy in genuine theatrical roles (not for nothing was Captain Picard the perfect role for him), but who wouldn’t want the company of a 75-year-old Shakespearean actor who posts a picture of himself on twitter dressed as a lobster?

(Joni Mitchell, Jefferson Airplane, David Crosby, Stephen Stills)

Comedians also make for great talk show guests. Comedians, more than virtually any other job, is grounded in people who make their careers based on having interesting things to talk about. A fact that’s hit home in Jerry Seinfeld’s web series - Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. The show itself is not particularly extraordinary, but it’s a thoroughly watchable show, because Seinfeld understands that what we’re watching is funny people talking to each other, and in order to be funny, you have to be interesting first and have insights which are worthwhile to be heard. Among comedians, Robin Williams was of course the most amazing talk show guest, not only because he was funny, but because he was smart. There was no way he could get access to that extreme barrage of references without a first-class brain to access. If he had an hour on a talk show, he could probably improvise an entire hour’s worth of material - very nearly it’s own HBO special made up on the spot.   

(Katherine Hepburn)

To paraphrase Citizen Kane, there’s no great secret to being famous, if all you care about is being famous. If fame is your biggest motivator, there is a checklist of things you must do in order to achieve it, and if you combine that with a little bit of luck, you will achieve your life’s goal. But as with any other career, if you’re defined by your career, you will be uninteresting and unworthy of company outside of it. Your boringness may even make you worse at your job.  

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