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Dick Cavett: The Intellectual's TV Sensation of Yore

Filed under: The Squib Report   Tagged: , , , , , ,

Recently I've been watching some old episodes of The Dick Cavett Show on DVD. (By the bye, if you get the chance, do absolutely see the one with Orson Welles.)

For some reason, watching it made me think quite strongly of The New Yorker—what struck me was that The New Yorker never had as close a correlative on television as Dick Cavett. Cavett was The New Yorker in television form, if you will. (Anyone have any other candidates?)

It seemed to me that Cavett was a celebrity too close to the actual TNY demographic to ignore for long, and sure enough, he was the subject of a Profile by L. E. Sissman in the May 6, 1972 issue.

I don't have much to say about the article, which amply met my expectations. Reading about the (let's face it) somewhat dilettantish Nebraska native and Yale grad who was never any great success as an actor or comedian—well, he makes one of the more improbable television sensations. And yet he was talented, and his notoriety was entirely deserved. I suppose that most talk show hosts are generally hybrid talents whom you can't quite picture attaining stupendous success in any other pursuit.

The Profile does have one very striking feature: it comes with a kind of artist's notebook by Charles Saxon, who incidentally also executed hundreds of cartoons over more than four decades. The eleven-page article features twelve pleasing sketches of some behind-the-scenes activities at the offices of The Dick Cavett Show, an unshowy way of adding value and verve to the piece. A fine idea.

Two other points: one of the staff members of the show is described as having a "a Walter Ulbricht beard," the almost aggressive obscurity of which I (more than thirty-five years later) found hilarious. Turns out Ulbricht was a politician from East Germany with a wholly unexceptional goatee.

The other thing is that one of the guests on the workday described was ... James Brown! Holy moly.


I only saw a few shows in the early 80s, but I remember being very impressed with the intelligence and wit of Cavett’s show. Hard to imagine it today, huh?

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