Friday, April 10, 2015

An Interview with Dick Cavett





This interview is being posted as part of the Classic Showbiz Fund Drive. If you dig it, click that yellow button in the top right corner and let's keep comedy history on the internet alive.

The interview itself was conducted as research for The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy by Kliph Nesteroff (Grove Press - release date November 3, 2015)



Kliph Nesteroff: Did the Jack Paar Tonight Show send you to scout anyone other than Woody Allen?

Dick Cavett: No, I don't think I ever did that again. I didn't go and see anyone else at the Blue Angel. I think what happened was - almost immediately after they sent me to check out Woody's act for the first time - I was officially promoted to writer. So I never did any other scouting.

Kliph Nesteroff: So you had a 100% scouting accuracy record.

Dick Cavett: Yes, I quit while I was ahead.


Kliph Nesteroff: Who were some of the other writers in the room when you first got hired on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar?

Dick Cavett: Bob Howard. Walter Kempley. Paul Keyes was headwriter. And then David Lloyd. I sort of got David in - even though it seems odd he would have needed my help. He was Jack Paar's next door neighbor.



Kliph Nesteroff: How did you know David Lloyd?

Dick Cavett: From school. I was in at least two things David wrote at Yale. One was a musical called Pound Sand. That's an expression that has gone by the wayside. I didn't even know that expression then. David at that time would - with the exception of sexual orientation - like to have been Noel Coward; doing plays, poetry, parodies, acting, directing, singing, composing. He could do all of that. He went on to do The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, Cheers.

Kliph Nesteroff: And his son created Modern Family.


Dick Cavett: Yeah, yeah, the first time I saw his son he was in a little cage on the floor. Like meeting the family pet (laughs).

Kliph Nesteroff: This Jack Paar writer - Paul Keyes... he became a strange figure. What was he like?

Dick Cavett: I detested him.



Kliph Nesteroff: Can you elaborate?

Dick Cavett: Yes, that was a marriage made in hell. One of the people we mentioned earlier said, "You are about to meet one of the worst people in the world." And it was true. In so many cases in show business there is an illustrious star who has one person among him that everyone can't stand. And no one can figure out what they have on him. Why? Why? If only he'd get rid of him. If only he'd get rid of that lousy manager that he's faithful to or the lousy assistant he's loyal to or the crummy writer he never fires. Keyes was a rather vicious, insecure, loudmouth, backslapping pain in the ass.




He and I and Pat McCormick had lunch everyday while on staff at The Merv Griffin Show. My God, it was like the loss of the library of the Alexandria to not have taped some of those lunches we had every day. David and Pat had a friendly competition over who got the biggest laughs at lunch. Paul Keyes got on our nerves one day and Pat McCormick said, "Paul, your parents owe the world a retraction." That was my favorite. Once we were walking down the hall in the RCA building... we were walking by the seventh floor men's room and Paul Keyes came out. He waved and walked on. He was headwriter then. David said, "What do you think Paul does in the men's room?" I said, "That's where he puts his best stuff on paper."


Kliph Nesteroff: It's amazing that someone like that could have had such a long career. Paul Keyes went from Jack Paar to The Dean Martin Show and then Laugh-In. A head writer and a producer... nobody likes him and yet he advances... not unlike his friend Richard Nixon...

Dick Cavett: Yes, Paul was a devious man with an element of paranoia and a distinctly undesirable streak of just about everything.

Kliph Nesteroff: Now how about Pat McCormick? A comedy writing legend within the industry and all but unknown outside the business.

Dick Cavett: Pat was the opposite of Paul Keyes in almost every way. A friendly, wonderful friend and a hilarious man, just as his friend Jonathan Winters was. Pat didn't have a nasty side at all. I saw him get in a  fight with a cab driver once, but that doesn't count. Pat said some of the funniest things ever. There were people who didn't find it funny because it seemed mean...



Humorless people. Pat had a hilarious way of pointing to someone disabled and loudly giggling and getting their attention. You would think they'd be offended, but they'd see Pat McCormick's big, friendly, babylike face and laugh. Sometimes David and I didn't want the risk and we would try and distract him if a nun was coming toward us. One day a guy wearing a heavy iron leg brace came clunking along toward us. David tried to distract Pat. It wasn't so much that we didn't want someone's feelings hurt, it was that we were weak from laughing at Pat! The man with the clunking leg brace walked by and then out of incredible odds came another man with a clunking leg brace totally unrelated. Pat asked him, "Is this the way to the FDR rummage sale?"


Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Dick Cavett: (laughs) If you ever got into an elevator with Pat you had to prepare yourself to sink to the floor with laughter, whether it was loudly farting or just some hilarious remark. I remember seeing David Lloyd off to Europe. He was a nervous wreck with his small children and he was just in pieces, hoping everything was okay, holding papers, dropping them, all over the place, standing at the dock. They were headed toward the official. Pat came along and said, "Hey, the make-up covered up your kids measles just great!" David was not amused.


Kliph Nesteroff: How about Jack Douglas? He was another comedy writer who was sort of a wild character.

Dick Cavett: He wrote for Jack Paar way before I got there. Yeah. He wrote some of the funniest things I had ever heard. Reiko was his Japanese bride and he brought her on the Tonight Show in total Japanese geisha outfit. She sat down and Jack Paar, who had a tendency to condescend slightly to foreign people said, "Reiko... what. have. you. been. doing. in. America?" Reiko, with this exquisite face says, "Photographing military instillations."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)


Dick Cavett: (laughs) If it wasn't the biggest laugh ever, it was certainly one of them. To his credit, Paar realized it was shrewd of Douglas. She was completely articulate. Reiko and Jack. Douglas would come on and sit at the desk with Paar and say he had just seen Yul Brynner wearing his head in the new Jackie Kennedy skin-do. Another time in a list of Christmas presents he had an electric blanket without a cord for Christian scientists.


Kliph Nesteroff: Do you think Pat McCormick was influenced by Jack Douglas? They both wrote for Jack Paar and had a similar sense of the absurd.

Dick Cavett: I don't think Pat had to be influenced by anyone. Pat was a strange phenomenon physically. I was just watching him in Smokey and the Bandit the other night on TV. When I first met Pat he would never have been described as the large fat man. He was handsome with no fat at all. A tall, thin, good looking man.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Tonight Show writer Walter Kempley? Marshall Brickman told me that when he joined the staff of the Tonight Show he inherited Kempley's massive joke file. 


Dick Cavett: Intentionally got his joke file?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, Kempley got in a fight with Carson and quit. He said to Brickman, "You're now headwriter. Here's my joke file."

Dick Cavett: Yeah. I never knew the details of the fight. Do you know?

Kliph Nesteroff: No, I don't think that has ever been determined.

Dick Cavett: I liked Walt Kempley. I started appearing on television - which must have killed Paul Keyes. Walter took me aside one day and said, "Hey, kid, I'm real proud of you." Something Keyes would never have done. Jack Paar told me that Kempley owed him a thousand dollars and he never paid it back. Bob Howard was a splendid guy. Bob had been a Bob Hope writer. He told me that when the War ended Hope went crazy because he no longer had soldier audiences, the only place he could get a big crowd that turned him on.


Kliph Nesteroff: Bob Howard joined you when you both left to write for The Jerry Lewis Show.

Dick Cavett: Yes, he did. Lewis did not take Mr. Keyes along. Keyes was said to be heartbroken over that.

Kliph Nesteroff: You were on staff when Paar left for good. Before Johnny Carson took over, the show was handled by guest hosts - a who's who of popular culture in 1962. Do you remember anything of Jack Paar's last days at the Tonight Show?

Dick Cavett: It's very strange how memory plays. You'd think I would remember a very dramatic goodbye, but I don't. Is there any chance I had left by then?

Kliph Nesteroff: I don't think so because the next week Art Linkletter guest hosted and you were there.


Dick Cavett: I believe the first week of guest hosts was in California. They thought it would be a nice move to completely change the setting for the summer. Bob Cummings of Dial M for Murder fame was one of the first hosts.

Kliph Nesteroff: The first week was Art Linkletter, the second Joey Bishop, the third Bob Cummings.


Dick Cavett: Isn't that funny? My memory canceled out the first two.

Kliph Nesteroff: After Jack Paar quit and before Johnny Carson took over - the Tonight Show guest host order was Merv Griffin, Jack Carter, Jan Murray, Peter Lind Hayes, Soupy Sales, Mort Sahl, Steve Lawrence, Jerry Lewis, Hugh Downs, Jimmy Dean, Arlene Francis, Jack E. Leonard, Groucho Marx, Hal March and Donald O'Connor.

Dick Cavett: Wow.

Kliph Nesteroff: Merv did two weeks because his first week was so successful. He came across as the most competent of all the guest hosts by far. And he got his own talk show because of it.

Dick Cavett: And he was probably the one NBC wanted even though they already had Carson lined up.



Kliph Nesteroff: Merv Griffin and Jerry Lewis both got their own talk shows out of that 1962 Tonight Show guest hosting stint.

Dick Cavett: Merv was dying to get the Tonight Show. It nearly killed him when he didn't. There was much talk. When Johnny started and was, to put it mildly, not at ease the first two weeks, guests backstage said, "He ain't making it." Eventually Johnny clicked into this smooth thing and rode it for thirty years. There was talk that Merv should have gotten it. There was talk before that they would maybe get out of Johnny and give it to Merv. Might have been total bullshit, I don't know. Merv got better reviews. They debuted on the same day.


Kliph Nesteroff: The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson was, of course, on NBC every week night. That first Merv Griffin Show was also on NBC, but during the daytime - five days a week. They essentially had the same format. They were basically the same show, just a different host and time slot. And you were there. You were part of The Merv Griffin Show staff. 

Dick Cavett: Yeah! I was there because it paid $460 instead of $300 something. David Lloyd made a bargain [to leave the Tonight Show and join The Merv Griffin Show]. We would have signed our soul if we could have done that for the rest of our life. Is that four thousand a week now?

Kliph Nesteroff: Were you there for the duration or did you leave for something else?

Dick Cavett: I was going to look that up because I again had something reversed in my memory. I stayed through Merv's cancelation, but I have a feeling you'll be able to tell me more about my own life than I...


Kliph Nesteroff: Another interesting fact about that interim guest host period of the Tonight Show... Mort Sahl hosted a week and there was an episode where the guest line-up was Del Close, Henry Morgan and George Carlin.

Dick Cavett: Oh boy...

Kliph Nesteroff: And it was Carlin's first solo stand-up shot.


Dick Cavett: That is fascinating. Of course, most of that stuff was erased. And, of course, a lot of it should have been. A lot of it should not have even aired! But Groucho did a week. When did they get rid of the first fifteen minutes of the Tonight Show? Those extra fifteen minutes drove Jack Paar crazy and he rebelled against it. Nobody remembers that the Tonight Show used to be an hour and forty-five minutes long. It blew Jack's monologue in fifty cities or something.

Kliph Nesteroff: They kept the extended version in the New York market, but depending on where you lived the Tonight Show could be a hundred and five minutes or only ninety minutes.

Dick Cavett: Yes, that's right.


Kliph Nesteroff: A lot of the time the host wasn't even on the first fifteen minutes of the Tonight Show and there was just the bandleader leading the band and a lot of regional commercials. Then fifteen minutes later they'd strike up the theme song for a second time when the rest of the network picked up the show at 11:30. After just a year on the air Jack Paar threatened to quit if NBC didn't shorten the length.

Dick Cavett: Jack Paar stopped appearing in the first fifteen. Yeah, Hugh Downs would chat with the audience or something.

Kliph Nesteroff: On the very last Jack Paar Tonight Show - the first fifteen minutes were hosted by comedian Jack E. Leonard and then Paar came out at 11:30.


Dick Cavett: No kidding? Jack E. Leonard was the nicest man. Fat Jack was on and Paar told me backstage that when Fat Jack came out he wouldn't answer anything he said. He would just nod and agree. Jack started to sweat and started to panic and just reached mentally for any fact of his life, he was so desperate. He said, "My wife is an acrobat..." And Jack said, "She would have to be." 

Kliph Nesteroff: Do you remember anything about writing for those interim guest hosts?



Dick Cavett: It was great writing for Mort and Groucho. It was a joy if they thought anything you wrote was worth doing. And then there was Art Linkletter, where you just turned the whole job over to a Bennett Cerf joke book and went home early. There was an incident the week Donald O'Connor did it. No one could imagine why Donald O'Connor hosted the show. A very strange man named Barry Shear decided to make it largely a dance show and the writers were aghast. He fired me. I don't remember why. It was kind of a punishment like doing twenty push-ups. "Give me twenty jokes on this subject or you're canned." I chose being canned. I called a legendary woman who was head of the Writers Guild back then, Evelyn Burkey. She said, "Ask Mr. Shear if he would rather fire you or have the Tonight Show on the air tonight." Barry chose the latter.


Kliph Nesteroff: Some of these guest hosts had reputations as not being the easiest people to work for - Joey Bishop, Jack Carter, Jimmy Dean - did you find that to be true?

Dick Cavett: There must be something wrong with me because I got along with those three. A guy named Fred Freeman, another funny guy, was Garry Marshall's partner in comedy writing. Freeman and Marshall. Joey Bishop was in a bad mood or something, throwing away their material. Fred walked into Joey's office with his material one day - and then just put it into the wastebasket himself


Kliph Nesteroff: Bill Persky told me a story about an episode of the Joey Bishop sitcom he was writing. It was one of those episodes where Joey Bishop plays two characters - himself and a twin brother. Joey got really jealous that the twin brother got bigger laughs than he did.

Dick Cavett: (laughs) That's great! Oh, that's wonderful! I wonder if Mr. [Woody] Allen knows that story! I have to tell him that.

Kliph Nesteroff: Let's talk about your stand-up career. Seems so strange to me that nobody has ever asked you about this stuff. You went the opposite way of most guys. Most start with stand-up and move into TV. You were already established at the Tonight Show when you first started in stand-up. Was that the plan of your managers Jack Rollins and Charles Joffe?


Dick Cavett: It might have been a Rollins and Joffe idea. I'm not sure whose idea it originally was, but I wanted to do stand-up in the Village. Johnny Carson never got upset I was writing more for myself than for him. We used to laugh and cry when I would come in the day after I had bombed. We would laugh about it and he would talk to me about how it should be worded. So that part was interesting. But yeah, you could do club appearances to get into any aspect of television. There's a thing in my book Cavett about playing a club in Detroit during a horrible, snowy week. The audiences couldn't stand me. Darrell Hammond told me he happened to come across that chapter at a time when he was suicidal and it saved his life. 


Kliph Nesteroff: December 1964 - you were playing the Bitter End with an unknown Kenny Rogers.

Dick Cavett: No kidding? I don't recall ever knowing that. The Bitter End was pretty good usually - a hip crowd and a young audience. They weren't drunks. I don't think there was alcohol. Just sodas and things. A pretty friendly place. I bombed the first night, but I didn't really bomb after that.


Kliph Nesteroff: Did you get along with Paul Colby?

Dick Cavett: Not so much to know who you mean.

Kliph Nesteroff: Paul Colby and Fred Weintraub were the two managers of the Bitter End.

Dick Cavett: Oh, Paul. I may never known the name was Colby. Yeah, I did. And there would be people like Jim, Jake and Joan [Rivers] on the bill and JoAnne Worley.


Kliph Nesteroff: Paul Colby talks about your stand-up act in his book about the Bitter End, but he's sort of nasty. He wrote, "Dick Cavett came in 1964. Stayed for six months and bombed for six months. Audiences hated him with a passion. I mean with a passion. It wasn't even neutral hatred. It was like they wanted to kill him. He was very offensive onstage and just couldn't help coming off snotty."

Dick Cavett: I have no recollection of Paul Colby. He sounds like a distorted and witless creep. He's full of shit. Why would they want someone that long if they were bombing for six months? I don't remember bombing for more than five.

Kliph Nesteroff: Your stand-up career was relatively short compared to most of your contemporaries.

Dick Cavett: I guess so. It seemed long certain nights.


Kliph Nesteroff: You played Mister Kelly's in Chicago with Mel Torme.

Dick Cavett: That's true. That was nice because I liked Torme and it was fun to see the musicians come over for the late shows and jam with him. I liked Chicago. A great city. At the little hotel where the acts stayed for a marked down price my luggage was out in the lobby. I said, "What's this? I have another two weeks here." They said, "No, Hugh Hefner's secretary called to let you know you're moving into the Playboy Mansion." So I spent two unreal weeks in the Playboy Mansion and playing the club. It was a beautiful little club.


Kliph Nesteroff: How about playing the hungry i? There's the famous story of Woody Allen writing you a letter from there and telling you that San Francisco audiences were far from intellectual.

Dick Cavett: Yeah, he couldn't have been more correct. Some of them were nice. There's an anecdote in my book where I told an audience to get the hell out. What Lenny Bruce called Diesel Dykes. They stormed out when I kicked one of their cowboy boots off the stage where she had propped it up. They got to the door and I yelled, "No refunds!" She said, "We'll take the chance!" And that got the first laugh of the evening. That's what I remember about that place. And the fact that your check always bounced. Enrico Banducci was a wonderful character, but I had been warned that the check would bounce. Rollins and Joffee had him pay Woody Allen before his week began.


Kliph Nesteroff: Working for Carson - you were still working there when you were doing stand-up. But for whatever reason you could only get booked to do stand-up on The Merv Griffin Show... even though you were an employee of Carson...

Dick Cavett: True. Yes, that's interesting. Word came back, "You're not ready for the Tonight Show." I'm not sure who came to see me, but they may very well have been right. It was delightful doing Merv. He had the same skill Johnny did of knowing exactly when you were about to go for a laugh and to not step on it. A lot of hosts don't have that. It was great working with Johnny. He liked me so much and we got on so well on the air and off. His staff would say, "I wish you were on every week. He's so happy when you're on and he's a different man all day." I never totally understood all that, but I certainly liked it.


Kliph Nesteroff: Jack Rollins booked you as a stand-up on The Merv Griffin Show the first time, but then persuaded them to bring you on the panel instead of doing your act.

Dick Cavett: Yes, that was Jack's philosophy. He said, "Your stuff, lad, is best talked - not told standing up." He couldn't have been more correct. Sitting down - it is as if you're saying it for the first time rather than doing an act.


Kliph Nesteroff: You also played the Village Gate...

Dick Cavett: Yes, with Miriam Makeba. Those were wonderful audiences there. Everyone but Paul Colby just roared!

Kliph Nesteroff: What was the difference between a place like the Village Gate and the Bitter End?

Dick Cavett: I don't know. People said each club had its distinct audience, but I didn't see that. Each club had a great night some Saturday and a wretched night some Saturday and it didn't matter which club. Sometimes the audience got your indirect references and sometimes they didn't. There are good and bad audiences, I don't know if there are good and bad clubs.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about some of the other comedians around at that time? Did you get to see the young Richard Pryor?

Dick Cavett: Never. I only knew him from Merv, but he was around the Village at the time. Either we were on at the same time or in opposite parts of the Village. George Carlin I saw a couple times in the Village. One night at Jan Waldman's Upstairs at the Duplex we all sat around watching Joan Rivers. She had done the Tonight Show and we were all jealous. Before the show... out front... a sailor and his girlfriend were standing there. Sometimes Jan would put names out [on a sandwich board]. You could hear this guy say, "Who are these people? JoAnne Rivers? Rodney Daggers-feld? Dick Kuh-vet? Let's go somewhere else." Some nights no audience came and you had just wasted another subway token.


Kliph Nesteroff: What do you remember of Rodney Dangerfield in those days?

Dick Cavett: Always hilarious to me. Very helpful to other comics too. You know who is forgotten? Jackie Vernon. He was awfully funny.

Kliph Nesteroff: Steve Martin told me that he is also a big Jackie Vernon fan. You have said you don't feel Lenny Bruce deserves the deity status, but putting that aside - what did you think of his act at the time?


Dick Cavett: Lenny Bruce was an awfully good performer. I saw him at Carnegie Hall and again at the hungry i. He was better in San Francisco than Carnegie Hall. I'm not sure what caused the variations in his nights. He was likable. I spent some time with he and Peter Cook one night in New York and a night in San Francisco in the dressing room. I'm not an authority on him. I didn't see his profundities as profound as others did. Sahl on the other hand was pure gold.

Kliph Nesteroff: When Woody Allen came on the scene and praised Mort Sahl, Mort was completely dismissive of him.


Dick Cavett: That's the comic world for you. Well, they're great friends now. Mort and I exchange e-mails. When he was in New York this last time somebody said, "Are your really going to go see him? He's not well and it's not going to be very good." The two nights I introduced him and I guess in a way I thought, "Well, I'll laugh faithfully." God, he killed me he was so funny!


Kliph Nesteroff: You had a long association with Jack Paar and Johnny Carson, but never with Steve Allen. I was curious about your thoughts on him.

Dick Cavett: I liked Steve a lot. He was doing a radio show in New York and we did an hour or more and it was one of those where you speak over each other and you're having a great time. It was like I did with Mel Brooks on the HBO thing where everything is golden. Steve Allen and I just had such fun on the radio and I have no idea what either of us said. He was on several shows of mine, my summer shows.


Kliph Nesteroff: What do you remember of Joan Rivers back then? I had heard that she was perhaps the most ambitious of anyone in the Village.

Dick Cavett: Joan was determined to win. You knew she was going to. She was so damn smart and could assemble an act of rapid jokes. Her smarts and her ambition to make it were - don't force me to use the word - awesome.


Kliph Nesteroff: Your friend, the comedy writer Marshall Brickman, shared an office with Joan Rivers at Candid Camera.

Dick Cavett: That's right, I had forgotten that,

Kliph Nesteroff: The people that were working at Candid Camera - Marshall Brickman, Joan Rivers, Woody Allen - seems so incongruous.


Dick Cavett: A man that would be useful to you if he were alive is Tom O'Malley and his alcoholism. He was a keen student of comedy. A performer of it and a collector of it. But not like the boring people who collect all the comedy albums and aren't funny themselves. You surely know the way I cooked myself most with Paul Keyes. I was writing for Paar and wrote his introduction for Jayne Mansfield...

Kliph Nesteroff: Here they are... Jayne Mansfield.


Dick Cavett: Yeah. God, the aftermath in the NBC booth. Paul Keyes came by fuming. He saw me and said to Bob Howard, "Cavett had the line of the year, haha!" But it hurt him.


Kliph Nesteroff: Do you remember anything about forgotten late night talk show host Les Crane? He had the first late night talk show on ABC, a few years before you.

Dick Cavett: I remember the pretentious ad when that show started. It showed him holding a big mic that looked like a shotgun. I guess he used it for a while. An uneccesary prop. "Tonight - this man steps into an arena unprecedented in television" or something like that. It did no service to him.


Kliph Nesteroff: And Joey Bishop had the late night spot on ABC when Les Crane left the air, but before you got it.

Dick Cavett: I learned about his cancelation while sitting in a theater in London with the curtain about to raise. An American woman slapped me on the shoulder from the row behind and said, "Congratulations!" I said, "For what?" She said, "You're replacing Joey Bishop!" I thought the woman was drunk. It was true, but I didn't know.


Kliph Nesteroff: Was there a reason Joey Bishop went off the air that you know of?

Dick Cavett: I don't really know. I know he was broadly disliked by his employees, but that can still happen and a person stays on. I don't know. I hope you can find out. Joey's appearances with Jack Paar before that were stunningly good. Just great. Max Asnas at the Stage Delicatessen said, "Some comedians have a fast face and a slow mind. Joey has a slow face and a fast mind." It was true. He could be used in comedy classes for his impeccable talk show appearances. Bishop was really sharp. Anyway, thanks for introducing Paul Colby back into my life.


Kliph Nesteroff: I wasn't trying to stir up trouble, but he clearly has a grudge against you for some reason.

Dick Cavett: Yeah, I must have stepped on his corn or something. I'm actually looking him up on Wikipedia right now. It says he was a song plugger. Maybe he was sore about that incident when I had Benny Goodman on my show and his fly was open. I'll have to look into this.


The Mike Douglas Show with guests The Soul Brothers (1965)

Cute kids in Mod suits singing soul music was a mini-craze around this time. I've seen four or five acts like this now all from 1965-66.

The Mike Douglas Show with guests Leslie Gore, Catskill comedian Lee Berman and Totie Fields (1965)