BEFORE there was Jay, Arsenio, and Dennis, there was Johnny, Merv, and Dick.
Merv Griffin long ago left the late-night talk show scene; Johnny Carson's retirement in May was a media mega-event. But the third player from the early 1970s, when television was still dominated by the three networks, continues to ply his trade.
"It's a nice, quiet corner," says Dick Cavett, impish smile in place, of his talk show on CNBC (10:30 p.m. EDT on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday), a consumer-oriented cable network owned by NBC. Available in a modest, if respectable, 40 million cable households, his half-hour show has the simplest of formats: a conversation between Cavett and his guest (or guests). There is no monologue, no house band, no visiting rock act strutting in a stagey haze as cameras zoom wildly in and out.
Talking with Cavett, here at the Monitor offices, is like trying to pull the leash on a strong-willed hound who's interested in just about everything. When you think you've got him talking on your subject, you realize he's mind-shifted two or three gears away.
A question about his love of conversation reminds him of his childhood listening to his parents and their friends talk after dinner back in Grand Island, Neb.; of his wife's Southern roots and the fading art of conversation in the South; of novelist Eudora Welty reading her own works aloud; of the scandalous state of American education; of Mark Twain's sendup of James Fenimore Cooper ("Twain says there are 19 rules to writing fiction and Cooper violates 18 of them"); of how the masters of great written h umor (Benchley, Thurber, Kaufman) are better enjoyed when read silently than aloud.
Let a lull intrude on the conversation, and Cavett, an amateur magician, asks "Have you seen a card stick to the ceiling before?" He grabs a business card from the table, shouts "Do you believe in miracles?" and thrusts his arm upward, suddenly making the card disappear, then reappear, in his hand.
Ask him the obvious question - what he makes of the end of the Johnny Carson era and the fragmented late-night-talk TV landscape at hand - and he gives a quiet, thoughtful answer, as though you were the first to ask. "You could write volumes about the last two Carson shows," he says. "There was so much going on psychologically - and in every other way.... I was very sad to see him go; very sentimental. So was he. I think he surprised himself." Carson must have been thinking, Cavett says, "I won't be here
anymore; it's where I have my best times."
Cavett is an unabashed fan of Carson's successor, Jay Leno, but he still finds a few nits to pick. "Jay should find a posture that does not lean forward, which seems a little too urgent for late night.... He should get an actor-oriented director.... He looks like he wants to get back up and do more monologue."
Noting a disparity between Arsenio Hall's feel-good on-camera demeanor, including his softball questioning of guests, and his sometimes stinging off-camera quotes (about Jay Leno, for example), Cavett says Hall "might want to narrow the distance between his two personalities."
Yale-educated, known for moving among New York's literati, Cavett has forever been living down a reputation as too intellectual to be successful as a TV personality. But his recent guest lineup has more entertainers like Roseanne Barr, Robert Stack, and Saturday Night Live's Phil Hartman than high-brow guests like author Gore Vidal or Shakespearean actor Ian McKellen.
Doing only a half-hour show three nights a week, instead of an hour or more five nights, has its disadvantages, says Cavett. He's too apt to choose only guests he likes, to not take chances on guests, or to overprepare.
"Generally, I'm best if I'm thrown on without any preparation," he says.
Years ago, when The Tonight Show was still in New York, the Carson staff found Cavett eating at Sardi's and asked if he could substitute for Carson, who was ill. The show was to begin in an hour. "It was the most liberated I ever was," Cavett recalls. "No one could blame me. I didn't even know who the guests were. I just walked over [there], and it was fine."
After years on the air, Cavett says, "I still don't have the remotest idea what's the best way to do a talk show. I've done good shows where I've hated the guest [beforehand] and turned out to like them; or vice versa; or when I prepared over or under.... There doesn't seem to be any rule."
He concedes "you can't always just wing it." If the guest has a complicated political story to tell, he says, you want to make sure he outlines it for you, he gets the steps in the right order, and he "doesn't tell the last part first."
But "if you've got a comic, it's more important to be in a good mood yourself than to do three days of research."
Talkmeisters Geraldo Rivera, Phil Donahue, and Oprah Winfrey, among others, have made a ratings success out of subjects that are often bizarre or risque. Though Cavett doesn't rule out any subject matter automatically ("I think it's how you do it"), he says he's "amazed at the relentless appetite for what are essentially replays of the same old stuff over and over. Finally, we've run out of sexual aberrations, at least in number, so that you [find these shows] recycle them."
One thing he tries not to do is be predictable. "I think everybody gets tired when your bring [on] Mr. Black and Mr. White, Mr. This and Mr. That, Mr. Pro This and Ms. Anti-That." Part of his desire for asking fresh questions is "to keep me awake. I don't want to always ask, `Why did you call your book "Green Apples"?' And they've got a set answer."
Then he adds, in low, mock-serious tones: "I like when the ice gets thin, the going gets rough, the guests get edgy."