SF Sketchfest Review: A Tribute to Dick Cavett: 50th Anniversary of the Dick Cavett Show, 1/12/18

by Dakin Hardwick on January 14, 2018

All Photos by Tommy Lau

I’m going to make a very bold statement: If Dick Cavett never existed, late night television would be unrecognizable. As a writer and a talent coordinator of the original Tonight Show with Jack Paar, he helped shape the structure of the show, and stayed on for a bit as Johnny Carson took over. He continued to work on The Jerry Lewis Show before getting the opportunity to host his own talk show, The Dick Cavett Show, which lasted in some iteration from 1968 ‘til 1996, then back again from 2006-2007, bouncing between networks and time slots, but still keeping the same basic premise of edgy humor and probing interviews.

Tonight was a little bit different for Cavett. Tonight, Cavett became the subject of the interview, not the conductor. Tonight was special. And the person taking on the role of Cavett for the task in interviewing Cavett? Mr. John Hodgman.

Hodgman came out and gave a brief history of Cavett’s career, and then brought out the legend himself, Dick Cavett. Cavett, always the dapper dresser, moonwalked on stage wearing a black suit and black turtleneck. Yes, the 81-year-old legend of media moonwalked in front of a packed theater. Cavett and Hodgman then sat down for a chat, much in the format of Cavett’s chat show. Cavett told the audience the first thing Paar told him about a successful interview: “Don’t ever interview anyone. Have a conversation with them.” Excellent advice that Hodgman did a fair job keeping up with, although he was visibly star struck. A few times Hodgman lost focus and simply fawned over the legend sitting next to him, although he caught himself nicely, and managed to play off his fawning with humor before digging deeper into getting to know Cavett.

They shared many stories, although my favorite was about Katherine Hepburn’s visit to The Dick Cavett Show. She was the only guest to request a visit to the set a few days ahead of the interview before committing to it. Cavett was nervous that she would decline, so he ended up stealthily filming her visit. She rearranged the furniture, made workers adjust various different things, and then simply instructed Cavett to “just do the interview today.” So, not quite prepared, he proceeded to sit down and film an interview. Throughout the interview, various different employees of the studio trickled in, and by the end of the interview, he had a full studio audience, and the viewing public were none the wiser.

Dave Hill was the second guest of the evening, which led to a little more fawning, and a fun gag where Cavett would pay more attention to Hill than Hodgman, leading Hodgman to be “grumpy” about “Dad liking Dave more.” It was a fun little chat where Hill discussed how Cavett influenced his career, and how surreal it was that they became friends. They also discussed anagrams, which Cavett is a “master” of. The first time Hill learned this was when Cavett said, on TV, that “Spiro Agnew means Grow A Penis.” Cavett then said that he still enjoys a good anagram, like “you know a shithole is his hotel.” (So good!)

Then we had a surprise guest. One that I did not believe was even possible. And, even after he was announced, I didn’t believe it. But, slowly from the side of the stage, 90-year-old comedy legend Mort Sahl came out and sat in for the rest of the interview. The pair told stories of working together at legendary North Beach comedy club, the hungry i. Sahl encouraged Cavett to pursue stand up, and to not be afraid to discuss politics. He also had one of the funniest lines of the night: “When performing and writing, I always thought it was important to treat the American people like they are smarter than we give them credit for being. This is something that I continued to believe up until last year.”

Seriously… This might be the coolest group of dudes you could ever hang out with.

The final segment of the night was a 12-minute video that was a compilation of clips from a TV show that Hodgman and Cavett taped five years ago with filmmaker Lance Bangs and The Mountain Goats. This was an interview show in which they took over a room in the Chateau Marmont. It was loose and fun, just like vintage Cavett. And it will never get distribution because apparently the person that signed off on filming the show didn’t actually have the ability to approve it. So, sadly, it may never see the light of day. It looked fun and funny, and featured interviews with legends like Mel Brooks, as well as modern day comics like Kristen Schaal and musicians like Ben Gibbard. I’m sorry you won’t get to see it.

In the end, this was a fun and highly educational evening. I learned a lot about the history of TV and media. I learned that Bette Davis lost her virginity at 26. I learned that Mort Sahl isn’t only still alive, but still active and as sharp as ever. And, yes, I learned that you can still moonwalk at 81. Age is meaningless.

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