Dick Cavett On The Ever-Evolving Art Of Longform Conversation


Dick Cavett has spoken with or about every major figure of the last fifty years in his career as a (now retired) talk show host, writer, and ever-present wit. But in his latest endeavor, Cavett is focusing on a fictional presidency, putting his voice to good use as the narrator in Billy Crystal and Quinton Peeples’ star-studded (featuring Crystal, Kevin Kline, Annette Benning, and others) stage-play-turned-audio-play, Have A Nice Day. The story, which you can now download on Audible, centers around a President as he deals with his dysfunctional family and the fact that the Angel of Death has sent someone for him.

We spoke with Cavett recently about the play, the magic of radio, his mastery of longform interviews, and whether he thinks anyone will long for the chaos of the Trump era when it’s all said and done.

What lured you into this Have a Nice Day production?

The fact that [Billy] Crystal was doing it. I thought that was about the best recommendation you can get. Let’s get out of the way, right away, that Billy Crystal has an arsenal of talent. Just a genius. But, please don’t tell him I said anything like that because he blushes.

I’ll leave that part out.

Do as you please, do as you please.

The role of the narrator was added specifically because this was going to be recorded. Were you always who they envisioned in that part?

Quinton Peeples [who co-wrote the play with Crystal] told me the history of it and how it came about and how it was supposed to be a movie before somebody nixed that. He, rather than accept defeat, turned it into a very playable, funny evening in the theater… or matinee. And it was at the old historic Minetta Lane Theater in the Village with many ghosts in it and it played so well. I didn’t realize how funny it was until we first had an audience. There are lots and lots of good and funny lines. That wonderful feeling of having things you didn’t realize are that funny until they’re spoken in front of an audience is always fun. Especially if you’re the one getting the laugh.

I can imagine. It’s interesting, too, that they’re carrying it over to Audible to share that and broaden access to the theater and bring audiences to that without actually transporting them there physically. Was that also part of the appeal of doing this?

What a wonderful thing, my God. It’s very strange, about radio… most people know the feeling but haven’t really thought about it; the fact that radio hits you deeper than picture, or as we call it, television. I was speaking of it with a fellow named Bob Hope about this one time, and I said, “Don’t you find that you can picture things you heard on the radio quite clearly? He said, “How about that?” He said, “I knew what the Fresh Air Taxi Company looked like from Amos N’ Andy before I saw it on television and it was all wrong.” You make or force your way to imagine or picture something in your mind when you only hear sound even as simply as to say there’s a “delivery man at the door.” You can’t help picturing some delivery man. As, Woody Allen said one time, “Radio hits you deeper and you get great, strong, emotional drama on radio.” As history goes by, it will be agreed upon that radio was a better medium than television.

When I was a kid, I preferred listening to baseball on the radio. I still do, to an extent. I definitely agree with you. Just the sound… especially now with everything popping up around you.

Uh huh.

Just to sit in a room and focus on just the sound is a very appealing thing and it definitely helps to, kind of, transport you.

It’s interesting, isn’t it? It’s kind of magical, in a way.

It is. I read an article that The New York Times did on you where you mentioned the possibility of starting a podcast. Is that something you’re still looking into?

I’ve talked to people who don’t enjoy doing their podcast but, to me, they seem like a very good idea. I had the fun of being on other people’s podcasts and there’s something enviable about it, for sure. I went on Gilbert Gottfried’s podcast very early in the run of his podcast, which I assume is still there. We had a hilarious time and people keep telling me about it. But I’ve never heard it. So, maybe when we hang up I’ll run it.

Podcasts really are a lovely continuation of the kind of stuff that you did on television where it allows for some space and a long-form conversation. It’s not like a five-minute snapshot of a conversation where someone is just trying to plug something. It allows people to be storytellers. Is that the kind of podcast you would do? One where it would be more interview-based storytelling?

I’m sure it would. It took me a while to realize that it’s much easier to do 90 minutes with somebody than to do an hour only with somebody. [Laughs] Not that I did one-man shows, only, but somehow you can relax and the fact that you know you’ve got a lot of time seems to encourage more talk. Unless you get a dunce or a fool. Like [Nixon Vice President] Spiro Agnew.

I have not seen that one. I was watching the Jimmy Hoffa episode this morning, which I’d never seen before, and it was really interesting how you just jumped right in and the first question was about if he would have been able to stand being in prison for life.

The variety of types of people I’ve had on… Someone from another country will ask what kind of guests I had on. I always try to include my murderers to show them that I had a great variety of guests. Jeffrey R. MacDonald, for example, who’s still in, where? Not Sing Sing, I think. That was a strange show and it generated a book and two or three movie or television versions of the MacDonald case and the reopening of it and all sorts of things. So, television can certainly have an effect.


It’s unfortunate that a lot of shows don’t still follow that path. We don’t see as many debates. We see opposing views presented on TV but everyone is screaming. Was there a way to engineer the result to where people actually had conversations?

I always tried to avoid the planned sides type of show where you have Mister For and Mister Against, Miss Cursing and Mister Accepting The Curses. That, to me, is too obvious. People always tell me, “No one does what you did,” and I don’t really know what they mean. Except if you ask them to elaborate, they’ll say something like, “Well, it seems like everyone’s on for seven minutes now.” And you know what they mean by that, of course. But, seven minutes can be great.

I think it’s the focus, not necessarily the amount of time. People are unwilling to take their time to get to their point. It’s also very important to people that they have that mugging moment where they shine and get attention. Everything is performative in late night. There are no easy going conversations.

I got tired of, before I was on television… “Watch the fireworks tonight when we get so and so on whatever matter against so and so who’s for it.” You can predict the big moment, you don’t have to watch it. But I always liked when the ice got thin, anyway. The first time I actually did it was with Timothy Leary, the Harvard professor who was a big pro-drug and hallucination man and gave the motto that said, “Tune in, turn on, and drop out” is what youth should do in society. This would have been 1968, I think, my very first show. Maybe my very first week. And I really didn’t know quite what to do in that situation but after a while I had enough of him and I just said, “You know, I really think you’re full of crap.” Probably the biggest applause I ever had [from the] studio audience. [Laughs] So, you can have controversy and two sides without having another guest there.

Awkwardness is a great tool, and a lot of people edit that out or try to avoid it, but it can develop some really interesting moments in a conversation.

Yeah, an uneasy guest will often deliver something nobody expected, even the guest. I used to have people afterward say, when the show had ended and they were leaving, “I don’t know how you got me to say that,” or, “I don’t know why I said that. I never would have said that anywhere else.” I think, after saying thank you, I guess. I had been a talk show guest before. I had been on Carson, I came up with Merv and I had worked for Johnny and Jack Parr. So, I knew what it feels like to be a guest and the things to do and not to do which shaved a lot of learning time when I was doing it myself. I knew what it felt like to be in that chair and have someone skillfully finish the sentence for you that you can’t quite finish yourself that would make people say, “I don’t know how you got me to say that. Hope my mother isn’t watching,” or whatever. “My former wife. I hope I’m not in legal trouble.” It’s a dangerous talent, I think, on my part. [Laughs]

It is and I feel like someone who has a similar gift for that is Howard Stern. He can make people feel awkward but also at ease and gets those kinds of results where people say things to him that they don’t say to other people.

Oh, Howard is a genius at that sort of thing. I haven’t been on his show in a long time but I’ve always admired his talent.

You were on Slate’s Slow Burn podcast and you mentioned that you missed elements of Watergate and that parts of it were fun. We’re in a moment now that’s somewhat similar. Do you think people are going to look back at this and miss the circus-like atmosphere?

There are people who say, “You’ve gotta hand it to Trump. He’s certainly made it interesting.” Which, of course, automatically brings to mind the old Chinese saying, “Do not have the ill luck to live in interesting times.” I never made that connection until now. That’s my present to you. [Laughs]

Oh, why thank you.

I wonder what the after-feeling will be of all of this when he has passed into non-daily exposure to us. Can’t imagine a lot of people saying, “Don’t you long for the good old days of Trump?” I’ve had the luck to be just right in the timing of my life to have, the day of or the next day after the coaxial cable came through my hometown in Nebraska was the opening day of the Army-McCarthy hearings. That’s the first time in our lives where everybody sat around the television all day and you didn’t wanna break for lunch. And then to get Watergate. As Gore Vidal said on one of my shows, “You woke up during that and you had to have your Watergate fix every day or you couldn’t go on” and that was true.

Every minute, every hour now it’s the Trump Twitter fix.

Yeah, what will happen next?

You can download ‘Have A Nice Day’ on Audible here.