Why, I Oughta . . . and I Did
By DICK CAVETT
Dick Cavett on his career in show business, and more.
“I’ve never seen you lose your temper.”
I’ve been told this, but it’s not entirely accurate.
An inherited nasty temper has only flared on the air a few times, but much more frequently in “real life.” So far I have managed to escape having my salient features re-arranged. (A thing worth considering in this regard is how frequently friends and neighbors of those who commit hideous murders observe, “I never once saw him angry.”)
One of those odd memory jogs that release a long-buried incident has happened.
The advent of the book “Cavett” (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973; perennially available on eBay) brought with it that mixed blessing known as the book tour. You go around the country flogging your tome on local book-chat shows, both radio and television, doing press interviews and signing copies for fans in bookstores. Lucky authors get to do the late-night network shows. I got to do “Johnny.”
Although the tour sells books, some authors are just not up to the ordeal and stay home. For those submitting to the thing, it’s a chance for house-bound authors to see some of their country. Downside-wise, you endure constant travel from town to town on plane after plane, endlessly answering the same questions. Like, “Why did you write this book?”
And you get to learn a few things about publishers. Like the fact that all of them have mastered the trick of failing to get the books into the towns you visit and the bookstores where you were supposed to sign them.
One big store had received several hundred copies of Lawrence Welk’s book instead of mine. I signed about 50 of them (“Dick Cavett, from Nebraska just like Lawrence”) and left.
The experiences with local radio and TV hosts are often delightful, sometimes less so.
Even when you’re doing it, it’s hard to keep track of what town you’re in due to jet-lag, sleep deprivation, lousy and hasty food and too much coffee, so after all this time I can’t remember for sure where what’s coming happened. Detroit? Minneapolis? Beaver Crossing, Neb.? Take your pick.
Let’s call my TV host, wherever it was, “Raymond.” Adjusting to the varied personalities of the hosts was part of the limited fun. Usually.
Up to that point in the tour I had been treated, in the main, with adoration bordering on worship. I guess the fates decided to provide me with a little contrast.
Raymond sported an aggressively loud green plaid jacket and matching tie, not exactly in perfect tune with the hip threads of the ’70s. Also, thick glasses that magnified beady eyes and a wig that said bargain basement. And, possibly, “Buy One, Get One Free.”
Technically, Raymond’s tonsorial deception was a hairpiece, delta-shaped, disconcertingly thick and devoid of the merest hint of verisimilitude. I had to work to keep my eyes off it. It reminded me of an artifact from earlier times, when I trudged about Manhattan clutching the out-of-work actor’s bible, “Casting News.” An ever-present ad went, as I recall, something like, “Balding? Get More Jobs With THE TAYLOR TOPPER.”
Our studio session began fairly neutrally. Then Raymond shifted gears.
His technique seemed to be “soften ‘em up a while and then start with the slip punches.” It became clear that the best compliment one could pay him would be, “Hey, man, you’re not afraid to play rough with the celebs!”
The softening period ended. Here is how I remember the darkening atmosphere of our time together proceeded.
“Why does it bother you so much that you’re so short?”
I’m not freakishly short. I had, on my show, used shortness as a joke subject; it didn’t really bother me. But somehow I was unable to say these things just then.
Then came — and he always began with “Why?” — “Why do you think going to Yale has made you smarter than other people?”
I didn’t, but said so feebly. Accumulated fatigue had made me feel I’d been injected with some kind of weakening fluid. I felt uncharacteristically defenseless.
To make things worse, I could see a nice lady sitting nearby, looking at me with pity. And, curiously, she looked like my beloved Aunt Esther, thinking, “Poor Dickie.”
Don’t most people, maybe especially men, hate to be seen as pitiable? I did, then, but seemed to have come without my gun belt. There was a kind of emasculation effect. I was getting the distinct feeling that I could have sung counter-tenor.
There are two ways to handle such situations. Either pummel back with your wits (but mine had fled) or remain nice to make him look awful. Sadly, that one — with much to recommend it — seems not to be part of my nature. And aggressive wit was unaccountably unavailable.
His next “Why?”: “Why did someone on your staff say in the Time magazine cover story on you that you’re a prima donna? Are you? Why would they say that?” I mumbled something.
“Why do you think you’re as good as Carson? The ratings don’t seem to think so.”
Somehow, that functioned as the dromedary’s back-breaking straw. I awoke.
“Raymond, is it? ‘Why’ seems to be your favorite word. May I do one?”
“Why do you wear a rug that looks like a wedge of blueberry pie sitting on top of your head?”
It’s rare to hear, from inside a studio, laughter and cheering coming through the supposedly soundproof glass of the control room. Raymond heard it, too. “Aunt Esther” clapped. The mike boom man nearly fell to the floor. From how he looked at that point, Raymond’s blood pressure had surely hit perilous.
A kind of creamy, mirthless grin spread only partway across his mouth and he seemed to be struggling for air. I decided not to add, “Here’s another ‘why’: Why don’t you finish the show yourself?”
What I did say was, “I’m glad I was able to bring some pleasure to your co-workers,” added “Good day,” and headed for a nap.
I never learned how Raymond filled the remaining minutes. I would almost rather have a recording of this than just about anything I ever did on television. If you, out there somewhere, by some miracle, recorded it — and back then it would have been on reel-to-reel — let me know. I’ll trade you something for it.
Oh, one other thing: your opinion. Should I feel guilty for what I did?