Tomorrow night, PBS premieres a wonderful new documentary called Dick Cavett’s Watergate, which takes a look at the Watergate scandal and its effects on Richard Nixon’s presidency through the prism of The Dick Cavett Show. During this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour, I was fortunate enough to chat with Cavett about the documentary, which you can read right here, but the conversation continued for a few more minutes beyond the piece that appears on Bullz-Eye.
It felt unnecessary to include this bit, as it’s really just idle small talk, but as this is my site and tends to be frequented almost exclusively by people who know me and appreciate the excitement I still get from talking to pop culture figures even this far into my career, I figured you’re just the sort of people who’d appreciate it. Of course, that means you probably already know the Ving Rhames story I tell him, but on the other hand, you can also imagine how much my heart soared when Cavett delivered his closing line.
Me: I know you’ve got an appointment to keep, but I’m glad I got a chance to talk to you.
Dick Cavett: Well, you make it painless!
You know, I took a very long time to figure out what in journalism I actually had a flair for, and I finally figured out about five years ago that it might be interviewing, so I’ve done my best to try and hone that. I may not be perfect at it, but in addition to reading interviews done by other journalists, I’ve also watched plenty of your shows, and I’m also a big fan of Craig Ferguson. When he’s on task and talking with someone who really interests him, I think he’s unparalleled.
Oh, his consistency is stunning. And thank you for not asking the one question where I want to pull a gun out every time I can hear it coming, and somehow I always hear it in the voice of a teenage junior-high journalist: [In a mocking tone.] “Who’s been your most interesting guest?” Oh, God…
Well, as an interviewer myself, I ‘m always more interested in someone’s worst interview, which is why I went that direction.
Well, yeah, that’s where the money is!
When you told your story, I immediately thought of a comedian who gave me little more than “yep,” “nope,” and “I dunno” consistently throughout the interview.
That’s when I say, “Do you think that you have any obligation to hold up your end of this encounter?” And then another thing you can do to them at that point – and suppose his name is Jim Wilson –is ask, “Do you think you could be a little more helpful, uh…Jim, is it?”
I’ve used that cruel trick on two people I really hated. And I learned it from Walter Matthau, who was embarrassed about coming on my show one night to receive an award for the movie Kotch. They had a plaque, and we had to stop the show and stand up as a boring man in a suit came out and made a speech about how valuable he was to the movie, how much the studio admired him, and so on. And Walter… [Picks up a glass.] I’ll use this as my prop. Walter takes the plaque and says, “Well, that’s very handsome. And I must say, I’m proud to have been part of…Kotch, is it?”
The worst interview I’ve ever had to deal with was Ving Rhames, whose work I love. It was for a film that was straight to DVD, which was fine, except that the studio hadn’t gotten screeners yet, so I couldn’t watch it…and yet they were still setting up interviews anyway.
So we had a couple of good minutes, and then I very casually said, “Well, of course, I haven’t been able to see the film yet, but I was curious about…” “What do you mean, you haven’t seen the film yet?” “Well, I mean that it wasn’t made available to me.” “As a journalist, don’t you feel that it’s your responsibility to see the film before talking to somebody?” And then he said, “Stanislavsky says…”
[Starts laughing.] What did Stanislavsky say about doing an interview with someone who hasn’t seen your movie?
Well, what Ving Rhames said was, “Stanislavsky said, ‘If you do not take your work seriously, I will refuse to work with you.’”
[At this point, Cavett begins to mime the act of using a crank to raise his middle finger.]
So I said, “And then the interview was over? I hope not.” And he said, “No, because I’m a professional.”
Yeah, a real trouper! [Snorts.] Sanctimonious whore.
So, of course, it was all terse responses from that point on, and then within a few minutes, he just said, “Well, look, I’ve got to go, other people to talk to,” and that was it. With 10 minutes left of our scheduled interview time.
Well, you know, Jack Paar was very opposed to the word “interview.” He called me before I began my show and said, “Look, kid, don’t do any interviews.” I said, “Well, what do you want me to do? Sing? Dance?” He said, “No, no, no. Make it a conversation. An interview is a Q&A. ‘What’s your favorite something?’ It’s David Frost with his horrible clipboard and his jetlag. Just throw away all your notes. As the show’s going along, make it a conversation.” That’s what Jack did. That’s what makes the difference. And this didn’t feel like I was interviewed. This felt like a conversation.