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The Dick Cavett Show – Comic Legends (A TV on DVD Review)

Updated: Dec 15, 2021

The Dick Cavett Show  - Comic Legends

The Dick Cavett Show – Comic Legends

The Dick Cavett Show

Comic Legends (Shout! Factory-2006)

Everybody loves Dick, and these comic legends are not above getting hep to the times and letting it all hang out. Bob Hope, for instance, laments that he hasn’t taken the time to read more books. And a weary Lucille Ball, when asked about the Women’s Liberation movement, admits, “I’ve been liberated beyond endurance. I would like somebody to lean on, myself.”

Bill Cosby calls his master’s/doctoral program “a groovy thing.” Carol Burnett gives us the first of a million retellings of her ugly childhood/alcoholic parents/movie-going grandmother stories. And a woman sporting a huge Afro in the studio audience asks Jerry Lewis if he believes in astrology.

However, it’s an old-biddy audience member who asks the question we all want to know: “How do I get tickets to The Merv Griffin Show?”

It’s all part of the hodgepodge that is The Dick Cavett Show: Comic Legends (Shout Factory). Sure, we get major kibitzing and now-unfunny laughs from Back-In-The-Day funny people, like Mel Brooks, Jerry Lewis, Bill Cosby and Jack Benny, but there are some added bonuses, since we are presented with complete and unedited programs.

For instance, don’t miss the young, hippified stars of the artsy flick Zabriskie Point (Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin). He’s surly and confrontational to the point of uneasiness, and she finally gets a chance to get a word in edgewise and then forgets what she was going to say. Regarding his take on the film he is supposed to be promoting, Frechette tells Cavett, “save your money.”

The studio audience, however, is the biggest bonus of all. Since they are new to candid talk of sex on late-night television, they ride the giggly wave of every double entendre and naughty reference (a daring audience member asks Woody Allen, “How does it feel to be perverted?” This was not a delicate word in 1969.).  As well, viewers on both The Left and The Right respond to an earlier (not seen here) broadcast of phony Joaney Baez making rude comments about America. And the forever name-dropping Cavett mentions that he had interviewed Joe Namath just the other day (in 1969, this actually meant something).

Other bonuses include Jerry Lewis saying the word “maaaavelous,” as if he was doing Martin Short doing Jerry Lewis. The brilliant Tommy Smothers admits, “I don’t care who I step on on the way down,” while Cavett ponders about Smothers, “People are going to wonder if you are really as dense as you seem.”

Back in the late sixties and early seventies, ABC was high on Dick Cavett. They did everything they could to get him going, including both a morning show aimed at housewives and a late-night show geared toward hip intellectuals. However, the network wimped out time and time again, leaving Cavett often unemployed. This gave him more ammunition for his flop-sweaty rant about low ratings and impending cancellations (this shtick is what made him his own comic legend).

Yet, once all this flying dust settled, a few treasures shone through. We watch, for instance, as Groucho Marx goes from bad to badder as he reaches his twilight. This era is the pinnacle of Marx-Brothers mania (their old films – suddenly considered hip – are shown to standing-room-only crowds on college campuses). A cinch to grab ratings, Cavett trots Groucho out every chance he gets, where the legend sings his tiresome ditties and talks about the old “pictures,” including A Day at the Soy-cus.

We cringe as we learn that Groucho has no idea how a talk show is supposed to operate (and this from a man who hosted You Bet Your Life for years): he doesn’t let Truman Capote or Jim Fowler get a word in edge-wise as he sucks all the air out of the room and insists on being the center of attention for every televised moment (he suggests to Capote that he should get married so to save on taxes).

What is remarkable, though, is that Groucho has a few things to say about modern times. In 1969, he laments, “I don’t belong in this world, really.” By that, he means the world of hippies, rock music and color television. He announces that he walked out of the Broadway musical, Hair (he was dragged to it by Tommy Smothers). By 1971, he thinks that “doity” movies have seen their day and that “we’re gonna go back to clean comedy.” Poor, optimistic son of a bitch.

“Doity” movies are a huge topic of conversation during this era, and Cavett introduces us to Dr. Aaron Stern, who is responsible for the new, desperate ratings system (X, G, R and “GP”). Mel Brooks, promoting his flop, The Twelve Chairs, and Rex Reed, predicting that Midnight Cowboy should but never will win the Oscar (which it did), gang up on Dr. Stern. Reed insists that if a twelve-year-old heroin junkie in the Bronx wants to see Woodstock, he should have every right to do so. No, you’re not dreaming – the drifting cigarette smoke just makes you think that you are.

It’s odd to see Woody Allen back in the day as well, when he was not too good to be making desperate talk-show appearances to promote his upcoming (“funny”) films, like Take The Money and Run and Bananas. Cavett introduces him with this bon mot: “The Ten-Best-Dressed List just came out and he was edged out by the rest of the country.” How curious, since the casual clothing Woody is wearing wouldn’t raise an eyebrow today (he says unapologetically that he buys all his clothes at the Army/Navy store – this is taken as a revelation).

Allen talks up his upcoming CBS special (“an hour of horny comedy”), which, on another Cavett appearance two years later, he remembers as being very low-rated. His 1971 stint gives us some uncomfortable insight into the man we would grow to know too well. On commenting on the pretty young girls in Cavett’s audience and that maybe he should spend more time on Cavett’s set, he comments lustfully, “If I hang out here it means I have to leave the schoolyard.” He also says, “I’m always shocked over the prudery over sex.”

Bob Hope, a childhood idol of Cavett’s, grants an audience, which is actually a low-key visit. He keeps away from any controversial topics and instead talks about the old “pictures,” or which President plays the best golf. He promotes his latest film, Cancel My Reservation, which looks lame, and brags that Mark Spitz will make an appearance on his next TV special. He also admits, “I am wealthy, but nothing like the magazines say. Crosby is the one who has the money.” And, in an age before political correctness, he muses easily, “Jack Benny has gone to England with his walk since they declared homosexuality legal.”

Also low key and deliberately unfunny is Lucille Ball. She claims — to our incredible disbelief — that her current husband, Gary Morton, had actually no idea who she was when he met her. This is because he was always working the stand-up comedy clubs when her show was on the air (Gary Morton is the Polydent set’s answer to Yoko Ono, who also claimed that she had no idea who John Lennon was when she met him!).

Lucy’s plugging her starring role in the film version of Mame, which will flop, and she comments on the then-scandalous news that her son, Desi Arnaz, Jr., is dating the much-much older Liza Minelli (“yes, it bothers me,” Lucy says frankly). We also learn more than we want to know about the boyhood of Dick Cavett, who, upon seeing Ball in the old film, Roman Scandals, was completely turned on by her playing a slave girl.  File that under “Too Much Information.”

Disappointing is Carol Burnett, who, like always, is never as funny in person as she is in character. She sings “A Fine Romance” with Cavett, which is meant for laughs but turns out to be tedious. And why do both Lucille Ball and Carol come out on stage carrying their purses?

More disappointment comes in the form of Mel Brooks, who insists on performing his tiresome 2,000-Year-Old Man routine whether you want it or not. And Bill Cosby lets loose with his trademarked stream-of-consciousness rant on everything from his childhood in Philadelphia to Amos and Andy, school busing and Spiro Agnew (Jack Benny says of the Cos, “I didn’t understand one word he said, and I loved it!”).

Most disappointing of all may be Jerry Lewis, who does speak of his obsessive adulation by the French but neglects to show us a clip of his Holocaust film, The Day the Clown Cried, which was never released.  And we get a younger old George Burns, telling jokes and making us restless with little ditties from the days of vaudeville. Burns needs to age another 20 or 30  years before we’ll give him a pass, though.

Cavett also shows us a clip of his acting appearance on a 1971 ABC western called Alias Smith and Jones. He seems to be a bit vain about it, but he’s not bad, and considering his TV track record, maybe he should have stuck with the fiction.

However, Dick delivers. If you’ve got a soft spot for the clowns who laugh on the outside but cry on the inside, you’ll be semi-satisfied here.

Ronald Sklar

Copyright ©2006 All rights reserved. Posted: February 21, 2006.

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