The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Dick Cavett

Dick Cavett steps out of the elevator, hangs a right, and strolls into the lobby of the Beverly Hilton, a man on a mission: to participate in the promotion of a PBS documentary which premieres on August 8 at 9 PM EST/PST: Dick Cavett’s Watergate, an examination of the Watergate scandal and its effects on Richard Nixon’s presidency that’s structured around archival clips from Cavett’s late night talk show.

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After introducing himself, Cavett can’t resist making an observation about the familiarity of his surroundings: “You know, this is the same lobby where I stood when I was out here for two weeks auditioning to be a writer on The Jack Paar Show.” As has been the case for Cavett on more than few occasions during the course of his half-century (and then some) in the TV business, this observation proves to be only the first sentence of an anecdote.

“I came into the hotel one night and I heard singing,” continued Cavett, glancing and vaguely gesturing at the entrance to a nearby ballroom. “I opened a big door, and Judy Garland was onstage. The lights came on, and there were George Burns, Jack Benny, Edward G. Robinson, Barbara Stanwyck, Kirk Douglas, and about a hundred more. It was a huge charity thing. You couldn’t see any face that you didn’t know!”

With this brief recollection, Cavett immediately confirms that at least one of his lines during his memorable appearance on The Simpsons was absolutely spot-on: he really does have some wonderful stories about famous people that involve him in some way.

Who came up with the idea of viewing the Watergate scandal through the prism of your show?

You know, I think (executive producer Robert S.) Bader did. I’m almost certain he did. Yeah, he’s the one who’s most up on tapes that I had and stuff like that, so I don’t think it could’ve been anyone else. He just went through the stuff. I think initially he looked at 350 Cavett shows to make the (Shout Factory) DVDs, and then he just finally had to stop looking at them and start making them! But I was stunned to find how much stuff we have. It’s going to be a strain to make it only an hour. There’s so much good stuff. That’s a luxury, because there are so many shows that are a strain to make even an hour.

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The Light from the TV Shows: David Steinberg Gets “Inside Comedy” on Showtime

David Steinberg began his career in comedy with Chicago’s Second City, quickly gaining fame as a stand-up through his appearances on “The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson” while also courting controversy by performing comedic “sermons” on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” In 1981, Steinberg began to shift his focus from performing to directing, starting with the Burt Reynolds film “Paternity,” and has gone on to become one of the more prolific sitcom directors in the business, but he recently stepped back in front of the camera to host the new Showtime series, Inside Comedy,” which airs Thursdays at 11 PM. Steinberg spoke with Bullz-Eye about his new gig, detailing the trials and tribulations of securing classic clips to accompany his interviews, while also discussing some of his past efforts as an actor, director, and stand-up comedian.

[NOTE: All photos appear courtesy of TheDavidSteinberg.com.]

Bullz-Eye: This is certainly not your first time hosting a show where you interview comedians: you also brought us Sit Down Comedy with David Steinberg. Not that there isn’t still plenty of material yet to mine, but what inspired you to take another crack at it?

David Steinberg: I felt that I hadn’t really done it the way I wanted to. That’s why we first started this as a film. Starting it as a film was really good, because then you get so much material, and it’s sort of looser or whatever. And then I settled on this notion of putting two people together and how they connect, but not in any specific ways. They just go together by what they’re talking about. And once I arrived at that, I thought, “This is gonna be good!” [Laughs.] Of course, making it that good…it was time consuming, but it was great, great fun. I worked with some incredible editors, and there was a lot of archival stuff that we talk about that…well, they know that they’re talking to another comedian. That’s the bottom line. And then, archivally, I didn’t just do the clichéd version. I handpicked the clips that I wanted and then begged people to let me use them. [Laughs.] Archival stuff takes so long to get people to sign off on.

BE: Was there anything you wanted to use that, even with all of your pleading, you still couldn’t get?

DS: Yeah, for Jonathan Winters, I had a clip of him in an old Dean Martin roast where he’s roasting (Ronald) Reagan, and in it there’s a wide shot where you could see Dean Martin, Reagan, (Don) Rickles, Phyllis Diller, and… [Sighs.] You know, it’s generally not the original inheritors of the celebrity estates that are the problem. It’s the grandchildren, who don’t even know or understand what it means to be celebrating Jonathan Winters. They asked for so much money everywhere that we couldn’t use it. I ended up having to go with just a tight shot of Jonathan instead. So, y’know, just stuff like that drove me nuts. For the most part, though, I got everything I wanted. Some were just so exorbitant that I just couldn’t do it. But I’m happy with it.

BE: Speaking of Jonathan Winters on Showtime, he also appeared on The Green Room with Paul Provenza not so terribly long ago. It’s great to see people as yourself and Paul continuing to give him the props he deserves.

DS: That’s right, yeah. I will say that the younger comedians tend to look after the older ones. Richard Lewis goes out to Santa Barbara and spends time with him, and Sarah Silverman has done that with Phyllis Diller. It’s very interesting, the comedy community. It’s more surprising and tight-knit than you would imagine.

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