Even if you never tuned in back then, you need only watch a few famous clips of Dick Cavett in action to understand why he earned the reputation of running the first major American talk show that qualified as “cool,” “smart,” or “hip.”
His operation showcased some of the most important elements of late-sixties and seventies America, those that the other talk shows tended to ignore, misrepresent, or simply misunderstand. Cavett himself embodied a sensibility, neither strictly frivolous nor strictly high-toned, that allowed him the widest possible cultural range.
“The idea that one man could be both playful and serious was never deemed to be quite natural on American television, and Cavett was regarded as something of a freak even at the time,” wrote critic and Cavett guest Clive James. “Eventually he paid the penalty for being sui generis in a medium that likes its categories to be clearly marked.” For an idea of what that position enabled, just watch Cavett’s musical guests: he had Frank Zappa, he had John Lennon, he had Janis Joplin for her final interview.
And then we have the “Woodstock episode.” Aired on August 16, 1969, the day after the festival, but taped mere hours after the last notes rang out in Bethel, it brought Cavett together with Jefferson Airplane, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Joni Mitchell (Jimi Hendrix, though scheduled to show up, played long at the festival and wound up too “zonked” to appear on television). Specifically, it brought them together on a strikingly elaborate, aggressively colorful one-off set that seated host and guests on a circle of what look like Naugahyde marshmallows.
Whatever the aesthetic transgressions of this broadcast’s design, they lead to more than one memorable moment in talk-show history, as when Cavett tears off in frustration the tacky scarf his staff insisted he tie on for the occasion.
Pull up the Woodstock episode on YouTube for the performances - Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning” and Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” featuring Crosby, to name two - but stay for the conversation, especially the part when Cavett responds to Grace Slick calling him “Jim” one time too many: “You’ve got to learn my name, Miss Joplin!”
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.