20 March 2016 | Miles-10
Nostalgia Made Fresh Again
I have seen this show two ways. 1) I watched it when I was a teen and young man in the 1960s and 1970s. 2) Recently I watched it on hulu. (I swear I have seen some of the same episodes both then and recently.) The current format might puzzle younger viewers. The available episodes are not in real-time order but are, instead, a "best of" collection. And the collection includes both the early ABC version as well as the later PBS Cavett show. (Actually, before there was the late show version, Cavett had a day-time talk show, and I used to ditch school in order to watch it, but don't tell my parents!)
Good selections, here, from the original guests. So far, I have watched interviews with musicians Janis Joplin (two episodes, one where she appeared on the same stage with silent film star Gloria Swanson), Joni Mitchell, David Crosby, and Grace Slick (I don't think any American talk show of that era had more rock musicians on it than Cavett's did.); actor/comedian Bill Cosby, writer Eudora Welty (from the PBS period), director Alfred Hitchcock; politicians Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Edmund Muskie, and a debate on the Vietnam War between future Secretary of State John Kerry and John O'Neill from 1971. (I can understand why O'Neill's name is not given any outward billing, but it seems weird that his name is even edited out of the announcer's introduction within the episode. He, BTW, was involved in the "Swift Boat" campaign against Kerry in 2004 when Kerry ran for president.)
Those were different times, and these episodes of the Dick Cavett Show do capture, to an extent, what the '60s and '70s felt like. Those who did not live through it, though, might end up scratching their heads over some of the customs in that foreign country, The Past. Yet some things are caught in their beginning stages. Political correctness was just getting under way, but some things that would be considered insensitive now were still not back then. There are some topical references that made me think, "Oh, I had forgotten that, now I remember, that is funny, but if you had to explain it somebody now, it wouldn't be funny anymore."
George Bush the Elder - who was then the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. - gave a then-topical interview about the expulsion of Taiwan from the U.N. (1971), which is a now forgotten chapter. You can just detect from that episode the appearance of resentment by other U.N. members toward the U.S. In the subsequent interview with now-forgotten-but-then-major Democratic Party figure Ed Muskie, you can see the inchoate willingness of Democrats to try to be understanding toward such resentments. Not that Bush did not try to be philosophical about the anti-American attitude he faced, but he put his complaint in the mouth of a fellow ambassador, who, he said, had voted against the U.S. but told Bush that he felt the party atmosphere that had followed the vote to oust Taiwan was rather unseemly.
A strange moment came when an improve group called The Committee did a piece with Cavett and Janis Joplin incorporated into their ensemble and asked the audience to suggest an emotion for each actor to portray. Nobody in the audience seemed to know what an emotion is. When the director pointed to one actor and asked the audience for suggestions, someone yelled out "Queer!" To which the director responded, "Again," - because previous suggestions had not been emotions, either - "that is more of a lifestyle than an emotion," and the actor in question nodded toward the audience member and said, "You and I can get together and discuss it later." It is hard to imagine any of that happening in the same way today, but it was all part of the 1960s anything-goes milieu.
The same ensemble company did a set piece that was daring then and, I suspect, would be considered too daring to perform today, for fear that someone would be offended: A white actor pretended to be an oppressed black man while a black actor pretended to be a racist white man. I found the skit funny, insightful and uncomfortable. All good things, I think.
Another blast from the past is the weird operation of the now-defunct U.S. Fairness Doctrine, which seemed to get invoked sometimes by accident. Broadcasters were required by law to give equal time to opposing points of view. The downside was that it was easier to avoid any point of view in the first place so that the company did not have to allow free air time to the opposition. To his credit, Cavett took the risk of tackling issues, but sometimes the Fairness Doctrine fallout mystified even him, as when he had controversial contraceptive advocate Bill Baird on his show, and subsequently discovered that because Baird was running for a seat on a local city council in New York, Cavett was forced to give free air time to two of Baird's opponents in the election.
I recommend this series to anyone who wants to be enriched and entertained at the same time. That this show is also a history lesson - albeit an often inscrutable one - is an added virtue.