DVD Review: The Dick Cavett Show: Inside the Minds of… Vols. 1 & 2

STUDIO: S’more/MVD | DIRECTOR: Various | CAST: Dick Cavett, Robin Williams, Bobcat Goldthwait, Richard Lewis, George Carlin, Steve Martin, Martin Mull
RELEASE DATE: 1/22/19 | PRICE:DVD (Vol. 1) DVD (Vol. 2)
SPECS: NR | 128 min. (Vol. 1); 92 min. (Vol. 2| TV Interview | 1.37:1 fullscreen | mono

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio  | Video | Overall

The more time passes, the more it is apparent that Dick Cavett was arguably the best late-night interviewer ever. However, he wasn’t always slotted in the late evening hours — he in fact spent five years doing a dinner-time PBS interview show (1977-82) and another seven at different times on the then-burgeoning CNBC network (1989-96).

New collections of Cavett’s various shows are being issued by S’more Entertainment in themed collections. The most entertaining release is this two-volume (thus far) set of Cavett’s interviews with comedians. This is invaluable for folks who have no access to the DECADES network, which is now running Cavett episodes (and isn’t available on the major cable carrier in NYC, among other locations). The two volumes offer a collection of talks with the most influential comedians of the Eighties and Nineties.

Only two PBS shows are included in these collections, in the first volume of this set. These are the very notable episodes in which the suddenly-mega-famous Robin Williams guested, in May 1979, and abandoned the interview format to instead do improv with the audience (with Dick as his straight man).

The hour with Williams is revelatory because he turns his boundless energy on and off, and seems to truly be ducking the serious interview Cavett is conducting with him to go on comic flights of fancy — many of which seem spontaneous but were indeed honed lines and pieces of material he did on other talk shows and in his concerts. Cavett is aware of this, and at one point directly asks him, “Is there anything I could throw at you that would stop you?”

The comedy is funny and inspired, but the serious moments are what really hit hard. Cavett asks Williams to talk about that most magic of show business gifts, “acceptance” that turns a longtime performer into a sudden star who can cut the line anywhere they go. Williams seems tired when he talks seriously, but he is also quite level-headed about his fame, talking about how ephemeral it is, and how it could disappear at any time.

The other three episodes included on the Vol. 1 disc are a mixed bag. An interview with Richard Lewis finds Cavett on familiar ground, discussing the art of comedy (and psychotherapy) in a polite and joke-filled manner. Chats with the more rambunctious Gilbert Gottfried and Bobcat Goldthwait (in episodes that originally aired on CNBC in 1990 and ’92, respectively) find Cavett playing straight man to a style of comedy he doesn’t seem comfortable with. Both the Gilbert and Bobcat shows have very small studio audiences, which turns them into open-ended affairs, and both comedians stay in character throughout. Goldthwait even acknowledges this fact by telling Cavett in his strangulated stage voice, “Everything about me is a lie… I don’t talk like this!”

Volume 2 contains the kind of interviews that made Cavett famous: intelligent, thoughtful discussions that also contain jokes and wordplay. The first two episodes (again, from 1990 and ’92) are smart, free-flowing interviews with George Carlin who, in each case, is on the show to promote his new HBO special. He gets into more familiar topics with Dick pretty quickly: drugs, the notion of “obscenity” and George’s favorite theme, “language used to obscure meaning rather than convey it.”

In both shows Carlin reflects on the “soft period” he had when his act was mostly observational in tone, focusing on daily anomalies and random weirdness. A more important note — and a timely one, for the current era — is struck when Cavett introduces the notion of p.c. language. Carlin’s response is that he not only abhors the concept but he wouldn’t use the phrase, since it was conceived by right-wingers to describe left-wing behavior.

Prefiguring more recent comments from Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, Carlin also notes his dissatisfaction (in 1992) with college audiences who had formerly comprised a large part of his following. When Cavett inquires as to what had changed, Carlin addresses the shift, declaring that college kids are “unworldly” and “can’t keep up on certain things, and [they are] not willing to take risks on certain ideas.”

The next interview on the disc is a discussion conducted with Steve Martin in a hotel room (the interview is pegged to the release of Martin’s film Leap of Faith). Martin is a predictably articulate guest, who discusses his early years in comedy and the acceptance he got in later years (that he felt led to “unearned” laughs). He and Cavett have a shared passion for magic, and so the highlights of the chat find Dick giving away some secrets of old magicians.

The last episode on the disc is a perfect example of Cavett at his best as an interviewer. Speaking with the supremely underrated musical comedian Martin Mull, Dick addresses Mull’s real passion, painting. One wonders why Cavett’s CNBC technical crew didn’t insert a single image of Mull’s art during the 20-minute chat; the episode aired in 1995, though, and one gets the sense from watching the discs in sequence that the Cavett show on that network had a smaller and smaller budget with each passing year.

What other interviewer would have gotten Mull to talk about what makes a good art teacher, which painters had good tips for beginners (Dali, Matisse and Picasso are quoted), and how one attempts to render realistic perspective in a drawing? One hopes that there will be future volumes in this series, and other releases collecting Cavett’s legendary encounters with authors and masters of cinema.

For the time being, these two volumes were released in tandem with ‘And that’s the way it is…’: Great Newscasters of the 20th Century. The two-disc set includes interviews with six famous newsmen and women and encompasses four Cavett “eras”: ABC late-night, PBS, the USA Network, and CNBC.

Buy or Rent The Dick Cavett Show: Inside the Minds of… Vol. 1 & Vol. 2
on DVD (Vol. 2) – DVD (Vol. 1)

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”