Monday, February 16, 2009

What TV Was/Could Be

Following up somewhat on that clip of Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer slugging it out on the Dick Cavett Show, I thought I'd share Cavett's visit with the great Mel Brooks as well:

I was born well into the Reagan Era, so I don't remember a time when American talk shows had this kind of panache. It's astonishing to think that once upon a time there existed a show where interesting, talented people could have long, meandering, witty, intelligent conversations on TV, with no salesmanly hysteria or contrived, predictable banter ("So tell us about your movie").

You have to love Dick Cavett's deadpan, sly but laughing demeanour. It's nearly impossible to find that kind of relaxed but warm insouciance on TV these days. To be a successful TV talk show host, it seems, one has to be snarky but glad-handing: you have to poke fun at all the scapegoat-idols of the culture ("Hey how about that Paris Hilton? Man she really must not like prison!"), but you must never penetrate too deeply into the culture; the audience has to feel that they're in the joke at all times.

Cavett is a highly engaging host, intellectual and funny, and he doesn't give a damn whether the audience is in on the joke or not. In his book Cultural Amnesia Clive James says something about how Dick Cavett's mixing of the frivolous and the serious was something unique in American cultural life. His combination of cultivation and comedy (why should they even be separated?) is something you don't see often in American culture. For whatever reason, we prefer our artists (including our talk show hosts) to specialize in one or the other. And we're especially alarmed by serious cultural or political matters being expressed light-heartedly.

We're the poorer for it.

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