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Watching Dick Cavett, watching a master

March 16, 2014 - Zach Baker
John Lennon is asked about a comment he made in an interview where he said he'd like to be forgotten.

Lennon, who at this point only is about a year removed from the Beatles, doesn't dismiss the remark.

So Dick Cavett pounces, albeit in a somewhat shy, conversational way.

"But you talked about performing again," he says, wryly. "You won't be forgotten if you do that." (I'm paraphrasing here).

Lennon then says he gives so many interviews, he can't even remember what he says. He somewhat implies that he's sometimes making things up as he goes in interviews.

Then Cavett asks a question so easily, it stuns me.

"So are you doing that now?"

Lennon seems a little surprised. He says he doesn't understand.

And we take a commercial break.

Years ago, in my high school days, I'd have been hanging on Lennon's every word. I was enamored with him. Had this aired on VH1 in, say, 1997, I'd have thought Lennon was being brilliant here, speaking hard truths, and not caring about the consequences.

But now, Lennon doesn't have my attention.

Dick Cavett does.

My job entails interviews. Many of them.

Coaches, players, administrators, and so on.

And honestly, I've always believed interviewing isn't my best point. There are reasons for this. After a game, questions have to be asked quickly. In writing, there are few re-takes, few second chances. You get an answer. You may want your subject to expound on it. But there also are so many things to get to. You may ask about a play at the end of the game, but you also need to know about what happened just before the half. So you accept an answer and move to the next point.

It'd be easy to say Cavett had some advantages. A full hour with big name guests.

But imagine if your guests are John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

Both have projects to plug. John really doesn't seem to want to talk about the Beatles.

But there's so much to get to. The duo's political activism. Yoko's role in breaking up the band. The reality that rock stars keep dropping dead of drug overdoses.

And then there's Lennon's ability to say so much in interviews, some of which seemingly contradicts other things he's said.

Cavett hits on all of this with all the intensity of a soft jazz performer. In the process, Lennon reveals the most important point: That he says a lot of things and it's hard to remember what he says, or if he believes what he says.

And yet, the interview is friendly, if at times uncomfortable.

Lennon seems annoyed at times, especially when Cavett goes to commercial breaks. Ono -- whom I've long been an admirer of -- comes across as the more likable of the two. It seems Cavett takes a liking to her as well, something Lennon takes notice of.

Or maybe I'm overanalyzing a show from 40 years ago.

Cavett impresses me because of his attention. He asks questions and listens to the answers, then draws out the points. That sounds simple. But it's hard when you have four more things you want to ask. It's the Dick Cavett Show, but the show is as much about his guests as it is about him. But, a former standup, Cavett neither directs nor disappears. Lennon and Ono don't take over the show. They are part of it.

I'm not sure there's a show today like that. I've seen David Letterman try to give serious interviews, but it doesn't work the way this does. Jay Leno could ask the tough question (just ask Hugh Grant), but the formats always play to humor.

Piers Morgan's show tried to find Cavett's style, but Morgan always seemed more interested in himself than his guests. Same for when I've watched Bill O'Reilly.

But Cavett -- in this show-- did what I like as a viewer, and what I hope to someday find as an interviewer.

 
 

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