Speaking of the man as I was a moment ago, he's one of those performers I always thought was truly classy and bright in a real way…as opposed to the way some non-classy folks manage to come off well on TV thanks to judicious handling, TelePrompters and support from Writers Guild members. I only met Cavett once for about twenty seconds so there was no time to tell him a story about his old talk show that I don't imagine he knows.
It dawns on me that I have at least one steady reader of this blog who knows Mr. Cavett well. Steve, if you think he'd be interested, please e-mail him a link to this item…
In 1971, Dick Cavett was hosting his acclaimed late night program of conversation and comedy on ABC and there was an episode that never aired…one I'm sure he's sick of people bringing up but I will anyway. He had on a guest named J.I. Rodale who published books and magazines promoting healthy eating and exercise. Right after he finished his interview and while sitting there on stage alongside the next interviewee, Mr. Rodale had a sudden attack of (I suppose) irony and died.
Back then, the local ABC affiliate in Los Angeles ran a movie each weekday afternoon from 3 PM to 5 PM and it was followed by the local news. I was watching that day…and I seem to recall the film was "The Honeymoon Machine," which interested me only for the chance to gaze longingly on Paula Prentiss and to hope that Richard Benjamin would die soon making her a widow and therefore available. Hey, I was 19 at the time.
Every so often during one of the 94 commercial breaks per hour, we'd see a little ten second flash of a local newsman in his local newsroom teasing a headline that would be covered later on the local news. At one point, he breathlessly proclaimed, "Famous guest dies during taping of Dick Cavett Show. Details right here at 5 PM."
Just as I was being startled by that and wondering who the famous guest was, they cut to a network (as opposed to local) promo and an announcer said, "Tonight on The Dick Cavett Show, join Dick as he welcomes the legendary Jack Benny."
Snap assumption: Jack Benny died during the taping of The Dick Cavett Show! That's what everyone who was watching and paying attention must have immediately thought. (This took place, of course, three years before Mr. Benny actually did leave us.)
I immediately started thinking of all the aspects of this: Jack Benny had died! Jack Benny had died while performing on TV! Jack Benny had died in front of a live audience! Jack Benny had probably died while discussing his life with Dick Cavett!
That all lasted about twenty seconds…until I said to myself, "Self, if Jack Benny had died, that would be the headline. They wouldn't say 'famous guest.' Besides, when they use the term 'famous guest,' it usually means someone you never heard of!" I supposed (correctly) that the Cavett show on which someone had died would not be aired and that they'd selected a rerun to take its place…a rerun that happened to feature Jack Benny. And I wondered how many people watching KABC at that moment had jumped to the same initial assumption.
Less than a minute later, they cut away from a great shot of Paula Prentiss (the cads) to go back to that local newsguy in the local newsroom. Awkwardly, for they'd obviously decided not to wait for anyone to write it out for him, he said, "Uh, just to clarify, the guest who died at the taping of The Dick Cavett Show this afternoon in New York was —" he consulted some papers to get the name "— publisher J.I. Rodale. It was not Jack Benny. To repeat: It was not Jack Benny!"
Dick Cavett writes about his experiences as a celeb on what started life as The $10,000 Pyramid and escalated, as all amounts of money that are not your income seem to do, towards higher amounts. Mr. Cavett was a fine player of that game.
He apparently did not have to "audition" to be on it but at some point, some celebrities did. They'd had a few who had not done so well on-air to the point where the contestants (the "civilians," as Cavett calls them) really didn't have a prayer of winning the Big Money…and it's not good TV if they don't seem to have a chance. So an actor I knew had to prove he could play the game. He was a regular on a popular TV series but he had to go into the production office one Monday morning and ace a practice game they'd play there.
All weekend, he honed his Pyramiding skills and I was one of those who prepped him. The show had sent over a tape (I think it was Beta) of episodes to show how it was done and he went out and bought a copy of the home game only to find it didn't contain the bonus round (i.e., The Pyramid). It didn't have a trace of Dick Clark on its packaging either, which is just the kind of thing Dick Clark Productions would have done if they'd owned the show and had a host they didn't want to cut in on the product either.
So we practiced and practiced, which meant I had to write out Pyramid categories for him to list for the other friends he was playing against. And we watched the tape of episodes which all featured either Cavett or Tony Randall, who I guess were deemed to be superior players. Both had rapid minds when it came to inventing clues and both seemed to understand — as we were told some celebrity players didn't — that on a show like this, there was a time to be funny and there was a time to focus on helping your partner win what for them might be life-changing, pay-off-the-MasterCard money.
My TV star friend apparently could not master that last part. When he went in on Monday to play for the staff, he said something during the bonus round that got a tremendous laugh from everyone in the room…but he didn't win the money. When informed he'd done wrong, he argued that the laugh had not cost his partner the loot; that by that point, she was clearly not going to win the $10,000 or however much was on the line. True, the producers told him…but the home audience wouldn't see it that way. They'd consider it a tragedy that the contestant had lost…and here was this boorish TV star kidding around and not taking the game seriously.
"So I'm not going to be one of your celebrity players?" he asked.
"I'm sorry," the producer said. "But no."
The TV star thought for a half-second then asked, "In that case, could I come on as a contestant?"
Most PBS stations are debuting a new episode of American Masters this week — a portrait of Johnny Carson that is said to be more honest and unsanitized than most. I haven't seen it but of course will be watching.
In Los Angeles, it's on KOCE, Channel 50 on Monday, May 14 and then again on May 19 at Midnight. If in any town you're searching your DVR program guide and can't find it, try looking under "Johnny Carson: American Masters."
Bill Maher wrote a dead-on-target piece about Johnny Carson noting — and it's hard to believe it's been this long — the 20th anniversary of Johnny's retirement.
He is quite right about Carson being ruthless; about how Johnny wouldn't hesitate to cut off a guest he thought had worn out his or her worth to the show. I've made that point here before. Over at the official Carson website, they used to have an online database of guests who'd been on the show and the dates. You could look up any of a long list of guests Johnny once had on often — Tony Randall, Charles Nelson Reilly, Jaye P. Morgan, Charles Grodin, Robert Blake, Orson Bean and many others — and you'd see the person appear every week or two for months and months —
— and then suddenly, nothing. Johnny would just decide the guest was out of funny stories or the guest had gotten too familiar or something…and they'd be gone. No sentiment.
I also agree with Maher that Johnny wouldn't fare so well in today's competitive marketplace. I love Carson and think there'll never be anyone like him. But I still think he left when he did because he knew that his act was running out of steam and that if he didn't go out soon, he wouldn't go out on top.
CNBC is running a good one-hour special about Costco these days. It is, of course, the kind of thing Costco would love to have produced themselves as it glorifies the store and its operators and tells you just how wonderful every single thing is about it. This is the way CNBC covers anything that makes anyone any money. There is nothing wrong with anything that's profitable.
But there's also a lot of interesting info in the show, which is called The Costco Craze: Inside the Warehouse Giant. It runs tonight at 8 PM and 11 PM (all times Eastern), tomorrow at 3 AM, Monday night at 8 PM…oh, hell. Go see the airtimes on this page where there are also a lot of clips and extras.
Scott Marinoff, who sends me a lot of great things I post here, just sent this photo of an on-screen listing on his DVR, which is part of AT&T U-Verse. It was for today's episode of The Price is Right but for some reason, the U-Verse folks thought it would be hosted by Bill Cullen. Mr. Cullen was indeed the host of an earlier version of The Price is Right from 1956 to 1965 but he's not involved with the current show by that name. In fact, he hasn't hosted much of anything since he passed away in 1990.
I'm always curious about how these mistakes occur. There was a woman named Frances Kee Teller who appeared in one film in her lifetime — a 1952 documentary called Navajo. For some reason, the folks who compile the program listings on my TiVo used to put her name in many places where they mean to reference Teller, partner of Penn. Obviously, it's a computer error but it took them a long time to catch it.
I have many messages this morning arguing whether that's Zeppo playing Groucho in the Animal Crackers clip. This may well be one of those "we'll never know for sure" things and no one writing me seems to have anything more to go on except whether they think it sounds like Groucho or not. My view is, like I said, I think it's Zeppo but it wouldn't shock me if it was Groucho.
Buzz Dixon makes an interesting point to me in an e-mail. The transition on American Bandstand from kids dancing like they did when not on TV to kids performing for the camera may not have had that much to do with music videos. The kids on Bandstand probably picked that up from watching the teens who danced on Soul Train.
Dick Clark had what I guess was a mixed reaction to that syndicated series. You know how people will say something as a joke but you get the feeling the joke reflects something they really feel but don't want to admit? Dick would joke that Don Cornelius (host/creator of Soul Train) "stole everything from me including my initials." Dick didn't think he really owned the idea of a teen dance party show but he thought they were all sold by somebody saying, "Hey, let's imitate Dick Clark's show." I don't think what he was really sore at the imitators for, as he saw it, ripping him off. I think he was sore at himself for not thinking to market a black version of Bandstand before Soul Train came along.
One of the projects I did with Dick was a short-lived series for ABC that was kinda like Laugh-In but without the success. It was called The Half-Hour Comedy Hour, not to be confused with a couple of other shows with similar names…or the same one. Dick was the producer but he kept turning up in sketches, including one where Arsenio Hall played Don Cornelius. In it, Dick came on at the end and hit "Don" with a pie…and I recall him enjoying that a lot. An awful lot.
My friend Frank Buxton writes…
In 1963 I was the host of a daytime game show on ABC called Get The Message. Goodson-Todman had sold ABC on the idea of three back-to-back half-hour game shows to air in the morning Monday-to-Friday. I hosted the first half-hour, Dick Clark was the host of the show that occupied the second half-hour and Bill Cullen, the old reliable, hosted the third half-hour. I don't remember the names or formats of the other two but Get the Message was a pastiche of every game show Goodson-Todman had ever done, mostly Password. They lasted three cycles, 39 weeks.
As you mentioned, Clark would fly in and tape his week's worth of shows in two days and then fly back to L.A. I taped my week's worth of shows in two days, too, but I had a small apartment in New York ("The mice were hunchbacked.") and a lovely home in Northern New Hampshire. I never envied Dick his trip back to L.A. because my heart was in New Hampshire. At the same time I was hosting Discovery so I was visible on ABC many times a week and able to pay the rent and the mortgage.
Sidebar – Not mentioned in the references to American Bandstand was that in 1962 Discovery debuted, running every afternoon Monday through Friday, taking over the second half hour of American Bandstand on the network. I'm sure that Dick objected and I know that some Bandstand fans were unhappy but Discovery ran for nine years, which is not a bad run. I believe that a lot of the reasoning behind cutting Bandstand to a half-hour and airing Discovery had to do with pressure being brought to bear by the FCC for "better programs," whatever that meant.
Another sidebar – Just about everyone in our business has been fired, some of us several times. I was "replaced" as host of Get The Message in its last few weeks, ostensibly because I was not "that familiar a personality to the woman watching at home" and they needed someone who was. So I was replaced by Robert Q. Lewis. It's a story I relish telling but it depends upon knowing who Robert Q. Lewis was. The differences between us were extraordinary.
Yes…the people you worked with, Frank, liked you.
I believe the show Dick Clark hosted as part of that block was Missing Links and the one hosted by Bill Cullen was The Price is Right, which had gone on before the other two and which outlasted them.
As I understand it, Dick Clark taped a lot more than a week's worth of The $10,000 Pyramid when he flew back to New York for a weekend. I hear different tales and perhaps it changed over the years…but I think at one point he'd do ten episodes on Saturday, then five more on Sunday. So…three weeks of shows in a day and a half. I wonder how many hosts could do that at all, let alone not be loopy by the last shows of the first day.
I was a big Discovery fan but never quite got the appeal of Bandstand so I didn't mind the displacement. We had a fellow out in L.A. named Lloyd Thaxton who did a similar, local show (similar to Bandstand) and did it much better…in part because it was local. He talked about events in Los Angeles and places in Los Angeles and the kids who danced on the show were from local schools. And Thaxton got into the spirit of fun, doing lip-sync routines and donning costumes. Dick Clark, even when he was a young man, always came across like an adult with a slightly patronizing attitude towards the teenagers who danced on his show and a "don't muss my hair" arrogance. But I liked him on other things.
I remember an interesting comment he made once to me about how Bandstand had evolved. He said that before around 1980, the kids who came on to dance would — for the most part — just dance the way they danced at parties. After music videos came into being and especially after MTV went on in '81, almost all the kids danced for the camera and some came on with elaborate, practiced routines. That's when I really thought it seemed phony.
Bennett Wong writes…
I read with great interest your account of Groucho's visit to the set of Welcome Back, Kotter. I see that Robert Hegyes, who played Epstein on the series and who passed away recently, told the story on his website but his account differed in many details. Would you care to comment?
Sure. As politely as I can, I'll state that I stand behind my version and I'll wager that others who were there that night will back me up. Bobby Hegyes was a great guy and a fine performer but he got this one wrong, especially the part where he has Groucho insisting he wants to do the scene.
Elsewhere on his site, writing about the Marxes, Bobby said that Chico and Groucho sometimes exchanged roles when performing on Broadway. Not so. He also says that Zeppo was named because he used Zippo lighters. The first Zippo lighter came out in 1933 and Zeppo had been Zeppo for more than a decade by then, including in the first few Marx Brothers movies. Zeppo told several different versions of how his name was coined but that was not among them.
This article lists five ways in which Dick Clark revolutionized the TV business. It does not include "Paying Mark Evanier low money."
Incidentally, a lot of pieces that have appeared about Dick in the last 24 hours have said or implied that his production company was responsible for The $10,000 Pyramid and its successors, the The $25,000 Pyramid and The $100,000 Pyramid and so on. I don't think so. I believe those were all done by Bob Stewart's company and Dick was just a hired hand on them, albeit (I'm sure) a well-compensated hand. He was a very good host for that show and it's interesting that they selected him since when it first went on, it was taped in New York and Dick was living in Los Angeles. He commuted to Manhattan and as I recall, it was something like this: He'd fly into N.Y. Friday night, stay over, tape shows all day Saturday, stay over, tape shows for much of the day Sunday then head for the airport to go home. He'd do that about half the weekends of the year and usually tape American Bandstand on the other weekends. You'd think, "Gee, they should have been able to find some New York-based personality to host Pyramid who would have been just as good as Dick Clark." But apparently not.
Someone who signs his name "G.E." and is presumably not General Electric, writes about Craig Ferguson getting a bigger studio…
I agree the larger space never made a TV show better. But I think it's to prep him for taking over at 11:30 when Dave retires in 2014 (he'll be 67). So if network TV still exists in its current form in 2014, I think you're looking at Craig Ferguson vs. Jimmy Fallon at 11:30. The networks may or may not decide to keep programming the 12:30 hour. And Dave and Jay will have disappeared as suddenly as Rather, Jennings, and Brokaw.
I may be wrong but I don't see either Ferguson or Fallon as inevitable at 11:30. Some people act like there's some grand tradition in late night of the 12:30 host moving up an hour when the 11:30 guy departs. That's happened exactly once and it was a disaster.
Ferguson reportedly has a contract that guarantees him 11:30 on CBS if Letterman drops dead or something. I find it hard to believe that the network would commit to him in that time slot far in the future. One of the key things that went wrong in the Jay/Conan substitution was that NBC projected that during the five years before Conan took over, Leno's ratings at 11:30 would atrophy and Conan's at 12:30 would remain high. Then the opposite happened.
Do we think CBS is prepared to risk making the same mistake? They may well have Ferguson in mind to succeed Dave but I somehow think they'll leave other avenues open. Maybe Craig has a deal to move into that slot but the contract has a lot of ifs and escapes in case, say, his ratings drop just when Jon Stewart is suddenly a free agent.
When Dave Letterman will retire is a decision that will probably be made wholly by Dave Letterman and it wouldn't surprise me if he didn't know when that might be…or if he decides, then changes his mind, then decides, then changes his mind, etc. The answer may hinge on him answering the question, "What do you do with the rest of your life after you give up doing the only thing you ever wanted to do?" A lot of folks close to Mr. Carson thought it was not good for him to, in effect, have nothing to do all day once he gave up The Tonight Show.
Even if that wasn't really the case with Johnny, I'm inclined to think Letterman won't make that mistake. Is he ready to abandon his little family (staff) and the audiences in New York and retire to that ranch in Montana? His entire career, Dave's shown close to zero interest in appearing on anyone else's program. He'll do Oprah or he went on with Regis a few times in exchange for them visiting him…but even there, I think the formula was that Regis had to do Dave's show 25 times to get one return appearance from Dave. If Letterman finds some other way to remain active, he might set an abdication date. Or if the show starts to plunge and he feels he's despoiling his legacy and/or looking like a has-been who doesn't know when get off the stage, he might retire. I don't know about the former but I don't see the latter happening in the next two or three years.
I also don't see Leno leaving that soon. Then again, his network seems to like to get rid of him when he's in first place so anything can happen. My guess is Fallon would only be one option to take over for him and some pretty high-powered names would also be in contention. Could NBC possibly be thinking of moving their 12:30 guy to 11:30? I mean, we saw how well that worked just three years ago.
This article says that David Letterman and Craig Ferguson have signed new contracts to remain at CBS "through 2014." I'm not sure what that means in terms of actual expiration dates but I'll be surprised if both don't extend again after that.
The piece sounds like a slightly-paraphrased CBS press release, noting that Dave is now poised to break Johnny Carson's record as the longest-serving late night host. I'm curious if he's already broken it in terms of hours served. What with guest hosts and more reruns, Johnny worked fewer nights per year than Dave does…though for many years, Johnny's show was a lot longer.
The reporter also compares the number of Emmy Awards that each has received. Dave's won more though there may be a reason. One of the rarely-mentioned aspects of the Emmy Awards is that the rules get rewritten every year and often, they're rewritten at the urging (nicer word than "threats") of powerful folks in the industry. Mr. Carson started doing The Tonight Show in 1962. Guess what year the series won its first Emmy. It wasn't until 1976.
Johnny's show first competed in a category called "Outstanding Program Achievement in the Field of Variety" which put Tonight in up against things like The Danny Kaye Show and The Carol Burnett Show. Some years, I believe they were competing with the Academy Awards. Anyway, they lost repeatedly. At some point, Johnny became irked by that so he made a bit of a fuss or perhaps had NBC make one on his behalf. In response, a new category suddenly appeared: "Outstanding Variety Series – Talk." This did not solve Johnny's problem because he kept being beaten in it by Dick Cavett or David Frost. Then about the time their shows went off the air, the category was eliminated and Johnny went back to competing with Carol Burnett and the Oscars and didn't win then, either.
Finally, in 1976, Johnny went public with his feeling that the Emmys were configured to prevent his show from ever winning one. He brought it up in a press interview and even talked about it one night on his program, causing the Emmy folks to scramble and get him one. He and the show received a special Emmy in that year, the next year, the year after, the year after and the year after. Then he didn't get one again for twelve more years…until the year he went off. A very odd pattern.
Two other things in the article jumped out at me. Here's one…
Ferguson's "Late, Late Show" has charted its own late-night course since its debut in 2005, with the Scottish-born host frequently tearing up the accepted format by rearranging the order of the show, having themed episodes and delivering unscripted monologues.
"Rearranging the order of the show?" What does that mean? Ferguson starts with a cold opening but so do Dave, Jay and Jimmy Kimmel on occasion. Then it's always monologue, comedy bit at the desk, Guest #1, Guest #2 and Musical Act. Same format as most of them. "Themed episodes?" I think he's done two or three plus he took the show to France the way Dave and Jay have taken their shows to other cities, though not lately. And "Unscripted monologues?" Ferguson works looser and improvises more than the other guys but he has a writing staff that writes jokes for him and most of what he says is prepared in advance.
Also, I winced at the line that said that Craig will be moving to a larger studio. Has that ever helped a show? I thought one of the reasons Conan O'Brien's Tonight Show didn't work as well as his later-night program was that his new studio made it feel like the band was in the next county and the audience was in another time zone. Ferguson's show has a nice, intimate feel and he works close to the camera anyway. If it ain't broke…
Gary Dunaier wants to know…
What's the deal with the box of Kellogg's Corn Flakes in the corner of the picture of Davy Jones that you ran in your blog? (The weird thing is that I remember, back in the day, seeing an image of a box of Kellogg's Puffa Puffa Rice cereal in the corner during the closing credits of an episode of The Monkees.)
Back in the fifties and sixties, most TV shows had direct sponsorship. Chevrolet sponsored Bonanza and Kellogg's sponsored The Beverly Hillbillies and so on. In some cases, it changed from season to season on a multi-season show or two sponsors would split a show or an ad agency would contract for a show on behalf of several companies it represented and would rotate their sponsorship.
Eventually, networks decided it was in their best interest to not let the sponsors and ad agencies have that much control of programming so they got rid of, for the most part, situations where one sponsor was responsible for a show. Now, sponsors buy individual spots throughout many shows.
When that was the practice, it was not uncommon for the sponsor to have its product displayed throughout the credits like that. If you watch a rerun today of The Dick Van Dyke Show, you'll see the end credits formatted to allow a space at bottom left that's usually filled with a picture of Dick. When those credits first aired, there was a pack of Kent cigarettes there. So the box of corn flakes on Davy Jones's credit indicates that the screen shot was made from a print of The Monkees that was made up when Kellogg's was the sponsor.
Every year, the Internet seems to erupt with the sentiment that we've just seen the worst Academy Awards ceremony ever. I'm never sure what folks are expecting.
It's an awards show. 70% of it is giving awards and most of that is stuff like Best Cinematographer which is never going to be entertaining no matter how it's staged or scripted. I'm not saying those folks don't deserve their place in the spotlight because they do. In fact, there's a sense in which those are most important awards since they're the life-changers. Meryl Streep's third Oscar is not going to enhance her clout or the respect she receives. It may not even make her any more "in demand." But that unknown guy up there thanking everyone for some tech award…you may well be looking at the best moment of his life and the one that alters things for the better.
Some years, because of what's out there and what's nominated and what wins, the awards aren't all that exciting and there's nothing the telecast's producers can do to change things. When you look back at the truly memorable moments of these shows, most of them are things that were beyond the producers' control — someone crying, someone saying something outrageous, someone doing one-handed push-ups. Not stuff that can be controlled.
As for the entertainment-type elements, I thought the Christopher Guest piece was funny but not much else was. What the whole show needed was something unpredictable. I love Billy Crystal but I think I love him less as an Oscar host than in any other role he fills…and less and less each time he does it. The man had lost his capacity in that job to surprise. Did anyone not know we were going to get the opening montage with him in all the current movies? The opening medley of song parodies? The plug for his next movie disguised as a joke about plugging his next movie? Him doing Sammy Davis? And all those little remarks that flow from the premise that the most important thing about the event was that he was back hosting it again? This year, it felt like an impersonator doing Billy Crystal.
He was a great host in the past. If he does it again — and I bet he will, though maybe not for a few more years — he needs to offer us something we haven't seen before and we care about. Because depending on how the nominators nominate and how the voters vote, it can be a pretty hard show to drag across the finish line.