Inevitably, this post falls down into the crevice between television history and YouTube recommendation. Such are the times, and the best I can offer in defense is that there is gold to be found in the archives for those inclined to dig and sift.
Indeed, a time really did exist when highly intelligent, even intellectual persons with broad interests, deep curiosity and brilliant wit hosted talk shows. There weren’t a lot of them but there were several.
This is meant in no way to diminish the entertainment ability of current television talk hosts, only to say, these were a different animal, and alas, confined to a moment in time.
It wasn’t just the intellectualism of the hosts, it was the subject matter into which they delved, and the kinds of guests they exposed to a larger public.
Dick Cavett, in three different television talk shows spanning a period from the late sixties through the early eighties was the most brilliant and multi-faceted of these. His comfortable, masterful felicity with current events, politics, music and the theatrical arts was unparalleled then, and remains so.
Famously, for the bookish set, he moderated the dart toss that ensued between literary celebs Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, with Cavett and New Yorker writer Janet Flanner peanut gallery and participants both. The fact that public intellectuals and important authors would appear on a late night television show on a broadcast network to discuss something other than products newly on the market or consumer preferences is, in comparison to today’s environment, a shocking and disconcerting thing indeed.
More than once, Cavett sat with Janis Joplin, spent an hour and a half talking with Lennon, talked to Hendrix, and the biggest names appearing at Woodstock fresh from their appearances there. Creative process, the direction of music, and the culture surrounding the Ur-music festival were the subjects covered, not album promotion or chat over renovated mansions (though I imagine they had them by then, or shortly would have. But it wasn’t something worth discussing).
Anyone conversant with today’s chirpy, promotional, ingratiating sound bite interviews with members of the famous acting set would fail to recognize the kind of interview Cavett engaged legend Marlon Brando in, Brando thoughtful, ruminative and articulate, Cavett more than holding his own as always. Woody Allen’s Cavett appearance, Kathryn Hepburn’s, Groucho Marx’s, are deservedly classic television. And there are countless others. That Cavett presented such conversations on television on a nightly basis is still a marvel, and was in fact, all but a miracle.
Richard Burton sat for three nights in a row on Cavett’s PBS show in the eighties, perhaps the most engaging raconteur I have ever encountered anywhere, Cavett, in no small way responsible for eliciting such remarkable storytelling. Author William Styron’s description of how it is to write, and the “obduracy of the language” was true and memorable. It’s hard to imagine anyone other than erudite and literate conversationalist Cavett conducting such a televised colloquy.
David Susskind was a stranger bird. A press agent, a talent agent and a producer before he ventured into talking late at night on television, he was in fact a pioneer. His audience wasn’t as broad as Cavett’s, his show only syndicated. But he brought feisty, intelligent debate about the controversies of the day to television when no such thing existed anywhere.
Respected and reviled, ogre and wit John Simon, the legendary film critic, a stranger bird than Susskind by a long stretch, memorably held forth of an evening on the Susskind show. When Vietnam was argued, the fighters were heavyweights. You knew in advance: there will be blood. But it wasn’t talking points, it wasn’t hackneyed, nor was it pundit hackery, and it wasn’t Crossfire. Susskind was urbane, and his urbanity seemed to shame his guests, if nothing else into aspiring likewise.
But even more than Cavett perhaps, the syrupy-voiced Susskind liked to delve, and he did so with public intellectuals (a mostly extinct species now) academics, artists of every stripe, politicians, and carny acts, whose flavorful idiosyncrasies he reliably managed to draw forth.
And then there’s Buckley. William F. was famously elitist, famously the brainiest promoter of a new post-war conservatism, arch reactionary founder of the arch reactionary National Review. But his television salon Firing Line was extraordinary.
As with the previously mentioned hosts, Buckley specialized in a rarefied kind of guest, the kind seldom, if ever seen on television. To watch a drunken, buffoonish Jack Kerouac, Village poet, Fug, and publisher Ed Sanders and an academic from the hinterlands discuss what the hippies were, and what it all meant with William F. Buckley was as a good a ninety minutes of television as you’re likely to ever get.
Buckley wasn’t your millennial-era reactionary, a loudmouth with banally grating talking points firing away from behind a rock. Rush Limbaugh, for all his airwave bravado, remains scared to venture beyond his microphone and engage the enemy. Indeed, an earmark of today’s radical right Republicanism is its aversion to challenge, its fear of exposure and its wariness of the formidable (what’s left of it on the left), and the nearly pathologic, survivalist disengagement from anything smacking of fact, expertise or knowledge from books.
Buckley had some unappetizing, and appalling views. But he wasn’t afraid to have them challenged. In fact, he wanted to have them challenged, and to have them challenged right on television. As unlike today’s rightist icons as it is humanly possibly to be, Buckley did not confine himself to the friendly audience, sought the strongest adversary he could possibly find and welcomed them to give him the best they had.
The sparring between economist and liberal John Kenneth Galbraith and Buckley strikes one today as nearly sublime. His tête-à-têtes with liberal attorney extraordinaire William Kunstler, most famously defender of the Chicago Seven, were intellectual prizefights, Kunstler often the victor, as Buckley himself later in life would concede. Certainly I loved to root against him. And he lost more often than many, especially on the right remember,or at least acknowledge.
You invariably felt wiser for watching. And win or loose, Buckley always conveyed the sense that he felt the same, amused and enlightened by the experience.