Nicholas Meyer (BSS #310)

Nicholas Meyer is perhaps best known for his work on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. He is most recently the author of The View from the Bridge.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Ah, listener my old friend, do you know the Klingon proverb that tells us revenge is a dish best served cold?

Author: Nicholas Meyer

Subjects Discussed: Lotus positions, talking back to prescience, writing books when the Writers Guild goes on strike, Samuel Johnson, the origins of The Seven Per-Cent Solution, words as a place of retreat, William S. Baring-Gould, generating “scholarly” commentary, Meyer’s dislike of Sherlock Holmes movies, Watson being portrayed as a buffoon, using the old Warner shield for Time After Time, the unusual opening shot of Time After Time and developing a directorial voice, Stanley Kubrick on the set of Spartacus, on-the-job training about cinematography, directing Ricardo Montalban, making specific choices, directors who don’t know what they want, the importance of understanding actors, finding distinct style with a preexisting Star Trek cast, William Shatner’s concerns on Star Trek II, the Coca-Cola product placement in Volunteers, responding to Ken Levine’s remarks on the scene that ruined Volunteers, Meyer’s problematic metrics with cinematic comedy, Black Orchid, whittling down the original draft of The View from the Bridge, being a script doctor on Fatal Attraction and determining Meyer’s precise involvement with the bathtub ending, calculating a film for an audience and the problems with doing so, how to write a good screenplay with Philip Roth’s source material, the differences between source material and other versions of the story, The Wizard of Oz, arguments about Dickens film adaptations, thoughts on Josh Olson’s “I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script,” The Avengers, and why Meyer’s frequent flyer miles are in the University of Iowa archive.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You’re sitting in a rather strange lotus position.

Meyer: No.

Correspondent: Do you sit like this often?

Meyer: I’m not lotus actually.

Correspondent: Oh. Not lotus.

Meyer: You can’t see, but, underneath this table, my legs are stretched out in a very conventional position.

Correspondent: I’m sorry I wasn’t noticing your muscular legs.

Meyer: The anti-lotus.

Correspondent: How are you doing?

Meyer: I’m doing fine so far.

Correspondent: Okay. I had a question pertaining to recent events and also pertaining to your work and your tendency to have scripts mirror certain international events. I think, going back to Star Trek VI and Company Business, how real events tended to unfold in relation to those particular scripts. But simultaneously I might argue that you were prescient with one particular character in the Star Trek films. Most recently, as you’ve probably been reading the headlines or seeing various clips, a certain Congressman from South Carolina basically said something to the President. And I couldn’t help but think when that happened, Chekhov saying to Khan, “You lie!” Which I thought was quite prescient of you possibly. But simultaneously, in relation to Chekhov and Presidents, I should point out that Chekhov was able to correctly pronounce “nuclear,” whereas the previous President was not. So what do you attribute this linguistic prescience on your part?

Meyer: Well, talking back to prescience is like one of the weirder things that you can do. And I think the fact that Chekhov addressed Khan so disrespectfully in the well of the Botany Bay obviously qualifies him for a Federation reprimand.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Meyer: Does this address your question?

Correspondent: It sort of does. But it’s interesting that Chekhov could pronounce “nuclear” where George Bush could not. 43.

Meyer: The list of things that George Bush was unable to pronounce. In order to pronounce some of these things, I think you have to conceive of what they are first.

Correspondent: And Chekhov was able to conceive of what they were. I mean, it’s funny that Chekhov was the guy here. This could also have a lot to do with my own particular connections to your work and the larger canvas. But you did bring this up in your book and so I was tempted to infer many things in your scripts that possibly were intended or prescient or seer-like.

Meyer: Well, I think Chekhov’s remark clearly, as far as Congressman Wilson is concerned, is an accident. It was about thirty years before. And there are people who go around saying “You lie!” at the drop of a hat. Chekhov, I think, is more right than not when he accuses Khan.

Correspondent: Yeah. I also wanted to ask — just to go to a general question that isn’t so convoluted or so crazy. This particular book. Was this written during the writers strike at all?

Meyer: Yes.

Correspondent: It was.

Meyer: I write my books when the Writers Guild goes on strike. You’re not allowed to write screenplays. And I usually write it because I have to make money. And Dr. Johnson said a man is a blockhead who writes for any reason except money.

Correspondent: Yes. Well, that’s paraphrasing it a bit. But it’s close enough.

Meyer: Well, I got “blockhead” and…

Correspondent: You got “blockhead” and “money” definitely. Nobody but a fool wrote for money…

Meyer: For anything except for money, yes.

Correspondent: I think I’m mangling it now. Yeah, I’m familiar with that quote. You were a movie reviewer at the University of Iowa. You then wrote press kits for Paramount. And then you wrote The Love Story Story. And then you headed out west to become a screenwriter and what was, of course, this novel that came about. Quite a circuitous route in terms of approaching the inevitable. And so I’m curious why you postponed it for so long over the years. Was there a definitive answer? You say that you’re not an analytical person. But I’m sure you’ve had many years to think about this roundabout way of going to your present profession.

Meyer: Well, I always wanted to make movies from the time I was very young. I never thought much about the writing part of it. Which is interesting, because I’ve been writing since I was five years old. Writing was just something I always did. Words were the place to which I retreated. Sort of instinctively and intuitively all my life. I tried writing novels as a young man and I didn’t like my novels very much. And by the way, neither did anyone else. So I went to California eventually to seek my fortune and try and get into the movie business. And I was lucky. I started to make some progress. And then just as I was starting to have stuff produced, the Writers Guild did go on strike. This was back in 1972 or ’73, I think. And I was sharing digs with a young woman who said, “Well now, since you’re not allowed to write screenplays, you can write that book you are always talking about.” And that book was my fanciful notion of a Sherlock Holmes adventure, in which Holmes met and joined forces intellectually as well as narratively with Sigmund Freud. And there really wasn’t any good reason at that point not to try doing it. I don’t think I was expecting it to add up to much. But it was as much a way of passing the time when I wasn’t on the strike line as anything else.

And so, yes, it became a big success. It was the number one best-selling novel for a while in the United States. And then when it was optioned for the movies, I said, “Yes, I will sell you the option on condition that I write the script.” And the script with all its faults was lucky enough to be nominated for an Oscar. And so that sort of led me to the next level. And the next screenplay I wrote, I said, “Yes, I will sell you the script, but I must direct the movie.” And so I leapfrogged my way into my profession.

Categories: Film

Brian Evenson (BSS #309)

Brian Evenson is most recently the author of Fugue State and Last Days.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Latching onto toccata.

Author: Brian Evenson

Subjects Discussed: Knowing when a story concept has legs, ideas that never come to anything, the origins of “A Pursuit,” The Open Curtain, maintaining surprise, text sources vs. personal experience, writing fiction moments that hit two simultaneous emotions, grisly moments and descriptive detail, the reader’s imagination, revision and rhythm, not showing work to people, the surprise of audience responses, Bjorn Verenson, certain similarities with characters in “Ninety Over Ninety” and publishing people, Morgan Entreiken, determining the precise moment in which a story ends, open endings and critical theory, story concepts as building blocks for novels, similarities between “An Accounting” and Last Days, conversations between stories, bureaucratic language, investigating religious communities, solitary figures being pursued by men vs. the recurrent theme of community, expanding on conclusions from Ryan Call’s Collagist essay, literalisms and tributes to pulp, challenging the assumptions of “human,” translating, Antoine Volodine, how a line from The Savage Detectives inspired a short story, dwelling upon consciousness, intertextual aspects, absurdity and violence, characters who plunge into dark chambers to experience horror, being the dungeonmaster at 12, knowing the environment, Evenson’s concern for numbers and scales, Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, postmodernism and theft, and the satisfaction of genre literature.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Do you need to have a source text more than, I suppose, a personal experience? I mean, I could inquire as to whether you had sex with a mime. I don’t know whether you have or not.

Evenson: No, no, I didn’t. I did meet someone, after I read that story aloud, who had had sex with a mime. It made me think that maybe I could have gone even farther in that story than I did. But not a lot of it is from personal experience. I mean, I think the things that are from personal experience are not the things that you would expect. So in “Younger” and in “Girls in Tents,” you know, when I was a kid, I used to make tents out of blankets. Which I think a lot of kids did.

Correspondent: I did myself.

Evenson: Yeah. But my daughters never did. So there is a kind of personal thing there. There’s a moment in one of my stories — I think actually that it’s in The Wavering Knife, in that collection — in which someone is taking bread and squishing it until it makes a ball of bread. And that’s something that’s incredibly vivid to me from my childhood. But the main thrusts of the plot and those sorts of things are not personal experience so much. But they do respond to a lot of other things.

Correspondent: But then you’re also dealing with a lot of mutilation and violence.

Evenson: Right.

Correspondent: Like, in particular, Last Days. I mean clearly, I see that you are a zero according to that particular scale.

Evenson: Right, right, right.

Correspondent: Unless there’s something you’re not showing me.

Evenson: No, no, no.

Correspondent: How do you get into that particular mind set to make a narrative along those lines real when you have not personally experienced it?

Evenson: (laughs)

Correspondent: There’s the old famous story. Well, Stephen Crane never experienced or witnessed any kind of war. So how does reality come about for you? When do you know it’s real when you haven’t experienced it? Or are we underestimating verisimilitude and not always capitulating to that wonderful imagination?

Evenson: Well, I really do think a lot about how things would feel. Even if I haven’t experienced them. I really see myself as partly a — I don’t know quite how to describe it, but I want to create a world that the reader experiences as if they’re living through it more than something that they can see as a representation on the page. And to do that, I spend a lot of time thinking how things would feel, how things would occur. What would happen to a limb if you did something to it in Last Days. And I read a fair amount and try and figure things out that way. But mostly it’s just trying. What you say. The primacy of the imagination. Trying to imagine yourself into a space where you really are experiencing something on the page in a very visceral way. One of things that people say about my stories, both for better and for worse, is that there are stories that you don’t forget and there are stories that you feel like you’re suffering through them in some ways. While the character suffers. And as a writer, I think that’s very much what I do. I try to put myself very much in the position of the characters in the story. So in Last Days, there’s all these moments in the hospital bed. And trying to figure out how you see around the curtain if you have one kind of mirror and another kind of mirror. If you can’t move this bar to your body, then what do you do? And I took a lot of time thinking very seriously about that and trying to figure out what would I do.

(Image: Beowulf Sheehan)

Categories: Fiction

Lawrence Block (BSS #308)

Lawrence Block is most recently the author of Step by Step.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Ruminating upon a life of exquisite indolence.

Author: Lawrence Block

Subjects Discussed: Step by Step as an anti-memoir, exploring childhood experience in print, randomness and finding connections, writing with a greater degree of freedom, Random Walk, concerns about a limited audience, earlier attempts at memoir, attempts by Block to write memoirs in the mid-1990s, the virtues of getting older, being less guarded with age, following up on Block’s remarks from Galut, avarice as the guiding principle, Evan Hunter, Charles Ardai and Hard Case Crime, growing less reticent about limited editions, the $479 Kindle, not carrying about work being preserved, genre fiction as a window to a specific world, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie never going out of print, Block and Judaism, being a creature of intense and transitory enthusiasms, not having a goal, the lack of commonality between writing and race walking, becoming increasingly drawn to pursuits that don’t involve leaving the house, writing screenplays, short stories vs. novels, and Alexander McCall Smith’s Wall Street Journal article and reader “ownership” of the characters.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You mentioned that you had attempted memoir before.

Block: Right.

Correspondent: And that memoir, which I presume is still unfinished, that had more to do with the working life of a writer, I suppose?

Block: That memoir was about the early years. About the years writing pseudonymous books and getting started in the business. And I wrote about 50,000 words of it. And it still exists. And I went back to it. It was part of a multiple contract. It was submitted as part of that. And eventually the day came when I bought it back. It was a tiny portion of the advance. And I don’t think anybody at Morrow was that excited about it. My agent had just bundled things together. And because I didn’t seem inclined to resume it, oddly enough, now I find myself thinking maybe I ought to. That maybe that’s what I might want to do next.

Correspondent: Really?

Block: Yeah.

Correspondent: What brought this on? Was it just from…?

Block: The experience of Step by Step. It’s early days. I have no idea how it will sell. But people seem to like it and it seems to be getting a fair amount of attention. So we’ll see.

Correspondent: Well, I think just speaking as one person familiar with your work, the reason I was piqued when you talked about this unfinished memoir was because there’s almost like a surprising lack of amount of stuff written about that time period where you were writing pseudonymously. There was a book written by the guy who later went on to do Don’t Know Much About History, who wrote a book published about twenty-five years ago about the paperbacking of America [Kenneth C. Davis's Two-Bit Culture] and went on about mass market paperbacks as a whole. But nothing much about the dawn of Gold Medal and Dell and all the other paperback houses. And the pseudonymous aspect. So I wonder could this interest also have to do with the fact that, with all due respect, you’re also one of the few people left who remember.

Block: Yeah. That might have something to do with it. Also, when I wrote — I think it was about ’95, ’94 or ’5, that I wrote the memoir. And I hadn’t been planning to, as I may have mentioned in there. I was stuck on something else. I had time booked at Ragdale. And I had to write something. And at the time — that was what, fourteen years ago? — I was fifty-five, fifty-six years old. It felt early days to be writing a memoir to me.

Correspondent: Right.

Block: And before the memoir genre became something.

Correspondent: Now you have memoirs by twentysomethings.

Block: I know. I know it. “I remember the birth canal.” (laughs)

Categories: Fiction, Ideas

Michael Muhammad Knight (BSS #307)

Michael Muhammad Knight is most recently the author of Impossible Man and Osama Van Halen.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Expressing forceful words about his distinct identity.

Author: Michael Muhammad Knight

Subjects Discussed: Knight’s powers of prescience, Muslim punk, fictional suicide as a form of personal critique, the fictional character Mike Knight vs. the real Mike Knight, the Amazing Ayyub, character creation as the author arguing with himself, spiritual poles and quasi-Mikes talking with Mike creations, romanticizing the failure to be an adult, the mythology of consolation, leading a life in peripatetic homelessness, being a provocateur, compromise vs. getting into certain quarters, reading Will & Ariel Durant’s big red books at an early age, God as the Force (Star Wars) vs. God as the Dao, the Asma Gull Hasan defamation suit, Edward Norton’s soliloquy in The People vs. Larry Flynt, the coercive nature of apologies, getting kicked out of ISNA press conferences, journalism and formality, being disheartened by the Sunnis, whether or not umma is impossible, respecting religious difference, noting laundry lists of possession, constant reference to Spike Lee’s Malcolm X over The Autobiography, women-led prayer and Islam, disowning whiteness, Pakistan as a white supremacist country, elaborating on Knight’s remarks to David Hunter concerning cyphers, filtering information from the outside world, the apostasy essay, following up on Mark Athitakis’s remarks on allegorical house layout, and the last time Knight was in touch with his father.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I want to start off with something that you have a particular talent for in your fiction — and that is the anticipation of events. The Taqwacores, of course, most famously initiated the Taqwacore punk movement. But as I learned in the afterword of Osama Van Halen, you write about Muzammil Hassan, arrested for beheading his wife on British TV. And you are unnerved by the fact that you were not only not able to foresee it, yet it happened. What do you attribute this prescience to? I’m curious.

Knight: I don’t know. It spooks me out a little bit. You know, I wrote this fictional decapitation of myself in the parking lot of a TV station in Buffalo. Having a Muslim TV station in Buffalo and then, in real life, there was a Muslim TV station in Buffalo. And an actual decapitation happened there. Just as this book was about to come out. And that started to spook me out a little bit.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Knight: I’m starting to get afraid right now.

Correspondent: Well, this is interesting. Because as I read your two memoirs — both Blue-Eyed Devil and Impossible Man — I saw, for example, that the Victoria’s Secret catalog actually came from a personal example.

Knight: Oh yeah. Yeah.

Correspondent: As did the Penguin misspelling of the Qur’an. And I’m curious as to whether this almost convenient lifting of events from your own life is what leads to this prescience. Have you ever thought about this?

Knight: I don’t know. But it’s all starting to blend together. Because I was on the set of the Taqwacores movie, when they were shooting that in the fall. And one day, I showed up on the set and I saw Dominic Rains, who was playing Jehangir, in a drum circle with Marwan from the real life band Al-Thawra in the parking lot of this house. The driveway. And you had the real life Taqwacore punks and the film Taqwacore punks. The fiction and the reality, all the borders are gone.

Correspondent: But drawing from events so explicitly, what do you do to invent? To draw the distinction between something that is personally experienced versus what you concoct? Such as the idea of a Muslim punk scene.

Knight: I don’t know, man. Because in Osama Van Halen, I have a fictional character. So sometimes I’m writing from the omniscient narrator. Sometimes I’m writing myself. Like the real-life author. First person narrative. Sometimes I’m talking about this fictional Mike Knight. And it’s almost like there’s no distinctions anymore. I mean, I just wrote myself getting my head chopped off. And now I’m afraid that’s going to happen.

Correspondent: I’m wondering if this is more of a metaphorical losing your head. Because after you wrote The Taqwacores, I know that you were considering leaving Islam altogether. And you were urged back into it when you realized there was some fluidity. And so I’m curious as to whether this was finally cutting the cord to a particular type of Mike Knight or….

Knight: Well, there were some serious things I was trying to talk about in that story. You know, Imam Ali said to hate in yourself what you’re going to hate in other people. So the way that I made my points was to just look at myself in the worst way and to see myself as the object of critique. Everything that I was lashing out against I could search into myself and find some trace of that. That’s why at the end, I deserved to have my head chopped off.

(Image: Publishers Group Canada)

Categories: Fiction, Ideas

Laurie Sandell (BSS #306)

Laurie Sandell is the author of The Impostor’s Daughter.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if the coalminer was an impostor.

Author: Laurie Sandell

Subjects Discussed: Chicken recipes, the quest for truth within memoir, how narrative shapes and stretches truth, subjective vs. objective accounts, the essay written anonymously for Esquire, memory vs. concrete evidence, emails from Ashley Judd, how hard evidence enhances a visual diagram, lawyers sifting through evidence, the use of clothing against background, working with a colorist, becoming one’s parents, the use of motion lines, adopting comic book semiotics, drawing from an intuitive part of the brain, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, feeling liberated in comic form vs. restrictions in textual form, maintaining privacy vs. spilling all details to the public, diagramming environment, knowing the lay of the land, static panels, consulting graphic novels, Scott McCloud, arrows pointing to figures, strange stays in five-star hotels, sketching out the book before drawing, taking the story arc from the text version of The Impostor’s Daughter, structure and spontaneity, maintaining momentum vs. contending with painful memories, emotional change and artistic change, whether or not writing is the proper way to exorcise demons, the story of Sandell’s father as a former sense of identity, the ethical dilemmas of narrative seduction, and fearlessness.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I should point out I’m not trying to insist that stretching [the truth] is necessarily a bad thing. I’m merely pointing out that memory, as we all know, is a fallacious instrument.

Sandell: Yes, it is.

Correspondent: It’s been said that memory is the greatest liar of them all. It’s been said — by, I believe Lincoln — that you have to have a great memory to be a great liar.

Sandell: Right.

Correspondent: So given this conundrum, I’m wondering to what degree you relied on your own memory and to what degree you relied on reference shots. You have, for example, illustrations that crop up within the course of the book. This leads me to wonder about other specific details. But maybe we can start on memory vs. concrete evidence.

Sandell: Well, you know, it was a mix of memory and concrete evidence. On the one hand, I had a lot of concrete evidence because I had interviewed my father over a period of two years and I tape recorded our conversations with his knowledge. This was leading up to the Esquire piece when I had a 300-page transcript. So most of the things that my father said in the book came directly from those transcripts. So he’s telling stories from his past. Those came directly from my father’s mouth.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Sandell: As far as — I’m trying to think. I don’t know. What else?

Correspondent: Well, I could actually cite specific examples.

Sandell: Okay, sure.

Correspondent: For example, the difference between the narration and what is actually spoken in the text bubbles.

Sandell: Right.

Correspondent: Here’s one example. When you’re working at the office, you have a text box point to the screen: “Have you considered inpatient treatment.” We don’t actually see the email on the screen.

Sandell: Okay.

Correspondent: We actually see your particular perspective.

Sandell: Right.

Correspondent: And so I want to ask you about why that particular emphasis — I mean, that’s inherently subjective. We’re counting on your subjective viewpoint as to what is on the screen. As opposed to later on, when we actually see what’s on your screen, when you’re on your laptop in your motel room.

Sandell: I need to be honest. The reason you didn’t see that screen was probably because it didn’t fit in that box.

Correspondent: Okay.

Sandell: And so I had to deal with little callouts so you could actually see what was on the screen. But the interesting thing about the process of putting together all this evidence — a lot of it really was evidence — is that there were so many emails. For example, that email was an email, I believe, from Ashley Judd.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Sandell: And I have those emails from Ashley Judd. I have the emails from my father. You know, I worked with a private investigator for two years. So I have all of his information and the lawsuits he compiled and all the various evidence and things written by my father. You know, I think — did you ever read Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy?

Correspondent: No, I never read that.

Sandell: It’s a beautiful memoir. Ann Patchett later went on to write Truth & Beauty: A Friendship.

Correspondent: That’s right.

Sandell: And one of the things that Ann Patchett said in her afterword — after Lucy died, Ann Patchett wrote an afterword to the book — and she described how, at a reading, someone said to Lucy Grealy, “How did you remember all those details about your past?” And she said, “I didn’t remember it. I wrote it.” And people were a little bit up in arms about that. But she was pointing out the fact that this was a piece of art, it’s a piece of subjective memory, and the most important thing is to show the emotional truth of the situation. And I would say that in my case, because I have so much evidence, and evidence that Little Brown asked to say and anytime I’ve done television, they’ve actually asked to see the evidence, I feel pretty comfortable that there’s not going to be any big explosive James Frey situation.

Correspondent: Well, to what degree were they asking for the evidence? Because we’re talking about transcripts. We’re talking about investigative reporting. This is all text right now. And here you are. You have a visual document here.

Sandell: Yes.

Correspondent: You have to construct something from the text here. So it’s a wonder that evidence even means anything if it’s a visual result.

Sandell: I think it does. I mean, the visual result is obviously my memory. It’s the way I remember the situation.

(Image: Brantastic)

Categories: People

Dick Cavett (BSS #305)

Dick Cavett’s column, “Talk Show,” regularly appears at the New York Times.

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(PROGRAM NOTE: During the course of our conversation, a “Professor Robert Castelli from John Jay College” — who apparently has a background in law enforcement — pushed in Mr. Cavett’s chair, causing Mr. Cavett to accost him. This unusual social moment, which was resolved with bonhomie, can be experienced at the 38:04 mark.)

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Examining his birth certificate for potential Nebraskan roots.

Guest: Dick Cavett

Subjects Discussed: Books that Cavett may or may not have authored, jobs that Cavett has worked, being a professional magician as a teenager, Cavett’s brief career as a caddy, humorless Germans, James Ellroy, starting the Caddies Hall of Fame, Groucho Marx’s golf ball-enhanced hat, stalking Jack Paar in the bathroom, the dreadful cliche “It’s who you know, not what you know,” being drawn to living with showbiz people, Paul Douglas, meeting Groucho at George S. Kaufman’s funeral, Studs Terkel, being born with the showbiz urge, fame vs. ideas, whether or not showbiz people are “real” people, Nixon’s blue-suit adventures in Montauk, separating the real Cavett from the telegenic Cavett, Johnny Carson’s failure to remember his guest lineup that night, learning how to listen over the years, real listening vs. telegenic listening, Jimmy Fallon, on not relying on a catalog of quips, overpreparing for an interview, advice Cavett picked up from Jack Paar, the icky word “share,” Werner Erhard and est, “oversharing,” Twitter, on not getting Mike Nichols on the show, interviews vs. conversations, when Cavett had to telephone potential guests to get them on the show, Frank Sinatra, Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” secretly taping a telephone conversation with Marlon Brando, phrases that Brando used, Cary Grant, having to contend with armies of publicists, the worthlessness of many present talk show appearances, talent coordinators, allegations from 1960s Toronto journalists that Cavett was “attractively functional,” the bright orange shag rug on the ABC set, being bombarded by constant information and subwindows on television, TV as GUI, why Cavett didn’t renew his six-year contract at CNBC, the mispronunciation of “nuclear,” David Frost, the problems with occupying vacant rooms, Peter Ustinov, claims from executives that people won’t sit still for a long-form interview, the relationship between William Peter Blatty’s appearance and the success of The Exorcist, the number of panties that Cavett has received over the years, resistance from ABC, the infamous Norman Mailer-Gore Vidal show, the Mailer-Torn brawl, Of a Small and Modest Malignancy, Wicked and Bristling with Dots, the Lillian Hellman/Mary McCarthy feud, making sure that writers could talk on television, Stephen Colbert, and Jon Stewart as “the most trusted newsman in America.”

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I’m curious about this period of you coming to New York. Coming into town. You’re on the prowl trying to get work as an actor. Before you eventually become a copy boy for Time Magazine.

Cavett: That’s right. I finally made it. (laughs)

Correspondent: I should point out that your efforts to befriend numerous showbiz figures here in New York would in some cases, by today’s standards, be considered stalking. You know, Jack Paar in the bathroom and all that.

Cavett: Yeah.

Correspondent: I’m curious. Were you drawn by the notion of “It’s who you know rather than what you know” — or what was the impetus for this?

Cavett: I had heard that dreadful cliche, usually used in the same conversation as “I don’t know much about art but I know what I like” and “Some of my best friends are Jews.” In fact, two friends of mine used all three one evening and hit the jackpot. But anyway to get to your question.

Correspondent: Wow. And they’re still your friends?

Cavett: They’re both dead. So I don’t see them that often.

Correspondent: Using the phrase has killed them, I presume.

Cavett: It mighta. If cliches could kill.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Cavett: But what was the one we were working on?

Correspondent: Oh, we were kinda talking about who you know.

Cavett: Oh, who you know. Nobody ever says, “It’s whom you know.”

Correspondent: No, they don’t.

Cavett: Even though my father was an English teacher, I never did. And I was just drawn to famous successful showbiz people and wanted to live among them.

Correspondent: Really.

Cavett: Be one of them. And that took me to accost — on my first day in New York — Dave Garroway, who was out in front of the Today Show window. And speaking of making it around as an actor, one day, the great Paul Douglas — film actor for those of us older than 30 — was standing next to me waiting for a light to change waiting on Madison Avenue. And I said, “Mr. Douglas, where would you go to look for work today as an actor?” And he said, “I couldn’t answer,” and walked on. (laughs) He wasn’t impolite.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Cavett: He told the truth.

Correspondent: He probably had to get to an appointment. I’m sure it wasn’t anything personal.

Cavett: I still love him in the movies.

Correspondent: But you managed to coax Groucho into buying you lunch. And I’m curious if it was a scenario involving charisma or blackmail. I mean, what happened here? What did you attribute your ability to get on with so many people? So many bigwigs here? Or did you stalk them all like Jack Paar?

Cavett: Well, I’ve never given that much thought. I don’t know what it is. Something in me appealed to him apparently enough. I met him at George S. Kaufman’s funeral — or after it on the street. Groucho was starting to come down Fifth Avenue. Puerto Rican Day Parade booming along beside. And I said, “Groucho, I’m a big fan of yours.” Then he said, “Well, if we get any hotter, I can use a big fan.” I should have said “gets any hotter,” which is what he said. Retake. (laughs) And Groucho said, “Well if it gets any hotter, I can use a big fan.” There. That’s right, isn’t it?

Correspondent: Yeah, sure. Sure.

Cavett: Yeah. And the joke still works.

Correspondent: Yeah, it does.

Cavett: Even though it was years and years ago.

Correspondent: Actually, we should have six different attempts at this joke.

Cavett: Yeah.

Correspondent: Just to show the Cavett mind.

Cavett: Well, it shows the Groucho mind in a way. Because I never saw him misspeak a joke or a line. I only saw Hope, who I used to worship and watch and hang around when I was working for Carson/Parr. When we were out in California, I would watch Hope tape his show all the time. Once or twice, he would blow a monologue or a joke, and get a bigger laugh about doing that. As Johnny could.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Cavett: And really any good comic could. But where was I? Oh, Groucho. So we started walking down the street and chatting. Beautiful day. And I remember thinking, “This may be the best day of my life.” And I’m still not sure it was not. When we got all the way down the Plaza, where he was lunching — alone. And on the way down, he insulted every doorman. And then a Puerto Rican man in a bright suit happily enjoying his day saw Groucho and made a great grin. And he said, “Com-e-dy!” (laughs)

Correspondent: Yeah.

Cavett: And Groucho said, “Tell me. Is it true that you were cutting sugar cane only a month ago? You seem to have succeeded with that suit.” Well, anyway, it entertained me and the man. And we got to 59th Street. And he said to me, in the voice from the game show, “Well you seem like a nice young man and I’d like you to have lunch with me.” And I thought, “Am I going to awaken in a moment and find this to be only a dream?”

Correspondent: The question I have is why did showbiz people appeal more than, say, regular people. Like say the doorman, for example. I know that over the course of your show, you had a number of intriguing cultural figures and unusual people that wouldn’t be on other late-night shows. But on the other hand, it does make me curious why culture, in some sense, was the great prism for which you could conduct these many lengthy conversations with these people. Why didn’t you go the Studs Terkel route? I’m curious.

Cavett: How do you see the Studs Terkel route?

Correspondent: Well, he talked with everybody.

Cavett: Talking to?

Correspondent: He talks with writers. He talks with ditchmen.

Cavett: Talk to janitors. Or, in the politically correct age, custodians.

Correspondent: Exactly.

Cavett: (laughs)

Correspondent: I’m old enough that when I went to elementary school, they called them custodians back then.

Cavett: They did even then? Oh.

Correspondent: Yeah, they did. Back in the 70s.

Categories: People