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Friday, October 19th, 2012

The Night Groucho Marx Took Over Dick Cavett's Show

The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

The other night I was listening to Alec Baldwin's interview with Dick Cavett on his show Here's the Thing, and I was trying to figure out who would be Cavett's closest match today. Charlie Rose doesn't have the sense of humor. The late night hosts are too performance oriented and don't just have a conversation, although Craig Ferguson is closer than the others. If Conan does more of his "Serious Jibber Jabber" segments online that might be pretty close, but basically, there's no one to match Cavett.

Now, to be fair, I personally have only seen a few interviews and clips from his shows, but it's clear right away that he brought something different to the table. Dick started out as a stand-up, talent coordinator, and writer for Johnny Carson's Tonight Show before finally getting his own show in 1968, which then jumped around from network to network intermittently until its most recent incarnation ended on Turner Classic Movies in 2007. But the differences in style are obvious. Critics at the time called him "a thinking man's talk show host." Cavett is a quick-witted, fast-talker who is able to speak at an intellectual level with any guest, whether it be Woody Allen, Janis Joplin or Gore Vidal. However, on September 5, 1969, Dick took a back seat and let Groucho take the wheel.

Dick and Groucho had been friends for years at this point, and Cavett introduces him with a balance of complete respect and friendly joshing. His introduction for Groucho reflects that nicely: "My guest list tonight is, in alphabetical order, Groucho Marx… He's too wise to be identified as a comedian, though he is, and too funny to be thought of as an American institution, which he is. I don't want to get too reverent because he kind of invented irreverence on screen." With this, the band strikes up "Hooray for Captain Spaulding" from Animal Crackers and Groucho takes control.

In 1969 Groucho was almost 80, but you'd never know it from watching him here. He steps forward with a slight bounce in his step and an enormous, striped Tam o' Shanter cap on his head. A piano vamps prompting Groucho to launch into another song from Animal Crackers, "Hello, I Must Be Going," and when he finishes, he turns to leave until he is stopped by Dick.

Once Groucho sits down, you can feel Cavett decide to just get out of his way. Throughout, Groucho will interrupt both Dick and himself to launch into a different thought, quip, or story from old Hollywood. For the most part, Dick is there to ask a question and then let the answer unfurl, occasionally jumping in to be a straight man. At one point, Groucho ends up talking about the town Ossining. "Do you know anything about Ossining?" he asks Cavett who responds, "if you asked me anything about Ossining I'd be stumped." There's a slight pause as you watch the gears turn inside Groucho's head until he says, "and how long has it been since you've been stumped?" Dick isn't exactly sure what to do with this, if Groucho is making a dirty joke or just making a non sequitur, so he laughs and moves the interview forward. When Groucho complains about how stingy ABC is as a network he says there's only "one men's room in the whole building here… and that's for women!" Both host and guest have famously quick minds and their back and forth is both witty and rapid.

One fun thing that you get to see in the interview is the two sides of Groucho. There is Groucho the entertainer, with the constant jokes and the silly puns, which Dick attests is actually what it's like to have a conversation with the man away from cameras. Then there is Groucho the slightly cranky old man. Dick mentions that they went to a restaurant the night before and for the entire time they were there, Groucho sat with a handkerchief draped over his head. Not to avoid being seen or anything like that, but because the place was too heavily air conditioned and he didn't want to catch a cold. Later in the show, Groucho talks about being dragged by Tommy Smothers to go see a performance of Hair but leaving half-way through. He didn't have any interest in seeing naked people on stage. According to Groucho, he'd much rather go and do that back at his hotel room on the 4th floor.

We also get a number of fantastic Hollywood stories from Groucho's long career. He tells a story about Gretta Garbo, wearing an enormous hat, backing into an elevator he was standing in. Not realizing who it was (not that it would have mattered), Groucho took the back of the hat and lifted it until her whole face was covered. When she turned around and gave him a withering look he apologized and said, "I thought you were a fella I knew from Kansas City."

But my favorite moments in the interview happen as Groucho talks about two people who were very involved with the production of the classic Marx Brothers movies, producing Irving Thalberg and Groucho's constant foil in the films, Margaret Dumont. Luckily, someone has uploaded a clip from this episode which includes a lot of great moments in nine minutes: a story about a nude Groucho and his brothers tormenting Thalberg (their first time meeting), a discussion about an old Vaudeville act that was too hot for the Hammerstein Theatre, a line that was edited out of A Night at the Opera in 37 states, and a sentimental remembrance of Margaret Dumont in her last years.

Groucho also sings several more times throughout the episode, first giving a spirited performance of "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" from At the Circus, including a little Mick Jagger-style rooster walk during the instrumental portions, and then later, from his chair, he performs "Everybody Works But Father" and "Father's Day."

Unlike most of the episodes of Dick Cavett's show, this interview was taped earlier, with the intention of broadcasting it later, due to the fact that the show was being preempted by a golf tournament that particular evening. Initially the plan was to record a half hour interview, but at the half-way point the two decide to just keep going and create this conversation that feels more like two old friends chatting, rather than a traditional late night interview. At the closing, Cavett bids his guest adieu and sums things up rather nicely: "Thank you for being here. One person got to be Groucho Marx and you're the one and you're very lucky. And we're lucky as well."

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.

  • unctuous beardo creep
  • http://twitter.com/Bhess Bhess

    I always thought Bob Costas did a real good late night one on one talk show. The most memorable for me was his 3 part interview with Mel Brooks which was hilarious and his interview with Elie Wiesel, very moving.

  • guy1

    Charlie Rose is a boring kiss-ass in comparison to Howard Stern, who delivers the most probing and hilarious interviews around. Ironically, one of Stern's favorite guests is Gilbert Gottfried, who does a pretty funny impression of an old Groucho Marx talking aimlessly with Dick Cavett.

    • irrenmann

      You are dead on. Stern is a gifted, flexible interviewer who, for all his detractors claim he is heartless or focused on shock, should be credited for how genuine an interest he takes in his subjects.

    • irrenmann

      You are dead on. Stern is a gifted, flexible interviewer who, for all his detractors claim he is heartless or focused on shock, should be credited for how genuine an interest he takes in his subjects.

  • http://www.telescreen.org Vidiot

    This entire episode is also available on DVD — I think from Shout! Factory, but am not 100% sure on that. I got it from Netflix and enjoyed it immensely.