Dick Cavett, a Nebraska native who'd excelled in gymnastics and stage magic in high school, moved to New York in 1958 after graduating from Yale University. After going through a variety of jobs including gofer, actor, comedian, and writing for both Jack Paar and Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, ABC hired him as a talk show host in 1968.
With his low-key, genial, witty style, Cavett became a fixture of American television over the next few decades. His show was quite prone to Channel Hopping and timeslot changes, going through no less than 8 iterations, though they almost all used The Dick Cavett Show as a title.
- It started as a daytime talk show on ABC called This Morning, from March '68 to January '69.
- Then it switched to the more familiar name and jumped to a prime time slot in May '69, and then to a late night slot in September of that year. This version is the one most people remember (possibly bolstered by the fact that most clips on the show's official Youtube channel come from this era). While not a serious threat to Carson's late night ratings, it was still the first challenger to The Tonight Show to have any real success. By 1973, though, ABC felt they needed another late night strategy, so they debuted Wide World of Entertainment, a revolving series of specials, concerts, movies and talk shows, with Cavett reduced to doing one week of shows a month. After the final edition of the ABC show aired on New Year's Day of 1975...
- ...it hopped again to CBS, in prime time, during the late summer of 1975. This version was an unusual Retool, mixing talk show and variety elements, including comedy sketches. However, it proved to be the shortest-lived version; it didn't even last a month.
- After a two-year hiatus, the show returned to its more familiar format, this time on PBS in an early evening slot. It ran from 1977-1982.
- A three-year hiatus, then the show comes back to prime time, but hops to the USA network, from September 1985 to September 1986.
- Another three-year hiatus, then CNBC picks it up in 1989, where it runs until 1996.
- And finally, a ten-year hiatus, and a year-long run on Turner Classic Movies in 2006, and then the show gets cancelled permanently, and Cavett retires.
The show stands out for a number of reasons: Firstly, it's not a solely comedic talk show. While the Studio Audience was usually present, the show wasn't interested in making them laugh very much. Instead, the show's focus was in getting the guests of the day to talk about whatever, be it their craft, their lives, current events, the world at large, or anything else that struck their fancy. Consequently, many clips of the show feature a lot of talking, but not a lot of audience applauding or laughter. It's there, of course, but not as front-and-center as many other talk shows, both of the time and today.
Secondly, the show made a conscious effort to get as broad a range of guests as possible. The show featured actors, filmmakers, politicians, musicians, writers, scientists, athletes, artists, and activists, among others, and would feature well-established big-names one night, hip new up-and-comers the next, and people who were well-respected in their field but virtually unknown outside of it the night after. This aspect of the show is most susceptible to "Seinfeld" Is Unfunny: many modern shows pull from a broad guest range, and many of the guests on Cavett have since gone on to become oldies themselves.
- Flame Bait: An Invoked Trope well before the internet was born; the show would frequently get people who were of opposite opinions on a hot-button issue (Segregationist Georgia governer Lestor Maddox and black football-player-turned-actor Jim Brown talk about racial segregation, for example) and get them to talk about said issue. Inevitably, the sparks would fly.
- Friendly Rivalry: Cavett and Johnny Carson. They both grew up in Nebraska and had worked as a Stage Magician early in their careers (even meeting at one point), and Cavett helped Carson establish the comedic style of his version of The Tonight Show as a writer. In Cavett's post-ABC years, he became a semi-regular Carson guest.
- Improv: At Cavett's prompting, Robin Williams improvised a show in the style of Shakespeare, with Cavett joining him.
- Precision F-Strike: Jefferson Airplane's performance of "We Can Be Together" on the show was the first known use of the word "Fuck" on prime-time television. The song contains two instances of the word, and neither of them were bowdlerized.
- Studio Audience: Sometimes played with:
- Occasionally, Cavett would do the show as a one-on-one interview with no audience, as is the case with Anthony Hopkins and Katharine Hepburn.
- On the August 19, 1969 episode, the studio audience (many of which came directly from Woodstock) was so large it spilled onto the set.Cavett: If you've just tuned in, I'm Dick Cavett, we're sitting in my living room.
- Particularly in the Wide World of Entertainment years, Cavett would do pre-recorded specials where he'd interview guests at their house.
- Swapped Roles: Midway through Orson Welles' appearance, Orson flipped the script and started asking Cavett questions about his life. Cavett rolled with it, and the audience approved.
- Un-Cancelled: At least five times; see the list above.