On Jimmy Fallon’s first day as Conan O’Brien’s successor on NBC’s Late Night, one of the first telephone calls he got was from Dick Cavett. The velvet-voiced “thinking man’s Carson,” who left an indelible mark on talk-show history with his deft, cerebral interviews of John and Yoko, Groucho Marx, and thousands of others, was calling to wish Fallon well on his upcoming mission. Late-night hosts are like astronauts in one regard: Only a few people know what the high-stress job really entails.
Several months later, not long after Fallon celebrated his 100th episode, Cavett, 72, and Fallon, 34, met in Fallon’s 30 Rock office, which is decorated with shiny guitars and a photograph of a mid-monologue Johnny Carson. Cavett, of course, once wrote jokes for Carson. He also studied at the cuffs of legends like Jack Paar, befriended Woody and Brando, and once, when an in-his-cups Norman Mailer mocked Cavett’s cheat sheet of questions on-air, told the writer to “fold it five ways and put it where the moon don’t shine.” By contrast, Fallon navigates a universe that seesaws from Tracy Morgan to Rachel Maddow to proposed Saved by the Bell reunions and maintains a 24/7 dialogue with his audience through Twitter. Still, as Fallon and Cavett’s conversation that morning proved, there’s still plenty of cross-generational common ground left in late night. The following is an edited transcript of their talk:
Jimmy Fallon: It was the greatest when you called me on the first day. We found this empty office, the furniture was just in, and the phone rings. I have an assistant—I’d never had an assistant—and she’s like, “Dick Cavett is on the line.” I’m like, “What?” I had just watched your DVDs. I had all the sets: Hollywood Greats, Comic Legends.
Dick Cavett: Well, I felt a little guilty after calling you, because I thought, I wonder if I told him the most important thing of all? Which is: It always looks better than it feels while you’re doing it. When you’re doing it, you feel the tension, you wonder if the laugh was too long, or too short. But you seem to have learned that by now.
JF: Now I go in relaxed. But that first week, I would ask someone a question like, “Yeah, so you’re into snowboarding? How’s the snowboarding going?” And they’d go, “It’s terrible. I don’t do it anymore.” And then I’d go, “Ah, okay.” I’m just trying to see the notes.
DC: You can be inhibited by the notes, and then there’s that awful moment where you think, “Oh shit, his lips have stopped moving, and I’m not quite exactly sure what he said, because I was thinking what I might say next.” Jack Paar said to me, “Kid, don’t do interviews. That’s clipboards, and David Frost, and what’s your pet peeve and favorite movie. Make it a conversation.” And I didn’t get it immediately. And then I realized, well, that’s what Jack did. He didn’t ever, “I’ve got one more I want to ask you, okay, let’s move on to geography.” It’s a lesson that has not been learned by enough people in the world.
JF: It’s hard.
DC: It is, isn’t it? Also, don’t say, “Let me ask you this.” Chris Matthews can’t start any sentence without “Let me ask you this … ” And I love Chris Matthews! But almost everybody in journalism does it. Who’s stopping you? Just say it!
JF: Yeah, you’re there! But I don’t think people understand that you’re forced to have a conversation in a time constraint. They have six minutes. There’s a person behind them going, “Wrap it up.” So once a guest gets going on a story, it’s like, “Get off—stop your story!” I don’t know how to tell them.
DC: Your nails go into your palms. You know there are only fourteen seconds left, and they’re ending a sentence, and then they go, “And there are two reasons for that … ”
JF: There can’t be two! Let’s just stick with the one reason!
DC: How about half a reason?
JF: We’ll be right back with those two reasons! It’s just a tricky thing. I think you said in your book it’s like having a conversation with someone on the subway track when their train is coming.
DC: And it’s everything that’s opposed to real conversation. Most times you talk to people, you don’t have to worry they’re going to say a long sentence. And to the viewer, it looks like you have all the time in the world. They don’t see any pressures. It’s a tribute to the human brain that anyone is able to function out there on television in a talk situation that is entirely artificial. And yet, [there are times when] you think, Oh, for a minute we just—we were really talking. I kind of lost track.
JF: Yeah. That’s an amazing, amazing, eye-opening moment. It really is.
DC: It takes a life of its own and rolls along. It’s almost like you don’t have to hang on.
JF: We just had Robert De Niro back for our 100th show. He did the first show—I was just so nervous. Robert De Niro! I actually typed out the questions I was going to ask him and e-mailed them to him. He wanted to see them. So he goes, “I don’t like these questions. Can you give me some more questions?” So I typed up more questions. I sent them to him. He goes, “It’s getting there, but I don’t know. I really want to see more questions.”
DC: That’s a terrible thing to do!
JF: So I typed out more questions, and I sent them to him, and I go, “By the way, this interview is only six minutes long.” He writes, “Thank God, ’cause these questions keep getting worse and worse.” And he was my first guest! The second time, we didn’t give him any lines. He just came out. I said, “A friend of mine bet we wouldn’t make it to a hundred shows. So you owe me a hundred dollars. You know who you are.” And De Niro came out, shaking his head. He put a hundred dollars on the table.
Moderated by Jason Gay.