AMONG MY earliest encounters of The Simpsons was an animation festival in Philadelphia, in the Spring of 1989. I was doing some work with Habitat for Humanity and decided one night to take in a movie. The first episode of The Simpsons proper was months in the future: in early 1989, the rough and amateurish output of Matt Groening which I saw that night (and which didn’t much impress me) was recognizable only as the interludes of the Tracey Ullman Show. Ullman then was known as an accomplished impersonator and a sharp witted Brit, but within a couple years she was eclipsed by this inauspicious cartoon team constituted of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. Who knew? From such humble beginnings came what is arguably the most successful animated series of television history.
I dislike as a matter of course the plaintive themes of decline and decay, but stumbling upon some YouTube videos over the weekend, it did occur that the business of over-the-air talk has been cheapened. The occasion of this thought was a collection of episodes of the Dick Cavett show, some of which I had seen their first time around but had forgotten. Watching these programs again, years later, I can’t but notice how much the talk show format has changed, and how much for the worse.
If you doubt me on this, go through the archive yourself. You will find lengthy (in some cases seventy-minute) interviews, well-paced with twenty minutes or more between commercials and with (apparently) unscripted, spontaneous, and intelligent talk on a wide range of topics. Rather like a conversation in the real world. Note also that none of the guests whose interview I watched had a product to push: the conversation, for its own sake, was the thing.
Compare these facts to those of the current talk shows and I think you will readily discern the differences. The pace has quickened, the conversation now consists of rapid-fire and scripted question-and-answer organized around the selling of product, and the range of topics is thereby restricted. Get them on, push the product, play the commercials, show the guest the door — such is the current formula. Not quite a dumbing down, so much as a distillation of the medium to its industrial-capitalist quintessence.
Mr. Cavett has not left us, and I was gratified to find that the sharp old man keeps a blog on a website at the New York Times. He is and has always been a specimen of largeness, both in soul and in mind. His work is also unfortunately dated, and it’s difficult to watch those old broadcasts and not feel the distance between the now and the then. Could a program paced and executed as his was even be contemplated today? No, I don’t think so, and what a shame that is. The Dick Cavett show is wholly a matter of the past. I say this as an admirer both of the show and of the man, and as someone who understands well there is no going back. Usually I am at peace with this, but not tonight.