Aside from religious faith and love affairs, adoration tends not to translate. That’s even more the case for those who are neither the adored nor adorer. Adoration experienced? That’s great. Adoration observed? That’s another story. It’s someone else who’s all dressed up. You’re the one with nowhere to go.
Usually, but not always. An alternate title for “Groucho and Cavett,” which airs Tuesday on GBH 2, could be “Oh, the Places You’ll Go.” Those places involve Groucho Marx being Groucho Marx. He sings old songs. He talks about his brothers Harpo and Chico. He describes the difficulties posed by his father, a tailor, having no use for a tape measure. He proposes marriage to Truman Capote (strictly for tax purposes, you understand). Dick Cavett is delightedly along for the ride, that ride usually taking place on Cavett’s ABC talk show, back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Groucho was a frequent guest.
Now 86, Cavett adores Groucho just as much now as he did growing up, watching Marx brothers movies in revival houses and “You Bet Your Life” on TV. “Groucho and Cavett,” an episode of “American Masters,” is the highly agreeable product of that adoration.
Clips from the show are interspersed with a present-day Cavett recalling his friendship with Groucho, offering reminiscences and anecdotes. No talking-head experts are heard from or clips seen from “Duck Soup” or “A Night at the Opera” or “You Bet Your Life.” This is a very specific slice of Groucho-ology.
The occasional curveball gets thrown. There’s a glimpse of Groucho, a very big Gilbert and Sullivan fan, as Ko-Ko in a 1960 TV version of “The Mikado.” (It was a very different world back then.) He sings “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” on “The Kraft Music Hall” TV variety show in 1967 with a chorus that includes Cavett and Soupy Sales. Otherwise, “Groucho and Cavett” consists pretty much entirely of the two gentlemen in the title.
They first met at the playwright George S. Kaufman’s funeral. An awestruck Cavett approached Groucho to tell him what a big fan he was. “Well, if it gets any hotter I could use a big fan,” replied Groucho, who invited Cavett to lunch — at the Plaza, no less. Adoration doesn’t come any better than when the object of it picks up the check.
This was 1961. Groucho was 70. By the time of his last appearance in “Groucho and Cavett” he’s in his early 80s: an old man, but an old man who remains irrepressible. The ever-present cigar now is as much antic scepter as nicotine-delivery system. The silly golf hat that he admits he wears to conceal his baldness looks like a jester’s cap but it’s also a crown. His voice grown huskier, the insinuation and insouciance in it have become that much more pronounced.
Oh, that voice. There is no comic god but intonation, and Groucho is its prophet. Jack Benny’s mastery of timing remains unmatched. So, too, with Groucho’s delivery. Again and again, he’ll say something in “Groucho and Cavett” that isn’t all that funny, per se. The words would look dead on a page. But how he says those words makes them hilarious.
“I didn’t want to get too reverent,” Cavett says of their friendship, “because he invented irreverence on the screen.” Groucho may not have invented it but he held the copyright. There’s an interesting dynamic in that friendship. At some level, each man wanted to be the other. Groucho’s appeal for Cavett is easy enough to understand. He was a nonpareil comic genius. Cavett’s for him was more complicated.
Groucho famously wrote “I refuse to join any club that would have me for a member.” What Kafka wouldn’t have given to write that sentence. Like Kafka, Groucho was a congenital outsider. That outsider status started with being very Jewish in a very Gentile society — and it’s hard to get more mainstream and goyish than Dick Cavett, of the Buffalo County, Neb., Cavetts.
Brilliantly verbal, Groucho published a half-dozen books and was a Modernist ideal: not just the irreverence, but the energy, the absurdity. He and his brothers really were Surrealism unleashed on the silver screen. (That’s one reason their comedy remains so fresh as that of their contemporaries does not.) James Joyce uses the verb “grouching” in “Finnegans Wake.” T.S. Eliot and Groucho carried on a lively correspondence. Yet he dropped out of school at 12 and never forgot it. The most affecting moment in the show comes when he talks about the Library of Congress asking him to donate his papers. Several years later, he’s still marveling over this honor.
Groucho envied Cavett’s literate manner and Ivy League polish. If you don’t know at the start of “Groucho and Cavett” that Cavett went to Yale, he makes sure you do before it’s over. This surely sounds improbable now, but 50 years ago Cavett had a unique standing in the upper reaches of American popular culture. Imagine Terry Gross crossed with Charlie Rose and doing a monologue at the start of each show. (And did you know he went to Yale?) That Dick Cavett adored Groucho Marx comes as no surprise. In a very different way, Groucho adored him right back. That may seem surprising to us. It still surprises Cavett, who’s too modest even to think of it as adoration. But it was, and that made sense to Groucho. The only thing better than being adored is being adored by someone whose worthiness in your eyes validates your own.
AMERICAN MASTERS: GROUCHO AND CAVETT
On GBH 2, Tuesday, 8-9:30 p.m.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.