Split Personality

A friend recently put me on to – trust me on this one – a wonderful episode of The Dick Cavett Show in which Cavett talks with both John Cheever and John Updike at the same time.

For lovers of post-war American literature and culture, this is a gem. Set aside an hour. Go watch. The Cavett-Cheever-Updike trio covers everything from writing to politics to God to anti-Americanism and much else in between and beyond.

I also note this bit in Cavett’s essay reflecting on the episode:

There is still a Cheever show of mine to be unearthed. I wish I could remember what’s on it. A worried Johnny Carson once admitted to me that he frequently couldn’t remember what was said on a show he had just finished taping. And, sometimes, who the guests were. It’s a strange thing, and one I haven’t quite figured out.

Johnny all but wiped his brow when I told him it happened to me too, and that a few days earlier I got home and it took me a good 10 minutes to be able to report with whom I had just done 90 minutes. (It was only Lucille Ball!) It’s an oddity peculiar to the live performer’s divided brain that needs exploring. It has to do with the fact that you — and the “you” that performs — are not identical.

Cavett is dead right. When the little red light goes on, the brain shifts, or should shift, into an entirely different gear. Some people find this terrifying; in my limited experience doing weekly US presidential horserace commentary for SkyNews and the ABC, it’s a hell of an in-the-moment rush. But when the light goes off and the spot is over, however, that moment is over and the brain leaves the whole thing up on a fairly high shelf. Thus the regular Friday evening conversation with Mrs Prick in the weeks leading up to Election Day: “How’d you go on Sky today?”

“Well, I think!”

“What’d you talk about?”

“Umm, the election?”

(Some of my co-panelists on Sky might say I didn’t know what I was talking about either, but that’s another story.)

For a laugh I did another TV project a few months ago and while it’s still under the seal the show will soon hit the small screen. Until I read Cavett just now, I wrote my increasing nervousness, bordering on mild panic, about its airing down to a fear of being at the mercy of the editing suite, a place where the producer’s and the talent’s interests don’t always intersect (and where the former’s always win).

But Cavett comes closer to the truth: Even though I was there for every minute of the taping, the cringe I feel is the same one gets when the old family albums get dragged out. Did I really say/do/look like that? Dearie me.

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