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The Opinion Pages
April 15, 2011, 8:30 pm
In Defense of Offense
Dick Cavett on his career in show business, and more.
Brief dialogue:
Network executive: We’re afraid some viewers might be offended.
DC: So?
Thus began, with my shocking impertinence, my first lesson in network nervousness.
It couldn’t have come at a more discouraging time. I had just finished taping my very first show on ABC.
I was proud of the lineup of guests I had managed to snare for the scary maiden voyage on the stormy seas of hosting a 90-minute talk show. The guests booked were three distinct personalities. What is known in the talk show game as “a good mix.” Muhammad Ali, Angela Lansbury and Gore Vidal.
The talk was brisk and lively and there was much gratifying laughter from the studio audience. I came offstage relieved not to be dripping flop sweat and delighted to have the first one down and at having it go so well.
I expected a cheery slap on the back from the network man, and more or less got it. Only it was applied elsewhere.

“Nobody gives a goddamn what Muhammad Ali and Gore Vidal think about the Vietnam war.”
Shock preceded anger.
Hadn’t I done what I was supposed to do? Booked remarkable guests, kept the conversational ball in the air and entertained the viewers?
Apparently not.
I asked what it was about the show I had just done that the network could be worried about.
“We just don’t want to offend anyone,” he said to my wondering ears. So that was it. Someone somewhere might be offended.
I’ve never quite understood why this word — “offended” — is so horrifying. What doesn’t offend somebody? And who wants to see, read or write anything that is simon-pure in its inability to offend those dreaded “someones”?
“What could be more offensive than an offense-free show?” I sincerely inquired of the network suit.
That was considered offensive.
My favorite first dose of offended reaction is one I may have reported here before. It came from an apparently ruffled resident of Waco, Texas. My secretary was reluctant to show it to me. Hand-printed in pencil and all in caps, it read: “DEAR DICK CAVETT YOU LITTLE SAWED OFF FAGGOT COMMUNIST SHRIMP.”
A lot of thought went into that.
Untypically, there was a return address and I shot right back, “I am not sawed-off.”
Anyone working in the media can tell you that there seems to be an always-ready-to-explode segment of the populace for whom offense is a fate worse than anything imaginable. You’d think offense is one of the most calamitous things that could happen to a human being; right up there with the loss of a limb, or just missing a parking space.
What is our obligation to the offendees? To help them limit their suffering by avoiding all offense? With what advice?
You could stay in the house, watch no TV, read nothing of any kind including potentially upsetting snail mail or e-mail, and you just might manage to glide through an offense-free day. No surly neighbor, no near-misses by unpunished, demented, sidewalk-riding cyclists, no cab driver letting other cabs in ahead of yours while distractedly nattering on his phone in no known language. Stay cocooned and you will risk no insults from rude waiters, no pain from gruff clerks, no snarls from airline employees.
“What sort of thing offends you, Mr. Cavett?” an interviewer asked me recently. “In other words, what to you is politically incorrect.”
“Anything that is politically correct.”
Such as?
Well, the infantilism of the phrase “the n-word,” for example, and of those of less than fully formed cerebral development who have bowdlerized Mark Twain’s masterpiece because of the references to Huck’s beloved friend in the authentic vernacular of the time. I hate to spoil the fun of the benighted and alleged educators who have even pulled this great book from the school shelves, but Jim is the moral center of the story.
Presumably those same people would deny students the pleasure of Joseph Conrad’s “The … [what? ‘Person of Color’?] … of the ‘Narcissus’”? Why endow a word everyone knows with such majestic power that, like Yahweh of the Old Testament, it cannot be uttered?
A current example of offense ready to spring is the reaction of some to Julian Schnabel’s remarkable and stirring new movie, “Miral.” Anything set in the always-simmering Middle East is going to be a lightning rod. But the nay-saying here is upsetting.
Taken from Rula Jebreal’s excellent novel of the same name, much of the expressed heavy criticism of it is all wrong. The movie has had rained upon it the ire of the offense brigade. (Embarrassingly, some prominent Jewish organizations have not felt the need to see it in order to denounce it. Others, though, have praised it.)
Those who take “Miral” as an out-and-out political screed don’t seem to get it. It’s a dramatic rendering of the life of a girl caught up in a troubled world of violent passions. Not, as some fevered detractors have seen it, a venomous assault on Israel.
I have at least two sets of friends who’ve announced that they are definitely not going to see the movie.
I was taken aback. “Shouldn’t you have seen the movie in order to be able to say that?” I said, jesting partially, inspired perhaps by Mark Twain’s opinion that three specific literary scholars who extolled James Fenimore Cooper’s writing might have done well to have read some of it.
As to “Miral,” I suggest you see it.
How sad when art is viewed through a dreary political lens. In a world with a better grip on itself, the proper reaction to Schnabel’s and Jebreal’s touching movie would be, “What a hell of a good story!”
I hope that doesn’t hurt anyone’s feelings.
'huckleberry finn', 'miral', networks, political correctness
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The host of “The Dick Cavett Show” — which aired on ABC from 1968 to 1975 and on public television from 1977 to 1982 — Dick Cavett is the author, most recently, of “Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary, and Off-Screen Secrets.” The co-author of “Cavett” (1974) and “Eye on Cavett” (1983), he has also appeared on Broadway in “Otherwise Engaged,” “Into the Woods” and as narrator in “The Rocky Horror Show,” and has made guest appearances in movies and on TV shows including “Forrest Gump” and “The Simpsons.” Mr. Cavett lives in New York City and Montauk, N.Y.
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