The best celebrity interviewers have the ability to show us how the stars are not like us at all—not only because of the entourages, wardrobes, and bank accounts, but because of the talent for which we revere them —and also how they’re kind of just like us after all: sharing the same insecurities, fears, doubts, forgetfulness, confusion, etc. They are, that is to say, real human beings.
Like no other interviewer on network television before or since, Dick Cavett could draw all of this out of his guests: both their creativity and vulnerability. What seemed like silly chit chat was a disarming camouflage for incisive questions he let casually slip through the banter.
“Cavett’s prime-time show famously featured a who’s who of rock stars that both performed and sat for loose, freeform conversations,” writes Jambase, “which brought the ethos of the hippie generation to the homes of millions.” Amongst his many rock star guests, he developed a special bond with Janis Joplin who sat down with him on August 3, 1970 for her appearance on his show and what would turn out to be her final televised performance and interview.
Joplin belts out “My Baby” and “Half Moon,” which you can see in her full appearance above, with an introduction by Cavett. Then after both songs, she walks over the couch to hang out with the host, who greets with her warmly with, “Very nice to see you, my little songbird.” Cavett poked fun at his guests, but he didn’t talk down or kiss up. Most everyone who sat down with him found his dry wit and candor refreshing.
Joplin, who admits she doesn’t like doing interviews, “seems totally at ease during this conversation,” Ultimate Classic Rock points out, “a wide-ranging but informal chat that touches on everything from her feelings regarding concert riots to whether or not she ever waterskis.” She is poised throughout and throws Cavett off-guard with her deadpan humor.
They play off each other in a charming exchange that doesn’t go nearly as deep as her final interview with the Village Voice’s Howard Smith four days before her death that October, but which captures Joplin’s thoughtful, easygoing personality beautifully. Cavett later credited Joplin for sending so many other major rock stars his way after her first appearance on his show in 1968.
“She had done other television she didn’t like very much,” he remembered in 2016 on PBS’s American Masters. “She told people, ‘it’s okay to do his show, he’s not a dreary figure.’” Neither, despite her tragic story, was Janis Joplin. “At once insecure yet full of conviction, opinionated yet concerned about offending, fierce yet tenderhearted,” writes Maria Popova at Brain Pickings; she was, as millions of Cavett’s viewers were delighted to discover, a “complex person brimming with the sort of inner contradictions that make us human.”