updated 1/25/2005 3:52:45 PM ET 2005-01-25T20:52:45

Guests: Chevy Chase, Bob Wright, Rita Rudner, Jim Fowler, Tom Shales

ANNOUNCER:  This is an MSNBC SPECIAL REPORT: “Remembering Johnny.”




ANNOUNCER:  He was the master of the monologue...


JOHNNY CARSON, “TONIGHT” SHOW:  Attention K-mart shoppers...


ANNOUNCER:  ... the undisputed king of late night, often imitated but never equaled.


CARSON:  And Doc—Doc is also not here.


ANNOUNCER:  For more than three decades, Johnny served America a nightcap of topical wit and heartland charm.


CARSON:  And I have enjoyed every single minute of it.


ANNOUNCER:  And along the way, he helped launch countless careers.


CHEVY CHASE, ACTOR/COMEDIAN:  Because he was himself a fan of those who deserved it.


ANNOUNCER:  Tonight, Chevy Chase, Rita Rudner, chairman and CEO of NBC Universal Bob Wright and animal expert Jim Fowler remember their friend, TV legend Johnny Carson.


CARSON:  It has been an honor and a privilege to come into your homes all these years and entertain you.


ANNOUNCER:  Now live from Los Angeles, Chris Matthews.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews, live from Los Angeles, and welcome to our special report “Remembering Johnny,” a tribute to one of the most extraordinary entertainers of our time, Johnny Carson.

For three decades, NBC‘s the “TONIGHT” show starring Johnny Carson was the perfect late-night friend for millions of viewers.  Although shy in person, Carson broke through the glass of our TV sets and made himself right at home as America‘s most popular late-night companion.  Tonight, we pay tribute to an American original, Johnny Carson.

We begin tonight with Bob Wright, the chairman and CEO of NBC Universal, who was a close personal friend with Johnny Carson.  They and their wives traveled all over together after Carson retired from the “TONIGHT” show.

Well, I‘ve got to ask, Bob, what it was like to be a friend of Johnny Carson?

BOB WRIGHT, CHAIRMAN AND CEO, NBC UNIVERSAL:  Well, it was wonderful.  It was really wonderful to hang around with somebody that had that much talent and was that relaxed and had as many interests as he did.  And all four of us just kind of clicked, and one thing led to another, and we kept going places together and doing things.  And it was just a wonderful break for me.  I was—I looked forward to those trips, and now I wish I had—

I wish I‘d done a couple more of them.

MATTHEWS:  Well, take us along with you on some of those trips.  Start with—when was the first time you traveled?  Suzanne, your wife, and Alex, his wife, when did that quartet of you get headed off from America the first time?

WRIGHT:  Well, we would see Johnny at Wimbledon, when NBC was televising Wimbledon, and we always tried to help him out so that he would come and watch the matches—he loved tennis—and make sure he didn‘t get, you know, too mugged by the crowds.  And that was the first time we started to go places together.  And we went up to Scotland one time after that.  And then after that, the next year, we went to Russia together.  This was just at the end of the Russian—basically, the fall of the USSR.  And we went to Alaska on another trip.  We went to a safari in Tanzania on another trip.  We went to the—up to British Columbia, Vancouver, San Juan Islands.  We even did weekends at Catalina and the Channel Islands.

But the big trip that we—that I couldn‘t make—I screwed this one up—is going through the Panama Canal with Johnny on his new boat.  And I remember something I said to Suzanne—I turned this down, and I‘ll never do it.  I‘ll never, ever—I‘m never going to have an occasion to go through the Panama Canal, especially with him.  But we had a lot of good travel.

MATTHEWS:  Well, you know, I want to know about every one of those trips.  You went to Scotland with Johnny Carson.  What was it like being out there where nobody knew who he was?

WRIGHT:  Well, he enjoyed that.  But you know, during the—even after he was retired, there were very few places you could go where nobody knew who he was.  Somebody always knew who he was.  And that made it—you know, that added a little reality to something that was kind of a fairy-tale up until then.  Even in Scotland—we went to Glen Eagles (ph), and they had a whole bunch of things—you could play golf and tennis and all that.

And one day, we read in a magazine that they had a—falcons there, and falconing was something we could go and we could learn.  And I signed us up to go there, and John—this is really a typical Carson story.  We get there, and they‘re out in this big field, and there‘s this great big guy and he‘s got leather all over him.  And he gets John out there, and John puts a big leather arm thing on.  And the guy blows the whistle and this huge bird comes flying in and lands on his arm!  And John, of course, does all the antics of moving around.  He blows the whistle again and another bird comes down and misses his arm and lands on his shoulder, like right by his ear.  He‘s got these two very large, big-beaked falcons out there.

And all the shenanigans, the bird falling off, the leather falling off

·         I mean, we laughed for about an hour-and-a-half after that whole thing was over.

MATTHEWS:  Was he a happy guy?

WRIGHT:  He was a very happy guy when he was doing things he liked to

do.  I mean, he always had a reputation of being a very tough guy when he

was doing his job, but he took his work so seriously.  But when it was

over, it was over, and he wanted to have fun and enjoy things.  He loved to

·         when we would go on these trips, he would be the most informed person in the group.  He did a lot of homework.  He studied up on things.  He was very, very curious.  I‘m sure that accounted for a lot of his success on television.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, I always noticed that, too.  But tell me about Russia because, like all of us, he grew up and even longer under the cold war and he felt all the reality of that, you know, ever-present danger of a bomb dropping on us and the world ending.  What was it like to go to Russia with him after the change?

WRIGHT:  Well, it was actually right at the change, which was—we didn‘t quite understand the significance of that.  It was still in a period where you couldn‘t travel in Russia without a lot of documentation.  And Intourist—they would assign you an Intourist person, which was sort of like a junior spy, and that person would be your travel guide.  You could only go where that person took you.

And we went to St. Petersburg.  We went to the Hermitage with all the paintings all over the floor and the walls and on the sides.  And John had a lot of fun with that.  We went to Moscow.  We went to—because he learned to speak Russian within six months of the time we went on the trip.  He had a real facility with languages.  But he learned to speak Russian, and he could speak it well enough to talk to all the people we came in contact with.

I want to tell you a funny story on that.  He insisted on going to Russian restaurants where no foreigners were, maybe some of the Germans who had businesses there because they seemed to be the only other group that was allowed to be out of the sort of American restaurants or special ones.  So we go one day, one afternoon, to a real working-class area in Moscow.  And we go in, and we order whatever they‘re ordering.  So we order the local meal, and they show up at the table with a great, big plate of kind of like gray-brown meat, lots of it, big, big plate of it.  And we‘re kind of staring at it.  And Alex is looking at it like, Oh, my God, I‘m going to have to eat this thing.  And John and I are sort of staring at it.

And John asked a table next to us, which was a bunch of guys, and they had the same big plate—in Russian—to explain to him what‘s on the plate.  So they‘re chatting away and they‘re talking.  And he comes back to me and he says, It‘s—he said, They tell me it‘s a whole bunch of different kinds of meat.  You know, I think it‘s mystery meat.  That‘s what it is.


MATTHEWS:  That sounds like college, Bob!

WRIGHT:  So I‘m laughing with him.  And the table of these guys, they look over, and they want to know what‘s so funny.  So John goes, leans over and explains to them what mystery meat is.  And all of a sudden, they all start to laugh.  And in their—with their Russian accents, they all start saying “mystery meat, mystery meat.”


MATTHEWS:  Is he the kind of guy who‘s a mimic, who therefore loves—is good at foreign languages, so he really sounds like a Russian?

WRIGHT:  Well, he—there‘s certainly a connection.  His memory—his ability to remember all his lines and jokes and the mimicking—but he had a facility with the dialects.  There‘s no question about it.  I mean, I don‘t know that other people could do that.

We went to—we went to Africa on a safari.  He learned to speak Swahili.  And people think that‘s kind of an exaggeration.  I‘m telling you, we‘re out there in the middle of the—of the Serengeti with—we were the only guests on this safari, and he spoke the—he spoke to the people that worked there, the native Tanzanians and Kenyans, on a regular basis.  So it is a gift.  There‘s no question.  But he had it.

MATTHEWS:  You mean he was able to talk to the East Africans, the Tanzanians, in actual Swahili and actually have conversations with them?

WRIGHT:  Oh, they would have—he would ask them about food.  He would ask them about the animals.  He‘d ask them about trails.  And you know—yes, they were having—he definitely could have conversations with them.

MATTHEWS:  Did he ever think back and decide that, Well, maybe I should make a comeback?  You know, it‘s all those 15-some years in retirement.  Did he ever suggest, Well, I shouldn‘t have quit so early?

WRIGHT:  Well, you know, he—maybe for a half a minute.  You know, he told me one time—the only time he ever sort of admitted to me on the phone calls that we would have that maybe this was a time to go back in—but it didn‘t last long—was during the Clinton impeachment.


WRIGHT:  And he said—he said, This material, he said, this is just

·         this is just too, too good.

MATTHEWS:  Rip and read!


WRIGHT:  He was always calling with jokes and—but then he said—he kind of pulled himself together and he said at the end, he said, You know, he said—he said, The fact of the matter is, he said, I‘ve never seen material like this.  He said, If I went back, I couldn‘t write better material than this.


MATTHEWS:  You know, I think—do you think he—do you think he had much political interest?  Where would you put him?  Was he in the middle, somewhere on the left?  Where would you put him?  I‘m curious.

WRIGHT:  You know, that‘s very hard to tell.  I‘d say he was—I‘d say he was more in the middle.  He—in all the times that we spent, he never took sides in politics.  He never had strong political opinions.  He had wonderful jokes about the people, about politicians and the things they did.  But he never had—he never had a formed political opinion.  He had a lot of opinions about the world and about what should be done to people or with people and things, but not from a political point of view.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  What was his secret, do you think?  Why did everybody like him?

WRIGHT:  Well, he had that ability to relate to people.  He took his work very seriously, and he worked very hard to be—make sure that his material related to people.  He prided himself on that connection.

I‘ll tell you one funny one.  When we went to Alaska, and we were on a boat that Johnny‘d chartered, and we‘re outside Juneau.  We went to a fjord.  You drive—you go down these fjords.  They‘re very wide at the opening, and then they narrow.  And at the end, there‘s nothing left except the glacier and the huge walls of stone on both sides.

And we‘re going down there, and Johnny—now, we‘re in, you know, I don‘t know, 50 miles south of Juneau.  And there‘s a kind of a cruise ship of sorts, a small one, which we can see getting on the same line we‘re in and getting a little close to us.  And John is out there on the deck looking at the glacier, and he can see this boat out of the side of his eyes.  And I‘m with him.  And he‘s seeing a lot of people coming on the deck, and they‘re all waving and they‘re starting to yell.

And he‘s just trying to be nice to them because he—you know, he‘s not trying to go out of his way to create a scene, but he sees they‘re so interested, he‘s kind fascinated.  And the two of us are watching.  And more and more people are coming out, and pretty soon, the boat is close enough.  And there are couple or three hundred people on these—all of these multiple decks, all screaming and yelling at Johnny out here in the middle of nowhere.  And then one thing occurred to us all of a sudden, they‘re all men.  It was a gay cruise!


WRIGHT:  Johnny started to laugh.  He started to laugh.  He‘s waving and waving back and forth and couldn‘t believe that all these guys showed up for him!


MATTHEWS:  That‘s great.  Bob, you should write all this up.  It‘s great stuff.  Nobody else knows about it.  Bob Wright, chairman and CEO of NBC Universal.  He spent a lot of time with his friend, Johnny Carson, in those many years of retirement.  I want to thank you for those great photos you provided of your travels with Johnny Carson.  Unmissable and great stuff.

Tomorrow, the HARDBALL “Heroes Tour” begins.  We‘ll be at Camp Pendleton in California, the home of the U.S. Marines.  California‘s first lady, Maria Shriver, who‘s spent a lot of time with the families of Marines, is going to join us tomorrow night, along with some prominent former Marines, like—guess who? -- Ed McMahon, John Glenn and Brian Dennehy.  That‘s tomorrow at 7:00 Eastern on the HARDBALL “Heroes Tour.”

And up next, lots of personal memories of the great Johnny Carson with his close friend and poker pal, actor/comedian Chevy Chase.  And he‘s great on this subject.

I‘m Chris Matthews.  You‘re watching MSNBC.


GROUCHO MARX, COMEDIAN:  And who are you? (UNINTELLIGIBLE) more important.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Carol Ann Tracy (ph).

MARX:  You‘re Joanne who?


MARX:  Carol and Tracy?  You‘re two different girls?


CARSON:  Say the secret word, and Groucho will come to your house!

MARX:  I see.  My dressing room isn‘t good enough for her?




MATTHEWS:  Welcome back.  Johnny Carson was a very private man, as many of us know.  But Chevy Chase was a personal friend of Carson‘s and appeared on his show many times.  I interviewed Chevy earlier today at Sundance, and I began by asking him what it was like to be a pal with Johnny Carson.


CHEVY CHASE, ACTOR/COMEDIAN:  It‘s just hard to watch all of this stuff that‘s so Hollywood about him—you know, all these people saying, Oh, he was the greatest this and that.  But as a—just a guy, he was a real serious fellow and an intellect.  And he had a very good sense of languages, and he read quite a bit, not just so that he was—he wouldn‘t just skim.  He probably scanned more to prepare for a guest who had written a book, for instance, or whatever.

And we had a poker club called the Gourmet Poker Club.  We still have it.  It‘s basically Steve Martin and Johnny and Neil Simon and Carl Reiner and myself and other funny—various funny people.  And a it‘s lot of fun to, you know, every month or two get together, however, whenever we could.  And Johnny would fold a lot.  Then he‘d be there on my left, mumbling throughout the rest of the play.  He‘d be going.  (UNINTELLIGIBLE)  And I‘d just start (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

MATTHEWS:  Was he trying to psych you out?

CHASE:  No, he‘s just—he‘s just thinking or talking.  He‘d just finished a show, you know?  I don‘t know -- (UNINTELLIGIBLE) I start doing it myself, and then everybody starts giggling a little bit.  And before you know it, we‘d all be laughing and he‘d be laughing and—he was a real guy.  He was just a human, just a human, you know, who‘s being given all these accolades, which I think would embarrass him, quite frankly.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  You know, I—this is a guy...

CHASE:  He‘s just naturally funny, you know.

MATTHEWS:  I never knew him.  There‘s one guy in the whole world I wanted to be able to call him up and have him say, I‘d like what you do on television.  I never got it.  But I mean, he—for some reason, I really wanted his approval because he...

CHASE:  I think everybody did.


CHASE:  Because when all is said and done, if you take Leno, Letterman, Conan, any of these guys, they have a sort of a niche that they fill for certain types, intellectually, emotionally, or whatever, spiritually, however you want to look at it.  I don‘t think spiritually really figures in on any of them.  But Johnny was the cross-cut.  He was the—from where he had hailed—he was America...


CHASE:  ... and he covered the whole thing.  So sort of like talking

to the dean, as opposed to just an upperclassman, you know?  He was really

·         and also bright enough and generous enough of spirit to handle any kind of a guest.  You know, you don‘t want to go head to head with Dave, you know, and get beaten.  You don‘t want to put Jay Leno in that situation.  But with Johnny, he‘d be generous enough to let you win, you know?  And he just naturally had great, great comic timing.

MATTHEWS:  How do you think he kept that plains state Nebraska innocence?  And I don‘t mean it morally, innocence.  I mean innocence of being jaded by being around movie stars.  He still seemed to get a kick out of meeting John Wayne or...

CHASE:  Sure.

MATTHEWS:  ... Jimmy Stewart or Bob Hope.  He still seemed to be one of us.

CHASE:  Yes.  Yes, I think he...

MATTHEWS:  How‘d he do it?

CHASE:  ... did.  I think he genuinely did.  But he was always happy to have Jimmy Stewart on, for instance, because Jimmy Stewart always had a great story.  You know, he always had something to say, something to tell.  And he was genuinely a classy man.  And Johnny was, too.  I think that he maintained what—this ingenuous quality that you referred to because he was himself a fan of those who deserved it in his eyes.  And he was also a very shy man.


CHASE:  So he didn‘t party around a lot.  You didn‘t see him much, you know?  You only saw him if, you know, he‘d call and say, Let‘s get a bite, or something like that, and then it‘d just be the four of us, you know, eating, my wife and his wife and...

MATTHEWS:  Why do you think—I mean, I think he retired at the right time, after 30 years.  But why do you think he went inside?  There was a lot of talk at the time he‘d do Vegas, he‘d go out and try something else, and he decided to go in.  Why do you think he retreated like Garbo?  Why did that happen?

CHASE:  I think he‘d had it.  It was a surprise to me, actually, because it seemed on the surface of it as if this was a man who was slight of size, and partially, that builds into that concept of, you know, small men would rather be noticed...


CHASE:  ... and all that.  Not so.  In fact, he was—I think he knew who he was and how far he had gone and that he had so much time left in his life, a decade or two, or what might be left over...


CHASE:  ... and he wanted to spend it traveling and learning more.  And even Steve tried to get him to do the Oscars when Steve hosted it, and I wish I had thought of it when I was hosting it because it was a great concept, just to have Johnny walk out in the midst of this argument between Steve and Billy Crystal over who was the best...

MATTHEWS:  Was there any part of it that was Garboesque, in the sense he didn‘t want to see—he knew how good-looking he was on television.  All through his career, he looked great.  He dressed well.  He presented himself, as you say...

CHASE:  He wasn‘t Garboesque.

MATTHEWS:  Did he not want to see people see him older?

CHASE:  He looked very much like Greta, when—if you really knew him.  No!  The fact is, the guy—lookit, he actually, surprisingly so, felt shy and embarrassed about being pulled out and called out to be seen again.  You know, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) well, that will call for a standing ovation or something.  I don‘t want to do that.  I don‘t want to be...

MATTHEWS:  No curtain calls.

CHASE:  No.  And it was a surprise to many people, I think, that he had that kind of integrity.


MATTHEWS:  Up next, more of Johnny Carson‘s friend and fellow comedian and poker pal, Chevy Chase.  And later, animal expert Jim Fowler.  You‘ll remember him, a frequent “TONIGHT” show guest.

You‘re watching MSNBC‘s special report, “Remembering Johnny.”


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  We must go on the floor now.  Now, with me, lay down like this.  No, no, no, no!





MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with more of  our MSNBC special report, “Remembering Johnny.”  And we‘re continuing my interview with Chevy Chase, a frequent poker player with Johnny.  Here‘s what Chevy Chase had to say about Carson‘s sense of humor.


CHASE:  If you‘re funny, you‘re funny.  He was a funny guy, a really funny guy.  He had good—when I say good timing, I mean, that‘s got a lot to do with it, but a sense of humor is a sense of perspective.  It‘s a sense of...


CHASE:  ... gauging what‘s important in life and what isn‘t.  And he had that sense of perspective.  That‘s what a sense of humor is about.  And I‘m a funny guy.  And then we got along because we were funny guys, both who were really rather, frankly, nice fellows.  And he was...

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  He was nice to the audience.  I remember he always did things like, Well, we got another crazy Friday night audience here.  Just something like that makes you so included.

CHASE:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  (UNINTELLIGIBLE) yes, I did it.  Friday night‘s a crazy audience.

CHASE:  And it—but it seems so Hollywood for him to say, I‘ve been welcomed into your homes after all these years, and I‘ve felt so comfortable being welcomed into your homes.  I was like, Well, who wrote that line?


CHASE:  But he genuinely felt that way.

MATTHEWS:  He should have because he was.

CHASE:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  And a lot of lonely people saw him over the years, and he was their only friend.

CHASE:  You‘re absolutely right.  I mean, there were guys that would just go, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) my life.  I wish I had her back, and turn on Carson.

MATTHEWS:  And I think a lot of people who were in the theater and in show business who were very successful and then had that go away—I think they felt that Carson was their connection.  (UNINTELLIGIBLE) who‘s on, who‘s doing it.

CHASE:  Yes, and he cut that, I say, broad swathe across America.  He

·         there was no accent.  You couldn‘t—I mean, I guess could you say he had a Midwestern accent about as much as you or I have.

MATTHEWS:  Ronald Reagan had a pretty wide reach as a personality when he was Ronald Reagan theater because I grew up with him.

CHASE:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  Forget the politics.  Very likable Midwestern guy.  I think Carson‘s bigger.  I think he had few people didn‘t like him.

CHASE:  There obviously were people who didn‘t like him, but they had their reasons.  They may well have been professional reasons.

MATTHEWS:  No, I mean in the audience.

CHASE:  In the audience?


CHASE:  You mean...

MATTHEWS:  Everybody seemed to like him.

CHASE:  ... in the studio audience?

MATTHEWS:  In the country.

CHASE:  Did you say they—that he did have people who didn‘t like him...

MATTHEWS:  He had—nobody didn‘t like him.

CHASE:  ... or he had—nobody didn‘t like him?

MATTHEWS:  I thought—I thought he had an amazing...

CHASE:  I didn‘t like him.

MATTHEWS:  ... almost like a Santa Claus mask that‘s always looking at you.  He seemed to always be talking to everybody.

CHASE:  Yes.  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  Do you like that comparison?

CHASE:  Yes.


MATTHEWS:  I want your approval...

CHASE:  ... so much for asking.  Good-bye.

MATTHEWS:  ... now that you‘re...

CHASE:  Thanks a lot.

MATTHEWS:  Now that he‘s gone, I want your approval!

CHASE:  Santa Claus mask—no, you‘re—you‘re right.  Again, there was an ingenuous quality to him, and he did seek, just as all people who are in this business, approval from his audience.  And—but he never kow-towed.  He never—oh, I forgot the word, so...

MATTHEWS:  I think he liked Groucho Marx.  He looked up to him.  As everybody in the...

CHASE:  Who wouldn‘t?

MATTHEWS:  ... in the—and I think he understood that one of the appeals of Groucho Marx is he was a guy who liked good-looking women.  It was as simple as that.  And Carson—my English teacher in school used to say he just really has some babes on the show.  But that wasn‘t initially a part of his shtick.  He would bring on Carol Wayne (ph), you know, these incredible-looking people.  They‘d sit there, and he‘d be, like, Here I‘m a guy, a regular-looking guy, and here I am, I‘m loving this babe here.

CHASE:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  And that was sort of the opening act.

CHASE:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  That was the fun part of the show.

CHASE:  A Vaudevillian kind of...

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  Naughty...

CHASE:  ... treatment of that.

MATTHEWS:  The naughty innocent.

CHASE:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  Who seems to get a kick—I can‘t believe I‘m here in this room with this babe, and this is unbelievable.

CHASE:  Yes, yes.

MATTHEWS:  And I think that—well, is that part of him?

CHASE:  Yes, yes.  But in real life, I think he was befuddled by the ineffectiveness of his marriages.  I remember we were having dinner one night.  And I think he said to my wife—while I‘d gone to the bathroom or something, they were talking.  And now he was married to his fourth wife, Alex.


CHASE:  And he said he was so shy with girls that he didn‘t have any pickup lines or anything like that.  I know exactly what he means.  And so he just asks them to marry him. 


MATTHEWS:  That was his pickup line? 

CHASE:  Yes.  That‘s what he told Jayni. 

MATTHEWS:  He didn‘t say, I‘m Chevy Chase and you‘re not?


CHASE:  No.  He didn‘t say, hi, I‘m Johnny Carson.  He would not say, how you like—or anything.  He would just say...

MATTHEWS:  He would fall for them. 

CHASE:  Yes, let‘s get married.

MATTHEWS:  Was he a romantic? 

CHASE:  Yes, he was.  That‘s—it depends on what you mean, literarily, or what sense here? 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I mean like falling for somebody, thinking this is going to be the change of my life? 

CHASE:  I think he was. 

I think that, when I use the word ingenuous and supple, things of that nature, they fall into that realm of romantic also. 


MATTHEWS:  More on remembering Johnny with Chevy Chase coming up.  Chevy Chase talks about why he loved—why we loved Carson‘s animal segments and why they were so memorable. 

You‘re watching MSNBC‘s special report, “Remembering Johnny.”



ANNOUNCER:  This is an MSNBC special report, “Remembering Johnny.”

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to this MSNBC special report, “Remembering Johnny.” 

Chevy Chase, a longtime friend of Johnny Carson, told me that the king of late night didn‘t regret getting out of game when he did. 


CHASE:  He felt fulfilled by what he had done.  There was so much else to life than what he had done for 30 years that wanted to experience.  And he still had the youth and the vigor to do that.  And, unfortunately, because of his smoking habit, the emphysema got him. 

But he was still young looking for 79.  I called Steve Martin as soon as I found out yesterday morning, and Steve didn‘t know yet that he had died.  But I said, Steve, did you know he was sick?  And Steve said, I had a sense of it, but not—maybe a cold or something, nothing—nobody really had a real sense of it. 

MATTHEWS:  Did he ever quit smoking?  Did he ever quit?

CHASE:  Yes.  He was always trying to quit.  And I think he did quit for a while.  yes. 


CHASE:  I just can‘t really answer that.  You sneak them outside.

MATTHEWS:  If you had to write his Encyclopedia Britannica insert, what would you write? 

CHASE:  For Johnny Carson? 


CHASE:  Four marriages, 30 years on TV. 


CHASE:  Jeez, I don‘t know.  I would write, a kind, all-American gentleman with a great sense of humor. 

MATTHEWS:  He created the talk show, in a sense.  Steve Martin—

Steve Allen did it.  And they all played their roles, Jack Paar. 

CHASE:  Sure.

MATTHEWS:  But he brought it out to center stage, didn‘t he?  He made it for everybody.  He built the big audience. 

CHASE:  And look how many—look at the people he interviewed. 

The thing with the animals, so many people have commented about—just people in the streets have commented—when I walk by, they go by and they go, monkey.  No, I‘m saying—how he even brought the jungle. 

MATTHEWS:  And his biggest acts were when he—when Ed Ames would hit the target right in the crouch.  Remember? 


CHASE:  Yes.  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Remember that scene?

CHASE:  What was that?  Ed Ames with the hatchet. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, with the hatchet, yes.

CHASE:  And he said, I didn‘t know you were Jewish. 


MATTHEWS:  Because he was giving a circumcision there as a mohel. 

But the other one was whenever an animal would come on and pee on him. 

This is comedy, isn‘t it?  Why do we love that so much? 

CHASE:  I think partly because he was so agile.  He was a very athletic guy.


CHASE:  And that he could do that thing of jumping and then running and jumping literally into the arms of Ed McMahon, this big tough guy like my size.



CHASE:  And just curl up like a little guy.  He had—that was so warm and cuddly and sweet.  And you felt like you wanted to be the guy who caught him. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  And then he talked about the time he lost his kid, remember? 

CHASE:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  They drove off the cliff.  And he came on television and showed pictures of his sons, Chris, his pictures he had taken.  Boy, that was powerful stuff.  It was so—it was so intimate for a guy to come on and talk about imagine losing a son and then have him come on talk about that with his audience, like he wanted to give the audience that. 

CHASE:  It wasn‘t that wanted to give the audience that, so much as he wanted to give his son that.  And he wanted to give himself that.  He was so reclusive and so not—aloof would be the wrong word. 

MATTHEWS:  He wanted people to know that his son was worthy of note. 

CHASE:  You bet. 

MATTHEWS:  His son was an important person. 

CHASE:  Yes.  And I think he needed to express that openly to the world, that, I am a father.  I am a human being.  I‘m not just the guy with the hatchet and the monkey on my head. 


CHASE:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Thanks for coming on. 

CHASE:  Hey, thanks for having me, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Chevy Chase. 


MATTHEWS:  What a great interview from that man, Chevy Chase. 

Tomorrow on HARDBALL, we‘ll be at Camp Pendleton in California out here, the home of the U.S. Marines.  We‘ll be talking to General—Major General Richard Kramlich, a commander of Marines in Iraq.  He‘ll join us from Fallujah.  What a hot spot that is.  That‘s all coming up tomorrow at 7:00 Eastern on the HARDBALL Heroes Tour.  And, surely, that is what it is. 

And, up next, countless careers were launched by Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.”  When we return, comedian Rita Rudner and animal expert Jim Fowler—and he‘ll be great—they‘re both going to join us.

You‘re watching MSNBC‘s special report, “Remembering Johnny.”


MATTHEWS:  Coming up, comedian Rita Rudner and wildlife expert Jim Fowler remember their friend TV legend Johnny Carson when MSNBC‘s special report, “Remembering Johnny,” returns.



MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to this MSNBC special report.  We‘re paying tribute to Johnny Carson, as is most of the other programs on the air. 

And one of his greatest achievements was the ability to launch careers, lots of careers in show business, a couple of them right now.  Rita Rudner was a frequent guest on Johnny Carson‘s “Tonight Show.”  And wildlife expert Jim Fowler was a regular on “The Tonight Show,” appearing about 100 times with Johnny.  Currently, Jim the host of Mutual of Omaha‘s “Wild Kingdom.”

I got to start with Jim, because we just had—excuse us for a second.  Because we started by showing some of these pictures of him with animals.  And I was taken, because I‘m scared to death of being in the same situation.  The boa constrictor, with its tail going between his legs, was Carson scared or was he like a normal guy or what? 


MATTHEWS:  I mean, everybody I guess is scared.

JIM FOWLER, WILDLIFE EXPERT:  Well, you know, you can‘t rehearse that. 

And—but, yes, I told Johnny once, with a huge snake, don‘t move too much, because it might tighten up on him.  Well, he froze.  He took that pretty seriously.  But the trick was, I think Johnny trusted me and he also respected the natural world.  That came through a lot. 

MATTHEWS:  Did he ever get bit?

RITA RUDNER, COMEDIAN:  Only by women. 


MATTHEWS:  Well, Rita...

FOWLER:  Well, that‘s the psychological biting that gets you.

RUDNER:  Yes. 


FOWLER:  But, you know, I was a little wet behind the ears when I first started doing “Johnny.”  It was in ‘64.  I had been on “The Today Show” with Dave Garroway.  But I felt a little stiff there. 

But with Johnny, I had—I really had a rapport with Johnny.  And I knew that, if the animals did something, he‘d handle it.  But it was great to be on with him. 

MATTHEWS:  Rita, I‘ve got to ask you, what was it like to be promoted by the greatest man on nighttime television, Johnny Carson? 

RUDNER:  Well, it was quite an honor.  And it was quite a struggle for me, too, because I auditioned for five years to get on the show.  And the talent booker was convinced that Johnny wouldn‘t like me.  And I finally made it onto the show.  And wouldn‘t you know that Shirley MacLaine talked through my segment and I never got on the show.

And I said, if she‘s so in touch with the universe, why doesn‘t she know she‘s talking through my segment?  And then...

MATTHEWS:  But you forgave her, right?  Obviously, you haven‘t remembered this all these years.


RUDNER:  No, I forgive and I don‘t forget.  So then...

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me ask you about, what was it like?  How many times were you on the “Carson” show? 

RUDNER:  I think I was on about 15 times.  And what happened was, I got on the show.  He created a special show for comedians who had been bumped and hadn‘t gotten on the show, because he was so concerned. 

He said, I want to do a show where these comedians get on.  And he wanted to make sure that we were all on the show.  And after that, I was on for eight times in one year, because he really, really liked me.  And we just had a rapport.  And what I loved about him is that you knew you were in good hands, because he wanted you to be funny.  He wanted to set you up.  Nobody could set you up like Johnny Carson. 

MATTHEWS:  It seems like...

RUDNER:  And every comedian has the same story about him.

MATTHEWS:  About 90 percent of the comedians come from New York City.  A lot of them are Jewish.  They come from really tough backgrounds.  They always tell how poor they were growing up.

Here is this Waspy guy from the middle of the country, from the red states.  Why was he funny?  You‘re not supposed to be funny if you‘re from that part of the country. 

RUDNER:  He had such great comic timing.  One of his comic idols was Jack Benny, who was also one of my comic idols.

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

RUDNER:  And he loved timing.  And you‘re talking to Jim.  The looks that he gave to the camera, were nobody could play an embarrassed moment better than Johnny Carson. 

And what was great about Johnny, his comedy didn‘t come from arrogance or superiority.  It came from being on the level with all other human beings.  And I think that‘s why he could relate to everyone so well. 

MATTHEWS:  Jim, of all the comics, I can‘t think of another one that really liked to work with animals.  I remember Don Rickles once saying, I was supposed to do the Sullivan show, but my bear died. 


MATTHEWS:  But there weren‘t many of the modern comics that actually worked with animals.  Why do you think Carson did and could? 

FOWLER:  Well, you know, Carson, I think, started it all.  He really did. 

I went on with him.  By the way, the first time I was on with him, there was this vivacious woman, a singer, a young girl.  Turned out to be Barbra Streisand. 


FOWLER:  But the exciting thing on “Carson” were the kind of people you met in the green room.  Plus, Johnny made everyone feel comfortable.  I think he respected animals.  And he also saw that animals were real.  Johnny was a really real person.  There was no fooling around. 


MATTHEWS:  How did he get those faces out of that chimpanzee, that monkey he had on, that actually seemed to be like shining up to him?  It was the most appealing picture of a monkey I‘ve ever seen.

FOWLER:  Oh, yes, but the point is, Johnny never tried to make things happen.  But, when they did, he would relate to it.  That‘s the key to television.  You don‘t want to try to do it.  He had a keen sense of the absurd, also, which helped him a lot. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you—Rita, we only have a minute here.  What do you think Carson sought to accomplish in his career?  What was he trying to do every night? 

RUDNER:  I think he loved what he did.  And I think that‘s what came over to the American public.  And he totally enjoyed what he did.  There was something new.  As Chevy was saying, he was an inquisitive guy.  And he wanted to see what was going to be happening next.  And I think he‘ll always be remembered as the king of late night and the guy who kind of made the talk show a staple in America‘s diet. 

MATTHEWS:  He sure did.  Thank you.  Well said, by the way, Rita. 

Thank you very much for joining us from Las Vegas today, Rita Rudner.

And, Jim Fowler, boy, the way you‘ve got so many great movies of that show.  We don‘t have enough time to talk about him speaking Swahili.

But, when we return, Pulitzer Prize-winning TV critic Tom Shales of “The Washington Post,” the best writer about television I think there is, on Johnny Carson‘s lasting legacy. 

You‘re watching MSNBC‘s special report, “Remembering Johnny.” 


CARSON:  Sis, boom, baa. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Sis, boom, baa. 

CARSON:  Describe the sound made when a sheep explodes. 




MATTHEWS:  Johnny Carson was most of all always good company and guaranteed to make you laugh on a lonely night. 

TV critic Tom Shales wrote an appreciation piece on Johnny Carson in today‘s “Washington Post.” 

Was that it, Tom?  Great company, late-night loneliness? 

TOM SHALES, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  Well, I don‘t think we‘re all lonely when we watched Johnny.  You could watch him with your partner, your wife, whatever. 

And he was a friend.  You know, he was the next-door neighbor to 40 million people, whatever.  And there was just a very likable quality that transmitted through the camera.  With a lot of people, it doesn‘t.  With him, right into the American home. 

MATTHEWS:  It was said today during the conversation we‘ve had on the program that his happiest times were on television. 

SHALES:  Yes.  He once said that that‘s when he felt most alive, was that one hour each day. 

And television—being on television, it is a weird sensation.  And it‘s—someone once said it was life times 10.  It‘s life times 100.  It just seems more intense than life.  It doesn‘t seem real.  And when it‘s over, you know, it doesn‘t seem like it ever happened. 

But he—that was his reality.  As uncomfortable as most people feel on TV, he felt that comfortable, and, apparently, not that comfortable in real life, like at a small party or a small gathering.  He was not a social animal in that sense. 

The first time I ever dealt with Johnny, he was kind of mad at me.  And he called me from the coast because we‘d run an item in the early ‘80s, I think, about how Johnny was trying to make his material more hip and do more crazy stuff and—he was wandering around the studio out there in Burbank, which is something that David Letterman was doing in his new show. 

And, first, Johnny‘s agent called me and said, would I listen to Johnny.  I said sure.  And then Johnny spelled out his argument.  He wasn‘t angry or anything, wasn‘t mad.  And he‘s blah, blah, blah, blah, and he said, I bet I know who gave you this stuff, probably those “Letterman” writers. 


SHALES:  I think he was a little—he was a little unhappy with all the accolades that were being poured on Letterman in those early days. 

MATTHEWS:  I remember the times that he was challenged, Tom, over the years, different people, Joey Bishop, Joan Rivers.  Every time he was challenged, he put on his game face and brought in every big-timer he had and he croaked the opponents. 

SHALES:  Right, just knocked them right for a loop.

Arsenio Hall had a long run and made a lot of money for that network, I‘m sure, but it was never a threat that he would steal away that Mr. king of late night title from Johnny. 

And after that initial encounter, Johnny was always nice to me and, when he left, sent me an autographed picture.  He said, you probably need this as much as root canal, but I just wanted to say you have always treated me fairly and stuff like that, which was always a very classy thing to do.  And I was telling someone today, he had nothing to gain from that.  You don‘t—courting the press when you‘re retiring is not a way of getting some sort of advantage.  It‘s a—it was purely a nice thing to do and...


SHALES:  The word that keeps coming up, classy. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about, as an historian of television, as well as a commentator and writer about, or reporter.  You go with Steve Allen.  Then you go to Jack Paar.  Then you go to him.  What did he bring new? 

SHALES:  I think made it so accessible that no one can resist.

I disagree with whoever said that he invented the talk show.  Jack Paar really proved that just talking on TV could be entertainment.  Steve Allen did a variety show, a lot of music and jazz and stuff like that.  Jack Paar did a pure—pretty much a pure talk show. 

And Johnny came along and punched that up with more humor, sketches, which were links to kind of the old days of show business and the stuff he admired when he was growing up and listening to the radio in Nebraska.  His show was kind of patterned after the Fred Allen‘s show a little bit, “Allen‘s Alley.”  And he‘d known Fred Allen.  And, of course, Jack Benny, he adored Jack Benny. 

MATTHEWS:  Did you like him, Tom? 

SHALES:  Johnny? 


SHALES:  I loved Johnny.  And the more he was on, the more I loved him. 

And when he said he was going to leave in a year, I made a vow that I was going to watch every single monologue, at least every monologue for that year.  And I did.  I never missed a single one, because, to me, that was like—you know, that was tiffany crystal every night.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.   

SHALES:  The beautifully presented monologue, where even the bad jokes got big laughs because he was so clever and ingenious about turning them around. 

MATTHEWS:  You just heard the best talking about the best, Tom Shales on Johnny Carson. 

Thank you for joining us.


MATTHEWS:  Johnny Carson, and you don‘t have to say this more, the king of late-night television, maybe the king of television, will be missed by millions.  And so we all say from here, good night, Johnny. 

Stay tuned to MSNBC for a special “Tonight Show” paying tribute to Johnny Carson tonight.  Ed McMahon, Don Rickles—he was an old favorite - - Bob Newhart, a buddy of his, and many more will join Jay Leno tonight. 

I‘ll see you tomorrow night at 7:00 Eastern for the start of the HARDBALL Heroes Tour at Camp Pendleton.  Our guests include former Marine Ed McMahon and Brian Dennehy—they both served in the Corps—plus, the first lady of California, Maria Shriver. 

Right now, it‘s time for “SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY.”



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