Tuesday, March 18, 2008
One More on Expertise ...
Back when Johnny Carson was doing The Tonight Show, there was always some dancing when contract renewal time came round. Carson was pretty much irreplaceable, but the network would make noises about finding a new host as part of its bargaining position. They never did, of course.
One year, apparently, the name of an up-and-coming comedian arose as a possible replacement: Chevy Chase.
For those of you too young to remember, Chase was one of the original Not-Ready-For-Prime Time players who started out on Saturday Night Live. He was funny, did everything from pratfalls to the Weekend Update segment in SNL, and a lot of his comedy was physical and visual. He was the first of the cast to bail and head out to Hollywood. Apparently he was not altogether popular with the cast, and on his return to guest host, got into a fistfight with Bill Murray backstage. They made fun of it on a later broadcast.
Chase did several well-received movies before all that falling off ladders caught up with him, and he got addicted to pain meds for a bad back. He cleaned up, and has been fairly quiet in the biz since, showing up now and then in odd places.
The story goes, when Carson heard Chase's name being bandied about, he laughed. "Chevy Chase? He couldn't ad lib a fart after a baked bean dinner," he was reputed to have said.
Later, Chase was on The Tonight Show, I disremember what they were talking about, he and Johnny, probably flacking a movie, but there was new comedian on the bill: Gallagher. He's also funny, and he does a lot of stuff with props. His most famous routine is a takeoff on all those late-night ads for kitchen slicers and dicers, the Sledgeomatic, which involved a massive mallet and assort fruits and vegetables, including a watermelon. People in the front row at his show bring sheets of plastic to cover themselves, and need it. One of my favorite lines he did was, "Why is there a permanent-press setting on your iron?"
So, Gallagher does his routine to much applause, and Johnny waves him over -- an honor for a new comedian.
Gallagher sits, they say hello, and Chase says -- as best I can recall -- "Is that it? That's your act? Prop schitck?"
Gallagher gave Chase a hard look, and then proceeded to offer opinions on his clothes, his attitude, and the state of his haircut, and in no sweet terms, either.
Chase backed off: "Oh, I think you're probably a fine young comedian -- "
Gallagher: "Nobody gives a (bleep!) what you think!"
I made it Gallagher, by six lengths, and going away. Gallagher didn't take no shit from nobody.
Carson, who was a master interviewer on his worst day, just sat there, grinning. He could have stepped in and shut it off, but he didn't. He let it go on.
There's no way to know what Johnny was thinking, of course, he's been gone for years, but I felt at the time it must have been directed at the network executives: Hey, this is the guy you want to replace me with? Look how he handles a little heckling ...
We miss you Johnny. You were the best.