Not a Joke: Chris Matthews Compares Donald Trump to Johnny Carson

Continuing to operate at full speed well past the 1:00 a.m. Eastern hour on Tuesday (10:00 p.m. Pacific), MSNBC’s Hardball host Chris Matthews attempted to analyze Donald Trump’s victory speech after winning the Nevada caucuses by comparing his interaction with supporters to the late Johnny Carson’s relationship with Tonight Show viewers. 

Matthews repeatedly claimed that his supporters recognize much of what Trump tells them is “nonsense” and “all shtick” and he “shar[es] with the audience” in the way that “Carson used to do that, Letterman did that” because “[i]t was always the jokes you share” plus “[t]he connection with the audience over time.”

Just as host Brian Williams did when the initial midnight projection was made that Trump would win the Silver State caucuses, the former NBC Nightly News anchor turned to Matthews not long after Trump’s speech and needless to say, the Hardball host was locked and loaded. 

“His speech-making is impossible to teach, really, but what Trump does, he breaks down that wall between him and the audience. It's always we, how we're going to do next. He shares with the audience back and forth how well they're doing in terms of crowds he's building up,” Matthews began. 

Pointing out how much of what Trump espouses is “all a joke” and “all shtick,” Matthews declared that “[n]obody’s buying” his claims about loving the Second Amendment and the Bible but instead have served “his way of connecting with the voters and sharing sort of the joke with them.”

Matthews argued that Trump has been serious about his “nationalism thing” but found a way to maintain a following based on his calls to strengthen America’s standing in the world despite “all the stupid things he says, all the awful things he says.”

It was not long after this portion of Matthews’s extended rant that the Carson comparison arose (as he blurted out that producers were trying to cut him off):

I think he's got that cohesiveness because of it. So much of it is the sheer showmanship. I remember watching Carson all those years. I’ll tell you something — I know I'm being interrupted — I'm getting good here. Audience, sharing with the audience. A good crowd. Carson used to do that, Letterman did that. It was always the jokes you share. The connection with the audience over time and this goes way back in show business. 

Before Williams wrestled back control of the scene, Matthews concluded with a final thought about Trump: “He shares, he connects, he's interactive. It's all about that shtick and that — the bond he's forming and he is forming a bond out there. And it's something to watch and you can't teach it.”

The relevant portion of the transcript from MSNBC’s The Place for Politics 2016 on February 24 can be found below.

MSNBC’s The Place for Politics 2016
February 24, 2016
1:06 a.m. Eastern

CHRIS MATTHEWS: I think his — his speech-making is impossible to teach, really, but what Trump does, he breaks down that wall between him and the audience. It's always we, how we're going to do next. He shares with the audience back and forth how well they're doing in terms of crowds he's building up, how he's doing in polls in different states like Texas next week. It's always sharing. It's an interactive thing he does. It’s almost like the old Irish expression, listen with your tongue. Every time he uses a line, he can actually hear the reaction, says am I right, am I right? He's back and forthing it all the time. All the shtick about the lesser educated, what's he call them? The poorly educated, it's all a joke. It’s all shtick. It’s all sharing with the audience. I loved evangelicals. That's nonsense. I love the Second Amendment. I love the Bible. It's all shtick. The audience is sharing that. Nobody's buying it. It's his way of connecting with the voters and sharing sort of the joke with them, but then comes the beef. The beef. Nobody's going to keep kicking us around anymore. They're going to have pride in our country. I think that nationalism thing is always on the inside. He plays around with the audience back and forth. He kids with them. It's kind of post-modern like we know this is a joke, let's have fun with it, everything I'm doing is a joke except in a nationalistic pull, that no other candidate has matched, not even — certainly not Bernie, none of them got — Hillary doesn't get it. He gets it. I think that's what holds his audience together through all the stupid things he says, all the awful things he says. Yeah, but he's looking out for the country, these other guys are looking out for the government. I'm caring about country, not the government or the party and I think he's got that cohesiveness because of it. So much of it is the sheer showmanship. I remember watching Carson all those years. I’ll tell you something — I know I'm being interrupted — I'm getting good here. Audience, sharing with the audience. A good crowd. Carson used to do that, Letterman did that. It was always the jokes you share. The connection with the audience over time and this goes way back in show business. He shares, he connects, he's interactive. It's all about that shtick and that — the bond he's forming and he is forming a bond out there. And it's something to watch and you can't teach it. 

Curtis Houck
Curtis Houck
Curtis Houck is the Managing Editor of NewsBusters for the Media Research Center