In the late seventies and early eighties, Chevy Chase was the height of cool. He was the original break-out star of Saturday Night Live which was the hip show to watch and not an institution like it is today. When he went into movies, Chase was hailed as the next Cary Grant. But despite appearing in a few durable comedies, Chase has failed to live up to the promise he showed early in his career. These days, he is known for his tirades more than his comedy.
What the hell happened?
Chase got his start as a writer. He was part of a comedy ensemble called, Channel One and wrote for the Smothers Brothers TV show in the early 70s. In 1973, he became a cast member on The National Lampoon Radio Hour which also featured John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Bill Murray. Chase also worked with Belushi in the Off Broadway revue, Lemmings, which was a send-up of musical counter-culture.
In 1974, Chase appeared in the sketch comedy film, The Groove Tube. The Groove Tube was written and directed by Ken Shapiro who was co-founder of Channel One.
The Groove Tube was made on a meager $200,000 budget which made it highly profitable.
Chase was discovered by Lorne Michaels one day while standing in line to see Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Chase was cutting up. Michaels took notice and ended up hiring Chase as a writer – not a performer – for his new show, Saturday Night.
Chase convinced Michaels to allow him to appear on the show. He did the opening segment in which he would take a prat fall before announcing “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night”.
Chase was also the first host of Weekend Update, a role which allowed him to say his name on television every week. Chase started the segment by saying, “I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not.” It became a popular catch phrase while subtly pointing out that Chase was probably cooler than you.
The original cast of Saturday Night Live included comedy legends like Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner. But Chase quickly ascended as the break-out star. Many in the cast (especially Belushi who was not used to being upstaged) resented Chase’s sudden stardom. It didn’t help that Chase was a coked-up jerk with a gigantic ego. He was known for being a “put-down artist”, ordering everyone around and bragging about his rising fame.
“He likes to focus attention on himself,” said Dan Aykroyd, one of the few SNL cast members who remained friends with Chase over the years.
It was a friendship that was able to survive all the focus on him that first year as a huge star. I’m pretty easy to get along with. I’m from Canada. We know how to bend backwards and forwards towards Americans.
Laraine Newman described meeting Chase:
My first impression of Chevy was that he was really good-looking, but kind of mean. He teased in the way that a big brother would, [aiming for] exactly what would hurt your feelings the most. I say this as someone who loves him. And loves him a lot.
In 1975, Chase was so popular that there was talk of renaming Saturday Night Live the Chevy Chase Show. New York magazine ran a cover story hailing Chase as “the funniest man in America”. And an NBC exec referred to him as “the first real potential successor to Johnny Carson.” There were rumors Chase would guest host for Carson on the Tonight Show.
Chase dismissed talk of taking over the Tonight Show saying “I’d never be tied down for five years interviewing TV personalities.” Ironic considering Chase would eventually host a late night talk show of his own. Carson responded to Chase’s claims by saying he “couldn’t ad-lib a fart after a baked-bean dinner.”
Chase’s contract as a writer for SNL was only for one year. After the first season, Chase decided not to return to Saturday Night Live. He fired his manager, Bernie Brillstein, who also represented Lorne Michaels and signed with the powerful William Morris agency. Michaels, who had been close with Chase, felt betrayed by the way Chase left the show without notice.
According to Chase, the show never recovered from his departure:
I felt that once I left it wasn’t as good. We had done what we had come to do that first year, which was to parody television and to satirize political events. And once you ran out of that either A) because you did all the jokes, or the novelty had ceased to exist, or B) because others were now doing what you had started off doing and were winning Emmys for, or C) because everybody won Emmys and they were all full of themselves and they were starting to write “in” jokes, then the show was not going to be as good and therefore was just going to go downhill. And it seemed to me that after I left that happened.
These days, Chase claims that he left Saturday Night Live for love. He was dating model Jacqueline Carlin at the time. According to Chase, she demanded that he move out to Hollywood if he wanted to continue seeing her. But staff writer Tom Davis claims that at the time, Chase told him he was leaving the show for “money – lots of money”.
Chase moved out west and immediately married Carlin. The couple divorced after 17 turbulent months. Carlin filed for divorce citing threats of violence. Meanwhile, Chase was appearing in his own prime time specials on NBC.
During Saturday Night Live’s second season, Chase returned as a host. When he did, he insisted on taking the Weekend Update segment back from Jane Curtin who had been hosting the bit since he left the show. Chase claimed this upset Curtin, but she insisted that “Chevy was expecting a reaction he wasn’t getting from me.”
Chase’s return did get a reaction from Bill Murray who had replaced Chase on the cast in the show’s second season. Belushi, served as an instigator telling Murray that Chase was looking to get his old job back. Murray confronted Chase and a fight ensued moments before the show was about to start. Laraine Newman recalled:
“I don’t know if Chevy provoked it or not. But it culminated with Billy saying to Chevy, ‘Why don’t you fuck your wife once in a while? She needs it.’ And I don’t even remember who threw the first punch, Billy or Chevy. But it was ugly.”
According to Chase, John Belushi instigated the brawl:
It was Belushi that started it, I found out later, by bad-mouthing me to Murray. But he got his, because while we were swinging at each other, he was in the middle and was the only one who got hit! I would have won the fight. Absolutely. I’m taller. I have a longer reach. And I had to fight a lot when I was a kid.
Next: Foul Play and Caddyshack