''The Chevy Chase Show'' launches -- Inside the ''SNL'' alum's attempt at late-night stardom

By Benjamin Svetkey
Updated September 10, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

Chevy Chase is blithely banging away on a piano inside his swank new offices at Hollywood’s recently renamed, still-under-renovation Chevy Chase Theatre. In a matter of days (on Sept. 7 at 11 p.m.) the man of a thousand pratfalls will launch The Chevy Chase Show, a talk-slash-comedy hour that many industry insiders predict will be the biggest late-night dud since that other SNL alum, Dennis Miller, tried to muscle in on the after-hours airwaves last year. But Chase, true to form, seems utterly unworried — borderline oblivious, in fact — as his fingers zip merrily along the keyboard.

”We’re not sure what we’re doing on the show yet,” he casually offers, semiserious. ”We’ve been thinking about something with Kevorkian. Or maybe we’ll bring back the land shark — only this time as a T. rex. We haven’t figured out all the details.”

Some details that have been figured out: Although Chase chokes on the words talk show — ”This isn’t the kind of program Johnny did” — there will be Carsonesque celebrity interviews conducted in standard desk-and-couch formation (Chase’s set has a funky feel, however, with a 600-gallon fish tank and faux-Hollywood skyline backdrop). There will also be the traditional band (led by saxman Tom Scott) and comedy sketches, including a nightly version of his famous ”Weekend Update” newscast and an SNL-style skit to open each show. There may even be some Chase-brand pratfalls — although only on special occasions. ”I’ve had two operations this year, plus broken ribs from skiing,” he says. ”It’s been a bad year.”

So far, Chase’s plans haven’t exactly struck terror in the hearts of his competitors. The late-night time slot has always been one of the most perilous on TV (just ask Joey Bishop, Jerry Lewis, Alan Thicke, Rick Dees, or Pat Sajak), and this year the terrain looks especially hazardous. Chase’s chances of surviving a ratings war against Jay, Dave, and Arsenio seem about as likely as Ed McMahon’s being anointed Pope.

”He’s really not looked at as a serious threat,” a high-level Tonight Show staffer sniffs confidently. ”He’s way down the list of anyone we’re worried about.”

So why, at 49, is Chase steering his career into such treacherous waters? Part of the answer, of course, could be money: Fox is paying him an estimated $3 million for 44 weeks — not in Letterman’s reported $14-mil-a-year league, but about the same as Leno’s approximate $3 million and not bad for a guy whose once powerful movie career has recently been badly shot up (remember Memoirs of an Invisible Man and Nothing But Trouble?). He may also be retreating into familiar territory.

”This show is the closest thing I’ve done to Saturday Night Live,” Chase says. ”I’ve always felt that I left that show prematurely. I’ve missed being around that environment, working and writing all the time. On TV you get to do all the things you can’t do in films. You get to mug. You get to go by the seat of your pants. It’s the medium I began with.”

Fox is betting a bundle that The Chevy Chase Show will become the season’s dark-horse winner. It has spent what looks like millions refurbishing the old Aquarius Theatre on Sunset Boulevard for the program. It has dumped millions more on a multimedia promotional blitz, including a campaign that ran in hundreds of United Artists movie theaters across the country last spring. (”Oh, hi,” Chase deadpanned in one. ”I’m Alec Baldwin.”) ”We don’t see it as a long shot,” insists Tracy Dolgin, Fox’s executive vice president for marketing. ”If you look at the current research on Chevy, his Q score [how audiences rate fame and likability] is higher than Leno’s and Letterman’s combined.”

The show has a few other things going for it. Its respectable-if-not-red-hot first-week guest list includes Jason Priestley, Martin Short, Whoopi Goldberg, and ex-Chase flame Goldie Hawn. It also gets a half-hour jump on the competition, starting at 11 p.m., when the other networks are running local news. To keep viewers from flipping at 11:30, Chase will air his own news segment at exactly 11:34 — assuming, that is, that NBC’s lawyers don’t enjoin him from importing the SNL — inspired bit to Fox (just as NBC threatened to prevent Letterman from taking the Top Ten Lists and Stupid Pet Tricks to CBS).

It also has (and this could be its big wild card) the inimitable comic muggings of America’s No. 1 smirkmeister — although Chase does seem to have softened his comic gibes a bit since his notoriously nasty days at SNL (he once told acne-scarred Bill Murray that his face looked like ”Neil Armstrong had landed on it”; Murray tried to punch him out). ”That word smug has been thrown around a lot to describe me,” Chase says. ”But you can’t carry off certain kinds of edgy comedy without a seeming self-assurance. It’s not smugness or arrogance — it’s mischief. Smug implies an arrogance without substance. That’s not really me.”

Call it arrogance, call it mischief, call it the ultimate in entertainment hubris — Chase really believes he can catch up with the late-night big boys and stay in the game. ”I don’t really see it as a competition,” he insists. ”I’m not going to castigate the other hosts — I know them all. But if people want to see me doing TV comedy like I used to, they’ll tune in. If not….”

If not, Chase may take the hardest fall of his career — and that may hurt more than his ribs.