''SNL'''s first breakout star laughs about his disappearance. Chevy Chase struck comedy gold with ''Caddyshack,'' ''Fletch,'' and ''Vacation,'' but then he crashed and burned. Here's what happened
Chevy Chase
Credit: Chevy Chase Photograph by Martin Schoeller

Chevy Chase recalls the precise moment he hit bottom. It happened in front of unflinching television cameras, as he sat alone on a dais with his eyes masked by tinted sunglasses. Offered a hundred grand by Comedy Central to do a televised Friars Club roast, Chase was introduced to his place in history. And it was brutal.

He’d been roasted before, way back in 1990, and the place had been packed. Paul Newman, Robert De Niro, and Richard Pryor were there. The hall had been populated by a galaxy of well-wishers, movie stars, comedic geniuses, and beautiful girls — all ready to lovingly trash the smart-ass behind ”Saturday Night Live”’s ”Weekend Update” and classics like ”Caddyshack” and ”Fletch.” In the grand tradition of the Friars, it had been harsh but sweet, and Chase had left happy. So when he was offered the chance to do it again in 2002, he said sure. He donated the hundred grand to his wife Jayni’s favorite charity and showed up in a fine mood.

What happened next was so awful that people who were there — from audience members to Comedy Central staffers — still have difficulty talking about it. Chevy Chase walked on stage and realized that almost none of his friends had shown up. He was led to a red overstuffed chair, where he blinked into the television cameras — first stunned, then angry, then devastated — as various basic-cable personalities and B-list comics marched to the podium and trashed him. Total strangers telling him that his movies were crap, his talk show was a comedy abortion, he had never been funny. Total strangers giggling about his addiction to drugs. There was no warmth in their comments. No real affection. Because after years of silence from Chase — and hundreds of thousands of words written about his behavior during the late ’70s and early ’80s — a consensus had emerged about the man. Everyone agreed without even having to think about it: Chevy Chase was a bastard.

He sat there in front of the world as it sank in for the first time. This was how he was remembered. This was his legacy. And when it was all over, he stood up, took a few bilious — and dreadfully unfunny — shots at his tormentors, and finally stared dead into the camera and uttered two words: ”That hurt.” He fled the theater and went directly to his hotel room.

Paul Shaffer, the emcee of the roast, left the hall concerned and called Chase. Told him he was coming up to his room. Sat with Chase on the bed for hours, trying to figure out what had happened, why he was so loathed, what went so wrong. And then, finally, Shaffer told Chase what he needed to hear. ”Paul said, ‘Chev, I could tell you were hurt. I could tell that. And I just want you to know that when you were on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ you were generous to a fault. To everybody. Everybody loved you.”’

Shaffer left and Chase sat by himself in the dark. Crushed.

The ugly truth is that a lot of people don’t love Chevy Chase. They don’t even like him. You hear it in their gently damning praise, off-the-record slams, pointed nonanswers, and firm no comments. This isn’t really surprising, because apparently the man possesses a truly spectacular talent for pissing people off. And at the height of his success he wantonly torched bridges and offended friends, often without even knowing it.