Josh Wolk's Pop Culture Club talks 'Vacation': Does it make you yearn for (or dread) Chevy Chase's return?
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What with August coming to an end and the looming arrival of Labor Day—the symbolic slamming shut of summertime fun (here’s one more barbecue, NOW GET OFF THE BEACH AND BACK TO SCHOOL, YOU LAZY BASTARDS!)—I thought that this week would be a good time for the Pop Culture Club to take one last symbolic vacation…with the Griswolds. (Though neither a Vegas nor European vacation, because as we all know, those are no fun at all.) But the 1983 comedy Vacation served as more than just a seasonal dose of nostalgia (and homage to its late writer, John Hughes). It also got me thinking about the legacy—and upcoming TV return—of Chevy Chase.
Chevy is considered one of the most memorable film comedy stars of the ‘80s. But take a look at his filmography: He really only starred in three and a half funny movies: Vacation, Caddyshack, Fletch, and for the half point, Three Amigos. (Think I left out Foul Play? Go back and rewatch it, though it’s hard to: In his first starring film role, he comes off wildly uncomfortable with his new acting venue.) After 1992’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man, which was his attempt to break free from his smarmy, stumbly onscreen persona, he abruptly stopped trying. From then on, he always came off as a man who assumed that as long as he showed up anywhere, funny would follow…and yet funny always seemed to stay in the car. The apotheosis of this was his infamously horrible talk show, which should have been called The Awkward Silence Smirkytime Hour. Let’s all revisit the stilted end of his premiere, shall we, which he concludes by memorably and uncomfortably dancing with Goldie Hawn for what feels like three days straight?
His smug certainty that he was funny—even when he clearly wasn’t—infuriated me. It was like watching a highly-paid pro athlete not show up to practice. His Saturday Night Live catchphrase “I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not” took on an icky subtext: even when he’d show up as a guest on SNL or David Letterman’s show, he seemed distracted, as if deciding whether or not we the audience were worthy of his comedic brilliance. “Phoning it in” doesn’t quite work, because he came off like a guy who couldn’t be bothered to answer anyone’s calls.
I’ve seen the pilot of his new NBC comedy, Community, which stars Joel McHale. It’s very funny, and Chevy’s very funny. He looks like he’s actually trying to act for the first time in recent memory, and he has created a whole character—a divorced, retired millionaire who’s gone back to community college—rather than just resorting to a hodgepodge of his greatest-hits moves (stutter, pratfall, make crazy stare/squint combo with his eyes). In a 2004 profile, a humbled Chase told EW that he’d seen the error of his ways, and felt bad about his past egotism, which had alienated Hollywood and his friends. His comments partially humanized him (he just gets half-credit, because even when trying to be penitent, he couldn’t stop himself from making egotistical barbs like, “I had 12 writers (on my talk show), none of whom could make me laugh”), and I accepted it as a kind of apology to his old fans. So when I watched the Community pilot, I was rooting for him. Who doesn’t like a comeback? Mickey Rourke was a cocky bastard back in his day and suffered for it, so we all cheered for him in The Wrestler. But last night I read an interview with Chase and McHale in New York magazine in which Chase comes off just as distantly and arrogantly as ever. McHale strives to be gracious, praising Chase (when every instinct was probably telling him to say, “Gee, I was so thrilled to find out I was acting with the star of Cops and Robbersons”); yet when Chase is asked if he likes sitcoms, he says, “I never really watch them because there are so many bad ones. That doesn’t mean ours is good, necessarily.” I’m sure McHale and the people who stuck their necks out to hire him were thrilled with that plug.
All of this made watching Vacation a roller coaster experience for me. At first I was pleasantly surprised to be reminded of Chevy’s glory days. But that only served to remind me how he squandered his talent, and is likely to squander it again, which all retroactively made me angry at 1983 Chevy. Had he played his cards right, a la Bill Murray—who, by all accounts, is just as difficult to deal with as Chase—where do you think he’d be today?
(Oh, one closing note, and it’s not just my grudge talking: John Candy is the funniest thing in Vacation. The moose outside should have told you.)
So much to talk about on the boards: What was your take on Vacation? (And how about that appearance by a young Jane Krakowski as cousin Vicki, huh?) Did you feel like it held up? And what do you think of Chevy Chase? Do you think I’m being too harsh? Does anyone out there dare to come out and defend, say, Nothing But Trouble?
Before we dig in, let me assign next week’s viewing: We’ve been doing lots of movies lately, so let’s get back to TV. Check out A&E’s new series Hoarders, which follows on the heels of the riveting Obsessed as part of the network’s new directive to make all of their viewers feel comfortably sane by comparison. (Hoarders airs Monday night at 10 p.m.) Fellow EW staffers assure me it’s riveting. So give it a watch, look sheepishly at your overflowing box of old magazines, and we’ll meet back at EW.com next Thursday to discuss.
Okay, on to Vacation…
PHOTO CREDIT: Everett Collection