SNL‘s first breakout star struck comedy gold with Caddyshack, Fletch, and Vacation, but then he crashed and burned. This week, as an angry voicemail Chase left for Community producer Dan Harmon went public, it looks like he might be heading down that path again. Can the funnyman come back from this serious misstep? We look to his 2004 interview with EW’s Daniel Fierman to see how he rebounded last time…
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.
”My first impression of Chevy was that he was really good-looking, but kind of mean,” says Laraine Newman, who worked with Chase during his time at SNL and has been friends with him since. ”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.”
”He’s a Philip Roth character, except that he’s not very Jewish!” laughs Buck Henry, who also met Chase on SNL. ”Even when he’s giving you a compliment you just want to kill him. It’s very strange and it’s out of his control, not unlike Tourette’s. It just made you shake your head.”
So when Chase fell in the late 1980s, he fell far, fast, and onto a bed of rusty nails. Truth be told, the quality of his work had been declining for a long time. Whereas once he saw the best scripts and got the juiciest paychecks — complete with perk packages and stipulations that his name be at 75 percent the size of the title on screen — by 1988 Chevy Chase was the kind of actor who’d star in junk like Caddyshack II, Christmas Vacation, Nothing but Trouble, and Fletch Lives. It wasn’t that he wasn’t funny anymore. Or even that he didn’t know how bad the movies were. He just didn’t have any options — or goodwill — to draw from.
”I’d say I’ve done only five movies in my life that were any good, but that was a particularly bad time,” he says over a cabernet in a gloomy corner of the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills. ”There was a whole slew of Cops and Robbersons, just films that didn’t measure up, that didn’t stand for anything comedically. They were purely for a paycheck. So I thought, ‘Ah, let’s try something new.’ So I went to Fox with this late-night show.”
The Chevy Chase Show would become a cautionary tale of legend. The show that Chase pitched to Fox was actually pretty interesting, inspired by one of his heroes, 1950s television pioneer Ernie Kovacs. What he had in mind was a variety act, something branded by spitting nastiness and sly sketches, featuring only the occasional guest. The debut episode, for example, was supposed to have seen the host get bitten by a rattlesnake and nearly die within the first five minutes.
Slowly, though, those kinds of ideas were peeled away. First Fox nixed shooting on a soundstage, claiming they didn’t have enough parking for a studio audience. Then they secured a theater in L.A. and furnished it with a set that looked remarkably like the ones used by Leno and Letterman. The programming team scheduled Chase’s show at 11 p.m. on the rationale that it would give him a jump on the competition, but also conveniently placing him opposite the evening newscasts. And then? Then they advertised, plastering the country with gigantic pictures of their grinning star with a huge space between his two front teeth — an obvious challenge to David Letterman — complete with the tagline ”Ready to Fill the Late Night Gap.”
”This whole program of pitting me against David and Jay…. I didn’t want that at all,” Chase sighs. ”I didn’t want guests. I didn’t want to do the same thing they did. It wasn’t my gig. But it just turned into the same exact kind of talk show that they do. I’ve never really gotten into this with any writer, but it threw me into a depression that I had never had before. I couldn’t be extemporaneous, only bored and frightened at the same time. I needed cards. Cue cards! My best work was always with my back up against the wall, improvising. It was just awful. I didn’t know what was going on with me and I wasn’t getting the right kind of help — you know, medication. And I was clueless! I didn’t know Queen Latifah from Queen Elizabeth. I thought she might be a queen! I had 12 writers, none of whom could make me laugh. I don’t know. Maybe nothing would have made me laugh at that time. It was an ugly mess.”
His first guest was his old friend Goldie Hawn, whom he poignantly danced with before the episode was over. The show was savaged by critics and gleefully mocked by his peers. (Michael O’Donoghue, the legendarily scabrous SNL head writer, kept a tape of the show by his bedside until he died in 1994.) Schadenfreude ran red in the streets. Rumors of cancellation ran rampant.
On Oct. 8, 1993, five weeks into the humiliating run of The Chevy Chase Show, its host was on the way to a party. It was Chase’s 50th birthday, and his wife, Jayni, had rented the ballroom at the Beverly Hilton hotel for a massive gala. All of Chase’s friends were there. Movie stars. Famous singers. Family. Well-wishers. Hangers-on. Jayni had even gotten the band from the show to be the musical act. On his way into the ballroom for the big ”Happy Birthday to You” entry, Chase felt a tap on his shoulder. It was his agent, CAA legend Mike Ovitz. Your show, Ovitz told him, has been canceled.
Then Ovitz told Chase to go tell the band.
Chevy Chase was done. Full stop. He kicked around Hollywood for a couple of years, but no one would have him. He battled depression, and embarrassingly got picked up for drunk driving in 1995. And finally, he decided just to get out of town.
”It was the best thing,” he says. ”I had plenty of money. It was time to move on. Start thinking in terms of your children [Chase has three daughters] and what they face day to day, living in that place with nothing but blond, blue-eyed movie-star wannabes and no seasons. This was in their formative years, just before puberty and adolescence, a tough period of hormonal overactivity that we guys don’t go through. We just get hair on our d— and want girls for the rest of our lives.”
So he moved his family back home. They bought a country house an hour outside his native Manhattan and built a life. He spent more time with Jayni, his wife of 22 years, whom he’d met on the set of Under the Rainbow, a terrible movie about the attempted assassination of FDR and the making of The Wizard of Oz. The time he’s spent at home shows in his kids. All of the Chase girls — Cydney, 21, Caley, 19, and Emily, 15 — are pleasant, sharp, and funny; Dad thinks Emily is the one who inherited his knack for comedy. He bought a few pianos, scattered them around, and set about teaching himself jazz. Chase would still occasionally get picked on, most notably by Howard Stern, who prank-called him at five one morning in 1992 after Chase made some mildly deprecating comments about Stern on CNN. Chase tried to be polite, but Jayni picked up the phone and started screaming. ”When my wife loses her temper, whoo!” says Chase, fluttering his hand in front of his face. ”What can I do?” Stern has been playing that tape mercilessly for years.
Other than that, though, Chase wasn’t much abused. Just gently forgotten. He likes to say that most of his old friends are dead — Belushi, Gilda Radner, National Lampoon‘s Doug Kenney — but the truth is that after 1993 he lost touch with almost everyone he was close to. People like Steve Martin, Laraine Newman, and Paul Shaffer all say they barely talked to him in those years. He was politically active, helping with Jayni’s environmental charities and fund-raising for the Democrats. (He lives near the Clintons and calls Bill, well, Bill.) The only time his name would pop up was in books like Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s Live From New York, an oral history of Saturday Night Live that painted him as brilliant, arrogant, and casually cruel. (When asked about the book, particularly some nasty comments made by Will Ferrell, Chase shoots back, ”You wanna see his apology letter?”) He took a few roles in minor movies. Some of them were — purely incidentally, from his point of view — successful. He marvels at the $1.5 million check he got a few months ago for residuals on Snow Day. ”I did a picture about a talking goose, too,” he laughs. ”I don’t know what happened to that one. I think they’re looking for distribution in Canada.” And he had an awful lot of time to think about that Comedy Central roast, and the night spent with Shaffer in a hotel room in New York.
”I mean, nobody prepares you for what happens when you get famous, and I didn’t handle it well,” he says (though his childhood in a wealthy, highly driven New York society family had certainly prepared him for money, which may be why he still has more than his share). ”I was a young, new, hot star and I had the unbelievable arrogance of Ty Webb [the golfer in Caddyshack], the guy who says, when asked how he kept score, ‘According to height.’ As time went on, the strident narcissism and arrogance slowly diminished. But it was definitely there. I’m older now. And a big crybaby.”
Chevy Chase is, indeed, older. He’s 60 — Chevy Chase is sixty! — and he walks with a stiff, rolling gait, the product of decades of pratfalls and whacks to the groin. He’s a little puffier. The long, lean preppy face is now round, and made rounder by big, owlish glasses. Wearing olive tennis shorts, white sneakers, and an Italian racing cap, Chase looks like nothing more than the goofy dad next door. And as Cydney, a student at Princeton, comes sauntering into the pool house of their home, rolling her eyes at her father and the journalist dim-witted enough to want to talk to him, it’s clear that’s exactly what he is.
It’s only when you stroll through his house — a comfortable sprawl, piled high with books and packed with overstuffed couches — that the Chase legacy is revealed. He dusts off $6 million movie contracts from the mid-1980s, smiles at old photos from movies like Three Amigos, Caddyshack, and Fletch, and laughs to the point of tears at an old letter he had framed from Michael O’Donoghue to The San Francisco Herald. (The letter is not only too profane to reprint here, it’s probably too profane to reprint in Hustler.) Leafing through the old pictures with presidents and correspondence with stars, it all comes rushing back. Chevy Chase is a comedy god.
”Chevy in a room is one of the funniest people I have ever, ever seen in my life. And I’ve been around almost everyone who is funny in the last century,” says Buck Henry. Lorne Michaels agrees: ”You can’t imagine the beginnings of Saturday Night Live without Chevy,” he says. ”He was the absolute center of the show. The way that he’s funny [can] rub people the wrong way. But he has a great heart.”
Wandering through his house, shooing off the chickens and dogs and cats that meander in the yard, past the tennis court and the barn that serves as the office he shares with Jayni, Chase tells terrific stories. Like the time he got in a fistfight with Bill Murray. ”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.” About Belushi, ”you couldn’t really call John a genius. He was more of a brick. A brick with hair on his back. I used to say [professorial voice], ‘I brought him here. I pulled him out of the water and shaved his back and gave him books.”’ Of course Chase also loved Belushi’s outrageousness, a quality he admires as well in the work of the Farrelly brothers, particularly ”There’s Something About Mary.” ”When I saw Cameron with that sperm in her hair, I thought, ‘Well, now we’re getting somewhere!’ That was one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a long time.”
Chase’s anecdotes have a well-worn, romantic feel, and in the intervening pauses, you can tell that he misses the old days — and that he’s a little at loose ends. His children are raised. His home life is just fine. And just how much can a guy play jazz piano anyway? Sweeping his hand past the four cars in his driveway, a trio of eco-friendly Priuses and a Mercedes S600 — ”I’m supposed to drive the Prius,” he says in a conspiratorial whisper. ”But the Mercedes is much nicer” — he confides that his kids have been pushing him to get out of the house. Maybe start working again. It’s not something he thinks is totally crazy. He spent a month out in L.A. this spring taking meetings. He fired his old agent and hired some new kids to represent him. Buried the hatchet with Bill Murray, whom he’d never really squared with after the fight. He even shot a small part opposite Naomi Watts in Ellie Parker and is aiming for a role opposite Jim Carrey, a comedian he greatly admires. But more than anything else, he discovered people in Hollywood not only remember him. They like him.
”All these young people running these studios and independents, I didn’t know any of them!” he says. ”But they were all in some sort of awe or whatever about seeing me. ‘Where have you been? What have you been doing? God! We grew up on your films!’ I was really received well, as opposed to when I was there last.”
Laraine Newman, Chase’s friend of three decades, likes to say that he has awful demons but a wonderful heart. Those demons killed him in Hollywood. But if anything is going to bring him back, it will be his heart.
”You know, everybody has disasters,” says Steve Martin, a friend from Three Amigos. ”And then you have a hit and then the disasters don’t matter. So, if you think about it, everybody is just one hit away from being exactly where they were. Chevy is one hit away. It will happen. He’ll get that hit. And he’ll be back.”