by Jim Longworth
While it’s true that Chevy Chase became an international star because of his films, he was already a cultural icon in this country long before his face ever appeared on the big screen.
That’s because of the pratfalls, news anchor parodies, and brilliant writing he contributed to “Saturday Night Live”, for which he won 3 EMMYs. Perhaps the late, great Harold Ramis gave us the best perspective on Chevy’s popularity. Speaking with a reporter, Ramis related an incident that took place while on location directing the first “Vacation” film.
“We were shooting at the Grand Canyon, one of the most spectacular natural sites on the planet. But all of the tourists who were there, were standing with their backs to the Grand Canyon, looking at Chevy. The Grand Canyon could not compare to the fact that Chevy Chase was there.”
Truth is, we’ve all been looking at Chevy for a very long time, beginning with his work on the groundbreaking PBS series, “The Great American Dream Machine”. That show premiered 50 years ago, and gave Chevy his first national exposure. I first met the versatile actor/comedian at the EMMY Award Governors Ball in 2009. We reconnected recently and talked at length about his television career, comedy influences, politics, the press, and the slings and arrows he has endured along the way.
JL: "The Great American Dream Machine" has often been described as a variety show, but that doesn’t do it justice. It was more like Ernie Kovacs, the Smothers Brothers, and 60 Minutes rolled into one.
CC: Yeah, but it wasn’t quite as funny as all those things. I was a writer back then, was sending stuff into “Laugh In”, and was hired on Dream Machine primarily as a writer.
JL: But you also appeared in a number of sketches. One that comes to mind is where you were seated, and a guy used your head as a bongo drum.
CC: That was Ken Shapiro hitting my head to the tune of “I’m looking over a four leaf clover”. That damn near killed me because we had to do it a few times. It hurt, but I still had to concentrate on the words (laughs).
JL: Was that the first time you remember sacrificing your body for a laugh on TV?
CC: No, I worked on something called “The Groove Tube” with Ken and a bunch of others. We did that for almost five years and did it in a theatre and on underground television. It wasn’t broadcast as you put it, but it gave me 25 bucks a week (laughs). Some of that stuff made it into “The Groove Tube” movie.
JL: During that period of time you also wrote for “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”. I’m thinking that the work you did on that show, as well as on “Dream Machine”, and on stage with “Groove Tube”, were all sort of the impetus for “Saturday Night Live”.
CC: Yeah, I think so, now that you say it. By the time Lorne (Michaels) hired me, what I’d been doing all along is creating SNL (laughs).
JL: Lorne hired you to be the head writer, then quickly moved you in front of the camera. I understand you were paid $800 a week. Was that for writing or performing, or both?
CC: Both. I just got one check (laughs).
JL: Some years later, your buddy Dan Ackroyd said in an interview, “Chevy put SNL where it is, and Chevy’s film work was worldwide currency for SNL.” I mention that because your work prior to SNL really gave rise to SNL. You even helped Lorne cast the show. By all rights, shouldn’t your name be on the credits each week as “co-creator” or something?
CC: Oh, I don’t know. That kind of thing is for the big wigs (laughs).
JL: You brought your style of physical comedy with you to SNL. Where did that come from?
CC: “The Honeymooners” actually had a major affect on me as I got into performing more, because Art Carney was very physical, and I’m totally a physical comic. I think that’s what I’m best at. And that’s why I helped make SNL work because we didn’t have a lot of physical people. We had John (Belushi), who was very funny.
JL: It’s been well sourced and spoken of by folks like Jane Curtain and others, that John was very jealous of you for being the first break-out star on SNL, even to the point of stirring up a fist fight between you and Bill Murray the night you returned to host. Why the resentment?
CC: I’ll tell you why, because we had done “Lemmings” together, and John was clearly the star of that show. He was like the announcer at Woodstock, so he was always working the audience, and introducing stuff that I would do, or Chris Guest would do. So later I get to SNL, and Lorne wouldn’t hire John because John had said, “I don’t do television.” So Michael O’Donoghue and I said to Lorne, “Come on, let’s hire him,” and we did because John really does do television, the liar (laughs). He just wanted to look more chic. The best thing that ever happened to John was being hired for SNL.
JL: Let’s talk about “Weekend Update”, which you created for SNL.
Did you write all of the news stories?
CC: No, I wrote the top story and a few others, but other people would throw in their ideas, like Michael for instance. He was also the head of The National Lampoon Radio Hour, which I was featured on.
JL: One of your signature bits on SNL was your over-the-top impersonation of then President Gerald Ford, in which you made him look really clumsy and inept. It has been said that your portrayal of Ford cost him the 1976 election. Later, you and Ford became good friends, so did you ever regret satirizing him to that degree?
CC: No! Any President is worthy of that kind of satire (laughs), particularly because Jerry would make it easier by falling down the steps of Air Force One and things like that. One day I was at the White House to tape a series of bits with Jerry for “The Today Show”. The production crew was set up in the Oval Office, and I met Jerry in another room. When we walked over to the Oval Office, we had to enter through a back door because the crew was re-arranging furniture. And as he and I were walking down this darkened hallway there were a lot of cables and shit on the floor, and my God, he just kept tripping, and I had to hold his arm to save him (laughs). It was very funny. But he was a great athlete, and these things happen when you get older. Anyway, later we went upstairs where he was making a speech at a lectern, and as he was talking, he kept leaning into this lectern, and the lectern started falling over (laughs), and again I had to rush over and hold him. Everybody thought it was part of our act, but it wasn’t our act, it was Jerry’s act. I had to save him again (laughs).
JL: And you never got credit for acting like a secret service agent.
JL: Speaking of politics, SNL has always been a very liberal show, but SHOULD a comedy/variety series be so one sided? Or should it be neutral?
CC: I think neutral. Back when I did the show, there was a lot of crap happening then, with Nixon and all that shit, and so we were all liberal, and there was only six of us. Now a days, there are like 28 cast members, and some are liberal, and some are not.
JL: OK, so let’s talk about cast members. Over the years, reporters have asked you your opinion of whatever group was on SNL at the time, and often times you would single out and praise certain performers. But in one article you really slammed the entire cast.
CC: I was totally misquoted. The reporter made up the quote, I couldn’t believe it. It came at the end of the article, and it came from the fact that I didn’t give her much throughout the whole interview, so I guess she wanted to have something controversial to show.
JL: That sucks.
CC: It does suck. Earlier in the interview she asked me, “What about the young comedians?” And my answer to her was, “I don’t have much to say about them because I haven’t seen anybody who really stands out. There are a lot more performers on SNL today than there were when I did the show, so it’s hard to make that kind of statement.” She then wrote that I had said something like, “The young comedians aren’t as good.” I wrote a strong letter to the reporter, but my wife said not to send it, so I didn’t.
JL: My favorite SNL sketch of all time was the one you and Richard Pryor did, in which you portrayed a personnel director, and Rich played a guy who was looking for a job. The bit was about you giving him a word association test, except that every word you gave him was a racist slur, and every one he gave back to you was an increasingly angry slur directed at you. It is the funniest and most instructive sketch ever done about racism, and we could learn from it now. Unfortunately, our society is too politically correct to receive it today.
CC: Yeah, I was thinking that myself one night when I saw Colin (Jost) and Michael (Che) doing Weekend Update, and I was thinking that they could have done that sketch back in the old days, but not now. Rich and I wrote that sketch in about a half an hour just before the show went on air. He was the funniest guy I knew. By the way, I didn’t write the “dead Honky” line, that was Rich (laughs).
JL: A couple of years after you left SNL, you did a one hour variety special for NBC.
CC: I remember that, but I can’t remember who was in it.
JL: Yeah, I can’t find any tape on it.
CC: Well there’s NBC for you (laughs). I don’t think they liked it.
JL: Well since we’re focusing on your television career, we can’t forget to mention the times you hosted the Academy Awards, in 1987 and ’88.
CC: I loved doing it. You just can’t miss ‘cause everybody else makes a fool of themselves (laughs).
JL: There was a writers’ strike the second time you hosted. Did you violate any Guild rules by writing your own material?
CC: That’s for the cops to determine (laughs). I do remember coming out on stage and saying, “Settle down Jack (Nicholson). He was sitting on the front row, clowning around. That’s how open I felt. I could say anything, you know? And I’d get big laughs.
JL: Let’s talk about the late night show you did for FOX in 1993, which only lasted for five weeks before the network pulled the plug. The story goes that you thought you’d be able to do a different kind of show for that time slot, but that FOX executives wanted it to be more traditional.
CC: And I didn’t like that idea, and didn’t know how to do that. I think I wanted to come in as a funnier person or something, and it didn’t come off right.
JL: But didn’t your company, Cornelius Productions, own the show?
CC: By God, then it must be lying around here somewhere (laughs)
JL: I bring that up because if you could see it wasn’t working, couldn’t you have just told FOX that you’re going to do it your way?
CC: I think I did do that, and basically f#@*ed it up (laughs).
JL: In 2002 you were the guest of honor at a Comedy Central Roast in which a bunch of hack comedians basically spent the entire evening saying some very cruel things about you and your past problems with addiction. It was tasteless and hard to watch.
CC: Yeah, it was nothing like a Friars Club roast where there’s always a friendly thought behind the jokes. This was younger comedians who weren’t familiar with a roast, and just came out and battered me. It just wasn’t that funny because it seemed to have an attitude of, “let’s get this guy.”
JL: So when did comedy start requiring comedians to be mean?
CC: Probably before the first century (laughs). Way back, like “Hey, how about that Alexander? What’s so great about him? (laughs)
Look, you’ve got to be balanced between mean and having a little love in you. That didn’t happen with me. I thought the best guy on the roast was Stephen Colbert. He didn’t know me, and he didn’t want to hurt my feelings, you know? Anyway, at the end of the show, we went up to Paul Shaffer’s room, and I had a couple of tears in my eye, and he had the biggest apology. Paul felt almost as if what happened was his fault because he was the emcee and had something to do with picking the people to speak. But of course, it wasn’t anybody’s fault except the people who didn’t know how to do it very well.
JL: In 2006 you did a dramatic turn on an episode of “Law & Order”, in which you portrayed a character loosely based on Mel Gibson and his Anti-Semitic rant after being stopped for drunk driving. In real life, Gibson blamed the alcohol for his language, just as Roseanne blamed Ambien for making her send a racist tweet. Given your past history with substance abuse, do you think it’s possible for drugs or alcohol to make you say words that are not normally in your vocabulary?
CC: Jesus, that’s a good question. I’m trying to remember my own situation with cocaine and alcohol. The thing about coke is it makes you feel like you’re driving over the speed limit, and living over the speed limit. It was a pleasant drug, and yes, things would come to you that would never normally not come to you.
JL: You turned in a great performance on Law & Order”. Did you enjoy playing a serious role for a change?
CC: Yeah, they came to me to do the role, and I did it because I like doing things that are challenging, and that was challenging.
JL: In 2009 you joined an ensemble cast on “Community”, but it wasn’t long before you became discouraged with the quality of writing by Dan Harmon who also created the show. Harmon has since apologized publicly for his bad behavior during that period, but once when asked about your frustration, you said, “I’ve been too funny in my life to play a character who’s just moderately funny.” Some folks interpreted that statement as being egotistical, when you were actually just talking about the high standards you have, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
CC: No, and that’s the way I felt. It’s got to be coming indelicately from me, and not from a guy like Harmon who wrote “Community”. I agreed to do the show because I thought it might be fun and funny, but ultimately, Harmon had problems with drugs or alcohol himself, I don’t know which one, but that can make writing less good.
JL: Let’s circle back to the pain you often endured and injuries you suffered in your career, particularly on SNL. I see these old, retired NFL players sitting at home in wheel chairs and suffering with the after effects of injuries, and they always say they wouldn’t have done anything differently. Did you ever regret being so physical with your comedy?
CC: No, and not only do I not regret it, but I’m still that way at 77. I gotta tell you, I can still do a great fall.
JL: Earlier you talked about being influenced by the physical comedy of Art Carney, but what film stars made you laugh as a little kid? I’m guessing it was also a physical comedian.
CC: At first I guess it was whoever my Dad said was the funniest, ‘cause you can’t have a perspective on that if you haven’t seen that many comedians. But Dad was totally in love with the Marx Brothers. As I got older, it was Chaplin. Ultimately, I feel more like Charlie Chaplin than I do any of the Marx Brothers.
JL: You have a lot of Buster Keaton in you too.
CC: Yeah, but Buster wasn’t as good as Chaplin. It’s just that Buster was willing to break bones to be funny, and he was funnier than hell.
JL: Who makes you laugh today?
CC: Well (long pause), shit, I haven’t laughed in years. I like to look at old shows and tapes, so how could I not say Dan Ackroyd. When he did Julia Childs on SNL, man that was so funny. Dan has done so many incredible things. He was our resident genius on that show, and he’s a wonderful guy. We’re very close friends.
JL: Speaking of those early SNL days, and before you met your lovely wife Jayni, did you ever get fan mail from women who wanted to sleep with you?
CC: Yes, but they had to sleep in the other bed (laughs). Sure, but only before SNL, during the “Lemmings” period when I was single. I still get lots of fan mail today, but they mainly want me to autograph a photo.
JL: We’ve been talking about your television career because this is your 50th anniversary on TV, but adding all of your films in the mix, do you realize how many hundreds of millions of people around the world whose lives you’ve touched, and made more fun and bearable? Do you ever think about that?
CC: No, not in that way, but it’s nice of you to say that, so I better start thinking about it (laughs). I guess I just think about how I haven’t worked much at anything the last couple of years, and that pisses me off, but I should think more about those things. It would probably raise my spirits.
Truth is, if Chevy Chase never made another film or TV series, his place in pop culture history is already well cemented. He’s one of those rare performers who has achieved success in every medium, including social media.
Just check out his 1986 music video,“You Can Call Me Al” co-starring Paul Simon, which is re-discovered by new audiences every day via Youtube, and has been viewed by over 91 million people.
And, if you troll various posts and blogs, you’ll find plenty of praise for Chevy and his work from people of all ages. “Chevy is a national treasure,” writes evillink1. “Chevy is a funny guy with great comic timing,” says ArchStanton. “Chevy is an amazing actor!”, says TheOnlyCelt. And Daniela Simittchieva says it all, “Chevy Chase is a LEGEND !”
No doubt about it. So long as Chevy’s around, we’ll all have our backs to the Grand Canyon.
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