Chevy Chase: A History Of Being Terrible
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WARNING: This article contains a whole lot of homophobic, racist, sexist, and generally trash behavior, brought to you by Chevy Chase.
Before anything else, Chevy Chase became famous as the Man Who Falls Down.
In the early days of Saturday Night (live but not yet Live), the show found itself a breakout star. That wasn’t Lorne Michaels’ intent -- the show was built on The Second City model, an ensemble troupe of talents that would allow everyone to shine. Shine they did -- but Chase stood out anyway.
It’s easy to understand how that happened. The show opened every week with a Chase pratfall, and Weekend Update gave him a dedicated solo slot. In a cast full of unknowns, the catchphrase “I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not” made sure one comic got his name tattooed on everyone’s brain.
Cue the chaos. “Within two-thirds of the first year,” says one SNL writer in Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live, “Chevy was more worried about his next cold opening than about being part of the team.” Between bragging about new riches and ordering the cast around the set, he was soon known as “the a--hole around the office.”
The rest of the cast was angry but not blameless. John Belushi in particular was mad jealous, considering himself the superior talent. (The fact that Belushi was right didn’t ease tensions.)
After a single season, Chase bolted for what he imagined would be bigger and better things. “I had nothing invested there emotionally,’ was the charming way he put it in Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live.
But instead of bigger and better, Chase kept falling down, making comedy enemies everywhere he went. Show by show, project by project, decade by decade, everybody hated Chevy Chase.
The 1970s - Medium Talent
After leaving the show, Chase found modest success on the big screen. Foul Play with Goldie Hawn was a hit, getting reincarnated as movie mutt Benji in Oh Heavenly Dog was not.
He ticked off Johnny Carson after it was rumored that Chase could succeed him on The Tonight Show. "I'd never be tied down for five years interviewing TV personalities," Chase told New York Magazine. Carson replied that Chase "couldn't ad-lib a fart after a baked-bean dinner."
And Chevy wasn’t done fighting with the cast of SNL (a tradition he carried through the end of the century). Lorne brought Chase back to host the show in 1978 and Chevy’s first order of business was to kick Jane Curtin off the Weekend Update desk. “You sit there and you have pieces of your arm bitten off,” Curtin recalls. “But it heals. It grows back.”
The rest of the cast wasn’t thrilled to have Chase back either. Chevy claims Belushi spread “some pretty apocryphal stories,” while Bill Murray was steamed about the way Curtin was brushed aside. Sounds like petty stuff, but it ended in violence.
“I got in a fight with Chevy the night he came back to host,” says Murray.
Director John Landis was there that night and remembers Belushi and Dan Aykroyd trying to get in between the punches.
“Billy was out of line,” says Chevy. “I felt at the time I was a lot tougher kid than maybe Billy might have thought. I had grown up on the edge of East Harlem. I had been in a lot of fistfights.”
But Murray landed the most brutal blow. As the two men were pulled apart, Murray screamed “Medium talent!”
“I thought, “Ooh boy, that’s funny. That really impressed me,” remembers Landis. “I went, “So, Bill Murray— wow, who is that guy?”
Murray and Chase tried to put the fight behind them by the time they got to Caddyshack. Murray tried to empathize with Chevy’s sudden rise to the top: “When you become famous, you’ve got like a year or two where you act like a real a--hole. You can’t help yourself. It happens to everybody. You’ve got like two years to pull it together— or it’s permanent.”
The 1980s - Apparently, It’s Permanent
Between Caddyshack, Fletch, and the National Lampoon’s Vacation franchise, the 1980s represented the crest of Chase’s film career. But he was by no means done making enemies everywhere he went.
Director Chris Columbus was hired to direct Chevy in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, but that gig was over before a line of dialogue was recorded. A get-to-know-you dinner was a disaster.
“To be completely honest,” says Columbus, “Chevy treated me like dirt.” A second meeting went even worse. “I called John (Hughes) and said, 'There’s no way I can do this movie. I know I need to work, but I can’t do it with this guy’.” (Hughes felt terrible about the Chevy ordeal and wrote a consolation prize for Columbus -- Home Alone.)
Most critics believe Fletch was the movie that best captured Chase’s comic talents, a vehicle that could have yielded countless sequels. The problem was having to work with Chase.
Kevin Smith approached the star about reprising the role in a sequel called Son of Fletch. But just like Columbus, Smith endured an excruciating dinner in which Chase claimed to have ”invented every funny thing that ever happened in the history of not just comedy, but also the known world.” Smith bailed, causing Chase to cry that Silent Bob had flogged him with “Hollywood-type crap treatment.”
As in the 1970s, Chase saved his worst behavior for the gang at SNL.
The new Not Ready for Prime Time Players revered Chase as a comedy god, says cast member Terry Sweeney, but it didn’t take long for God to start smiting. “(Chase) said to Robert Downey, Jr., ‘Didn’t your father used to be a successful director? Whatever happened to him? Boy, he sure died, you know, he sure went to hell.’”
That was nothing compared to what Chevy had loaded up for Sweeney, the show’s first openly gay cast member. “I’ve got an idea for a sketch for you. How about we say you have AIDS and we weigh you every week?”
Chase wasn’t done, according to Jon Lovitz. At a writers’ meeting, “Chevy looks at Terry Sweeney and goes, “You’re gay, right?” Terry goes, “Yes, what would you like me to do for you?” Chevy goes, “Well, you can start by licking my balls.”
“It was out of place,” says Sweeney. Lorne Michaels agreed and tried to get Chevy to set things right. “So then he ended up … coming to my office. He was really furious that he had to apologize to me.”
“He was a monster.”
The 1990s - Banned for Life
Chase’s movie career cooled considerably in the 1990s. Box office bombs like Nothing But Trouble and Memoirs of an Invisible Man meant his leading man days were over.
So Chase tried a new venture. Despite saying he’d never get tied down interviewing celebs, Fox launched The Chevy Chase Show, a much-hyped attempt to fill the late-night void caused by Carson’s retirement.
Showgirls got better reviews. Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly gave the show an F, apparently unamused by Chase’s offering of “vomit, nose-picking, belches, and gerbil-filled underpants.” Time wasn’t much kinder, nothing that “Chase tried everything, succeeded at nothing.”
The Chevy Chase Show was one of the biggest bombs in TV history, canceled in a mere four weeks. Of course, Chase blamed network execs.
“What I wanted had a whole different feel to it, much darker and more improv,” he told Time. In practically the same breath, he claimed to be the inspiration for the political humor of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart.
And what would a decade be without another SNL disaster?
The year was 1997 and Chase was once again “riffing” on cast members and writers as he did with Sweeney and Downey.
“I don’t know if he was on something or what, if he took too many back pills that day,” says Will Ferrell. “When he got to one of our female writers, he made some reference like, ‘Maybe you can give me a hand job later.’ And I’ve never seen Lorne more embarrassed and red. In hindsight, I wish we’d all gotten up and walked out of the room.”
It didn’t stop there. He’d scream at people in the hallways, then smile as if he’d been joking all along. “We’d be like, ‘No, I don’t think you are,’” says Ferrell. “I think you’ll find a consensus on the Chevy Chase thing.”
Could it get worse? It gets worse. In another example of “joking,” Chase slapped cast member Cheri Oteri in the back of the head. As a result of his idiot behavior, Chase became the first cast member as well as the first member of the Five-Timers Club to be banned from ever hosting again.
The 2000s - Thrashing in the Water
The new millennium started with a whimper in the form of 2002’s Friars Club Roast of Chevy Chase. The show was memorable for those who weren’t there -- not a single SNL cast member outside of Al Franken and one-time band member Paul Shaffer. Instead, viewers got a steady diet of hungry young comics taking turns ripping Chevy a new one.
Which brings us to Community. Hoo boy, where should we start?
How about with Donald Glover? Between takes, Chase would try to throw off Community’s Troy with witty asides like “people think you’re funnier because you’re black.”
“Chevy was the first to realize how immensely gifted Donald was,” says show creator Dan Harmon, “and the way he expressed his jealousy was to try to throw Donald off.” It didn’t work.
“I just saw Chevy as fighting time—an artist has to be okay with his reign being over,” says Glover. “I can’t help him if he’s thrashing in the water. But I know there’s a human in there somewhere—he’s almost too human.”
Joel (Jeff) McHale, in his book Thanks for the Money, recalls another Chase “joke,” telling a female cast member “I want to kill you and then rape you.” As McHale notes, Chase’s attempts at humor often had “a weird sense of menace.“
“There’s a communication barrier, or maybe a generational gap in terms of comedy,” says the charitable Alison (Annie) Brie. “A lot of crass comedy is accepted.”
“Maybe he comes from a generation where he could say things like that and no one would ever say anything back to him,” says Yvette Nicole (Shirley) Brown. “I’m glad that we’re in a time now where if you are offended or upset by something someone says, you feel empowered to say, ‘That’s not right.’”
Finally, there’s the public feud between Chase and Harmon that left both men looking like jerks. The fight had a number of twists and turns, including Harmon leading a big “F you, Chevy” chant at a season wrap party in front of Chase’s wife and daughter, then going public with a nasty voicemail that Chase left for him. (Harmon later apologized, admitting to being “a selfish baby and a rude a--hole and not a person to trust with your feelings.”)
Post-Community, Chase’s acting roles have dried up except for the occasional Hot in Cleveland cameo here, voicework in Panda vs. Aliens there.
He’s semi-retired but doesn’t want to be, according to a 2018 interview with The Washington Post. He theorizes that maybe it’s because his talk show failed or that he moved away from L.A. “I look pretty good... I don’t know why I couldn’t do a Chevy Chase picture, but it just doesn’t happen.”
He did get a small role in an upcoming Netflix movie. The director confided to Chase that he was nervous due to the fading star’s difficult reputation. Chase’s response?
“I can’t believe that.”
Believe it. In the same article, he’s still taking shots at Saturday Night Live: “A whole generation of shitheads laughs at the worst f------ humor in the world.” he says. “It just drives me nuts.”
So nothing has changed: Even when he’s looking for someone to take a chance on him, Chevy can’t stop falling down.
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