Paul Simon’s ‘You Can Call Me Al’ Video Achieved the Impossible — It Made Chevy Chase Likable
As you probably know, Taylor Swift just unveiled her much-anticipated new album, Midnights, and with it came the release of a video to accompany the lead single “Anti-Hero.” Directed by Swift herself, the “Anti-Hero” clip primarily focuses on two Swifts — present-day Taylor and one from about 10 years ago — having a conversation with one another. But when the video segues into the song’s bridge — in which Swift imagines her eventual death and her rotten family members’ shocked reading of the will (“Someone screams out / ‘She’s laughing up at us from hell’”) — we see a standalone set piece starring Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Mike Birbiglia and John Early playing the greedy heirs to her fortune.
Setting aside for a moment that “Anti-Hero” violates a cardinal rule of music videos — don’t stop the song for some dumb extended bit — Swift’s latest is part of a proud tradition of musicians hiring comics to be in their clips. Sometimes, the cameos are politically pointed — like the appearances of (among others) Issa Rae, Tiffany Haddish, Lakeith Stanfield and Jerrod Carmichael in Jay-Z’s “Moonlight,” which is a sharp satire of Friends (and Hollywood’s racial inequality in general) — while others are just an excuse for famous people to hang out together, such as Robin Williams’ genial guest spot in Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” But one of the first examples of the “comedian cameo” music video remains among the most iconic. It’s also one of the few times in which Chevy Chase haters actually found the former Saturday Night Live performer barely tolerable.
In the early days of MTV, when video budgets were cheap and artists didn’t quite know yet what to do with the format, there was a lot of experimentation — and jokes. Clips like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Letting You Go” and Huey Lewis & the News’ “I Want a New Drug” were playful and silly — basically comedy sketches scored to music. And while MTV’s 1980s heyday was criticized for promoting photogenic, vapid artists, the truth is, you didn’t have to be a pin-up to have a popular clip. Some special effects — think the Cars’ “You Might Think” or Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” — could do the trick. In lieu of that, being funny also helped.
When Paul Simon prepared to record 1986’s Graceland, his career was in a rut. His previous album, the underrated Hearts and Bones, had stiffed, and the singer-songwriter was looking for fresh inspiration. That spark came from songs that appeared on a tape he’d been given of artists from South Africa, prompting him to book time with those musicians, folding his melancholy, melodic tunes into regional styles like mbaqanga. The album’s big single was “You Can Call Me Al,” a lighthearted look at a mediocre man stumbling through his midlife crisis. But the video had nothing to do with that. It was about Simon chilling with Chevy Chase.
Because of his earnest Boomer personality, younger generations might assume that Simon was never especially cool. But in the 1970s, he had more than a bit of hipness to him, appearing as a sleazy Hollywood producer in the Oscar-winning Annie Hall and guest-hosting SNL in its early, cutting-edge days. He was especially gifted at being the straight man — never more so than during a 1976 Thanksgiving episode in which he came out in a turkey costume and sang “Still Crazy After All These Years,” the joke being that Simon hadn’t wanted to do it but SNL creator Lorne Michaels had insisted it would go over like gangbusters. Simon’s meek comic exasperation made the bit a classic.
The video for “You Can Call Me Al” works under the same comedic principle. Chase (who was the breakout star of SNL’s first season) appears with Simon, each of them trying to enter the room through a door that’s not big enough for both of them. With the song’s instrumental opening establishing the upbeat tone, the two men sit down, but when the lyric starts, Chase jumps in and starts “singing” the vocals — much to Simon’s confusion and chagrin. But Chase just keeps going, leaving Simon to silently sulk and, eventually, dutifully bring in instruments from the other room that we’ll hear later in the song. It’s all fairly obvious, but “You Can Call Me Al” was funny not just because Chase was butting in on Simon’s terrain but also, because he’s so much taller than Simon, essentially stealing the singer-songwriter’s video out from under him.
It’s no surprise that the video feels like a SNL sketch: Michaels had helped develop the concept with Simon, working with director Gary Weis, who’d made short films for the show back when it was first getting going. “Back then, this was just 16mm and four guys in a station wagon; we usually didn’t use lighting or anything,” Weis recalled in 2012 of those old SNL shorts. “Normally, what I’d do is get an idea, and go out on a Monday or Tuesday and film. You have to understand, everyone was getting paid $300 to $400 a week that first year, it wasn’t a big deal.” Weis would go on to direct amusing videos for the Bangles (“Walk Like an Egyptian”) and George Harrison (“Got My Mind Set on You”), so it wasn’t surprising that he’d hook up with Simon for “You Can Call Me Al.”
As for Chase, he was in the midst of his film superstardom, responsible for hits like National Lampoon’s Vacation, Fletch and Three Amigos. Supposedly learning the song on the way to the shoot, Chase was uniquely suited to playing the oblivious, self-regarding foil to the modest, diminutive Simon. For better or worse, Chase’s onscreen persona was always that of the vain, entitled jerk. When he first caught fire on SNL, his bluster didn’t seem manufactured — he proudly opened his “Weekend Update” segments by declaring, “I’m Chevy Chase, and you’re not,” and there was always a sense that, deep down, maybe he actually believed his own superiority.
Notoriously difficult and widely disliked, he has subsequently burned a lot of bridges, his refusal to apologize for any of his on-set behavior only adding to his bad reputation. Maybe all of that would be slightly more bearable if his performances were unimpeachably hilarious, but while humor is certainly subjective, Chase has often come across as smug in his work, and no matter how frequently his characters are taken down a peg, it never seems sufficient retribution. It’s hard to laugh when he always seems so pleased with himself that he expects your obedient laughter at his every utterance.
In theory, Chase is playing the same cutesy, preening egotist in “You Can Call Me Al,” but for once it’s fun. There are two reasons for that. The first is that the Graceland hit is so effortlessly appealing that even Chase can’t bring the mood down. But the other reason — the crucial one, really — is that Simon is so adorably deadpan. Quietly enduring the indignation of having Chase hijack his video, Simon soldiers on, practically a Charlie Chaplin-esque comic figure who does all the heavy lifting (literally) as he moves the instruments into the room. Sure, Chase lets him join in on the chorus — and Simon rocks a mean pennywhistle at one point — but the musician manages to do something that Chase has never achieved in his career, which is to be inordinately likable. Simon is all straight-faced brilliance in the clip, while Chase mostly mugs. There’s no question we’re on Simon’s side: We all think Chase is an overbearing nuisance, too.
Of all of Simon’s videos, “You Can Call Me Al” is probably the most beloved, an early highwater mark for the kind of “funny” clip that would continue to be popular. (Groups like Foo Fighters and Beastie Boys would make this subgenre a huge staple of their oeuvre, delivering a series of big, goofy, irreverent videos.) But few would ever be as simply executed as “You Can Call Me Al.” Even fewer would be hilarious because of the musician in them, as opposed to the actual funnyman who was his co-star. Chase might tower over Simon, but Paul is the video’s comedic giant.