Unearthing the Complete and Total Disaster That Was ‘The Chevy Chase Show’
Sometimes TV shows drag their unfunny, uninteresting, yet highly rated feet across our living rooms for years. “Who let this happen?” we cry in vain. Other times, the powers that be get things right. That’s where Brilliantly Canceled comes in, looking at the shows that didn’t make it past their first season and saved us all a ton of grief.
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“Time will bring to light whatever is hidden; it will cover up and conceal what is now shining in splendor.” — Horace
“Do you got a meat thermometer?” — Chevy Chase
Chevy Chase’s time on Community ended last November after uttering that word in front of two of his African-American co-stars, ending his three-and-a-half-year tenure portraying Pierce Hawthorne, a character that was as out-of-step and bigoted, sexist, and homophobic as Chevy Chase has at times proven himself to be. Chase leaving the show that featured him four times as long as any other television show ever was probably inevitable, but the impetus behind the incident that would land him on the street (the street being Old Navy commercials) was a scene that involved a Pierce Hawthorne interpretation of the classic Señor Wences bit. Chase’s issue was that his character was going too far with the racism – which was a fair point – but he made this good point by angrily asking the rhetorical question of if saying the N-word was next.
There’s no doubt that Chevy Chase’s outrage was mostly about becoming too racist with an already mostly unlikeable character. But what probably most of the cast didn’t realize at the time, and what possibly Chase suspected that some of the writing staff knew, was of Chase’s relationship to the Señor Wences hand puppet bit. There is a history there.
For the first time in almost twenty years, here is the cold open to the very first episode of The Chevy Chase Show:
The Chevy Chase Show is a story told to young network executives at company retreats in the woods at night to give them a good scare and to hopefully get one of them to wet their suit pants, to be used for precious blackmail later. Fox initially wanted to get into the late night talk show game that seemed wide open back in the early 1990s with Dolly Parton. Parton supposedly suggested Chevy Chase, who in a 2004 feature with Entertainment Weekly claimed that he wanted to do a cool, intelligent, funny show, but you know, The Man got in the way.
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.”
Just look at that picture that millions of commuters driving home from work must have seen in the summer of ’93. It turned out that Fox was correct in believing that David Letterman was the main ratings threat: Letterman’s The Late Show on CBS premiered on August 30th and proceeded to lead The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (which premiered May of 1992) and The Arsenio Hall Show in viewership for almost two years. But it sure put a lot of pressure on Chase, a man who did not spend the last eleven years honing his late night craft (not to mention changing the game). And the pressure only mounted when Chase received that not a studio but a theater, and not just a dumb theater, but a theater that they christened The Chevy Chase Theater, and it is not because it is located in Chevy Chase, Maryland. It is in fact in Los Angeles, California, you may have heard of it, Mr. Fletch?
Usually I and others would smell some hot garbage at someone blaming The Suits in retrospect and claiming that they were cut off creatively at the knees. It’s a believable but too convenient excuse for not following through on expectations creative personalities put on themselves — but in the first two (out of the six) weeks of The Chevy Chase Show, there were actually some fun, Kovacsian ideas being thrown out there. The band’s name always changed: on opening night they were Tom Scott and the MBC Orchestra, with MBC being an abbreviation for god only knows; a personal favorite was the fourth show moniker of Tom Scott and the Facial Tissues. But by week two they became and remained to be Tom Scott and the Hollywood Express. On September 7, 1993, the show’s premiere night (a week and a day after Letterman [Labor Day ruining any possibility of a traditional Monday launch], six days before that Harvard graduate youngin started his NBC Late Night show, executive produced by Chase’s old boss Lorne Michaels), Chase — who thanked Ernie Kovacs in his acceptance speech for winning an Emmy on his work at SNL in 1976 — presented the world with his own personal “The Nairobi Trio”. Personally, I find it kind of scary more than funny, and if you’re under 18 years of age you should watch the following clip while facing your favorite wall.
Also on the inaugural episode was the funniest moment of the entire series1. The format of each episode went by this schedule: a very short, usually bad monologue; a desk bit and/or taped segment; first guest; “News Update,” a blatant “Weekend Update” rip-off that makes having a monologue redundant; second guest; maybe third guest; byes. At the end of the very first “News Update,” the show refused to go to commercial: the inexperience of the audience in watching the show was used expertly to make us think initially it was a blunder, then a huge blunder, before realizing that this was on purpose. The joke should have gotten old immediately, but it only got funnier. Chevy Chase is amazing at the specific comedic skill of ringing the most comedy possible out of silently killing time.
Unfortunately, on the most watched night, a career-killing scene took place moments before that triumph. The YouTube clip of Chase’s boring, gushing, pointless interview with best pal Goldie Hawn from opening night was the one part of the show that most people had ever seen, unless they were watching originally back in 1993. The uploader it turns out was actually kind, because here is what occurred right after:
A dance party? You are not David Wain or Todd Glass, Chevy Chase. (To Chase’s credit, during an “Ask Chevy” segment the next week he answered the question of “What is your most embarrassing moment?” with a video snippet of this “dancing.”) When talk show hosts and their best buddy celebrities shoot the shit on a show, it is almost always intolerable; it’s half a cruel infomercial on how great it is to be a rich celebrity with rich person problems, half a cruel infomercial about how beautiful rich friendships are. (Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake’s relationship is easily the most tolerable.)
That fateful minute of time also showed just how not hip Chevy Chase had become by 1993. At that moment, everybody collectively realized that somebody messed up and let Ty Webb become a month away from turning 50 years old. Unlike David Letterman, who we were used to seeing age one day at a time, and Jay Leno, who had appeared on Letterman’s Late Night show and guest hosted Carson enough throughout the 80s and early 90s to where he also aged in front of the country, the lovable, scurrilous, charismatic bastard that made Ted Knight ca-razy was now just some nervous and overwhelmed middle-aged man.
It didn’t help that both guests and the host reminded everybody of Chase’s past. Four times in the first eight episodes there was a Caddy Shack reference (the best and most subtle one — “Pond would be good for you.” — came from, you guessed it: Andrew Shue). The worst was when Jennie Garth — who came off as ridiculously sweet throughout — seemed to be a genuinely big fan of Chase’s, singing to him the “I Was Born to Love You” song from the aforementioned classic and later giving him a Chevy Chase doll(!). That was all fine, but I cringed when Chase attempted to play the song, barely remembering the chords and messing up the ending.
It is a far cry from Ty Webb. There is of course, nothing wrong with being older; people do that all the time. My argument is that it was very jarring to the audience. And that was not the only issue with the doomed show. For whatever reason, Chevy Chase never seemed to get rid of the jitters, or improve in his interviewing skills with people he wasn’t best friends with, which in turn made all of the interviews he conducted bad. As far as the former is concerned, take a look at a News Update segment, with a cameo from former SNL buddy Garrett Morris (the only former castmember of Chase’s that would appear over the six weeks. But Martin Short and his half-mullet did charm the pants off of everybody in the third episode).
In each and every installment of News Update, Chase would stumble on his tongue and mess up at least two of the already weak punchlines. His decision to read off of papers instead of using a teleprompter or cue cards didn’t help his cause, and it was another example of Chase almost seemingly trying to remind everybody of their own mortality. It’s Weekend Update, just like the old days! Right down to reading off papers! I hate trees!
By the third week of the show, changes had been made from a panicked Fox over the unacceptable ratings. The network had initially promised advertisers2 millions more viewers than would end up watching their local news and/or Letterman instead, so any semblance of silliness was out, which meant even more focus on the man, the legend, Chevy Chase. Chase even acknowledges — after a terrible joke evoking Hee Haw — that he was told that he’s been acting nervous for the first nine episodes in the monologue, which is followed by a decently amusing gag that reveals that the reason for the host’s discomfort was that a hick with a gun had front row seats to every show. Everything was back on track, until the announcement that Geraldo Rivera was their first guest, and then Chase effectively gave up trying just a little bit to not indulge himself in participating in a good old fashioned, audience insulting, pretty much masturbatory exercise of a jam session with his band, complete with band leader Tom Scott spewing the lamest metaphor of all-time, something about the group of musicians making a stew of seventh notes or something.
Chase seemed to be sending a message, whether he knew it or not, that he was giving up, and punished the audience as a result. It was his Metal Machine Music, except you couldn’t even pretend to like it to be cool, and if you did you do not belong near other people.
If Chevy wasn’t cognizant of his dissatisfaction with how it was going then, he (and/or his writing staff) were definitely unhappy by the end of the week:
(Kind of interestingly enough, Conan O’Brien’s cold open for his very first show had O’Brien briefly in a noose, and it aired a week before. This business is rough.)
By October 17th, The Chevy Chase Show was canceled. Chase’s career was forever ruined until it wasn’t, because every time a celebrity who has come across Chase finishes a remark whether genuine or phony about how affable he is, they speak of his undeniably great comedic talents. If you ask Dan Harmon or those that were writing on Community back in season two, they’ll talk about how amazing Chase was in that “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” episode, that he, no kidding, should have been nominated for an Emmy, before talking about how difficult he was to work with. Like seemingly most of the great and fascinating entertainers, his faults give him the gravitas attached to a tragic figure who continuously will find his or herself surrounded by irony. Here was a man given his own late night talk show (his own theater), and the man truly hated by some for being an arrogant scumbag pissed it away by being a toothless interviewer and a nervous wreck. What a jerk.
1For years, only a handful of clips existed of The Chevy Chase Show on YouTube, as if all of the VHS tapes were somehow wiped out by an invention that only Rupert Murdoch, Chevy Chase, and a captured scientist know about. Recently, an individual purchased DVDs of all of the episodes from another individual on a website. The individual who bought the DVDs uploaded the first thirteen episodes to a website located in the catacombs of the internet one month ago with the promise of uploading the rest at a date sooner than later. Episodes 5-8 appeared on YouTube just last week from a third individual (and I suspect more will pop up eventually now). I am not any of those people, but I am sure they are all nice and good looking, and they are most definitely generous.
2There is a YouTube video of just the commercials from the series premiere. It was a big deal.