Saturday Night’s Children: Chevy Chase (1975-1976)
Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 39 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member every other week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
As much as SNL’s debut season cast needed to mesh and support each other during the early years, they also needed to set precedents for seasons to come — such as abandoning the show for wider Hollywood success. Chevy Chase wasted no time setting such a precedent, leaving the show not long after his very first season; he was originally hired as a writer but went on to become the first “Live from New York!” catchphrase announcer, Weekend Update anchor, household name, and SNL-to-movie and TV special star. His reputation as a collaborative performer, professional, and even SNL host, however, isn’t nearly as stellar as his charismatic idiocy, all-American smile, resonant announcer voice, and grace with a pratfall would lead one to believe.
Born and raised in Manhattan, Cornelius Crane Chase grew up a fourteenth-generation New Yorker to a family of social NYC blue bloods whose history with the city dates back to 1624. His father worked as a book editor and magazine writer, his mother was a concert pianist, and his ancestors included NYC mayors, Mayflower pilgrims, and figures of the Revolutionary War and World War II. Chase’s parents divorced during his early years, and in his 2007 biography I’m Chevy Chase … and You’re Not he claimed that his mother and stepfather often emotionally and physically abused him during his childhood: “I knew I was a ‘bad boy,’ but I didn’t know that everybody wasn’t punished in the same way I was.”
As a student Chase was trouble; he was expelled from the Riverdale Country School in New York, then Haverford College’s dean kicked him out for, as Chase called it, “your general Animal House stuff, but not quite that broad.” (Chase was reportedly kicked out after managing to bring a cow to the top floor of the dorm, or so the myth goes.) After Haverford, Chase attended Bard College in New York and graduated in 1967 with an English degree. The same year he cofounded a comedy ensemble and theater called Channel One with Ken Shapiro while working various odd jobs, including cab driver, construction worker, waiter, busboy, and theater usher. Channel One grew into Shapiro’s 1974 film The Groove Tube starring Chase and Richard Belzer, which caught the attention of Lorne Michaels. Chase also wrote for The Smothers Brothers, Mad magazine, and The National Lampoon Radio Hour in the early ’70s, and he appeared alongside future SNLer John Belushi in the National Lampoon off-Broadway play Lemmings in 1973.
Chase was initially hired as an SNL writer, but Michaels decided to include him in the cast as well, leading to another of Chase’s many SNL firsts — he even appeared in the first-ever cold open “The Wolverines” — but it was as the first-ever Weekend Update anchor where Chase won America over with the immortal intro “I’m Chevy Chase … and you’re not.” Chase’s natural ease and all-American announcer style made his subversive deadpan streak land in a big way; this was still the ’70s when television audiences were conditioned by years of primetime sameness to believe a man like him would never steer them wrong, so his open surreal shadiness was fresher than anything Middle America had seen in years. Chase didn’t have too many recurring characters, but Jaws fans loved his deceivingly shy-sounding Land Shark, who also made the occasional cameo at the Weekend Update desk.
Chase’s impersonations included Ronald Reagan, David Eisenhower, Greg Allman, Leonard Nimoy, and a clumsy Gerald Ford, and he was known best in sketches for his physical comedy and pratfalls, which he used to open each show prior to the “Live from New York” catchphrase. Chase also wrote much of the Weekend Update material — including Garrett Morris’s shouted repeats of the “top story tonight” for the hard of hearing — and appeared opposite host Richard Pryor in one of the show’s most memorably edgy sketches ever, “Word Association.” He landed on the cover of New York magazine the same year; the publication called him the “funniest man in America” and “first real potential successor to Johnny Carson.”
Due to his one-year writer’s contract, Chase was allowed to leave SNL not long into the second season (after winning Emmys for writing and performing) to bank off his breakout star status and pursue a solo Hollywood career. This was much to the chagrin of the rest of the cast and writers, who found his backstage attitude and early departure arrogant and a form of betrayal. In Live from New York Chase recalls his departure as a result of wanting the entire cast to “take off at least one year and think this over, because otherwise it was going to become solipsistic — jokes about ourselves, showcases for characters as opposed to what it should be, which is a vehicle to take apart television.” Most of Chase’s collaborators refute his rosier claims regarding his decision to leave; his former agent Bernie Brillstein said it was because Chase “got a fucking car and more money,” while Bill Murray — who became Chase’s replacement on SNL starting in 1977 and got into a backstage brawl with him when he returned to host — summed it up best: “When you become famous, you’ve got like a year or two where you act like a real asshole. You can’t help yourself. It happens to everybody. You’ve got like two years to pull it together — or it’s permanent.”
Chase’s final official SNL episode was October 30, 1976, and while he returned to make several appearances (including a few cameos and hosting stints in 1978 and 1980), he moved to Los Angeles, married, and starred in hits Foul Play and Caddyshack. His next few film roles on Rainbow, Modern Problems, Heavenly Dog, and Neil Simon’s Seems Like Old Times in 1980 didn’t perform nearly as well at the box office, and he divorced his first wife before rebounding with 1983’s National Lampoon’s Vacation, 1985’s Fletch, and 1986’s ¡Three Amigos! alongside SNLers Steve Martin and Martin Short. Chase, Martin, and Short promoted the film by hosting SNL together the same year — the only three-host episode in the show’s history.
Chase’s career has been largely unpredictable since his ’80s Hollywood second heyday; he hosted the Academy Awards in both 1987 and 1988, filmed two Vacation sequels, and appeared in a list of box office flops (Nothing But Trouble, Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Cops & Robbersons, and Zoom, to name just a few), not to mention his disastrous and short-lived 1993 weeknight Fox talk show The Chevy Chase Show, which was canceled by the network just after five weeks on the air. While he returned to SNL for a total of seven solo hosting gigs, his work on the show is not remembered fondly by later cast members (Terry Sweeney called him a “monster” while Will Ferrell named him the worst host to work with), and his career floundered until he joined the cast of Dan Harmon’s college comedy Community in 2009, which began to revive his reputation but took an ugly turn in 2012 when Chase and Harmon got into a public feud that ultimately resulted in Chase leaving the show (in one of his now-infamous voicemails to Harmon, Chase called the show a “fucking mediocre sitcom”). But who knows — perhaps Chase’s career will get yet another push thanks to the in-the-works Vacation reboot starring Ed Helms as well as Chase’s very own upcoming sitcom with his Vacation wife Beverly D’Angelo. In the end, no matter how sourly his fellow players, writers, and crew feel about him, Chase’s bitterness and malice never seem to show up onscreen, except, maybe, during those five torturous weeks in 1993: