From the December 22, 1975 issue of New York Magazine.
As television lurches toward its second season, with more than half of September's new offerings already dispatched to that Great Cutting-Room Floor in the Sky, only one new show has stirred any real critical and audience excitement: NBC's "Saturday Night."
The New York-based, live, 90-minute comedy show has broken with many of the traditional forms and limits of TV comedy, and it has done it with a new crop of talent. The hosts are well known—George Carlin, Paul Simon, Rob Reiner, Candice Bergen, Lily Tomlin, and most recently, Richard Pryor. But the regulars, who call themselves the "Not Ready for Prime-Time Players," look, talk, and move with refreshing uniqueness. And at least one of them, name of Chevy Chase, is already on the road to bigger things. In prime time.
Meanwhile, Chase is becoming a household word—at least in the over 5-million households that, according to latest ratings, are watching the show at 11:30 P.M. (That's 2 million more than watched the "Tonight Show" reruns that formerly occupied the same weekend slot.)
On the surface, Chase is cut from the conventional TV mold: a rich, "sincere" voice; neatly cropped hair; a pleasant, harmless face; jacket and tie a permanent part of his wardrobe. But when he comes onstage, strange things begin to happen. He is unable to remain upright, striding forth confidently only to slip and tumble uncontrollably. His glib newscaster voice on "Weekend Update" ("Good evening, I'm Chevy Chase and you're not") reports outrageous stories: George Wallace is rebuffed trying to see the pope because, a Vatican spokesman explains, the pope didn't know who he was, and besides, handicapped people are always knocking on the door. Richard Nixon's effusive tribute to the late General Franco is read as a picture of Franco and Hitler flashes on the screen. A sincere citizen reads an earnest reply to an editorial as Chase mugs behind his back, then unctuously solicits opposing arguments from the viewers.
This combination of reassuring form and outrageous content—the "naughty boy" quality—has made Chevy Chase a hot property at NBC. Industry sources report that network executives see in Chase "the first real potential successor to Johnny Carson when he gives up the 'Tonight Show.' " The network is preparing a major development deal with Chase, and sometime in the next six months or so plans to use Chase as a guest host on "Tonight." A still-unset plan to broadcast "Saturday Night" as a 10 P.M. prime-time special will give Chase further exposure, as will a future stint as the program's host.
"In viewing the very first show," says producer Lorne Michaels, "[NBC president] Herb Schlosser was enormously taken with Chevy. So were many other executives. All of the players are brilliant—the difference is that Chevy is always doing himself. The others are in character, and they're not as accessible as Chevy." Chase himself acknowledges that while his position is uncertain ("We could go down the toilet tomorrow and NBC would flush us all away"), the network is acting very friendly toward him.
Ironically, Chase was hired for "Saturday Night" as a writer. Michaels had turned down his agent's request for a dual role, and Chase had actually gone off to do summer stock with Paul Lynde. A short time later, Chevy joined the show as a writer, and, says Michaels, "after two or three days I knew he'd be in the repertory company. The network was opposed to it, but I went with my instincts that Chevy was one of the funniest people I'd ever seen."
Chevy Chase is his real name. He was born Cornelius Crane Chase, but several days later, his parents changed his name to Chevy "for reasons that have never been clear to me" but were presumably unrelated to the Maryland suburb. He is a 32-year-old native New Yorker whose father, Edward, an editor at Putnam's, used to write frequently for The New Yorker. After his parents separated, he lived with his mother in Woodstock. His education fluctuated between progressive private schools and schools "where they help you out emotionally," and he graduated from Bard College. Chase was not a compulsive TV watcher: "Ernie Kovacs was the first thing I can remember getting excited about. Later, I thought about writing and performing."
His ambition was first fulfilled—sort of—when he teamed up with Kenny Shapiro and Lane Sarasohn at college to found Groove Tube, a video-recorded send-up of TV programing that ran for several years on the East Side and was more recently a movie. (Shapiro was a child actor in early TV days, appearing as Milton Berle's wisecracking TV friend.) Shapiro's father made enough money manufacturing Davy Crockett hats to get his son a Sony, and the team was in business.