Chevy then pursued a fantasy of rock stardom, joining several groups whose names have been mercifully forgotten. He appeared with Shapiro as a white-faced mime on public television's "Great American Dream Machine," and then hooked up with National Lampoon projects such as the revue Lemmings and the "National Lampoon Radio Hour." He performed a savage parody of John Denver in Lemmings, singing about a family freezing to death in the glorious Rocky Mountains.
Chase's first network experience was as a writer on an Alan King comedy special. A fellow writer has less than warm memories of Chevy, saying that "he'd laugh himself silly when King played an old Las Vegas cassette of his act; when King left the room, he'd turn to us and say, 'That was a piece of crap.' He was completely two-faced." Chase followed the comedy special with five months of California joblessness. ("The William Morris Agency tried to pass me off as a leading man," he says.) And for a while he worked as a writer for the Smothers Brothers.
Then fate stepped in, almost as clumsily as a Chevy Chase pratfall.
While waiting in line last February at the Los Angeles premiere of a Monty Python movie, Chase met Lorne Michaels, who was soon to start putting together the "Saturday Night" show. They hit it off, and Chase later signed up as a writer.
The key to Chevy Chase's success lies in his apparent innocence. On a show as potentially offensive as "Saturday Night," with its unrestrained comments on politics, sex, religion, and other usually taboo TV subjects, somebody has to play the "good guy," to reassure the audience that the inmates haven't taken over the asylum.
Dick Ebersol, the 28-year-old vice-president for late-night programing at NBC, explains Chevy's appeal this way:
". . .'I come across relatively soft,' Chevy says, 'but my mind is mean—I've got a lot of things I'd like to get out'. . ."
"His type of humor is the most traditional. He has the quality of seeming to get away with something, and audiences love that notion. And he was the first person in the company to appear regularly, under his own name, in a skit week after week. He also performs mostly his own material, or stuff by Herb Sargent,* who thinks a lot like Chevy. His success was a surprise to a lot of people. Bob Einstein, who was with Chevy on the Smothers Brothers' show, told me the other day, 'We never knew Chevy could do that.'"
As Chevy puts it, "I happen to come across relatively soft. My hair is short enough, I wear a tie and jacket, so I can do more offensive stuff. But my mind is mean—I've got a lot of things I'd like to get out. And it would be harder for some of the others to do it."
"Chevy's likability is very important," Michaels agrees. "When an audience likes you, they let you get away with more. Chevy really feels the way he sounds on 'Update,' but he can make the material neutral. He's not on a soapbox. And he never acts. When he played Ford, he was still Chevy.
"That's why he does the news takeoff under his own name. The TV comedy I hate most is when someone comes on and says, 'Good evening, I'm Walter Crankcase.' "
Another key element behind Chase's effectiveness is the physical nature of his humor. Because he appears at first glance to be another television smoothie, with assurance bathing him like a klieg light, the muggings and pratfalls come as a special comic jolt. One of his most taste-stretching skits was as a representative of America's "droolers" in a takeoff on help-the-handicapped TV spots. A plea for understanding was accompanied by 90 seconds of . . . drooling. Spittle running from his mouth. This is the sort of thing that some critics and TV comedy producers have called sophomoric, but as "Saturday Night" writer Michael O'Donoghue says, " 'Sophomoric' is the liberal code for 'funny.' "
Michaels maintains that "one of the things I like a lot about Chevy is the physical quality. Most of the great comedians were athletes [in fact, Chase played soccer in college]. In the fifties, comedy got trapped in the head. It was all verbal. Chevy's falls are so good, we had thought about using a 'fall of the week' feature."
Because Chase thinks "physically," he balances well with the other writers, many of whom were literary types drawn from The National Lampoon.
"I very rarely write cerebrally," says Chase. "I never read a lot of satire. So while a writer like O'Donoghue, who is very literary, goes in one direction, I go in another." Chase also says that people take his tumbles seriously. "They can't believe I'm not really killing myself."