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.
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 ismean—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.”
Despite the enthusiasm for him around NBC, Chase does not see himself as a star.
“The show’s not in prime time—it wouldn’t be allowed under any network standards. They wouldn’t give us nearly the freedom to do what we’re doing now. So it’s like playing at the top of the minors. People don’t really know who I am.”
But they’ll find out.
“Obviously he has a shot at bigger things,” Lorne Michaels says. “The question is—does Chevy want it?”
Right now, Chevy wants something more elusive than stardom.
“Sleep,” he says wearily. “Right now we’re all nervous wrecks. It’s a twenty-hour-a-day pace, writing until 6 A.M. every morning. I don’t think I got ten hours’ sleep the week we did our last show—none of us did.”
And then? “I’d never be tied down for five years interviewing TV personalities,” says Chase, “but I’d much rather do a ‘Carson’ than a ‘Baretta.’ I’ll always work as a writer, and ultimately I want to write and produce. If I can build as a performer, fine. I don’t care what I do as long as I can have control to expose the sham of so much of TV. This is still a medium that exists to sell products, not to supply hard-hitting entertainment.”
True enough. But right now Chevy Chase seems to be stumbling and falling head first into the network spotlight. It is a testament to television’s power that after half a dozen appearances on a late-night show, he is the heir apparent to Johnny Carson.