SNL Golden Boy Chevy Chase: Clark Griswold, Fletch, And A Complicated Legacy
Saturday Night Live - Season 1 -- Pictured: Chevy Chase during 'Weekend Update' -- (Photo by: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
With performances in Caddyshack (1980), National Lampoon's Vacation (1983), and Fletch (1985), Chevy Chase became an American comedy institution, making endlessly re-watchable and quotable movies that have their own genre -- they're Chevy Chase movies. Chase is a gifted physical comedian who gives calmly absurd performances, and during his years on top it served him well.
Chevy Chase's persona also served him well on Saturday Night Live -- while it lasted. On the inaugural 1975 season of Saturday Night Live, Chevy Chase was the biggest presence, usually delivering the line "live, from New York, it's Saturday night!" and hosting Weekend Update. In Rolling Stone's estimation, Chase was the most crucial performer from the get-go: "It took him only one season to define the franchise…without that deadpan arrogance, the whole SNL style of humor would fall flat."
Chase was also known for having a big ego, but that's the push-and-pull of being Chevy Chase. He was praised as the funniest man in America during that first season, he was hailed as the next Johnny Carson, and he won two Emmys and a Golden Globe for his writing and acting on SNL. Yes, Chevy Chase had a high opinion of himself... he also had reason to.
Chevy Chase is a successful actor who did era-defining work in the '70s and early '80s.
Counterpoint: Chevy Chase Is A Failure And A Jerk
Yes, Chase was arguably the most important member of the inaugural-season cast of SNL, and yes, Chase made those three immortal movies (plus Christmas Vacation, which has turned into an institution). But Chase has made a lot of really bad movies. His batting average as a comedy star isn't as good as first-season castmates like Dan Aykroyd and the late John Belushi, or his SNL replacement Bill Murray. There was a lot of hoopla with Chevy Chase, and he delivered on it several times. But the list of meh movies you don't feel the need to watch again includes Foul Play, Oh Heavenly Dog, Seems Like Old Times, Under the Rainbow, and Deal of the Century.
There's also Chevy Chase's offscreen personality -- it's long been said that he is not the nicest guy to work with. A Gawker article that tried to catalog all the documented examples says:
Between the hundreds of thousands of words that have been written about Saturday Night Live, his weirdly public ongoing spats with actors and writers on Community, and the unbelievably d**kish and petty interviews he's given over the years, there's plenty of evidence that Chevy Chase is an a**hole.
So... there's that perspective. Comedic genius? Undoubtedly. Jerk? Well, that's what a lot of people who've worked with him will tell you.
Chevy Chase Didn't Quite Play In Steely Dan
Chevy Chase attended Bard College, where he met Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, the duo who would go on to fame as the '70s jazz-rock group Steely Dan. Chase, a drummer, played with Becker and Fagen in a group called The Leather Canary. That band didn't last long, and Becker and Fagen stayed together through a few more bands before forming Steely Dan. Chase joined another band, The Chamaeleon Church, which actually scored a record deal. So what happened? The author of It's Psychedelic Baby Magazine writes that
The band only released one LP in 1968, which I would consider as one of the very best in psychedelic pop genre, but lack of promotion made this album slowly fade away.
Chevy Chase Almost Crashed The 'Animal House' Party
After his one season at Saturday Night Live, Chase was a sought-after comedic talent, even though many in the industry knew he was difficult. When it came time to cast the upcoming movie Animal House, written by National Lampoon staffers, director John Landis, knew his first choice for brother John "Bluto" Blutarsky: John Belushi.
Universal Pictures worried that Belushi was unpredictable, and might even be a risk to have on their movie set. Universal weighed in with their idea, which was more or less an order: the part of Bluto will be played by Chevy Chase.
Landis didn't like that idea at all. He didn't want to deal with Chevy Chase's ego; he wanted team players. He also knew that Chase was considering making another movie, Foul Play. And so, at the lunch where Chase was to be romanced for the part of Bluto, Landis glowingly described the Bluto role as something he knew Chase would reject. Landis described his pitch for Vanity Fair in 2019:
I said, 'Listen, Chevy, our picture is an ensemble, a collaborative group effort like Saturday Night Live. You’d fit right in, whereas in Foul Play, that’s like being Cary Grant or Paul Newman, a real movie-star part. Don’t you think you’d be better off surrounded by really gifted comedians?'
Landis' reverse-psychology worked. Chase, uninterested in revisiting an SNL-style ensemble, announced he'd decided to do Foul Play.
Chase Was Kicked Off SNL Despite Being Hilarious
Chase soon found himself out of a job with the popular late-night show. Chevy Chase is reportedly the only cast member to have ever been kicked off of SNL. Lorne Michaels, SNL’s producer, had a show to do and didn’t have time to cater to Chase.
But regardless of the behind-the-scenes drama, the bits that viewers saw were good, if not classic. Chase defined Weekend Update, with his famous tagline "I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not." Chase looked nothing like Gerald Ford but succeeded in playing the president as a klutz. The Chevy Chase-vs.-Richard Pryor "Word Association" sketch is arguably the best bit of the whole season, and it was "woke" about 45 years ahead of schedule. And then there was Land Shark...
Yeah, But Those Three Movies
If you're Generation X or older, you get Chevy Chase, because you saw him in the biggest comedies of the day when they were new. We've seen very popular comedies come and go in the decades since, some featuring SNL talent and some not, but you can't name three films by Eddie Murphy or Will Ferrell or Steve Carell that collectively beat Caddyshack, Vacation and Fletch.
And hey, Spies Like Us was perfectly good. European Vacation wasn't bad. Christmas Vacation has the longest legs of all of them, becoming an annual ritual must-watch for families all over America. And Fletch Lives... ok, Fletch Lives was bad.
Chevy Chase originally set out to be a writer but got caught up in the glory of being in the public eye. SNL brought his comedic talent to light although he didn’t fare quite as well as he had hoped. Chase had, regrettably, gotten caught up in the fast-paced reality of stardom.
Tags: Caddyshack | Chevy Chase | Fletch | National Lampoons Vacation | Saturday Night Live
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