Bill Cosby is the most hated comedian in America. But if you were looking for a runner-up, Chevy Chase has to be in with a shout. Over the 40 years of his career, from his time as the breakout performer from Saturday Night Live’s legendary original ensemble, to his movie star days, to his latter years as a sitcom cast member, Chase has insulted and assaulted co-workers, spouted racist, misogynistic and homophobic views, and been described, even by those who tolerate him, as a delusional egomaniac.
The comic actor Ed Helms is, by all accounts, a prince of a man: generous, talented, modest and hard-working. But watching Helms star in the remake of Chase's classic 1983 comedy National Lampoon’s Vacation, one fact becomes clear: Ed Helms will have a longer, more varied and successful acting career than Chevy Chase, but he does not possess the weirdly compelling qualities that briefly made Chase a national obsession.
When Saturday Night Live debuted on NBC in 1975, its impact on audiences was similar to the way punk was received in the UK. The show immediately drew a line separating young from old, smart from dumb and hip from square. Staying up late to watch and then quote it to classmates the following Monday was a badge of honour in adolescent America.
Cast members John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner speedily evolved into fan favourites but Cornelius Crane Chase was the show's first legitimate star. As co-host of the fake news segment Weekend Update, Chevy Chase had a guaranteed 15-to-20 minute slot every week. His persona – a cynical, dissolute, old-money scion – hit a nerve, as did his catchphrase: “I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not.”
Chase’s calling card to the mainstream was his impersonation of the famously maladroit president Gerald Ford. In a series of sketches, Chase made the head of state into an accident-prone idiot who fell off his podium, stapled his tie to his ear and walked into walls.
That first season also saw Chase appear in one of SNL’s most notorious sketches. Playing a personnel officer interviewing guest host Richard Pryor for a janitorial position, Chase suggests a game of word association. The game starts innocently enough until Chase begins to throw in racial epithets. The air between the two actors – who had no love for each other in real life – crackles with tension as Pryor retorts to Chase’s escalating stream of insults with an outraged "honky!" Then Chase drops the N-word, and Pryor responds: “dead honky”.
Within two weeks of the sketch airing, Chase was anointed "the funniest man in America" on the cover of Time magazine. At the end of SNL’s first season, Chevy Chase announced his departure from the show. NBC let it be known they considered him a serious contender to replace Johnny Carson. Movie studios let it be known they considered him a comedian with leading-man looks.
Few of his Saturday Night colleagues mourned his loss. He was arrogant and competitive with Ackroyd and Belushi, went out of his way to overshadow his Weekend Update co-anchor Jane Curtin (SNL was generally a toxic environment for its female employees: John Belushi refused to appear in any sketches written by women), and made it obvious that he saw the rest of the cast as inferior supporting players.
“Chevy was good-looking but kind of mean,” recalled co-star Laraine Newman. "He teased in the way that a big brother would, aiming for exactly what would hurt your feelings the most.”
In subsequent years, Chase would make numerous return visits to SNL, often as guest host, sometimes in a cameo role. On every occasion, he would prove difficult and unpleasant to be around. It didn’t help that he would declare in interviews: “Once I left, [SNL] wasn’t as good.”
On his first time back at the show, he got into a fist fight with Bill Murray. In later seasons, he would make enemies of Robert Downey Jr (“Didn’t your father used to be a successful director?... Boy, he sure died, you know, he sure went to hell”) and the show’s first openly gay cast member, Terry Sweeney (Chase suggested Sweeney star in a recurring sketch where he was weighed to see if he had contracted Aids).
"It was like watching a car crash over and over again, watching him deal with people,” said Tim Meadows, a stalwart of the series in the 1990s.
Why would a successful show repeatedly roll out the red carpet for someone who thought he was too good for it, and who was openly loathed? Possibly because, between 1975 and 1980, and during sporadic periods thereafter, what Chevy Chase represented – an arrogant, snobbish Wasp who skated through life with a mixture of charm and contempt – was something America found aspirational.
Chase’s sneering persona saw its finest on-screen distillation in Caddyshack (1980). Directed by Harold Ramis, the film is reminiscent of a Marx Brothers movie: there’s a perfunctory plot and a tedious romance, but it’s really an excuse to let a bunch of comics run riot, in this case Chase, Bill Murray and Rodney Dangerfield, all of whom improvised their roles.
When Chase’s numerous detractors compile lengthy lists of his flaws, defenders do not have a lot of ammunition with which to fire back. But they have Caddyshack and three other films he made in the 1980s.
Vacation and its second sequel, 1989’s Christmas Vacation, established Chase as a character a world away from what America had previously seen of him. In these movies, he played a hard-working, blindly optimistic, middle-class guy from the heartland who just wanted to show his family a good time – whether it be a trip to Walley World, or the best Christmas ever – and refused to give up no matter what disasters befell him. Both movies mixed slapstick, gross-out humour and sentimentality in a way that showed Chase at his most appealing.
The other standout movie in Chevy Chase’s Eighties heyday is Fletch. I can’t remember what the plot was about, but I remember Chase’s smirking crime reporter introducing himself as “Nugent. Ted Nugent”, and “Babar” and “Dr. Rosenpenis”. I remember him ordering “A bloody Mary and a steak sandwich and a steak sandwich.”
It seemed like this smirking guy who bluffs his way through cases with an armoury of put-downs was a part Chevy Chase could play for the rest of his life. As it turned out, he only played Fletch in a lifeless sequel. But so indelible was his original portrayal that frequent doomed attempts have been made to reboot the franchise with a contemporary actor who could replicate Chase’s insolent cool.
Director Kevin Smith met Chase in the Nineties to talk about resurrecting the character, and was not impressed: "At the lunch, Chevy went on to claim he invented every funny thing that ever happened in the history of not just comedy, but also the known world... You ever sat down with somebody who claimed responsibility for stuff he did AND didn't do? It's really off-putting."
As the 1980s came to an end, Chase's career started to nosedive. It wasn’t so much that times had changed and audiences failed to find a middle-aged white guy’s entitled disdain amusing, it was that Chase had ceased to be an effortless performer. He showed up on SNL and talk shows, puffy-faced and floundering, stumbling over his punchlines. As the movie roles began to dwindle and his name became synonymous with hackery and desperation, karma dealt him a trio of devastating blows.
In 1993, the Fox Network, which had previously tried and failed to make a dent in the late night talk world with a disastrous Joan Rivers show, announced a nightly talk, comedy and variety series hosted by Chevy Chase. It lasted five weeks. “The shows weren’t good,” commented Fox’s then-boss Lucie Salhany, while Chase was still on the air. “He was nervous. It was uncomfortable and embarrassing to watch.”
While Chase could use his personal Rolodex to pull in first-week guests the calibre of Robert de Niro, Goldie Hawn and Martin Short, the man with a reputation for condescending to those he considered less famous and talented was soon struggling make nightly chit-chat with the likes of Geraldo Rivera and Kenny Loggins.
Chase’s obvious discomfort during the brief run of his show was nothing compared to the horror he experienced during his 2002 Comedy Central Roast. Today, being insulted by comics at this annual event is seen as such an honour that Justin Bieber sat with a big smile on his face while stand-up Natasha Leggero joked that he got his dance moves by avoiding the coat hanger when he was in his teen mother’s womb.
Chase wore no such smile. He sat, stone-faced, behind dark glasses he never removed, while the then-unknown likes of Marc Maron, Stephen Colbert and Lisa Lampanelli told him he was old, pathetic, talentless and washed-up. When he took to the podium to offer the traditional good-humoured rebuttal, Chase mumbled “That hurt.” And he meant it.
Karma’s final kick in Chevy Chase’s pants was his participation in NBC’s culty, critically adored sitcom Community. Creator Dan Harmon cast Chase as Pierce Hawthorne, a paunchy, decrepit, bigoted, impotent millionaire. The role was not a stretch.
Chase wasted no time in alienating a cast largely comprised of young black, Asian and Indian actors. Community star Joel McHale told Howard Stern: ”When I would try to talk to him about his attitude, he would just try to fight me. He physically wanted to fight me.” Confronted about his liberal on-set use of the N-word, McHale recalls Chase saying “Richard Pryor told him it was okay to call him that.”
Relations between Chase and Dan Harmon broke down in 2012 at an end-of-season wrap party, when Harmon regaled the assembled cast and crew with expletive-filled phone messages Chase had left him, and then led the assembled revelers in a chorus of “F--- you, Chevy!” delivered in front of Chase, his wife and daughter. Though the pair reached a frosty detente, Chase quit the show before the end of its fourth season.
He’s a fossil. He makes terrible choices. He’s tone-deaf. He lacks empathy. All these things are true. But there was a time when America looked on the smirking, cynical Chevy Chase of SNL and Fletch, and decided it wanted to be like him. And there was a time when America looked at the bumbling, ever-hopeful Chevy Chase of the Vacation movies and decided it was just like him. Those days are long gone, but take a look at Ed Helms in the 2015 Vacation and you’ll be reminded of the immortal catchphrase: “I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not.”