Chevy Chase took a drive for old times' sake Saturday when the comedian returned to his alma mater for a surprise appearance on NBC's "Saturday Night Live." Chase, looking considerably older than springtime, tumbled into a stack of boxes and said "Live from New York, It's Saturday Night" just the way he used to.
But viewers may have felt such attempts to evoke happy memories of the original show were straight out of Desperation City and largely unconvincing. This was the first "SNL" to come out of an intensive care unit headed by new producer Dick Ebersol and put together to revive the program after the previous producer, Jean Doumanian, took it for a long walk off a short pier.
There were references to the debacle -- perhaps more self-aggrandizing than cheeky -- during the program. Al Franken, a former SNL writer and sometime performer, said during a sketch that hiring Doumanian to replace Lorne Michaels, creator of the program, had been a "horrendous mistake" and that in terms of producing the program "No English-speaking person could do a worse job than Jean."
Franken made other joking remarks that could be taken literally, as when he said of the program, now in its sixth year, "It's clearly time to yank this tired old format off the air. Let's put this show out of its misery." The program Saturday seemed sloppy, anxious and unable even to find promising straws at which to grasp.
None of the new performers signed up by Ebersol registered very strongly in their debuts, but one holdover from the previous cast, Eddie Murphy, continued to be a standout in terms of connecting with the camera and the audience. Unfortunately, Murphy is subject to a kind of hip-racist approach that also characterizes some sketches on ABC's "Fridays"; it appears Murphy isn't allowed to take on any roles that don't depend for their comic edge on racial stereotyping.
Thus Murphy appeared as film critic "Raheen Abdul Mohammad," who wandered into the wrong duplex theater and so got "Altered States" mixed up with "Stir Crazy." Some joke, ha ha.
Newcomer Laurie Metcalfe appeared in one exceptional sequence, a series of New Yorker-on-the-street interviews in which subjects were asked if they would "Take a bullet for a president." A teen-aged boy answered, "I'd take it for my mother -- that's it." And a man in a business suit said, "When this country gets back to law and order, that's when I'd take a bullet for the president."
Chase handled the revised "Weekend Update" satirical news segment as he did in the old days, but he kept pulling the cheap trick of ridiculing or deriding the material when it failed to get him laughs even though his own delivery was badly garbled and he never has been able to ad lib himself.He tried at one point to cop a few titters by pretending to pull a long hair out of his nose.
In truth, the writing was not up to the old standards, and much of the irreverence seemed force. The update segment was far too long and Johnny Carson's monologues during the past week's "Tonight Shows" were really more tart and funnier on such delicious topics as Alexander Haig. (Carson: "I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that President Reagan is coming home from the hospital. The bad news is that Alexander Haig is holed up in the oval office with a four-year supply of Spam").
Carson now even does the kind of sick humor -- dead Franco jokes, for instance -- that SNL once made television safe for. Having made television safe for almost anything, the program now appears at a loss to justify itself. It may be in the unenviable position of trying to rock the boat on a storm-tossed sea.
Chase appeared briefly on the stage with Robin Williams and Christopher Reeve, neither of whom spoke, and told viewers that the series had had its "ups and downs" but that "it's on its way up again." Like Woodstock, the Beatles and Chase's own stale brand of low-comedy insouciance, however, "Saturday Night Live" looks more and more like an idea whose time has gone.