Chevy Chase is sitting on the porch, outside his home in wooded Westchester County. He takes a drag off a Marlboro and casually mentions that he ran into Donald Glover backstage at “Saturday Night Live.”
These days, Chase is sober and about 40 pounds lighter. But he hasn’t softened up, and he wasn’t about to avoid Glover, even after what the “Atlanta” star said about him.
Two months earlier, in a New Yorker profile, Glover was asked about working with Chase on NBC’s late sitcom “Community.” According to the magazine, Chase, out of envy, tried to throw the younger actor off. Glover said Chase told him, “People think you’re funnier because you’re black.” The New Yorker termed the comments “racial cracks.”
“I just saw Chevy as fighting time,” Glover told the magazine. “A true artist has to be okay with his reign being over. I can’t help him if he’s thrashing in the water. But I know there’s a human in there somewhere.”
The night the story went up, Chase texted, “There goes my career.”
He doesn’t deny delivering the line — “I could have said it” — but he denies the interpretation. It was a joke. Chase had been a fan of Glover’s since they filmed the pilot in 2009. How could anybody think he was racist?
By the time SNL co-creator Lorne Michaels texted Chase an invitation (“you’re still a legend here”) to the season finale in May, the New Yorker thing seemed to have blown over. Then, he ran into Glover, who was doing a cameo in the finale.
“I never saw a guy turn white so fast,” Chevy says.
The line almost sounds like a throwaway, which it is, until you think about how odd it is for Chase to deliver it. He’s only weeks removed from a potential publicity disaster centered on race, and here he is, reentering the minefield with a reference to Glover’s skin color.
Chase is a key piece of SNL’s history, whether establishing “Weekend Update” or pioneering the path from Studio 8H to Hollywood stardom. When asked what he thinks of the current show, he doesn’t hold back, delivering a foul-mouthed appraisal that’s as unforgiving as his critics. “First of all, between you and me and a lamppost, jeez, I don’t want to put down Lorne or the cast, but I’ll just say, maybe off the record, I’m amazed that Lorne has gone so low. I had to watch a little of it, and I just couldn’t f------ believe it.”
Maybe off the record? A microphone and digital recorder sit in front of him. He is reminded that SNL is immensely popular, with millions of viewers.
“That means a whole generation of shitheads laughs at the worst f------ humor in the world,” he says. “You know what I mean? How could you dare give that generation worse shit than they already have in their lives? It just drives me nuts.”
A career gone cold
These days, Chase sits at home, waiting for a script to roll in. But his peers are thriving.
Steve Martin, 73, writes musicals, records bluegrass music and tours. David Letterman, 71, travels to India and interviews world leaders on Netflix. Bill Murray, 67, meets a cellist on a plane, and suddenly he’s doing a spoken-word tour backed by a chamber group.
Chase is eager to work. But these days, he’s more likely to be fielding another round of bad press than a promising pitch. The man who revolutionized television in the 1970s, serving as the first breakout star on NBC’s breakout program, “Saturday Night,” who made three of the best comedies of the 1980s — “Caddyshack, “National Lampoon’s Vacation” and “Fletch” — and who as recently as 2012 earned raves for his turn on “Community,” wonders why he can’t get a break.
He has a few theories. His disastrous late-night TV talk show on Fox in 1993, which lasted 29 episodes and earned an F grade from Entertainment Weekly. His move from Hollywood in the mid-’90s to a quiet town in New York to raise his three daughters with his wife, Jayni. Then the general thing that happens when you grow older in show business.
“They’re really more about the George Clooneys and people that age,” he says. “I look pretty good for 74. I don’t know why I couldn’t do a Chevy Chase picture, but it just doesn’t happen.”
Monstrous or magnanimous?
Chase can be arrogant, unpredictable and mean. He is a masterful put-down artist. He can be blunt or tone-deaf, depending on what he fesses up to, and he doesn’t always seem to understand the fine line between comic provocation and publicity disaster.
But Chase can also be hilarious, sensitive and surprisingly supportive. Sometimes, he’s all of these things at once.
At his home, standing in the kitchen, he’s asked about his reputation as he fixes a cup of coffee. Chase seems to be listening intently until you realize he’s doing a sight gag with the top of the milk carton, twisting the cap over and over again until you notice it won’t tighten, all with a blank stare worthy of Harpo Marx.
Then he pauses and reflects on his life.
“I’ve already done what I’ve done. I can’t change anything. And I’m old. I don’t have to worry about what I did anymore. I know who I am. People know who I am who know me. And I’m proud to be who I am. Because I care about people, I care about feelings. I care about warmth, love. It’s everything.”
SNL is a particular minefield in the universe of make nice.
When was it last funny?
“I’d have to say, that after the first two years, it went downhill,” Chase says. “Why am I saying that? Because I was in it? I guess. That’s a horrible thing to say. But certainly I never had more fun. I really loved it and enjoyed it. I didn’t see the same fun thing happening to the cast the next year.”
But what about Will Ferrell doing George W. Bush?
“Just not funny. Makes $25 million a picture.”
“I liked Tina. I didn’t see what all the folderol was about. She was good.”
How about Kristen Wiig?
“I liked her a lot. She had two things going for her. She had clear-cut chops, and she was pretty, too. But what happened to her? Where did she go?”
“I thought Eddie Murphy was funny. Gumby. I found that funny and people loved that. . . . Stevie Wonder, he did well. [Pause.] It’s not that hard, for Christ’s sake. Your skin’s the same color. You just put on some sunglasses and do this.”
He is effusive in his praise of Gilda Radner and Dan Aykroyd, whom he calls the “funniest guy on the show, almost the leader,” and also singles out former cast member Dana Carvey.
Carvey, who arrived at SNL a full decade after Chase’s exit, even remembers getting a call from Chase after his prime-time variety show fizzled in 1996.
“He was the only person who left a voice mail,” Carvey says. “And I hadn’t seen him in years. Saying you’re great, you’re brilliant, you will work. He gave me a pep talk out of the blue in a very sweet way.”
The same thing happened to Jim Downey, the legendary SNL writer, when he and Norm Macdonald were fired from “Weekend Update” in 1998.
Aykroyd, part of the original SNL cast and his co-star in the 1985 comedy “Spies Like Us,” describes Chase as “one of the sweetest, largest-hearted people, most magnanimous people I know.”
The primary sources of Chase’s battered image are the two main documents of SNL 101: 1986’s “Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live” and 2002’s “Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live.” In both books, Chase is the supremely talented star who couldn’t handle the rush of money and fame, ditches SNL after a single season to cash checks, snort coke, and returns every few years to torment the cast. A “monster,” former cast member Terry Sweeney says of Chase’s 1985 guest spot. “The worst host,” adds Will Ferrell of Chase’s eighth and final one, in 1997.
Those books are the anecdotal tapeworms that led to Chase’s bad-boy reputation, including Gawker’s “He’s Not Chevy, He’s an Asshole: A History of Chevy Chase’s Horrific Behavior,” Uproxx’s “Chevy Chase’s 4-Step Plan for Getting Your Workplace Staff to Hate You” and, just this past July, an essay in the London Telegraph that began with the line: “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.”
The repurposers don’t bother reaching out to their target. They revel in his misdeeds. In an online chat, Max Read, who wrote the “He’s Not Chevy” item in Gawker in 2012, thanks James Andrew Miller, co-author of “Live From New York” with Tom Shales, for the book being his main source.
“What’s the best Chevy’s-an-asshole story you’ve heard,” Read says, and then asks, “and do you have any theories about why the guy is such an asshole?”
Sweeney, Miller replies, told him a couple of stories that will make you “carsick.” The why part? He doesn’t address it. In a phone interview, Miller said he doesn’t know the reason behind Chase’s behavior.
“With Chevy,” he says, “we’re talking about one of the more psychologically complex actors of the last 40 years.”
‘School of hard knocks’
There has been one serious attempt to explain Chase. A little over a decade ago, Rena Fruchter, a classical pianist who had written a book on his late friend Dudley Moore, persuaded Chase to sit for a series of interviews. She then wrote 2007’s “I’m Chevy Chase . . . and You’re Not.” On the cover, the book calls itself the “authorized biography.”
The subject calls it “hideous.”
“She had the sense of humor of an egg timer,” Chase says.
Chase is sitting in his favorite spot, on the living room couch next to a stack of books that include David Mamet, Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy. There’s a script by an unknown screenwriter. The part he’s being pitched includes all of three lines. He wonders why his manager sent it through.
Emily, 29, the youngest of his three daughters, is in the kitchen, working on a laptop. Like all Chases, she listens to her father talking to a reporter and grows worried. He peppers his stories with what most celebrities save for their memoirs or just never mention. About this guy being a bully, that one having no talent. Sometimes, Chase will check himself. You’re not going to print that? he’ll say, but then he’ll delivers a distinctively Chasian laugh, a slightly throatier version of Clark Griswold’s cackle, and wave his hand in the air. Oh, it doesn’t matter. You’re just going to write what you want.
The Fruchter book is poorly written but revealing. Chase wouldn’t talk to Miller or Shales about what he went through growing up, telling them “you have no sense at all — nor would I share with you what my childhood was like.” But he and family members offer a heart-wrenching account of those years to Fruchter. This portrait runs counter to the one presented to the public for years by unsympathetic observers, a group that casts Chase as the “Waspy golden boy,” as former SNL writer Anne Beatts snickers in “Live From New York.”
Chase’s parents divorced early. He loved his father, Ned, an influential book editor and one of the funniest people he ever met. But he lived with his mother, Cathalene, who would wake him up in the middle of the night and slap him repeatedly in the face without explanation. Once, at 14, he got into trouble at school. She locked him in the basement for several days, with only a pitcher to use as a bathroom.
“I was shocked,” says Paul Shaffer, a close friend who has known Chase since Shaffer joined the SNL band in 1975. “I thought he had gone to Bard, and it turns out it was the school of hard knocks.”
In a society desperate for confession and redemption, the Fruchter book offered Chase a perfect out. He could peg everything — his occasional outbursts, his bad career decisions, his battles with painkillers — to the horrendous way he was treated. Except Chase would prefer the book just disappear.
“Chevy Chase hiding in a closet from his mother?” he says. “Good God. Take me for who I am now.”
Jayni Chase, his wife of 36 years, thinks the difficult childhood is an important piece of understanding Chase. It drives how he treats people and also how he responds when he feels attacked or ignored. The pain he’s felt from being hurt over the years — by friends who don’t call, by former collaborators who blast him, by Will Ferrell quotes — has made him grow more cynical and critical.
“Chevy is an abused kid,” Jayni says. “One of the things that most of us have is, we know that our moms loved us, and some of us are lucky enough to be able to say that our fathers also loved us . . . there’s layers of lucky and grateful, and things that give you a good start in life, and a foundation and self-confidence, and give you a capacity to live without fear. And Chevy doesn’t have those things.”
There are times when Chase pretends he has no idea an entire oeuvre of Chevy Chase bashing exists. He’ll claim he’s never heard of Gawker or hasn’t read “Live From New York.” At other moments, he’ll admit that the swaggering put-down artist he has often played, on and off camera, might in fact be the armored manifestation of the terrified, confused kid who was told he’s no good. That kid may have just turned 74, but he’s still got ears.
“I guess the part they don’t write about is where I’m lying in bed, hurt by that, not going to sleep but thinking over and over, why would somebody write that? I’m highly sensitive. I don’t know it in my insensitive self.”
Rise, then resentment
Six summers ago, at his daughter Cydney’s wedding, Chase turned to Lorne Michaels and told him he was ready. He hadn’t been back to host since 1997. It was time.
“He said no,” Chase recounts. “ ‘Come on, Lorne.’ ‘No.’ ‘Why?’ ‘You’re too old.’ I said, ‘And Helen Mirren’s pretty and young?’ I didn’t get it. You’re too old? We’d had many people older than me hosting. What did he mean? I’ve never understood what he meant. Because I’d be very good, and it would be fun for an audience to see me doing that.”
It clearly stings. It’s why he’s bringing it up six years later to a reporter he’s just met.
“It’s like denying that I was the guy who made this show really go that first year,” he says. “It’s like taking all that away from me.”
When you talk to Chase about SNL, it inevitably circles back to 1975. It is the moment unresolved, when everything was possible and still in front of him. Before, he had kicked around for years, writing for the Smothers Brothers and performing with National Lampoon. By the time SNL premiered, Chase was 32, older than fellow cast members Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi and Gilda Radner. Then he exploded. SNL went on the air Oct. 11. By Christmas, New York magazine put Chase on the cover, calling him a potential successor to the king of late night, Johnny Carson.
Martin Short, who last starred alongside Chase in 1986’s “Three Amigos,” remembers a story his friend Gilda Radner told him.
“She went to Florida, and her 84-year-old mother said, ‘You really know him?’ That’s how big this guy was.”
Chase had all the tools. He could play piano and drums, and in college, at Bard, had been in a band with a pair of classmates, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, who would go on to form Steely Dan. He could do physical comedy, voices and improvisation. He was a completely different kind of TV star, not interested in stand-up, drawn instead to the slapstick genius of Chaplin, the subversive absurdity of Ernie Kovacs and the comic poetry of Charles Marion Russell. And boy, was he good-looking.
“Comedy had always been funny people who were, like, goofy-looking, and they were kind of loud,” says Downey, who would join SNL as a writer in 1976. “Chevy was the first person who ever did that room-temperature soothing voice where you’d go, ‘Wait a minute. What did he just say?’ ”
“Weekend Update” introduced Chase’s name to the masses. But he played many other characters: The mumbling “land shark,” a moustached drooler and clumsy Gerald Ford, a different kind of impression in that it was done without trying to make him look at all like the president. His colleagues at SNL were as impressed by the fake commercial for “Triopenin,” meant to play off the advent of childproof pill bottles.
“It just showed Chevy’s hands,” says Laraine Newman, another original cast member. “And he is acting and getting laughs with just his hands.”
Still, there were tensions even before Chase left SNL. Belushi, in particular, grew frustrated with all the attention directed at Chase. And when he actually decided to go, there was no sheet cake.
Time didn’t heal those conflicts. When Chase returned to host two years later, feelings were so raw, he actually got into a fistfight backstage with Bill Murray, the cast member who had replaced him.
“He got a bad break,” Michaels says. “It wasn’t the way I felt. I understood what he was going through — one, because I was his friend, and also because it was a battle, not between us, but a battle for what the show was going to be. Was it going to be ‘The Chevy Chase Show’ with these people, or what we set out to make, which was an ensemble show?”
‘It’s always, always about reinvention’
Chase, back on his couch months after he first brought it up, contemplates the snub at Cydney’s wedding. He wonders whether Michaels still holds a grudge for his exit.
“I think this was pure regret and anger,” Chase says. “Regret that he didn’t keep me there and anger that I chose to leave.”
“But I was never angry,” Michaels says in a phone interview.
It is the only time he raises his voice when discussing Chase, and not out of anger, but exasperation. Michaels says he knows the pressure on Chase then. NBC wanted him for prime time. His girlfriend at the time told him he had to move to California. There was the thing about the next Johnny Carson.
“We must have discussed this 50 times,” Michaels says. “ I know it was a huge deal in both of our lives, but I understood what he was doing. I really did. Also I believe, most importantly, that he loved the show just as much as I did.”
The wedding incident, as told by Michaels, is not nearly as harsh as Chase’s version.
Michaels has his own idea why Chase’s image has suffered over the years.
“Chevy does shock stuff, which is maybe more forgivable in a 25-year-old or 30-year-old than in a 50-year-old or 60-year -old,” he says.
But Michaels also thinks much of the reporting on Chase has been unfair. Take his 1997 hosting turn on SNL. In the book, Miller and Shales talk about how Chase’s nastiness created a kind of cast revolt. Michaels, the book stated, was mortified by his old friend’s behavior and issued a Chevy Chase ban.
“That’s idiotic,” he says. “None of it was particularly shocking to me or upsetting to me. It’s just generational.”
He points to how much society has changed since the burst of chaotic energy that sparked the early ’70s alternative comedy scene and eventually led to SNL.
“We’re coming out of Vietnam and Watergate and the draft and New York in collapse, and it was just a different, tougher time, and people said things that were more provocative, and it was tolerated,” he says. “We’re not in that time anymore.”
Perhaps more than anyone in comedy, Michaels understands how to stay relevant. He is just a year younger than Chase, and yet he oversees SNL, “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and “Late Night With Seth Meyers.”
“The only thing that I know consistently, but as a universal thing in show business, is that it’s always, always about reinvention, and I think, you have to get offstage so you can come back and make another entrance,” he says. “It has to be fresh, and everybody who has sustained and been around, knows that.”
A brief comeback in ‘Community’
There was a moment, not long ago, that Chase made a proper but short-lived comeback. He signed on to do NBC’s “Community” in 2009. At the time, he said that he was semiretired but that he had been blown away by creator Dan Harmon’s writing. In the show, which also featured Glover, Joel McHale and Alison Brie, Chase was cast as Pierce Hawthorne, an aging millionaire with a nasty streak and an insecurity complex the size of Pittsburgh.
Critics praised Chase’s return (“farcically loopy and delightful”), and he seemed thrilled, in interviews, to have agreed to the gig. Then came the Season 3 wrap party.
Back home, Chevy left Harmon an angry voice mail, criticizing him for embarrassing him in front of his family and calling the show “just a mediocre f------ sitcom. I want people to laugh, and this isn’t funny.”
What happened next would be just the latest example of a pattern Caley had watched play out over the years. When somebody is hurt by her father, “they run away and tell other people what an asshole he is” or “they immediately call the Hollywood Reporter or TMZ.”
Harmon’s response to the voice mail was bizarre for somebody in charge of a successful sitcom. He played it out loud to a crowd at a small theater. Somebody taped it, Chase’s rant went viral, and Gawker had another anecdote.
There would be other problems on “Community,” as when Chase dropped the n-word at a table read to, he said, explain why he felt his character was too racist. (He says a legal agreement with NBC keeps him from saying more about it.) By now, Caley, who was living with her father, watched a glass of wine become a bottle, and then the wine turn to vodka. She stopped talking to her father until his doctors told her he had alcohol cardiomyopathy, a weakening of the heart muscles from drinking.
“At that point, I had given up and I assumed he would die soon,” Caley says.
When rehab failed, Jayni wrote him a note that read, in part, “I do not want to divorce you, but I can’t watch you hurt yourself anymore.” But she admits she couldn’t leave.
Finally, about 18 months ago, for reasons Chase can’t necessarily explain, he walked out on the porch, took a final swig from his vodka bottle and decided to quit.
He no longer wants to be semiretired, which is why he went to New Orleans last year to make “The Last Laugh,” a Netflix film scheduled to come out next year. In it, he plays an aging manager desperate not to retire who pushes Richard Dreyfuss, a long-retired comic, back on the road.
As soon as Chase arrived on set, director Greg Pritikin took him aside.
“He said, ‘You know, I was very nervous, because you have a reputation,” Chase says. “I said, ‘I can’t believe that.’ ”
And, in November, Chase flew out to Los Angeles and the Television Hall of Fame.
The original cast of SNL was set to be inducted. If there were lingering bad feelings, they were gone. Chase walked to the podium and praised Belushi and Radner for taking risks and being brilliant. He complimented the cast members standing behind him, including Aykroyd, Newman, Jane Curtin and Garrett Morris.
Then, looking up at the ceiling, his eyes half-closed as if to transport him to when he had tousled hair, a mischievous smile and a license to say anything, Chase grew emotional.
“I can’t tell you, to be up there, on that stage, doing that stuff,” he paused. “Oh, God, it was fun. I’ll tell you, I’d do it again in a minute.”
About this story
Story by Geoff Edgers. Video by Erin O'Connor. Designed by Lizzie Hart.