29 October 2009

Profiles: The Interesting Career of Chevy Chase


I'm going to admit in the first sentence of this post that I am a Chevy fan. That is, I'm a big fan of his work from about 1975 - 1983. His immense potential and downfall after this period is very culturally significant, as is his current quasi-iconic status as supporting cast member of freshman NBC show, Community, whose prospects after this season are vulnerable at best. There are thousands of decline and comeback Hollywood stories. This is not one of them (Go see Robert Downey, Jr. instead). This is the tale of a righteously destroyed ego and the position that grants a legendary comedian.

In many ways 1975 was a break-out year for a lot of media. Jaws about transformed how Americans interpret the summer blockbuster, the Watergate scandal increased general government suspicion leading to massive culture shifts and a crummy sketch-comedy show premiered on NBC. Okay, maybe only one or two of those events are really significant, but everyone agreed that the funniest man in America was Chevy Chase.

There wasn't even competition. It's hard to remember how immensely popular SNL was when it first came out. Chevy only lasted a single season then he blew up into what should have been an enormous film and television career. Followers spoke of his ability to go toe-to-toe with Carson carrying a talk show and cutting down entire Presidencies with a pratfall. Chevy was undoubtedly the man in the 70s.

After leaving SNL relatively quickly, he owned the early 80s in film. I take singlehandedly his role in Caddyshack (1980) as enough justification to rank him as one of the all-time comedy greats. He nails suave and incompetence so thoroughly and is never off-timed with a witty sarcastic remark. It's incredible. He does the same schtick with less mastery in the Vacation (1983) movies, and much less in Fletch (1985). Somehow along the way here either in an attempt to be a "real" actor with "real" roles or just a declining enthusiasm (on par with inclining cocaine use) he lost this edge. The annoying assholery of Chevy that had always been simmering below the surface fueling his sarcasm burst forth in an eruption of Affleck-like douchebaggery. The 90s were rough.

His one saving grace should have probably been The Chevy Chase Show (1993). This was a late night television show on FOX that premiered around the same time as Late Night with Conan O'Brien and Late Show with David Letterman, all in the wake of Carson's retirement from The Tonight Show and a ton of shuffling that went on. Still with me? Good.

The Chevy Chase Show proved to be one of the most disastrous shows in late night history. The format just didn't work, Chevy wasn't affable as a host and it went down in flames. This is striking considering the very natural desk presence he had in the 70s during SNL segments such as Weekend Update, a fake news format that persists in many variations to the present day (that Chevy basically created). Anyway, this atrocious affair combined with a slew of really pretty shitty movies ground his career to a halt in the early 90s, where it has slowed until pretty much a couple weeks ago.

So we get to the reason I'm writing this at all which is the new show on NBC, Community, which comes on tonight at 8:00 Eastern Time. I think I'm one of maybe half a dozen people who watch it, but it definitely deserves a bigger audience. It's well written, clever without being preachy and pretty damn funny. But let's get back to the only reason to have any initial interest in the show, the presence of a very old and bald Chevy Chase.

Watching this program it is very interesting to see Chevy interact with a slew of young actors, many of which will never enjoy the immense popularity and stardom he one did. It's a level playing field, though, because a guy like Joel McHale, who plays the lead, has been far more active in recent years than Chevy. So while Chevy is a legend, he's a much faded legend, which puts him in an interesting position. He's at a stage in his career now where he can do a show like Community and seem like a big presence among the cast while not actually being so. It's like you think "Wow they got Chevy Chase to do that?" but then you immediately think "Well that makes sense, he ain't doin shit else." It's a way for a small show to get a big star, which is cool.

What is most interesting is how he would have never done a show like this twenty years ago, hell probably not even ten years ago. Once his ego cooled off enough from years upon years of failure and ineptitude he was able to something small, cute and funny like this. It's easy to compare his career with someone like Bill Murray, who by and large was Chevy's replacement on SNL. Murray took that position and blew it into gigantic super-stardom, like Chevy peaking in the early 80s (Ghostbusters [1984]) and then cooling, but in a much more dignified route, choosing quirky quasi-indie comedies over full blown shit to much critical acclaim (see The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou [2004] and Lost in Translation [2003]). The massive success of Bill Murray is in fact most of what fuels his (SPOILER) incredible camero in Zombieland (2009). Half of that shock is "DAMN THEY GOT BILL MURRAY!!" So there are some interesting parallels there and before you write off Bill as having his ego humbled by appearing in smaller film, know the difference between a small movie cameo whose coolness works because of his popularity and a recurring role on a small on-going television show. There's a big difference there.

So what's the point of all this? Well, nothing really except that I like Chevy Chase. 1975 - 1983. And 2009. He's doing a funny job with Community and I dig the show. He's got enough gravitas and experience to be sort of awed watching him, but at the same time he's really a piece of shit so it makes sense that his fading star should be on television. Then again, television somehow became the place for big name actors seeking new career directions (thanks a lot Alec and Kiefer). So to all you dear loyal readers,

Have a good night and a pleasant tomorrow.

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