BEDFORD, N.Y. – Chevy Chase was sitting on the porch outside his home in wooded Westchester County. He took a drag off a Marlboro and was asked what he thinks of the current state of “Saturday Night Live.” He didn’t hold back.
“First of all, between you and me and a lamppost, jeez, I don’t want to put down [producer] Lorne [Michaels] 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 [expletive] believe it.”
Off the record? A microphone and digital recorder sat in front of him. He was reminded that “SNL” is immensely popular, with millions of viewers.
“That means a whole generation of [expletives] laughs at the worst [expletive] humor in the world,” he said. “You know what I mean? How could you dare give that generation worse [expletive] than they already have in their lives? It just drives me nuts.”
Chase, 74, is a key piece of “SNL” history, whether establishing “Weekend Update” or pioneering the path from the show to Hollywood stardom. But these days, he sits at home, waiting for a script to roll in.
Chase is eager to work. 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 said. “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.”
Chase can be arrogant, unpredictable and mean. He is a masterful put-down artist, although he doesn’t always seem to understand the fine line between comic provocation and publicity disaster. But he can also be sensitive and supportive.
“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 said. “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.”
There was bad blood between Chase and the rest of the cast both before and after he left the show. There also were reports of conflicts with Michaels, although the producer pooh-poohs them.
“I understood what he was going through,” Michaels said, “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.”
Last November, Chase flew out to Los Angeles. The original cast of “SNL” was being inducted into the Television Hall of Fame. He walked to the podium and praised John Belushi and Gilda Radner for taking risks and being brilliant. He complimented the cast members standing behind him, including Dan Aykroyd, Laraine 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.”