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I’m Chevy Chase and You’re Not

An excerpt from ‘Saturday Night’ — the landmark ‘SNL’ book — about the controversial rise of the show’s first breakout star

“Fame is a very unnatural human condition. When you stop to realize that Abraham Lincoln was probably never seen by more than 400 people in a single evening, and that I can enter over 40 million homes in a single evening due to the power of television, you have to admit the situation is not normal.” —Chevy Chase, in an interview

The only performer on Saturday Night whose fame in the first season transcended the show’s cult following was Chevy Chase. Chevy was not yet a superstar, by any means, but he was headed in that direction. He was the hottest new face in the country, and the timing of his breakthrough was such that his celebrity was magnified by emotional undercurrents of unusual power.

He took the stage when the press and public alike were anxious for a new diversion, not unlike the Beatles when they landed in New York soon after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. America after Watergate was ready to proclaim a new clown prince, someone whose very freshness and confidence was a relief and a renewal. In 1975, Chevy Chase was it.

Herb Schlosser was one of the first to notice that Chevy was going to be a major star. In a post-mortem telephone conversation with Dick Ebersol after Saturday Night’s first show, he exulted over how good Chevy was. He also learned from Ebersol that Chevy was signed only to a writer’s, not a performer’s, contract. “Sign him up,” Schlosser said.

The rumblings began to be picked up very quickly in the NBC Press department as well. Many of the early reviews singled out Chevy, and in late October, when publicist Les Slater set out to do biographies of the show’s cast members, he was told by his boss, Gene Walsh, to do Chevy Chase’s first. Choosing his phrasing delicately to avoid offending the other members of the rep company, Slater, two weeks after Saturday Night went on, called Chevy “one of the faces more readily identified with the show.”

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Indeed, there were many who would come to think Saturday Night in the first season was the Chevy Chase Show. It was a measure of the scant attention paid to the other cast members that in February, when Les Slater got around to doing a bio of John Belushi, Slater received a note from Gene Walsh that read, “Les…Another excellent feature. Also, it straightens me out, as I thought this guy was Danny Arvayrdk (or however he spells it).”

Certification of Chevy’s celebrity came on December 22, 1975, when New York magazine, then at the height of its trend-setting powers, put him on its cover. The article dubbed him “the heir apparent to Johnny Carson,” a label Chevy didn’t so much deny as dismiss. “I’d never be tied down for five years interviewing TV personalities,” he said.

Comments such as these did not go unnoticed in Burbank. Although New York’s article said NBC was planning to put Chevy on the Tonight Show as a guest host within six months, it would be a year and a half before Chevy even appeared on Johnny Carson’s program, and then only because he was promoting a special for NBC. He never did host it. Nor did any of the other Not Ready For Prime Time Players appear on the Tonight Show until Gilda [Radner] was a guest in 1983, long after she’d left Saturday Night. Carson’s distaste for NBC’s other late-night show (shared by many if not most comedians of his generation) was well known within the network. It surfaced publicly in an August 1976 interview with Tom Shales of The Washington Post, when Carson blasted Saturday Night for relying on drug jokes and cruelty. He also dismissed the cast as hopeless amateurs who couldn’t “ad-lib a fart at a bean-eating contest.” Saturday Night retaliated the following season with some anti-Carson jokes on Weekend Update. In one, reporting that Carson had announced plans to do the Tonight Show live instead of on videotape, anchorwoman Jane Curtin noted that he had been “doing the show dead for the past fifteen years.”

Johnny Carson notwithstanding, Chevy’s appearance on the cover of New York magazine confirmed his status as the most important new kid in town. Seldom had New York’s media had a new star so prominently placed in its lap, and suddenly Chevy’s face seemed to be in newspapers and magazines everywhere. Outshining the President in April and winning his writing and performing Emmys in May wildly accelerated the onrush of celebrity. By summer, even the stuffy New York Times had succumbed to the spell. Chevy wrote a nonsensical piece about the Democratic convention for the Times’s op-ed page. The bio box beneath it read, “Chevy Chase is Chevy Chase and you’re not. Mr. Chase is also a performer and writer for the television program Saturday Night.”

Saturday Night Live - Season 1

At first, Chevy himself didn’t notice the fame that was about to overtake him. He didn’t get out much. When he wasn’t on the 17th floor or at Lorne [Michaels’s] place working he was sleeping in his small studio apartment on East Sixty-first Street. Every few weeks he’d fly out to Los Angeles to visit his fiancée, Jacqueline Carlin, a model and aspiring actress with whom he was passionately in love, and they didn’t get out that much either. So Chevy acted surprised the first time publicist Les Slater told him a reporter wanted to do a feature on him. “Talk to me?” he said.

Opportunity for such insouciance soon faded as the evidence of his celebrity became too obvious to ignore. There was a day early in the first season when Chevy arrived on the 17th floor shaking, excited and a little frightened. He’d gotten on a bus on his way to work and suddenly noticed that everyone on it was staring. At him. After a block or two he grew so flustered he got off the bus and fled down the street.

It was a crystallizing moment for Chevy, an instant when he realized that everything was going to change. It was also, according to those who worked with him, one of the few times Chevy Chase ever ran from stardom. More than most people who become famous very fast, Chevy walked into fame with his eyes open, expecting it, taking it as his due, seldom pausing to wonder why it was happening to him. Which is not the same as saying he took fame in stride.

The New York magazine cover was the demarcation point. “That cover,” Chevy said later, “changed my life.” It was shocking because it was so sudden: Chevy says he had no idea the cover was coming before he saw it on the newsstands, and it hadn’t really occurred to anyone on the Saturday Night team, including Chevy, that one of their members could be picked out and publicized in so prominent a fashion.

From there the proportions and the demands of Chevy’s fame only grew. Inevitably he started spending more time in interviews, going out on speaking engagements, and pondering the offers that came in. Just as inevitably, the time he spent working on the show decreased. Lorne told him soon after the New York cover appeared that he was “going to be too busy being Chevy Chase” to be as productive as he had been, and Lorne, Chevy agrees, was right.

At first it seemed the outside world had changed more than Chevy had. He was the same ham he’d always been, taking falls as he walked on the street or playing noisy pranks in restaurants. But now people were looking at him differently, muttering things like, “Look at that — he’s trying to attract attention to himself.” It was, to those who witnessed the process, one of the saddest things about Chevy’s stardom.

In many of his interviews, Chevy worried publicly about what was happening to him, fretting that he might become the very thing he’d been parodying — a plastic celebrity. It was apparent he was struggling to maintain the spirit of irreverence that got him there in the first place. In May he told Vogue magazine: “I’m a fad. In this business you can come and go in a second. I could be flushed out tomorrow with a big smile and a handshake.”

Behind the scenes, however, Chevy began to change, too, and despite the soul-searching interviews, those on the show soon began to feel he was indeed turning into just the sort of obnoxious egocentric he played so convincingly on camera. He was not, in the end, immune; nor was it likely he would be.

According to those who knew him, he liked to ride in convertibles so he could talk to fans who recognized him as he cruised down the street. He made bizarre late-night phone calls to friends, gloating to one, also a performer, that of the two of them he was by far the more famous. Once he bragged to a roomful of people, “I’ll go down to the drugstore, pick up the fan magazines, and I’ll bet my name is in more of them than any of yours.”

He grew gradually more distant from the others on the show. “Within two thirds of the first year,” says one of the writers, “it began to seem that Chevy was more worried about his next cold opening than about being part of the team. The more famous he got, the more he pulled into himself. When he was hungry he was more of a team player.”

Cocaine had something to do with that. Several of those on the show say Chevy was one of the first to begin using coke heavily, in part because he was the first who could afford to. A personal sense of insecurity — at variance with his public image but not unusual in performers — contributed to his withdrawal as well. “He wasn’t,” a writer said, “truly confident at all — that was his act.”

Even by the aggressive standards on Saturday Night, Chevy’s ego became a problem. By the end of the season he was ordering other players around on the set, telling them where to stand or how to deliver a line. He talked on and on about which household name he’d been with the night before or about how much money he was making for speaking engagements or other appearances outside the show. It was not the sort of behavior that endeared him to his colleagues, and more and more Chevy became characterized, as one writer put it, as “the asshole around the office.”

Chevy’s ascension to stardom was an education to the others on the show, a bitter lesson in the mechanics of fame. “We were innocent then,” Jane Curtin said in an interview a year later. “We were a repertory company, and we knew that repertory companies do not feature one player. We thought we would all shine. When Chevy became the star, we felt hurt, we felt bad.”

They also felt angry. Les Slater would bring a reporter up to the 17th floor for yet another interview with Chevy, and the other players would mutter, “What about me?” or “Is he the only one?” A cover story on Chevy in the magazine Photoplay was typical of the press’s view that Chevy was the only one worth taking seriously. The story referred to Jane, Laraine [Newman], and Gilda as “Chevy’s girls,” and in mentioning them briefly asked the rhetorical question “Where, oh where would Saturday Night be without these beauties?” Chevy’s girls were discussing this role the press had assigned them one afternoon on the 17th floor when Marilyn Miller suggested they put their feelings into song. They sang it on the second show of the second season, and it fairly dripped sarcasm in characterizing Chevy as a new teen idol. “Chevy, I love you when you fall down/Every night on my TV,” the lyrics went. “But oh, Chevy, when you take that fall/I wish that you were falling, falling for me.”

Of all the cast members, Belushi complained the loudest about the attention Chevy was getting. John and Chevy had been rivals since the Lampoon days. John never let Chevy forget that it was he, not Chevy, who had gotten the glowing press notices for Lemmings, or that it was he, not Chevy, who had won when both of them campaigned to be named creative director of the Lampoon Radio Hour. They had a knack for goading each other. The first day Belushi arrived on the 17th floor he walked into Chevy’s office and pointed at the picture of Jacqueline Carlin on Chevy’s desk. “Oh, you have one of those too?” he said. “You’ve got the regular one. I’ve got the one with the donkey dick.” Chevy always claimed he was responsible for making Belushi as fit as he was for civilized company by shaving his back and teaching him how to eat with a fork.

Belushi lost his ability to laugh off Chevy’s gibes when Chevy became a star before he did on Saturday Night. He was appalled at being upstaged by someone whose talent he considered decidedly inferior to his own and humiliated when people would see him on the street and say, “Hey, I love Chevy Chase.” It confirmed all John’s suspicions about what bullshit television was, and he protested violently that all he was getting were leftover supporting roles. “I go where I’m kicked,” Belushi kept saying. “They throw me bones dogs wouldn’t chew on.”

From the moment Les Slater did Chevy’s bio before the others’, Lorne did what he could to prevent Chevy’s being singled out, but it was like spitting in the ocean. At one point NBC put a poster of the cast members up in the lobby outside 8H. Chevy’s picture loomed larger than the rest, and the caption read: Chevy Chase and the Not Ready For Prime Time Players. Lorne was infuriated, and threatened he would have the promotion man responsible for the picture fired.

Chevy Chase On SNL

Lorne was astute enough, however, not to turn his back on a star when he needed one, and when NBC and the public demanded more Chevy Chase, they got more Chevy Chase. Weekend Update alone expanded from three and a half minutes on the first show to almost nine minutes by spring of the first season. Chevy’s Fall of the Week openings became such a stock routine that Chevy started writing versions that made fun of what a stock routine they’d become. That, too, provoked its share of grumbling on what was supposed to be a collaborative, risk-taking show. “I think we all got a little tired of the Fall of the Week a lot sooner than America did,” Tom Davis says.

Chevy didn’t help matters any when in interviews he failed to counter as strongly as he could have the impression that Saturday Night was essentially the Chevy Chase Show. In fact, it sometimes seemed to his colleagues he was going out of his way to promote that misconception. He claimed to be solely responsible for the writing on Weekend Update so often that Alan Zweibel, who with Herb Sargent was writing more of Update than anyone but Chevy, finally burst into Lorne’s office, waving Chevy’s latest clipping in his hands and shouting, “How long are we going to have to put up with this shit?”

Chevy explained away the comments by saying he’d been misquoted, but after a while few people bought it. Jane Curtin once confronted him with some disparaging remarks he’d made in two separate interviews. “You don’t get misquoted twice!” she yelled. On a few occasions Chevy felt obliged to correct himself in print. In an interview in the Long Island newspaper Newsday in April, for example, he repeatedly stressed how much credit the others on the show deserved. “I do [stress it] all the time when I’m interviewed,” he said. “Unfortunately, it never comes out once the interview is written.”

Whether or not he admitted it in interviews, the fact was that Chevy did indeed see Saturday Night as his show to a large degree. It wasn’t such an unreasonable point of view, considering the contribution he was making to the show itself and to its success in the media. Nor was it easy for him to dismiss all those, both in the press and in private, who were reminding him that he was Saturday Night’s centerpiece, that without him it would be nothing. And that maybe he ought to start thinking about finding a showcase more suitable for his superior talents.

Tom Schiller, who was especially close to Chevy that first year, points out an insidious process that occurs when a friend becomes famous. “You alone want to be responsible for their salvation,” Schiller says. “You say to them repeatedly, ‘Don’t do this,’ ‘Don’t do that.’ And what you eventually realize is that everybody is saying that — everybody feels they have a part of their career. And as a result they’re getting barraged from eighty different angles on what to do next.”

An NBC executive with long experience in negotiating with performers, including Chevy, adds that stars are vulnerable not only to the well-meaning advice of friends, but to agents, managers, and other business types who come to them and say, “Hey, you’re getting fucked by these guys. I can do better for you.” Show business, this executive says, is “rampant” with that.

Thus, as soon as his face appeared on the cover of New York magazine, Chevy started receiving career counseling commensurate to the scale of his success, which is to say he was inundated with it. There was, for example, the night Chevy was strolling down Park Avenue with his new friend Warren Beatty. “You should direct,” Beatty told him.

The question of what to do next took on a growing urgency as the season progressed because Chevy was still without a performer’s contract at NBC. Herb Schlosser had turned the task of signing him over to Dave Tebet soon after the first show, but as of February, Chevy still hadn’t been signed. Week by week Chevy’s negotiating position grew stronger, NBC’s weaker. Chevy was now one of the biggest stars NBC had, and despite the network’s denials, reports he was being groomed as the heir apparent to Johnny Carson were true. One executive privy to the network’s higher counsels says Herb Schlosser was definitely thinking in those terms, and the same executive quotes Dave Tebet as confiding, in his hoarse whisper, “Chase is the only white gentile comedian around today. Think what that means when Johnny leaves.”

So NBC was very anxious to get Chevy Chase under contract, and started offering him the world to sign a deal; nobody wanted to take the blame for letting the next Johnny Carson slip through their fingers. Chevy even wrote a sketch about NBC’s entreaties, in which he played a gambler from a foreign country who made up all his own rules in a poker game and kept taking all the money. Nor were the offers only from television. Movies beckoned. The studios in Hollywood were among those bidding for Chevy Chase, and to a generation of performers united in their contempt for TV, movies were infinitely more alluring.

Chevy’s manager (and Lorne’s), Bernie Brillstein, was advising Chevy to stay with the show another season. Consolidate your success, Bernie told him; capitalize on the foundation you’ve started. Saturday Night was big now, but it was only going to get bigger. Lorne, although he purposely avoided pressuring Chevy, advised the same thing. His theory was that it took three years’ exposure to make a superstar on TV. Saturday Night was a big hit in the industry, but the public hadn’t really caught on yet. He told Chevy he was like a great pitcher for a championship baseball team. If he left, the team would lose a few games, but they’d keep winning. “Think how rare it is to play with a championship team,” Lorne said. “You think it’s going to happen all the time, especially when you’re young, but it doesn’t happen that often.… Play another season, then decide.”

Chevy wasn’t sure. One problem, he told Lorne, was that his fiancée had given him an ultimatum: Either he return to her in Los Angeles and get married or she’d start seeing other men. Their relationship had been tumultuous all along — friends saw them get into major arguments over such minor matters as what they were going to order in restaurants. Jackie hated the idea of spending another year by herself in Los Angeles while Chevy stayed with the show in New York, where literally thousands of glamorous women would be his for the asking.

Chevy would later say Jackie was the primary impetus for his leaving Saturday Night, a bit of reasoning that one of the women on the show described as an example of the “blame the bitch” school of logic. Whatever Jacqueline Carlin’s role, it’s likely the temptation of other offers carried equal weight at least. Just as important were Chevy’s doubts that the show would take him any further than it had already. Saturday Night might be a championship team, but Chevy began to think of it as a team at “the top of the minors.” He was ready to play in a different league.

Chevy had long talks with Lorne as the first season wore on about where Saturday Night would go from there. In those talks he was openly critical of the show and openly skeptical that it would improve. He was tired of the three-week-a-month grind, he didn’t know at that point if there’d be any significant change in the show’s minuscule budget, and he wasn’t confident that the rest of the Saturday Night team could maintain standards as high as his own. He thought maybe he’d done everything he was going to be able to do on the show and that he’d only be repeating himself if he came back. He wanted assurances from Lorne that certain things were going to change if he did.

Those talks were the beginning of the end of the friendship between Chevy and Lorne. According to those Lorne confided in at the time, it seemed to him that Chevy was trying to encroach upon his territory as producer, “trying to get behind Lorne’s desk,” as one friend put it. Lorne felt that Chevy, in the throes of his success, was rankled by the margin of power Lorne still had over him and over the show, and that he wanted to shift that balance of power more in his favor. “Lorne,” an intimate says, “was horrified that Chevy was thinking that way. He had made Chevy a star, nurtured him, created the showplace for Chevy’s talent, made him look good.”

Friends who were closer to Chevy argue that in fact it was Chevy who had made Lorne a star, not the other way around, and that Chevy’s contribution to the show was such in the first season that he was “a de facto co-producer.” Therefore he had a right, these friends believe, to a voice in determining the creative direction of the show.

In any event, there’s no question there was a rupture between them. Lorne said later he had mistakenly put friendship ahead of the show and kept quiet so as not to unduly influence Chevy’s decision. Chevy would later say that he interpreted Lorne’s silence as a lack of concern about whether he stayed or not. Thus the contract negotiations with NBC that led to Chevy’s leaving Saturday Night took place under a cloud of hurt feelings, doubt, and suspicion.

According to Chevy, Bernie Brillstein started the negotiations and called him with “great news.” NBC, Bernie said, was willing to give Chevy a raise of $22,000 the second season, a thousand more per show. That didn’t sound like a lot of money to Chevy. He knew that under Lorne’s favored nations policy, anything he got, the other players got. NBC would go only so far on those terms. Chevy also knew that Bernie’s first allegiance as a manager and friend was to Lorne. For Chevy the idea of favored nations had begun to seem less than equitable, and he began to suspect that Bernie had a conflict of interest in representing both him and Lorne.

Without saying anything to Bernie, Chevy sought the advice of his brother Ned, who happened to be a lawyer. His brother in turn asked the advice of a lawyer friend of his named Bruce Bodner, who had more experience in contract negotiations. Bodner, too, thought he smelled a conflict of interest and began doing some investigating of his own. He consulted with Art Fuhrer, a chief negotiator at the William Morris talent agency, where Chevy remained a client. It was decided Chevy could do better than the deal Bernie Brillstein had negotiated.

Lorne’s old agent, Sandy Wernick, who by then had joined Bernie Brillstein’s firm, was in Canada on a business trip when he was called to an emergency meeting with Chevy in New York on May 10, 1976, a week before the Emmy awards ceremony. The meeting was held in the conference room of Bodner’s law firm, Weil, Gotshal and Manges, in the General Motors Building on Fifth Avenue, across from the Plaza Hotel. Wernick entered the meeting confident that Chevy was coming back to Saturday Night for the second season. That, Wernick says, was the last indication Brillstein’s office had gotten from Chevy. Wernick had said as much to both Lorne and NBC’s negotiator, Mike Grossman, earlier in the day.

Sitting in the plush conference room, Wernick listened, stunned, as Bruce Bodner and Art Fuhrer explained that they had decided to negotiate a different deal for Chevy. He could, they said, get substantially more money for substantially less time and effort if he signed a contract to do a few prime-time specials instead of returning to Saturday Night.

“But you can’t do that,” Wernick said, several times.

They responded that what they were doing was in their client’s best interest. Wernick’s view was that they were going for the quick money instead of thinking of Chevy’s long-term career. He pointed out too that William Morris’s 10 percent commission would be significantly higher on a specials package than on the modest salary increase Brillstein had negotiated for Chevy’s second season on Saturday Night.

Chevy himself mostly stood by silently while Wernick, Fuhrer, and Bodner had it out. Wernick says it was mentioned several times that Chevy would be the executive producer of his specials and that Chevy indicated how important it was to him that he be able to have creative control of his work.

There wasn’t much Wernick could do other than return to NBC and tell Lorne what had happened. Lorne, Wernick and others say, was devastated by the news. Chevy was leaving the show. He had gone behind Lorne’s back to pursue a deal that was completely independent of Lorne or anyone else in the Saturday Night family. To someone with Lorne’s paternal instincts it was an unthinkable breach of loyalty. “Lorne felt,” a writer said, “like King Lear: His first daughter had betrayed him.”

Bodner and Fuhrer came to terms with NBC’s Mike Grossman a few days later. Grossman was at first as shocked as Sandy Wernick had been that Bodner had taken over Chevy’s negotiations. “No, no, no, we have a deal!” Grossman protested. Bodner explained that Chevy’s plans had changed.

The new deal, which was refined in subsequent negotiating sessions, called for Chevy to be the executive producer and star of two prime-time specials for NBC, with an option, at Chevy’s discretion, for a third. The network would pay him $450,000 to produce the first, $500,000 for the second, and $550,000 for the third, plus a bonus for signing of $100,000. Chevy’s profit from these specials would depend on how much of that money he spent producing them; what he paid himself was up to him. NBC’s offer also specified that Chevy, except for guest appearances, couldn’t work at any other network for a period of three years.

Later Chevy called Bernie Brillstein to tell him his services as a manager were no longer required. Chevy offered to pay Bernie his commission on the deal, about $60,000, but Brillstein refused it.

Technically it was still possible Chevy could return to Saturday Night. The official story, circulated to many of those on the show as well as to the press, was that Chevy was still debating his decision as the second season began. Lorne and Chevy both insist that was the case. It’s undoubtedly true that Chevy could have decided at any time to stay with the show — he could do just about whatever he wanted at that stage — and surely he continued to give it considerable thought as the summer wore on. And despite Lorne’s feelings of betrayal, it’s apparent he would still have welcomed back his biggest star. But it’s also apparent that Chevy intended to quit Saturday Night when he agreed to the specials deal. There was a clause in that deal, drafted in May, specifying that he would leave the show in October of the second season. Chevy says the clause was dropped; nonetheless, that’s exactly when he did leave.

Chevy says NBC didn’t really care if he returned to Saturday Night or not — all the network was interested in was getting him into prime time. Those involved with the negotiations for NBC say that, to the contrary, they would have done more to keep Chevy on Saturday Night if they could have, but that it was clear Chevy intended to leave the show because of his falling-out with Lorne. NBC wanted Chevy to come back to Saturday Night for the first few shows of the season, these executives say, because the network was concerned that the show would fall apart without him, and they wanted him there to help get it rolling for another year. Bruce Bodner confirms that scenario. “It was clear,” Bodner said, “that Chevy didn’t want to continue on the show.” An executive involved with the negotiations for William Morris similarly confirms that Chevy’s intention to leave was “absolute” from the outset.

A week after the meeting with Wernick, Chevy won his Emmy awards, which further convinced him it was time to move on. He spent some time in California with Lorne, Belushi, [Dan] Aykroyd, Zweibel, and others from the show that summer while they were working on a special Lorne was producing featuring the Beach Boys. But except for some conversations with Lorne, he said little or nothing about his plans to anyone on Saturday Night.

Many on the 17th floor doubted even as the second season began that Chevy would really go. The official announcement of his departure came in October. There were some on Saturday Night who sympathized with his decision and wished him well, but the prevailing opinion was that Chevy had shamelessly betrayed them to cash in on stardom. “Chevy was a scumbag the way he left,” one of the writers said. “Deceitful and dishonest about the whole thing.…Chevy’s word meant nothing after a while.”

Tom Davis was shocked when he learned Chevy was leaving and went to his office to ask him why.

“Money,” Chevy responded. “Lots of money.”

Saturday Night Live

On the first show of the second season Chevy, playing Gerald Ford, injured himself on his fall into the podium. Some believe that the injury, after a million falls, had a psychological component. “Chevy was ready to injure himself,” says Rosie Shuster. “He didn’t know where he was going.”

Nursing his injured testicles, Chevy missed the next two shows. He filled out his contractual obligations to Saturday Night three shows later. There was no farewell celebration. Chevy came back in brief cameo appearances for the next few shows, weaning himself, he says, from Saturday Night and, by agreement with Lorne, weaning Saturday Night’s audience from his presence. On his next-to-last show there was the first of what would become periodic jokes at Chevy’s expense. In a futuristic parody of the game show Jeopardy!, called “Jeopardy 1999,” the moderator asked the panelists to name the comedian whose career fizzled after leaving Saturday Night. No one could remember.

Some on the show experienced a twinge of fear that maybe Saturday Night would indeed go downhill once Chevy left, but that quickly gave way to a spirit one writer described as “Fuck him, we’ll make it even better.” Many, including Belushi, were glad to see him go. He was taking up too much air time anyway. Lorne now sat, another writer said, by himself on the Saturday Night throne. He drew closer to Paul Simon as his most trusted friend and confidant. Simon was someone Lorne felt he could count on because he had no self-interest in the show. Chevy says Paul Simon never spoke to him after he left.

Chevy married Jacqueline Carlin on December 4, 1976, and took up residence in Hollywood. People who worked and socialized with him that first year after he left Saturday Night say he talked constantly about whether he’d made the right decision in quitting the show, always asking about those he’d left behind in New York. “What do they think of me back there?” he wanted to know. He also lost control during this period with booze and cocaine. His coke consumption, witnesses say, often exceeded two grams a day, an amount that caused him to swing at times between megalomania and paranoia, and on occasion left him all but incoherent.

One friend remembers visiting Chevy in Los Angeles that year. He was surrounded in his living room by hangers-on, all of them listening to the rambling piano tapes Chevy had recorded, all nodding their heads as they helped themselves to Chevy’s coke.

“Yea, man,” they were saying. “Great, Chevy. Great.”

Jacqueline Carlin sued Chevy for divorce seventeen months after their wedding. Citing threats of violence from her husband, she asked the court to keep him away from their house. Chevy, she said, had “lost perspective.” 

Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live is available now from Untreed Reads wherever ebooks are sold. The paperback edition of the book is available for preorder here and will be available from your favorite bookseller before the end of August.

Illustration by Linsey Fields

Filed Under: 'Saturday Night Live' at 40, SNL Week, Saturday Night Live, Chevy Chase, Lorne Michaels, Dick Ebersol, john belushi, Tom David, SNL Essays, SNL, SNL Profiles