On TV, he was stumbler-in-chief
I never thought Chevy Chase’s vaunted impression of President Ford was very funny -- wasn’t it just waiting for the pratfall to happen? -- but then, I was 10 when Chase, a freshman on “Saturday Night Live,” made the president our First Klutz.
It was ostensibly a riff on Ford’s having stumbled down the steps of Air Force One during a photo op in Salzburg, Austria, in 1975, though Chase was quoted Wednesday as saying the impression grew out of a young liberal’s indignation, post-Watergate, that Ford “had never been elected, period, so I never felt he deserved to be there to begin with.”
If there was political anger there, an intent to portray a boob in the Oval Office, Chase’s impression of Ford had the ultimately symbiotic effect of humanizing -- and interconnecting -- both men.
Ford, over the long haul, became cuddly for being clueless, and Chase became a movie star, leaving “SNL” in its second season to become big box office.
He had found a way to be empathetic -- by borrowing from Gerald Ford -- tripping off a dock in the film “Foul Play,” wreaking havoc on the golf course in “Caddyshack” and barnstorming as an ugly American in the “Vacation” movies.
In this way, Chase’s Ford, rightly or wrongly, has come to symbolize the fluid relationship between heads of state and the comedians who define how they’re filtered as cultural-historical figures. Ford, in this context, seemed to be enough of a blank slate that he couldn’t get out from behind his pop culture image, even as this had little to do with his political legacy.
Ford himself evidently took it all in stride as it was happening. “Remember, he had three teenage children living in the White House,” his press secretary, Ron Nessen, said Wednesday on CNN’s “The Situation Room,” as a clip of an “SNL” sketch played -- one in which Nessen had appeared as himself, opposite Chase. “So he was very familiar with ‘Saturday Night Live.’ ”
In the annals of “SNL,” you could point to a number of presidential impersonations that were richer. Though Chase’s Ford ushered this in as a tradition on the show, paving the way for Dan Aykroyd’s Carter, Dana Carvey’s President George H.W. Bush and Darrell Hammond’s Clinton. In a classic sketch, the late Phil Hartman portrayed President Reagan as a doddering grandpa onstage but a driven, Napoleonic autocrat in the situation room.
To Chase’s credit, he used his physicality to make a presidential figure indelible comedy. It’s the comedian’s challenge to find a way into the caricature, and Ford, when you think about it, was hard to grab onto. He lacked Carter’s or Clinton’s Southern drawl or Reagan’s half-regal, half-good-humor man bearing. Carvey’s Bush became legend, but I seem to recall it evolving into something that exaggerated a Bush tic -- that weird dance he made of his hand gestures.
Presidential impersonations, in the intervening years, have grown less and less relevant as comedians have taken on the role of politicians and vice versa.
Compared with the round-the-clock, often-substantive ribbing of the current President Bush, Chase’s needling of Ford seems sweet in hindsight. Though I went looking for the Ford clip on YouTube, I couldn’t find it. A website, perhaps, flying its guerrilla flag at half-staff.
Paul Brownfield is The Times’ television critic.