The Sunday Conversation: Chevy Chase


Chevy Chase, 68, indelibly identified with “Saturday Night Live’s” inaugural season 36 years ago, plays moist-towelette mogul and aging study group member Pierce Hawthorne in the third season on the NBC college sitcom, “Community.”

Let’s talk about “Community” and your character, Pierce. I think it’s interesting that everybody in the study group is lovably wacky, but Pierce is arguably the darkest character. That’s a change for your comic persona, isn’t it?

Yeah, maybe I should bring that up. I don’t know what my comic persona really is. I’ve never been in a sitcom. I’ve acted in a lot of movies, and generally speaking, I’ve been more heroic. I kind of like this guy, Pierce, because he’s just so uneducated and so far behind; he’s so biased and bigoted. It’s fun to play a person that I would hate and that is nothing like me. I’m not looking to make Emmys and Oscars and stuff. I’m really just having some fun.

Was he written for you? How did you and Pierce become one?

No, I got — as I tend to — a script. I get a lot of them sent to me, and I read that in the pilot, this guy introduces himself as Pierce Hawthorne, and “Yes, that is Hawthorne from Hawthorne Wipes, the moist towelette.” I figured I’ve got to really look into this, because I like the attitude. My third daughter’s least favorite word is “moist,” so I thought I could bother her too. It was a bonus.

Are any of your kids going into the business?

Emily is my third, and she’s still finishing up at Columbia. Caley is my middle daughter — she lives here with me, and she would like to be an actress, so she’s studying. It’s very, very difficult, obviously, and I never had to go through what any of these younger people — even the ones I work with — have to go through, which is audition. I just sort of lucked out by being the head writer the first year of “SNL”; Lorne [Michaels, the show’s creator] put me on the air because I liked writing political satire, so I made up this “Weekend Update” thing. The point is, out of the starting gate there, I had some Emmys. I’ve never therefore been in a position where I’ve had to fight for it, and I’m watching my daughter who wants to be in the business, probably fully expecting that because she’s my daughter, she’ll automatically be starring in a movie, but it doesn’t work that way out here.

You were the first guy ever to leave “SNL,” right?

That is correct. I was also the first guy ever to be on “SNL.”

On the first episode, you were the guy who said, “Live from New York, this is Saturday night”?

Yeah, that was me. We always had a cold opening, and they still do. We had to tell our audience that we were live because Howard Cosell had something called “Saturday Night Live” at the time, and he had a little group of funny players who consisted of Christopher Guest and Brian and Billy Murray. We couldn’t say “Saturday Night Live,” so I had to get up there and say, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night.”

Did you ever regret leaving when you did?

Oh, yeah. I probably put it out of my mind at the time. I tried to pretend that everything was great. I was leaving really because there was a girl I wanted to marry that I was infatuated with out here. The whole thing was crazy because I was a young fellow who was infatuated with the wrong person. Everybody there knew it except me. [A woman] who would not move to New York and insisted that I come there. It was all nuts, looking back on it. But I did regret it.

Do you have some periods of “Saturday Night Live” that you like better than others?

My favorite period was the one I was on. In retrospect, I even have to say that. And I don’t mean that in a narcissistic way. I mean, those were my friends. These were the people I’d been working with over the years. But notwithstanding that, I think that this latest cast of the last two years has been very good. It’s kind of funny to see “Weekend Update” turn into its own show. Mine was about five minutes long.

A generation later, Jon Stewart has continued to evolve the form.

I’ve passed by it. I’ve never watched a full one of him or of the other guy.

Stephen Colbert.

Who I think is very bright.

Is it hard for you to watch them?

It’s hard to watch television. It’s not a reflection on what they’re doing.

Sometimes it’s hard to watch other people do something related to what you’ve done.

Oh, you mean stealing it? That’s exactly right. It’s not hard. I lose interest. By the way, I like to laugh, and I like to make people laugh, and I think I’m very good at it. I don’t tend to laugh at Jon Stewart or Colbert. I feel much more as if there’s a desperation to their performances, that they are not just naturally funny physical people. Frankly, I tend to see humor as physical. I mean, that could be confusing, but I’m not talking about a pratfall. I’m talking about the much more difficult and smaller fine point of physicality that involves the way the eyes are looking or the raising of the brow, those things to me are the things that resonate with people. I’m not so sure the commentary on those shows hasn’t already been covered by the Onion or by “SNL.” Generally speaking, what’s being said or done seems to have, to me, more of a desperate quality.

Who does make you laugh?

Many, many people make me laugh. Albert Brooks always makes me laugh. That’s a tough one because I’ll forget people, and I don’t want to do that. But Albert always comes to mind because he has a Pierce-ness about him, actually. Donald Glover [who plays Troy Barnes on “Community”] makes me laugh too. Generally speaking, there aren’t a lot of people, frankly, that make me laugh. I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s because my father was the funniest guy I ever knew. He was a combination of a well-respected intellectual and writer and publisher and editor and at the same time he’d lift his leg at a fire hydrant if we were walking down Park Avenue.