Is this the end of Chevy? People have been asking this question for as long as Chevy Chase has been around. Even when he was burning through his one and only season on Saturday Night Live, they were doing gags about how the rest of the cast despised him. And now he’s raging his way out of Community in a blaze of bilious glory, declaring, “It’s just a fucking mediocre sitcom! I want people to laugh, and this isn’t funny.”
But this is more than just another star-versus-show controversy: It’s the Passion of the Chevy, what could be the last act in one of the weirdest and most perplexing careers in the history of American comedy – the one that started in the Seventies with “I’m Chevy Chase, and you’re not.”
Chevy helped create the exploded-context irony-bludgeoning cut-and-paste pop world where Community takes place, yet he’s an outcast from his own tribe. He never seemed to fit in with the ensemble, and it was a running joke from the start that no one could abide him. Community is about misfits who hang out together because nobody else can stand them – and yet Chevy is the one even they can’t stand.
Chevy has been a doddering Clark Griswold figure for so long, it’s easy to forget that, for a moment there, he was the funniest guy on the planet. He was the advance agent for the 1970s SNL-National Lampoon revolution. Not as a clueless-dad figure, but as a cold-livered bitch out for revenge on the world.
It’s shocking to look back and see how intense he was. There’s one Weekend Update where he reports on a new character in Charles Schulz’s comic Peanuts, home of Snoopy and Woodstock. Chevy says, “According to Schulz, he will replace Woodstock with a bird named Altamont, who will beat the other birds to death with a pool cue.”
Chevy delivers the line with a flicker of sadistic pleasure, as if to say, “Yeah, I did that.” Dan Aykroyd couldn’t have sold that joke, and neither could have Jane Curtin or Bill Murray. They were too hung up on warmth and humanity. Chevy’s affably cynical voice-of-authority deadpan was what put all that shock humor across.
For the madman-hipster geniuses of the 1970s comedy revolution, Chevy was the perfect instrument. They couldn’t have changed the world without their smoothie frontman, but he didn’t make a lot of friends. When National Lampoon co-founder Doug Kenney died tragically in 1980, falling off a cliff in Hawaii, SNL writer Michael O’Donoghue said, “Too bad he wasn’t shaking hands with Chevy when it happened.”
Yet Chevy has never really cared about burnishing his image. He should have spent his glory years on SNL, but he didn’t. He should have been Otter in Animal House, but he wasn’t. He should have taken over for Johnny Carson, but he didn’t. And he should have whiled away his golden years breezing through Community. But he won’t. He never got many lines, and he always came off as a pain in everyone’s ass. But isn’t that why they hired him? You don’t hire Altamont and then ask him to be Woodstock.
Chevy never fit in on Community – but then, he never fit in anywhere. He was always too prickly and headstrong to have a midlife attack of the cuddlies like Murray. He’s held true to the role he staked out in the 1970s, as the great American anti-social crank. What’s brilliant about Community – its gawky, earnest, we-accept-you warmth – is the exact opposite of what’s brilliant about Chevy.
Community is my favorite show, and he’s been my least favorite character on it. But doesn’t every community have one of those? Isn’t every human collective stuck with a Chevy, whether it’s a family or a bunch of fictional characters you watch every week and adopt as your imaginary friends? Damn straight. Nobody but Chevy could have played this role, because nobody else is so perfect at symbolizing the impossibility of joining a community. But that’s his greatness, as well as his curse. He’s Chevy Chase, and nobody else is.
This story is from the May 10th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.