Chasebook (part 1)

[Book] I’m Chevy Chase… And You’re Not by Rena Fruchter

It’s that time again; yet another abridged version of an execrable celebrity biography. This one is in two parts because reading the whole thing has proved more challenging than watching the National Lampoon’s boxset in one sitting. As even the author noted, “One might assume that interviewing one of the world’s top comedians might be a barrel of laughs. But it was only half a barrel.”

 He ain’t Chevy

Born October 8 1943, Cornelius Crane Chase was the son of wealthy New York couple, Cathalene Vanderbilt Crane and Edward Cornelius Chase. His parents divorced when he was young and his mother then married Dr John Cederquist. Growing up in a wealthy neighbourhood, he often saw Marlene Dietrich walking with her grandchildren. “She wore a white nurse’s uniform and white hoes.” So far, so Gossip Girl, but Chevy and his brother Ned were often beaten by their parents. On one occasion Chevy was locked in the basement for a week, where his only contact with the outside world was the occasional glimpse of Marlene Dietrich’s shins on the street above.

Chevy was also often in trouble at school, in one instance biting a bully who pulled his hair while he stood at a urinal. “Apparently I had bit him so hard that when I saw him 20 years later at a cocktail party he showed me the scar… I don’t remember knowing any biters, I never hung out with the biters, and I’m against it!” In short, he’s a lover not a biter.

Rumour has it that Chevy’s Haverford College career ended abruptly when college officials had to deal with a cow on the second floor of a dormitory building. Whether they ever got it downstairs again has been lost in the annals of history. His early education had been spotty, and the discrepancy between the brilliance of his mind and the quality of his work continued for many years (about 50). It was at school, however, that his keen comic sensibility developed; he was endlessly amused by the fact that his French teacher Mr Shultz – get this! – wasn’t very French!

Chevy Chaste

Chevy‘s early romantic encounters were somewhat bumbling. Of one early date he recalls, “She had all this experience and the only thing I could think of was to pull her collar forward and peer down her dress. I saw her bra and she was quite developed.” After that she broke up with him. On another occasion he was found hiding in the closet by his then girlfriend‘s mother. “Finally she came to the closet and opened the door. I didn’t move – I was frozen in place, eyes staring straight ahead. The woman let out a bloodcurdling scream and raced out of the room shouting in French.” Nobody knows if she even was French but it was an incident that would go on to inspire his good friend R Kelly. Possibly.

A keen jazz musician, Chevy picked up his first drum kit in unorthodox fashion. There was a pool party at the home of an older married woman who invited Chevy to use her shower. She was wealthy and beautiful and Chevy had no second thoughts when he realised this might lead to some Chevy petting. “I just did my job. At that age I had learned nothing about the beauty and intricacy of the female body, and what gives her pleasure. It couldn’t have been that great for her, but it sure sounded like it was.” Chevy met with her numerous times at her apartment in Manhattan. She always offered money, which Chevy always refused. So instead she bought him a $600 drum kit. Even to this day Chevy associates sex with jazz drumming and can only climax to the sound of a 3/4 beat.

Chevy metal

Chevy’s love of music has been a constant throughout his life. One of his early jobs was at Tanglewood Music Centre where he was in charge of the morning coffee and remembers “spilling hot coffee on Pete Seger’s left hand.” Unfortunately this was a mishap not repeated when he met Paul Simon years later for the recording of You Can Call Me Al.

A short time later Chevy played drums in a group with Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, who went on to form Steely Dan, but they pretty much sank without trace after Chevy left the group. His other musical projects, including Chameleon Church, Orpheus and Ultimate Spinach were equally unsuccessful, owing mostly to Chevy’s frustration at always being drowned out by violins – ironically a sound that would be key to the success of contemporary bands such as Arcade Fire.

In later years he has used his celebrity status for good, becoming an active member The Jazz Foundation (AKA the centre for jazz musicians who can’t read good and want to learn to do other stuff good too), a charity which helps elderly jazz musicians pay their rent and get hospital treatment. Won’t somebody please think of the jazz musicians?!

Chasing fame

It was 1967 and Chevy had graduated from Bard College. It was a turbulent time politically and socially – good fodder for someone with Chevy’s astute political mind and satirical sense of humour. One of his earliest jobs was on Channel One, “A combination of forms: parodies of programs and commercials recorded on videotape, shown on TVs suspended above the audience. The audience on a hot Sunday night included a number of hip types, many girls in pants and a cat.” Pants. Only in New York, eh?

Stints writing for Mad magazine and National Lampoon eventually led to Chevy working with Christopher Guest and John Belushi in the stage show Lemmings. The second half of the show was a Woodstock parody in which Chevy played a Hell’s Angel with Tourette’s. Showcasing the intelligent, satirical comedy for which he would become known, Chevy would pretend an audience member had hit him and, falling hard, would shout “Ifuckyoushitpissprickpussycockfart.” This was the start of Chevy’s ‘falling career’. Later he would start every Saturday Night Live show with a fall.

Chevy recalls standing in line for a midnight showing of The Holy Grail. He ran into several friends and was “funny while waiting.” “One of the people near me was Rob Reiner and he was stood with (SNL producer) Lorne Michaels. Lorne asked Rob, ‘Who is that guy?’ and Rob told him I was a writer.” Chevy soon got a call asking him to meet with Lorne. Conversely, whilst most comedians make a career of pointing out the inherent hilarity of queuing etiquette, it was Chevy’s ability to be funny whilst in a queue that got him his big break.

The SNL team clicked, and everyone was shocked by Chevy’s success. Nothing is sacred in parody and satire. Chevy’s sketches hit every target, from Watergate to the Middle East, to hot dogs. His presence increased with each show and his “I’m Chevy Chase, and you’re not” line during Weekend Update became legendary.

Chased out of New York

Chevy left SNL on October 30 1976 after just one year to be with wife Jackie in LA. Chevy was very upset that when he returned to the set later, his photo had been removed from the large cast pictures of the first year and replaced by Bill Murray’s. This caused a wound which has still not healed, most believing Chevy bailed out to Chase the big bucks in Hollywood.

On one infamous return to the set Bill Murray made rude and provocative comments to Chevy about his wife. Chevy retorted with equally mean comments about Bill’s pockmarked face. “I said ‘I’m gonna land Neil Armstrong on your face if you don’t shut up.’” Bill, angered by this, fired back “Why don’t you go fuck your wife?” A scuffle broke out, but was defused by that renowned voice of reason, John Belushi. “Bill had assumed I was a rich kid and he was from the other side of the tracks and could just blow me away. I said to him after the show ‘I’ll eat you.’” Murray retorted by calling Chase a ‘medium talent.’ *Cat sound*

The once frosty relationship has since thawed. At a party Chevy walked over to Bill and fell to his knees. “I began to unzip his pants, like I was going to give him a blow job, and Bill laughed. He laughed and I laughed. I didn’t want to fight. But that didn’t mean I shouldn’t be careful – on Caddyshack, I never turned my back.”

Chevy’s management were marketing him as ‘the new Cary Grant’ so a role opposite Goldie Hawn (with whom he started a tawdry affair) in the romantic comedy Foul Play was ideal. Goldie was equally enthusiastic, “I knew I had to meet the guy. I had seen SNL a bit and loved the show. But I didn’t know which guy Chevy was.” The first of many memorable Chase performances.

The commercial success of the film made Chevy slightly uneasy. “To go from current events, politics affecting the votes in this country (ergo, the hot dog material) to a B-level light romantic comedy to me felt like a scud. One of the problems with making movies out there – what could I do that would have an impact on the audience, that would affect things now?” Of course Chevy would go on to produce life-changing work, although his ‘next Cary Grant’ status was imperilled when he was sued by Grant for referring to him as a homo on Tomorrow. But as Chase reasoned, “The word ‘homo’ is funny to me… an anachronism.” More biting political satire there.

This first toe dipped in the Hollywood waters was to be just the beginning of a stellar Hollywood career.

Continue to part 2

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One Response to “Chasebook (part 1)”

  1. […] Chasebook (part 2) 2010 February 7 tags: Chevy Chase, I'm Chevy Chase… And You're Not, Rena Fruchter by Tim Lee Continued from part 1 […]

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