Comedy legend Chevy Chase is part of a fine cast that could propel the new sitcom Community, premiering Sept. 17 on NBC, into one of this season’s hits. Joel McHale stars as a fast-talking lawyer whose B.A. degree turns out to be bogus, so he is forced to enroll in a local community college to get a real one. He creates a phony Spanish study group hoping to be alone with an attractive woman in his Spanish class, but ends up drawing in not only her, but also an unwanted, diverse group of other students who hope to better their Spanish skills.
Among the folks in this Breakfast Club-inspired group is aging Yuppie Pierce Hawthorne, played by Chase. This is Chase’s best comedy work since, oh, 1988’s Funny Farm. Chase is fittingly cast as Pierce. It’s not an acting stretch for him, but this is what we want to see when we see Chevy Chase, isn’t it? A man whose seeming befuddlement belies an intelligence underneath that comes to the surface in often quick, deadpan and quiet, off-the-cuff quips.
Chase has made a great career out of this, and he excels with that technique here. And when I talked with the actor in August, it became obvious why that feels so natural for him. Because it is the man himself — soft-spoken, but with a strong confidence, intelligence and very rapid wit.
“I’m such a studied actor,” he laughed, “with such depth that everything I do is just basically me! Pierce is a CEO. I keep forgetting that because we’ve done a few episodes now and we haven’t made a big deal of the fact that he’s a rich guy. The way I like to see him is a guy in his 50s going back to college just because he wants to relive his 20s and 30s and pick up girls. That hasn’t happened in any of the scripts yet, but I still like the concept. I think what [creator] Dan Harmon is saying about this character is he’s just one of a group of odd people in this Spanish study group that is distinctive and different. And that at these community colleges, people of all ages go back and finish college, or whatever. There isn’t a lot of depth yet to my character; we’ll fish something out of it over the year.”
What’s on the surface is funny enough at this point. And while Chase brings the character to life as an actor, as an expert comedy writer he also appreciates how important good words are, and credits the strong Community scripts with bringing him into a sitcom for the first time in his career, even though he has had many offers over the years.
“I’m very physical,” Chase said, “but the writing is really good. I never, ever thought I’d be in a situation comedy, ever. I just stayed away from it. I was a movie actor; that’s what I wanted to do. I just was never particularly drawn to [sitcoms]. I still can’t watch them, quite frankly! [laughs] But this one … it was the writing that really drew me to it. And, as it turned out, it was a good choice. We’re all very happy with it.”
At the time of our chat, one thing he wasn’t overly thrilled about was the grueling work schedule.
“Right now it is longer, but we just started. We’ve had 12-hour, 15-hour days. It’s one thing to make a movie where you have 12- to 15-hour days, but that’s three months. This is like seven months, it could be grueling. But I think as we settle in it will be a little easier for us. I don’t want to work 12 or 15 hours a day!”
Chase admitted this feeling is partly a natural element of the aging process as he compared the structure of working on Community with his days on the first season of Saturday Night Live 35 years ago.
“It’s quite a bit more structured,” he said. “Saturday Night Live, I was just there the first year. I was the head writer, and Lorne [Michaels] put me on the air. Obviously, that gave me my boost. But I was young. Every Friday night I was up all night writing “Weekend Update,” and on Saturday I did the show. I’d be loose enough after being up all night that I could do a really bad fall! [laughs] I’m older now, and I find that after 12 hours I’m not quite as sharp. I guess that’s just normal aging. But Community is a totally different feel than Saturday Night Live. There you’ve got a whole week to throw together sketches. Everything’s quite structured there, too, with different stages. But here everything’s done at Paramount on the lot. It’s an awful lot of hours for such a small thing.”
Also different from his days in live television is the amount of improvisation by the cast. “There’s an ad lib here or there,” Chase said. “Most of the time we stick to the writing, the writing’s very good. I feel comfortable with it. … [But] we do improvise here. Something will happen, like with me and [costar] Donald Glover at the end of a scene, he’ll make a remark. Some people will say, ‘Hey, let’s do that again.’ So there’s a little of that, but not much room for it. I have done a little for my part, but I share that with Dan. Dan’s really a great writer.”
Chase’s notable performance in Community should bring him renewed recognition as a formidable comic actor and perhaps even garner him a new slate of good film roles. He has certainly worked in several films since his box-office heyday, but it either says something about his choice in projects or the quality of comedy scripts being produced that he is still remembered most for hilarious characters he created nearly 30 years ago. It definitely speaks to his talent that he was able to etch those characters into pop culture, and that talent is on display again in Community.
“Usually Fletch and Vacation,” Chase said, noting the roles fans want to talk to him about the most. “Caddyshack. Those three. Fletch seems to have its own niche.”
Chase still has the chops to revisit his classic characters from these movies. And in an age of film franchise “reboots,” I wondered if he would take on a Fletch or Clark Griswold role again if the right script came along.
“Absolutely,” he said. “In fact, I have been approached about another Fletch. But I don’t know where it’s going. The Weinsteins [producers Harvey and Bob] have it now, but they may lose control of it. I have not yet seen a full script of it.”
A script he has worked with is for Hot Tub Time Machine. The film stars John Cusack as one of a group of unsatisfied men who return to the ski resort where they used to party in younger days and are suddenly thrust (by a time-traveling Jacuzzi) back to their glory days in 1986. Chase had just been up in Vancouver shooting the film before I talked to him, and he laughed when I brought it up.
“It’s really funny,” he told me. “We did a lot of improvisation. I can’t wait to see it, because I love my part in it. Just a good time all around. I read the script, and thought this is certainly a wonderful title. I also thought, this is the worst title I’ve ever seen! It is what it sounds like. It’s a hot tub, it’s a time machine. Working on it with all the improv was great, great fun. That’s the way I like to shoot movies. And I wish you could do that with a sitcom, but you really can’t. With a title like [Hot Tub Time Machine], who knows if they’ll ever release it!” [laughs]
Whatever new or revisited roles the feature-film world may hold for him, Chevy Chase currently seems very happy in his first sitcom, in a funny role that suits him well and adds to his collection of quirky characters.
“I just know I’m having a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s a good cast, it’s well written. Who could ask for much more?”
Photos: Jardin Althaus/NBC; Trae Patton/NBC; Chris Haston/NBC