Nobody Ages Well in Comedy: Chevy Chase’s unending hunt for fame

From left to right: Donald Glover, Danny Pudi, Gillian Jacobs and Chevy Chase at San Diego Comic-Con in 2010.

It’s been two months since Community’s (2009-2015) release on Netflix and the subsequent cultural and discursive revival on forums and podcasts and through various cast reunions amid-COVID19. With its ensemble cast of relative nobodies-turned-stars, the show represents a pocket of television specifically for those obsessed enough with pop culture learning to watch a show whose whole existence is a running joke on the matter. Few shows since its airing have proved to be as daring, unique and thoughtful. Asking questions about friendship, destiny, and what it means to simply be happy. For my money, it’s the best comedy of the 2010s, a concoction of quick lines and intimate relationships that begs to be watched and rewatched. 

The show’s strength is in its ensemble. Creator and writer Dan Harmon’s ability to intertwine the lives and failures of seven entirely different characters became a standout feature of the series. This was no Friends. Characters didn’t fall into traditional stereotypes nor follow expected tropes (from the very first episode of the series: “Hey, this is kind of like Breakfast Club, huh?”). Community almost immediately became a cult favorite, albeit one who struggled to match it’s obsession with ratings.Their relationships were layered and perfectly messy, with interactions that raised intimate questions about sexuality and personal freedom while managing to sneak in eight different fart jokes. 

It was comedy heaven—at least while it lasted. 

As the show progressed, one star came to outshine the rest. Troy Barnes, played by the incredible Donald Glover—a.k.a. Childish Gambino a.k.a. Earnest Marks a.k.a. mcDJ, a.k.a you get the point—emerged as the show’s funniest character. Glover’s comedic delivery and Troy’s chemistry with other characters, particularly with Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi), became staples of the show. Glover, previously relegated to the 30 Rock writer’s room and YouTube sketch comedy, proved a promising television actor; Harmon commended his talent.

Glover was Community’s star on the rise, but his co-star, Chevy Chase, had been in the game for decades.  Prior to the show’s release, Chase was Community’s headliner. A three-time Emmy winner and founding cast member of Saturday Night Live, Chase was considered a comedic legend, and for what it’s worth, his character, Pierce Hawthorne, is hilarious—a snippy, lonely, immutably racist old man.  

At the ripe old age of 68, Chase delivered some of the show’s most laugh-out-loud moments, as well as some of the most profound ones. Pierce grappling with heavier issues, like his relationship with his father, or his own mortality, made for some of the highlights of the entire series. In one episode (“Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking”), Pierce fakes his own death and leaves his closest friends with specific ‘gifts’–bashful tape recordings, thousand-dollar checks that invoke their guilty conscience. Gifts that would pit them against each other, conjuring moral crises, childhood trauma and tensions between friends. Not only was the episode one of the funniest pieces of television I’ve ever seen, but it was a masterclass in addressing the complicated and conflicting relationships of the show’s ensemble. It was Harmon at his finest, and nobody could have brought it quite like Chase. 

But as the series went on, both Chase and Hawthorne became less and less important to the dynamics of the show. Pierce could only make so many offensive jokes, could only stir so much jealousy-fueled conflict. And yes, Chase was funny, but he wasn’t the Grammy-nominated, Emmy-award winning writer, actor, and singer that Glover quickly proved to be. That reality didn’t sit well with Chase, who in time, proved to be not so different from the snippy, lonely, immutably racist character that he portrayed in Community.

The relationship between Chase and the rest of the cast and crew spiraled downward. Harmon in particular was vocal as to how Chevy destroyed the show. One time, Chase refused to film the tag for the episode “Digital Estate Planning,” which Harmon considered “one of the most important moments of the season,” presumably because the actor didn’t feel like it. More personal brushes involved Chase’s brash language. He would call Harmon into his trailer and berate him by yelling things like, “I’m not a befuddled old man! I’m sexy! You’re writing me as if I’m gay! I’m not gay.” 

Chase’s insensitive comments didn’t stop there. Harmon and Glover recall Chase making racist digs toward Glover in between takes—he told Glover, “People think you’re funnier because you’re black.”

It soon became apparent that Harmon’s inspiration for Pierce Hawthorne was living right under his nose. 

Nobody ages well in comedy. Carlin’s stand-up would fail today, as would Dan Aykroyd’s jokes. What’s understood as acceptable and what audiences value in a comedian has changed, simplistic and often racist commentary on society just isn’t funny anymore. Yet in my experience, nobody’s decline was quite as sad as Chevy Chase’s, precipitated not only by the generation gap but also his lack of personal and professional decorum. His obsessive attempts to grasp onto what was left of his 1970s stardom left him not only absent of humor, but also berating and attacking his coworkers and co-stars. Watching his interviews, you get the impression that this is a man well past his prime. Oddly enough, a 2018 Washington Post interview left me somehow sympathetic for the racist, disagreeable old man. He could barely lift his hand to drink water. His eyes, opened as wide as can be, seemed unfocused. 

This wasn’t a star at the peak of his powers stomping on the thought of a more talented costar. This wasn’t a dictation of power. This was a man severely scared of being out of date. A man lost to time. 

Supporting racists and homophobes is never an option. Chase’s old age shouldn’t justify his actions, and it should be noted that his actions eventually drove Glover away from Community and helped kill one of television’s great shows. It seems that hanging on too long can send you falling into the abyss of history. 

Chase was once comedy’s brightest star, but his present status is somewhat of an indictment of the state of comedy in the 1970s, which largely endorsed the audaciousness he displays in character and behind the scenes. His career is one unfortunate manifestation of his former comedic surroundings. It seems that in addition to Chase’s personal storminess, his bygone success, from an age we’ve long moved past, brought this career to a close. His inability to comply with Community guidelines left him alone and absent of any of the stardom he had so ambitiously sought for. What we’re left with now is a man who can barely participate in an interview, much less get along with his coworkers. While I’m still not really sure how to approach my sympathy, I know one thing: Glover’s eventual fall from greatness will be far more graceful than Chase’s battle against time, and for Glover, that fall may not come as such catastrophe as he previously made clear, “I think if a lot of things had death clauses in them, we wouldn’t have a lot of problems in the world, to be honest. I think endings are good because they force things to get better.” 

For Chevy Chase, that ending never came, and things never got quite better.

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