Chevy Chase starred in some of the funniest movies of the '80s (Caddyshack, National Lampoon's Vacation, Fletch). Now he appears on one of the funniest shows on television: NBC's Community, currently in its second season. Chase spoke to TIME about physical comedy, Saturday Night Live and his ill-fated late-night talk show because after all, he's Chevy Chase, and we're not.
One of the best things about Community is its ensemble cast. How does your character, Pierce, fit in?
He's a bigot, but he's a completely real bigot: he just doesn't get it. So he doesn't fit in with everybody, except that he's been sort of taken in by the group as a friendly pet.
You normally play characters who are cool and in control; on Community, you are almost the opposite of that. Did you have to adjust your usual acting style?
I've usually had two styles, the Fletch character and the Clark Griswold character. Clark, I pull out all this clowning and bigness; my acting is broad but I try to be real. I'm not really pulling any of that in the show. Fletch is more like me, but as much as I could do that stuff, then we wouldn't have a show, because I'd be doing what Joel McHale is doing. Those are my two most famous parts, now I'm just older than both of them. I chose this part because I wanted to play the old man in the group and let my hair just be gray.
What is it like, as a comedian, to age?
I just sort of wing it. I still do falls on the show and at my age I suppose most people wouldn't. But actually I still feel physically 30 and emotionally 14.
Physical comedy is one of your strengths. What are your secrets?
Let's not call physical comedy falling down and pratfalls. All humor is physical, no matter how you dish it out. It's timing, like a dancer or an athlete would have. The raising of an eyebrow, how you do it; when you look, how you look. All those little things are physical.
Everybody has an idea about how to fix SNL. What's yours?
I love Weekend Update, although it's gotten to the point where the whole show is about Weekend Update. There are some funny jokes, but I'm getting tired of the length of it. The first time I saw Adam Sandler on there as Opera Man, I almost told Lorne to fire the guy. It was just the worst thing I'd ever seen. I saw no reason for it to be on a news program. I have to say though that Fred Armisen's unfortunate imitation of [New York Governor David] Paterson is one of the funniest things ever. I want to see more of that, more of the getting away with stuff.
When you were on the show, and afterwards, you had a reputation of being hard to work with. Is that how you really were, or is it overstated?
I'll never understand that. The only person who ever told me that that was an odd, sudden change in their attitude toward me [after I left SNL], when I came back to host, was Herb Sargent, our older writer-producer guru. And I'm not sure exactly why or how, but [during that episode] suddenly I got into a fight with Bill Murray. I discovered later it was with the instigation of John Belushi, who apparently was a little bit jealous that I had become the standout guy the first year, when John [felt he] deserved to. And he did; John was our ringer. But television doesn't care too much about ringers who are short and have a beard. Somehow they took to the tall, thin, handsome guy.
Your late-night talk show, The Chevy Chase Show was canceled after a few weeks. Why didn't it succeed?
I'm so glad it didn't, then I'd be stuck doing a really successful talk show. When I went in to do the show, I had no desire to have a desk and a band and interview people. What I wanted to do was closer to [Ernie] Kovacs: alone, and using a small group of other characters here and there. And slowly it turned into "Well, if we're going to give you all these billions, we want you to have it this way." I wasn't taken by it enough, and maybe people saw that. Certainly one of the worst decisions FOX made was putting me on at 11. And having humorless production executives making phone calls down to the stage every night didn't help. So as you can see, I totally blame myself.
Why were the children different in every Vacation movie?
That was my idea. I always wanted to make the joke, "Geez, I hardly ever get the chance to see the kids anymore. I hardly know who they are. We should go on a vacation." That was funny to me: the idea that Clark was such a great family man, but still didn't even recognize his own children.
Which one would you have preferred to raise as your own child?
It would have to be Anthony Michael Hall, but that's because he's the first one. And as a typical father who cares about male dominance, I never wanted to really know the daughter that well. Sometimes I'd forget her name, even.