40 Years Ago: Chevy Chase Is Live From Burbank on SNL’s Season 8 Premiere
Viewers tuning in to the first show of Saturday Night Live’s eighth season noticed something different. Former cast member and current movie star Chevy Chase was there to host, but even as he paused for the studio audience to settle down, he was being filmed only in close-up. Plus, didn’t Chevy look a little … grainy? And what was with the conspicuous frame of what looked like a TV screen all around Chase as he lapped up the applause?
The gag, revealed as the camera pulled out to reveal Chase’s head and shoulders on a monitor on top of a TV stand, was that Chase, despite kicking off the 1982-83 SNL season, wasn’t actually in Studio 8H. Instead, as Chase boasted, a missed flight had caused him to become the show’s first-ever “bicoastal video host,” explaining to viewers perhaps confused or disappointed that the season’s first host wasn’t going to appear alongside that season’s revamped cast (including the debuting Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Brad Hall and Gary Kroeger), that he would be “beamed live via satellite right into your face!”
Documentation is scarce on the reason for this unprecedented and decidedly not-live hosting arrangement, although Kroeger, has since claimed that Chase’s Hollywood commitments were to blame. Still, as Saturday Night Live proved under Dick Ebersol’s reign as producer, a little experimentation with the SNL formula was always on the table. After taking over for ill-fated Lorne Michaels successor Jean Doumanian in 1981, Ebersol’s four years in charge saw him increasingly move away from the “live” of Saturday Night Live, with the show consisting of as much as half pre-taped material by the time he departed in 1985. In addition, Ebersol, whose experience in TV proved invaluable when Michaels was initially putting his then-risky late-night project in motion, had never been as committed to Michaels’ more revolutionary live TV vision. Having Chevy Chase host the first show meant ratings, regardless of whether he’d take part in live sketches.
In the end, Chase’s virtual hosting gig worked around the host’s absence in fitfully clever ways. Chase, never happier than when given a captive audience for some favorite old bits, is introduced, as he often was on "Weekend Update," in the middle of a phone call advising someone on the other end how to properly insert a string of beads … somewhere. He even gets to do one of his trademark falls, after a stagehand, ordered by Chase to wheel him into the first sketch (with “the kids”), topples Chase’s monitor off the stage. The land shark returned as well (introduced by New York horror host legend Zacherle, for good measure) with brand new cast member Luis-Dreyfus opening her door to find Chase (on a monitor and in shark head) waiting for her. "Weekend Update" might seem a perfect chance for Chase to reprise his old newsreader schtick, but Ebersol decided to introduce his new anchorman Brad Hall instead to kick off the season (of what was briefly called "Saturday Night News," for no discernible reason), with Chase merely doing a limp remote bit from Johnny Carson’s deserted Tonight Show stage in Burbank.
Watch Chevy Chase on 'Saturday Night Live''s Eighth-Season Premiere
Chase popped up again in another strikingly weird meta bit, where real-life movie critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert critique some of the show’s sketches, with Chase eventually reprising his "Update" bit of making funny faces at their assessment of his up-and-down movie career. (Ebert brings up Chase’s 1980 flop Oh Heavenly Dog before shutting off Chevy’s monitor.) That’s the premise of perhaps the most energizing and telling use of the far-away Chase’s presence as well, when future fan favorite host Danny DeVito interrupts Chase’s self-aggrandizing intro for musical guest Queen, snapping off the monitor and boisterously introducing the band himself. Former cast member Al Franken popularized the phrase “kidding on the square,” meaning a joke at someone’s expense that intentionally leaves a real mark. Chase’s episode, as much as he’s in on the gag, is full of hints that the SNL writers found plenty in their absentee host’s persona to work with.
The Ebersol years were marked by a push-pull between innovation and cautiousness. While stunt episodes like the Chase remote or the 1983 fan vote on whether experimental comic Andy Kaufman should ever appear again (Kaufman lost) were intriguing ideas, the show was ruled with an eye toward a wider audience, leaving writers and performers almost universally frustrated at the lack of true risk-taking. When Ebersol entered his final year as the show's producer, he memorably tossed out the show’s all-for-one ensemble concept entirely, allowing established ringer hires Billy Crystal and Martin Short to monopolize the show with their favorite recurring characters while the rest of the cast fumed and Saturday Night Live transformed into something ostensibly more palatable to the largest number of people.
In the goodnights, Chase, his monitor standing amid the live performers at home base (including unquestioned star Eddie Murphy), praises the cast and claims to have had a great time. Considering that Chase got to mug in a vacuum while that cast carried the show, it’s likely Chase did get something akin to his perfect SNL experience (while the cast and crew were similarly spared the ever-divisive Chase’s presence). For viewers of this hybrid live broadcast (something not attempted again until the pandemic saw everyone appearing from home), this season premiere comes across as a largely forgettable act of accommodation for a star who, as Siskel kids on the square during his segment, “couldn’t be bothered to fly out from the coast.”