[26 September 2008]
For those of us who once cared about his career, the clip is almost unwatchable. “I like myself less for having watched it all the way through,” said one friend. Another watched it through her splayed fingers, as if it were a horror movie rather than a horrible short-lived late-night television talk show. For those who haven’t seen it, the title on YouTube says it all: “Chevy Chase’s Spectacularly Bad 1993 Talk Show.”
The clip in question is from the show’s debut. Goldie Hawn is the featured guest, and if the show was going to work, it was going to work with these two. They ain’t exactly Tracy-Hepburn, but once upon a time, Chase-Hawn made a couple of rather respectable comedies (Foul Play, Seems Like Old Times), and watching these two mainstays of the 1980s multiplex reminisce promised to create appealingly diversionary, if not exactly must-see, TV.
I’ll spare you the play-by-play (if you have an idea of what happens to that giant birthday cake by the end, don’t spoil it for the rest of us!). But I will say that the least of the clip’s offenses is that it’s not funny. I’ve sat through many a show that’s not funny; heck, I’ve even come back for more if a show’s only a little bit not funny (a season or two of Saturday Night Live comes to mind). But my fuse is short when it comes to disingenuousness, shorter still in regard to sentimentality, to name only two of the flaws that render Chase’s show fatal.
I suppose he can say about his band on the first night, “Best in the world. Nobody like ‘em”, but one certainly hopes that, even in a world in which talk-show banter rules, such an honor would be earned rather than bestowed. And, who cares if it is a setup, the exchange with Hawn about how being a mother is the only thing that really matters is pure schmaltz. He actually asks her, “What keeps you going?” Worse yet, she answers.
The show ran for five weeks before being cancelled, and I’m frankly shocked that it lasted that long. In my mind it was a career-killer, so I’m equally shocked that a quick search of Chevy Chase’s bio on IMDB reveals that he’s worked pretty steadily since then, even if I’ve only heard of five of these movies and only seen parts of one (Vegas Vacation, on one of those “T” channels).
But there is more than one way to kill a career, and just because Chase has continued to work as an actor…er…as a comedian…er, well, just because he has continued to work it doesn’t mean that his foray into late-night television wasn’t damaging. In fact, it was ultimately more damaging than one might realize, for rather than affecting his future it affected his past.
Present output can cause us to reevaluate past results in a way that doesn’t always necessarily elevate the reputation of the previous work (just ask anyone who continues to follow the career of Weezer, whose Pinkerton resuscitated everything that had come before, a body of work that has subsequently been undone by everything that has come since). In the case of The Chevy Chase Show, we rapidly advanced from “This isn’t funny” to “Was it ever?” Sure, Land Shark holds up, as does “I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not”, but much of that first season of SNL does, and Chase didn’t bother to return for a second. In hindsight, maybe that was a wise move: How many times can Gerald Ford fall down while trying to put the star on a Christmas tree?
As one who did view Chase differently after that ill-fated talk show, I was anxious to revisit a movie that I believed at the time to be a truly great comedy, Fletch (1985), and its significantly less-great follow up, Fletch Lives (1989). The two are now packaged together on DVD as The Fletch Collection (reasonably priced at $19.99).
My friends and I were 13 when the original Fletch was released—14 when both the VHS and the Beta versions were available at the local Video Library—and it quickly functioned for us the same way that various Monty Python movies function for other groups of friends: As a way to communicate with one another when there’s really nothing to say. In otherwise quiet moments, we would randomly exclaim: “Marvin, Velma, and Provo, three names that I enjoy”; “Somebody’s bucking for a promotion, it’s probably that pederast Hanrahan”; or “I can’t have my wages garnishied.” Appointments were inevitably with Dr. Rosen Rosen, and when we were short on cash at the Circle K we’d lobby for payment from Mr. Underhill.
Watching the movie today, I’m still amused by the old wisecracks, but, now, some 23 years later, I’ve got a few more films under my belt, and I’m even more impressed by its ability to blend genres. There is no denying that it falls under the broad category of “Comedy” (on Netflix now as it was at Video Library then), but the version of myself that rooted along with Fletch for Gail Stanwyck (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) to actually lend him her towel after his car allegedly hits a water buffalo was unable to fully appreciate the elements of noir that run throughout the movie: “My name is Irwin Fletcher,” begins the hardboiled voiceover narration. “I’m an investigative reporter for a Los Angeles paper. You’ve probably read my stuff under the byline of ‘Jane Doe’. What the hay, it’s better than Irwin.”
And so begins a story that includes drug smuggling, a proposed murder that is meant to pass as a suicide, a crooked police chief, a briefcase full of money, and cans of gasoline in a car trunk, to say nothing of the cases of mistaken identity that permeate every scene. Sure, the femme fatale ends up being squeaky clean (a little adultery notwithstanding, but, come on, the conniving polygamist had it coming), but otherwise, there’s enough here to make Raymond Chandler proud. In fact, though the synth-pop soundtrack begs the movie to be compared to such ‘80s brethren as Beverly Hills Cop, I couldn’t help but align Fletch with such seemingly unlikely bedfellows as Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) and the Coen Brother’s The Big Lebowski (1998), other modern adaptations of the classic noir picture that, not incidentally, root themselves in the sometimes sordid, sometimes glamorous lifestyle of Southern California.
But who are we kidding, here? Michael Ritchie, who directed Fletch, is no auteur. The movie was made to entertain—a vehicle for Chase to show his chops in the same way that scripts today are contrived for Mike Myers or Eddie Murphy or even the great Will Ferrell (all SNLalums, it’s worth noting)—and in this less-lofty goal it succeeds admirably. The aforementioned quotable quotes are only a few of the movie’s gems. They’re peppered liberally throughout the movie. For example, when he enters the office of a millionaire’s mansion, Fletch says, “Oh, you remodeled the garage. Must have cost you hundreds.” When he is asked if he owns a pair of rubber gloves: “I rent them. I have a lease with an option to buy.” When an editor inquires about a sticking point from his story: “There we’re in kind of a gray area.” “How gray?” “Charcoal.” And in a scene that resembles the Marx Brothers (why not? I’ve already dropped Altman), Fletch, posing as Arnold Babar, has the following exchange with the doctor who has come to be known in the Fletch mythology as “Dr. Jellyfingers” (M. Emmet Walsh):
Dr. Jellyfingers: Now, how long have you been having these kidney pains, Mr. Barber?
Fletch: No, that’s Babar.
Dr. Jellyfingers: Two Bs?
Fletch: One B. “B-A-B-A-R.”
Dr. Jellyfingers: That’s two.
Fletch: Yeah. But not right next to each other. I thought that’s what you meant.
Dr. Jellyfingers: Arnold Babar. Isn’t there a children’s book about an elephant named “Babar”?
Fletch: I don’t know. I don’t have any.
Dr. Jellyfingers: No children?
Fletch: No. Elephant books.
That’s good stuff, so good, in fact, that if it didn’t register a smile as you were reading it, then Fletch may not be for you, and you damn sure don’t want to waste your time with Fletch Lives . The Fletch Completist will find the recycled jokes in the sequel amusing enough, and at 95 minutes, the movie does not rob you of a significant amount of your time (though the 91 minutes it would take you to re-watch Cries and Whispers would be far more enriching).
True, there are some aesthetic choices in Fletch that belie its mid-80s release date—that aforementioned Axel F soundtrack; that Pointer Sister-sounding theme song, “Bit By Bit” (actually performed by Stephanie Mills); and the credits that feature still-frame images from the previous 90 minutes, à la many sitcoms from this period—but, for the most part, that noirish plot holds up well. I won’t go so far as to say that it’s “timeless”, but the creaks in the story are the result of just generally poor plotting (is that cigarette really necessary for the climax to work?), rather than any sense that the movie was trying to cash in on the hot-button issues of the day.
Not so for Fletch Lives, which features a televangelist named Jerry Lee Farnsworth, a composite of such figures as Jerry Falwell and Jim Baker, men who professed faith but who practiced larceny. I remember when the actions of these predatory charlatans was real news, but, with all apologies to Ted Haggard, these religious clowns are comparatively harmless when considered next to today’s more aggressive religious enthusiasts, the kind that, in the name of their respective beliefs, have hijacked both the Middle East and America, herself. The result is that a story that once seemed topical now comes across as just silly.
Fletch Lives does include a few good moments. A scene in which Fletch assumes the role of a healer may very well make Chase’s in-memoriam clip, but overall there’s nothing you haven’t seen here before, especially if you saw the first one. Whoever decided to transplant Fletch from Southern California to the Deep South made the most grievous mistake of all. Picking on the LA country-club set carries with it a moral imperative; but making necrophiliac bestiality jokes at the expense of backwards-ass country fucks (to borrow a phrase that Eddie Murphy immortalized in another classic ‘80s comedy, 48 Hours) seems just plain mean.
Yet another indication of the inferiority of Fletch Lives, as if you need one, is the dearth of special features that appear on that disc. The sequel warrants only a theatrical trailer, whereas the original includes the theatrical trailer, “From John Cocktoastin to Harry S. Truman: The Disguises”, a montage of well-chosen favorite Fletch moments, and a 30-minute featurette, “Just Charge It to the Underhills: Making and Remembering Fletch”.
These are a fair amount of complements for a movie that honestly doesn’t rate highly enough for a full-blown Special Edition, anyway. The featurette is especially noteworthy. Clearly the filmmaker had some fun with it, and the current interviews with so many members of the stellar supporting case are both illuminating and entertaining.
But don’t bother skipping ahead for that part where Chase himself appears. He never does. Given the quality of his work over the past 15 years, that’s probably for the best.