How bad did things get during the 29-day reign of The Chevy Chase Show? So bad that the fish in the tank behind Chevy’s desk were dying. So bad that the staff was reportedly recruiting audiences from old-age homes and halfway houses. So bad that stagehands believed the noises heard inside the Chevy Chase Theatre, renovated by Fox at a cost of $1 million, might be the ghosts of two people murdered in the lobby during the ’30s.
But it would be a little too easy to pin the failure of Chase’s show on the occult. In fact, the postmortem indicates the fault lies largely with Fox. Not only did the network fail to learn from its mistakes (remember The Wilton North Report and The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers?) but it also gambled its future in late night with a stumbling movie star whose sole TV experience amounted to one season on Saturday Night Live.
In all fairness to the likely scapegoat, Fox Broadcasting chairwoman Lucie Salhany, Chase was not her first choice. According to a source, Salhany wanted, of all people, Dolly Parton, but Parton’s manager, Sandy Gallin, turned her down and suggested Chase instead. ”There were those of us who were opposed to it,” says a source close to Salhany at the time the $3 million deal was struck. ”But she did it before anyone knew Letterman would be going to CBS. It’s tough to cut your losses when Chevy already had the deal.” Salhany remained loyal to Chase, despite a disastrous opening night and abysmal ratings. Just days before the show’s demise, a new writer and two talent bookers were hired on the heels of a newly retained consulting firm. ”They plugged in a lot of comedy writers at the end,” says a Fox executive. ”But the show wasn’t taking.” In the end, the decision to pull the plug—made by Salhany—came down to dollars and cents. ”This company was losing money hand over fist,” says a source. ”The affiliates were losing a lot too, and we have to be true to their needs.”
Whether those needs will be met is still in question. Fox spokeswoman Betsy Hoffman insists the network will try to mount another chat show. ”It’s a top priority for us to be in the late-night business,” she says. ”The economics are terrific if you’re successful.” Replacements for Chase’s chair are already being discussed. Fox sitcom star Richard Lewis, Talk Soup’s Greg Kinnear, and Howard Stern have been mentioned.
Meanwhile, TV’s invisible man is resurrecting his film career: Chase’s Cops and Robbersons is due next spring. And although efforts to erase the late-night debacle have begun—within 48 hours of the show’s demise, workmen had dismantled the theater sign bearing his name and painted over it—The Chevy Chase Show may haunt Fox for years to come.
Additional reporting by Frank Spotnitz