If a painful childhood creates a better comedian, then Chevy Chase was bred to be hilarious. The former Saturday Night Live star said his mom and stepdad routinely beat him and tormented him as a kid. Their angry often violent reprisals forced him to develop a sense of humor to cope with the trauma.
“I was afraid all the growing up, and I still have a lot of that fear in me,” Chevy Chase told CBS Sunday Morning. “So, in a sense, it did shape my path. It sort of made me want to take those people out. Bullies, I hated bullies.”
Chevy Chase grew up in New York wealthy but unhappy. He was a below-average student with an above-average IQ, his biographer wrote. It’s impossible to study when you’re worried about being hit or locked in a closet for hours at a time.
“I was fraught with fear and low self-esteem,” Chase said in his biography I’m Chevy Chase and You’re Not. “You’re inundated with those thoughts and those fears, and you learn nothing about how to organize your time and do your homework.”
Chevy Chase’s torment was his private hell, though. He didn’t tell his friends at school about what happened at home to him and his four siblings. He hid behind his detached and glib sense of humor and deadpan delivery.
Chase thinks most comics share a similar burden. The “sad clown” paradox, where humor is a defense mechanism and a weapon against fear.
“I think if you speak to many comedians, they’ll say the pain, the fear,” Chase told CBS about his sense of humor. “It comes from their childhoods.”
Chevy Chase On ‘Saturday Night Live’ Castmate John Belushi
Chase’s comedy launched him onto a national stage. Lorne Michaels picked him as one of the original seven members of Saturday Night Live’s cast — The Not Ready for Primetime Players.
But as it turned out, Chevy Chase was ready for primetime. He was the show’s first breakout star in a cast of comedy icons, which caused a lot of animosity between him and his castmates. One of those was John Belushi, who feuded with Chase behind the scenes.
“I got a couple of photos and in the background, there’s John like this,” he said, holding up his middle finger. “And he didn’t do it just once. Anytime I could find a (photo), there’s John.”
Chevy Chase believes he was the funniest member of the cast and deserved the recognition. Though he knows Belushi deserved success as well.
“[Belushi] was a little bit jealous that I had become the standout guy the first year, when John [felt he] deserved to,” Chase told Time years later. “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.”
Chase left Saturday Night Live in the second season to star in films. Belushi became the face of the show after that.