1993 was a great year for late-night television: In the span of a few weeks at the end of summer, "Late Show With David Letterman" and "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" debuted. Both shows would last for years ("Late Show" is still going), and the two hosts are revered as comedy kings.
But there was a third new late-night program at the time. "The Chevy Chase Show" premiered 20 years ago: September 7, 1993, on Fox. Many people (including Chase himself) would like to forget it ever existed, since it was the worst TV talk show in the history of everything.
Consider that Chase wasn't even Fox's first choice as host; they wanted Dolly Parton, but she declined. The scrappy young network was trying to get in the late-night game during a turbulent period — Jay Leno had taken over "The Tonight Show" the year before, after which Letterman moved to CBS.
Fox tapped Chase, paid him $3 million, spent money on renovating a theater in Los Angeles, and plastered giant posters of the former "Saturday Night Live" player everywhere. The network also promised advertisers over five million viewers per episode.
Yeah, that was a big mistake. The show ended up averaging less than three million viewers.
Entertainment Weekly gave the show an F, saying it "managed only to give vulgarity a bad name." Time magazine said, "Nervous and totally at sea, Chase tried everything, succeeded at nothing."
That's almost being kind.
As seen in these clips, Chase (a notoriously difficult performer) is clearly inept at interviewing guests, like Goldie Hawn in the first episode:
If the interview was bad, Chase's "dancing" afterward was even more excruciating:
Chase couldn't even master a segment he should've ruled: "News Update," a clone of "SNL's" "Weekend Update." He often stumbled over lines and nervously shuffled papers.
Then-chairman of Fox Broadcasting Lucie Salhany acknowledged, "The shows weren't good." Even guests sensed how uncomfortable Chase was. As Dennis Hopper said after appearing on the show, "God, he is so nervous. I feel sorry for him."
"The Chevy Chase Show" wasn't just bad; it was almost unbelievable. It's a miracle that Fox even let it run for five weeks before hitting the cancellation button. But before that, an emergency team of new writers, consultants, and executives floated ideas to save the sinking ship. Rumors swirled that Fox was eyeing Greg Kinnear (then the host of E!'s "Talk Soup") to take over and considering bringing in guest hosts like Richard Lewis and Sinbad.
The disaster was of such epic proportions that Fox hasn't attempted to put on another nightly late-night program since.
Years later, Chase tried to blame Fox executives for the disaster. As Entertainment Weekly noted in 2004, Chase wanted to model himself after his hero, Ernie Kovacs. He wanted the show to be a variety act filled with sketches and only the occasional guest. "The debut episode, for example, was supposed to have seen the host get bitten by a rattlesnake and nearly die within the first five minutes," the magazine wrote.
As Chase told Time, he had "an entirely different concept than what was pushed on me. I would never do it again."
From his mouth to the television gods' ears!