Is Chevy Chase destined to be the next Dennis Miller?
Mr. Chase, who left television in 1976 after one fantastic season on NBC's "Saturday Night Live," returns Sept. 7 with "The Chevy Chase Show," Fox Broadcasting Co.'s big-name bid in the late-night talk-show derby.
In the years since, he has had what might politely be called a lucrative but unspectacular film career, starring in silly but fun "National Lampoon" movies, a couple of "Fletch" films, "Spies Like Us," "Three Amigos" and the best-forgotten "Memoirs of an Invisible Man."
Can Mr. Chase, a comedian with a coolly mocking style, take the heat in TV's most competitive time period or at least last a little longer than "Saturday Night Live" co-alumnus Dennis Miller did?
Even Fox Chairman Lucie Salhany admits, "The competition will be formidable." Up against NBC's Jay Leno, ABC's re-energized "Nightline," Arsenio Hall in syndication and, of course, CBS's David Letterman, Mr. Chase will enter an already crowded -- and still growing -- field.
The Chase difference, according to early reports, will be in the comedy content, which will take precedence over talk, and in the timing. Most affiliates will run the show from 11 p.m. to midnight weeknights, giving them at least a half-hour jump on their network rivals.
That kind of an approach could work well and even siphon some of the Letterman gains CBS undoubtedly expects to make. Still, nobody will know for sure how Chase will be received until he goes on the air. Critics haven't received sample shows.
The closest to a review tape available is a short sendup on movie etiquette, running in United Artists Theatres around the country before such films as "Jurassic Park," "Last Action Hero" and "Sleepless in Seattle."
"Oh, hi," says Mr. Chase, surprised by his invisible audience as he stands in the lobby of a UA movie house. "I'm Alec Baldwin."
It's a classic, tongue-in-cheek bit that Mr. Chase delivers in his emblematically facile way. Reminding movie patrons there's no smoking, for instance, he's the one it turns out who's lighting up. In fact, he's on fire.
The "family" is along for the fun, too, with Junior pigging out at the concession stand.
"Run a tab as usual?" inquires the girl behind the counter.
The plug for "The Chevy Chase Show" comes in the "No talking" portion of this unusual primer on movie courtesy.
"Hey," says the guy sitting next to him. "You're Chevy Chase. I heard you're going to have that new show."
Mr. Chase -- mortified, we can assure you -- shushes the man with a bullhorn, killing his own commercial.
It's a quick but effective reminder of Mr. Chase's easy-on-the-viewer style that's bound to be in his favor if he's lucky enough to catch on in late night for the long run.
He is less acerbic than Mr. Letterman, funnier than Mr. Leno and as hip as he needs to be for Mr. Hall. The problems with Mr. Chase's talk show, like Mr. Miller's before him, are likely to be the interview segments and opening monologue (although the format is still in flux).
It's expected that Mr. Chase will resurrect the faux news broadcast he made famous on "Saturday Night Live" (which Mr. Miller soloed years later). But whether audiences are eager to see it is another question.
And, like Mr. Miller, whose syndicated show lasted less than a year, Mr. Chase has a smarmy edge that could rub many people -- particularly older viewers -- the wrong way.
Mr. Letterman, the man everyone is likely to be watching when "Late Show With David Letterman" makes its debut on CBS Aug. 30, will have a week's head start on Mr. Chase. But avoiding a head-to-head opening night will probably work to Mr. Chase's advantage.
If, however, Mr. Chase doesn't live up to Fox's high expectations, he can always go back to the big screen and Fox can start flipping through the "Saturday Night Live" directory of stars.