You gotta give NBC this much: they understand how the concept of the “news dump” works. Back in May, the news of Dan Harmon’s unceremonious ousting as Community’s show runner broke late on a Friday evening, when most of the entertainment press had called it a week; similarly, word leaked of Community co-star Chevy Chase’s exit from the show on the night before Thanksgiving. It wasn’t an unexpected move — Chase’s run on the program hasn’t exactly been rainbows and puppy dogs (more on that presently) — but the timing was downright peculiar; this is the kind of thing that usually happens between seasons, and though the finale to the show’s abbreviated, 13-episode fourth season is in the can, at least two episodes remain to be shot, meaning Chase’s Pierce Hawthorne will weirdly disappear for at least part of the year.
Then again, would anybody really notice? Chase’s presence on the show — his first regular television work since the notorious late-night Chevy Chase Show fiasco back in ’93 — was something of a sell point, or at least a curiosity factor, when Community premiered back in 2009. But as the show’s ace ensemble gelled, Chase saw less screen time, which prompted him to grouse in the press, which probably led to even less screen time, as his character’s arc and plotlines began to reflect his own alienation from the show’s cast and crew. Now that he’s gone altogether, where do he and the show go from here?
The later question is fairly easy to answer: Community will do just fine without Chase, though it’s hard to tell for how long. Fans, already uneasy about what the show will be in its fourth season without mastermind Harmon in the driver’s seat, have had their chains yanked by NBC for months now, its original October premiere date (in a less-than-promising Friday night slot) delayed at the eleventh hour for an eventual February launch — which should make those reported Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas episodes play like gangbusters. A half-season launched midway through the year isn’t exactly a vote of confidence; we may not get much of an idea what a Chase-free Community looks like anyway.
But Chase’s outlook is even bleaker. At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, the conclusion of his tempestuous Community run looks a lot like the event horizon of his pop culture relevance. He came to the program in pretty rough shape, career-wise: he hadn’t starred in a hit movie (financially or critically) since 1989′s Christmas Vacation, and had one of the prickliest reputations in show business (Time magazine’s review of the indispensible SNL oral history Live From New York was memorably headlined “And They All Hate Chevy,” for the book’s endless tales of the former cast member and frequent guest host’s unpleasantness to pretty much every generation of the show). Joining a hip, edgy, single-camera TV comedy seemed a smart move — a kind of small-screen version of the late-career reinvention of Bill Murray, another SNL alum whose ’90s film output had been, to say the least, a little spotty.
Chase did fine work on the show, particularly early on, but it became increasingly obvious that it wasn’t going to reinvent him, or introduce him to a new audience the way in the same way that it made (potential, so far, but promising) stars out of the likes of Alison Brie, Donald Glover, and Gillian Jacobs. As Community’s run continued, the kidding-on-the-square jokes of his co-stars and Harmon began to give way to Chase’s own interview grousings. Maybe he was joshing when he said, of taking the gig, “It was a big mistake!” but there’s not much humor to be mined out of this pronouncement: “The hours are hideous, and it’s still a sitcom on television, which is probably the lowest form of television. That’s my feeling about it.” Well, that smarts — but come to find out, Chase was actually softening his view of the program for the press. In leaked voicemails to Harmon, Chase called Community “a fucking mediocre sitcom,” in which “a disconnect” between “what is actually shot… and the final product, the editing,” resulted in Harmon and the show’s editors choosing story over “making people laugh,” cutting out the “big laughs” of Chase’s physical bits for the narrative. “This isn’t funny!” Chase insisted. “And it ain’t funny to me, because I’m 67 years old, and I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ve been making a lot of people laugh a lot better than this.”
But that’s the problem: Chase hasn’t been making people laugh “a lot better than this” for quite a while now, and his slamming of not only Community but talents like Louis CK (“I wouldn’t in any way make a degrading remark about Louis CK, but the question is do I think anyone is funny? And the answer is not too many people”), indicates that the real “disconnect” is between what Chase and the rest of us find funny. The Harmon voicemails show Chase angry that the show isn’t making use of the kind of big, broad, dumb jokes that Chase was doing decades ago — and that, in all fairness, still have a home on actual “fucking mediocre sitcoms” like Two and a Half Men and Guys with Kids.
And maybe that’s where he hopes to end up, but that seems unlikely. With the exception of Alec Baldwin and Ed O’Neil, there aren’t a lot of elder statesmen in the sitcom universe, which tends to lean towards the twenty-and-thirty-something set. Maybe he’ll end up in one of those TV Land ensembles, with other stars of sitcoms past, but even that seems like a stretch — though his nemesis Harmon’s successors, David Guarascio and Moses Port, insisted early on that they had “a very easy working relationship with Chevy,” there were reports of continued strife on the set, culminating in an incident last month where Chase used the “n-word” in an outburst protesting his character’s racist tendencies. That’s not the kind of reputation that’s gonna get him more TV work; more likely, having blown his chance at being the TV Bill Murray, he’ll end up taking a page from another SNL castmate, Dan Aykroyd, endlessly attempting to recreate his past successes. What we’re saying is, don’t be surprised if you start hearing about Chase trying to get another Fletch movie off the ground.