Stakes high for Fox in latenight chase

While the Highland Park High School marching band belted out “Louie, Louie” in a vacant lot opposite the old Earl Carroll Theatre on Sunset Boulevard, Chevy Chase unveiled the home for his new show to TV news crews and a crowd of fans.

A Chase mannequin, dressed as a billboard artist, was pratfalling off a scaffold high above the entrance to the auditorium. And after mugging behind “the Mayor of Hollywood,” Johnny Grant, the new talkshow host launched a series of champagne-filled water balloons over traffic at the new Chevy Chase Theater.

As the blue projectiles flew through the cool August night, many in the crowd smiled as they remembered how Chase’s goofy charm and cool wit propelled him to stardom 16 years earlier.

Despite what some jaded Hollywood detractors suggest (“He’s lazy,””Its just a paycheck,””Six months and out”); what many have overlooked in their handicapping of the late-night derby is Chase himself.

He is enormously popular with the average viewer and the 49-year-old is exactly the sort of puckish performer who does his best work when his toes are in the fire.

Also, he’s a star that TV audiences have dearly missed during his 16-year absence.

For these and a number of technical reasons, like his show’s 11 p.m. start time and his staggering Q score (the measure of a performers’ likability), the former Not Ready for Prime Time Player is the dark horse that many consider the smart bet this fall. His show debuts tonight.

And even the most pessimistic of the Fox executive cadre admit that the show’s fate comes down to one factor: if Chevy Chase really wants to work hard, he will succeed.

To remind viewers of why he initially became a star of the wee hours some favorite bits from the old “Saturday Night Live” days will pop up in the first weeks of the show.

Instead of a Land Shark slicing through the late-night airwaves, Chase plans to have a giant T-Rex menace some of his staff members. He also plans to reprise his role as the smirky anchorman of a nightly news update.

In a clever tactical maneuver, the update segment will start at approximately 11:34 p.m., so any channel surfers thinking of cutting and running to NBC’s “The Tonight Show” or CBS’ “Late Show” will find it harder to tune Chase out in mid-sketch.

Chase also hopes to develop his own unique cadre of running gags that the show can return to night after night.

According to Chase, signature bits like Stupid Pet Tricks or Carnac the Magnificent are the way a talkshow develops a loyal following. Says Chase, “I love runners. These are key building blocks for this kind of show.”

Slamming, jamming

Other unique elements of the show include Sam Archer, a gifted basketball player, who will appear in the opening montage slamming and jamming on the basketball hoop that dots center stage. Chase may even have him plop down in the guest chair for a little chat from time to time.

And while the traditional role of second banana (handled so well in the past by the likes of Ed McMahon and Regis Philbin) is a noble addition to any chat show, Chase will not have a regular foil. Instead, he will use any number of able sidemen already on staff.

Stand-up comic Ron Russ, who is the show’s announcer, will banter with Chase, as will the host’s old friend and new band leader, sax man Tom Scott. Chase himself is a serviceable pianist and in homage to Steve Allen he may even tinkle the ivories on-air.

Besides slam dunks, show tunes, and running gags, the first week of the show has a guest list that includes Goldie Hawn, Whoopi Goldberg, Martin Short, Harry Anderson, Kathleen Turner, Jason Priestly, Tom Sellek, Robert DeNiro, and Smokey Robinson.

Executive producer Steve Binder points out, “These are all stars who are comfortable with Chevy; people he can play off of. He’s a very natural interviewer, and it will be interesting to see movie stars interviewed by someone who is their equal. Chevy is a fellow movie star as opposed to somebody who comes out of TV.”

According to New York Magazine, for example, he plays cards with Steve Martin , Carl Reiner and Neil Simon.

“The Chevy Chase Show” set is not Sister Parish, but it has the comfy feel of a wood-panelled den. The host will hold court from a dark wood, library-type area at stage right.

When Chase is working from his desk, viewers will catch glimpses of a blue fish tank, robot wind-up toys and a skeleton that appear on the set’s bookshelves. The center stage resembles an amalgam of “In Living Color’s” rooftop and Letterman’s old NBC backdrop — only with The Chase set its the L.A. skyline. Tom Scott will lead the band from a separate module at stage left.

Backstage, the writing staff is an eclectic bunch. There are “Saturday Night Live” vets and some “Late Night with David Letterman” alumns. Executive producer Binder’s producing credits include “Pee Wee’s Playhouse” and specials for Elvis Presley and Barry Manilow.

For some staff scribes, “The Chevy Chase Show” is a first gig and these neophytes will undoubtedly bring a pledge’s eagerness to the grueling task of cranking up sketch material day-in and day-out. One of Chase’s initial disappointments is that his budget for a writing staff is not larger. “I wanted Tom Leopold (“Seinfeld,””Dream On”) very badly and possibly Dave Thomas (“SCTV”) ,” says Chase. “The money just wasn’t there.”

On a show like Chase’s, the writing staff is the gasoline that fuels the engine. And when asked about what his biggest fear for the fall is, the star makes an allusion to the film “The Three Amigos,” in which Steve Martin, Martin Short and Chase have to face a Mexican desperado known as El Guapa.

One previous Fox foray into late night, “The Wilton North Report,” ran aground when the show was eating up its A-list sketches faster than its writing staff could crank them out. Chase offers, “There is no El Guapa for the fall except maybe that ‘Wilton-North’ thing. I don’t want to be in the position where we blow through all our material in two weeks. ”

The stakes are high for Fox Broadcasting — Chase represents a huge gamble for the network.

There is the initial salary of $ 3 million, with bonuses and profit participation that would bring his paycheck up to $ 8 million if he succeeds. There is the cost of retrofitting the theater. There is also the issue of good will with the Fox affiliates.

Prior to Chase, Fox stations were keeping all the revenue they generated from showing syndicated programming like “Cheers” or “Mayberry R.F.D.” Many welcomed a latenight franchise, but if Chase tanks, the network-affil relationship could feel the strain.

Is it better to get rich with Don Knotts then risk losing revenue with Chase? Only time will tell. But if Chase fails, Fox affils will be less likely to give the time back to FBC programming again. If he succeeds, he will become a new icon for a more mature, more mainstream Fox: Bart Simpson grown up.

So why did Fox pick Chase? First and foremost was his Q score — the measure of those who are familiar with a certain talent and say that talent is their favorite divided by those who are simply familiar with the talent.

According to Andy Fessel, Fox’s senior vice president, research and marketing , Chase’s Q score among men is 44. To put things in perspective Bill Cosby clocks in at 51. Clint Eastwood is a 46. John Goodman and Kevin Costner fetch a 38 and 37, respectively.

In terms of the latenight universe, Fessel points out that David Letterman rates a 19, Arsenio Hall a 17, and Jay Leno an 8. Two years ago, then-Twentieth TV topper Lucie Salhany used the Q material as a selling point to hook Chase.

But it wasn’t the money, or the shock of his Q score that convinced Chase to take time off from movies.

Says Chase,”I feel a heightened sense of adrenaline when I’m in front of 350 people performing live. I’ve missed that. I’m nervous. I’m scared. But when my back is up against the wall, I get into the zone.”

Bruce Bodner, the show’s other executive producer and Chase’s consiglieri in his Cornelius Prods., believes that a major attraction for attacking the talk-show format was the five-day-a-week schedule. Instead of a sitcom, which is one show a week, a talkshow allows for more spontaneity, more room for error.

While the stakes are high for Fox, they are equally high for Chase. Says Salhany, “A lot of pride is at stake. It’s not called ‘The Lucie Salhany Show.’ Whenever your name is on something, you’re taking a risk. But if the show fails, he will still be in demand for features and TV.”

For Chase, the show represents the opportunity to dispel once-and-for-all the lingering impression that he is a coaster who has made a fabulous living from middle-brow movies that resulted from a series of pratfalls done in the dark of latenight television over 16 years ago.

While the Chevy Chase Theater was once the home for Ed McMahon’s “Star Search ,” the ghost from TV’s past that the new late-night show may more closely resemble is Ernie Kovacs, for just as Kovacs challenged people’s preconceived ideas about what a variety show could be, Chase may shatter some notions about how well he can fare in the crowded marketplace.

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