In a time before “fake news” became a term we all debated, Saturday Night Live’s "Weekend Update" segment proudly opened with the words, “And now the fake news” in the mid-90s.
Since the weekend sketch comedy show's October 11, 1975 premiere, the current events satire has been the only ongoing segment to last through eight presidencies, two dozen regular anchors and 45 television seasons.
"Weekend Update" was conceived by Chevy Chase and SNL writer Herb Sargent and — despite being renamed "SNL NewsBreak" and "Saturday Night News" in the early 1980s — still airs on the 90-minute variety show every week.
Chase was also the first comedian to anchor the humorous take on news — but he only did the honors for 31 episodes during the show’s first two seasons. In comparison, Seth Meyers anchored for eight seasons and Colin Jost and Michael Che have sat at the desk for seven and six seasons, respectively.
However, without Chase both writing and delivering the satirical news during the first season, the doors may never have opened for an entire genre of political satire shows.
Chase was hesitant to join ‘Saturday Night Live’
Chase had already found success as a co-founding member of the Channel One comedy ensemble, a writer for the Smothers Brothers TV show and writer/cast member of The National Lampoon Radio Hour when he had a chance encounter with Canadian producer Lorne Michaels who was in the midst of creating Saturday Night Live.
The comedian was at the L.A. premiere of Monty Python and the Holy Grail when he ran into a group of friends — and, in true Chase fashion, was cracking his companions up while waiting. “One of the people near me was Rob Reiner and he was in line with Lorne,” Chase recalled in his 2007 biography I’m Chevy Chase... and You’re Not. “I had met Rob once or twice. Lorne asked him, ‘Who is that guy?’ and Rob told him I was a writer for the Smothers Brothers.”
Not long after, Chase found himself in a meeting with Michaels at Los Angeles’ Chateau Marmont. “This attachment formed immediately upon meeting,” Chase recalled.
Michaels offered him a writing job on SNL. Despite their instant connection, the funnyman was hesitant to commit. A Saturday evening sketch comedy show based in New York was unheard of at the time, so it seemed like a risk to give up everything he had going for him in Los Angeles.
But in the middle of rehearsals for a play, he realized he had to take the chance: “I called Lorne over the payphone in the theater lobby to ask if the writing job was still open.”
An improv session planted the seed of "Weekend Update"
At the age of 32, Chase joined the writing staff of SNL for $800 a week — and he was instrumental in creating some of the best-known segments, like the fake ads, surprising on-camera captions — and most importantly, "Weekend Update."
“There was a little room nearby with a long desk, which could act as a stage,” Chase told The New York Times of one of the early days in Rockefeller Center’s Studio 8H. “[Michaels] asked everybody to sit behind it and just do something. And then at the end he said, ‘Chevy, get up there and do something.’”
Even though he was technically a writer, Chase was thrilled with the opportunity to perform: “I was very involved in political satire, and I’d been writing parody for Mad and National Lampoon, so I made up some strange story about Gerald Ford.”
It’s during that impromptu segment that Chase believes the idea of "Weekend Update" started to form. The sketch, which poked fun at the week’s news, aired — and continues to air — right after midnight since Michaels felt they could get away with pushing the envelope further since advertisers were less interested after the clock hit Sunday.
Most of the other staffers were new to the television business, so Chase became a big part of the show’s formative year. “I was an all-purpose writer and the only guy who had worked on television shows, besides Herb and Lorne,” Chase wrote in his book. “I was the go-to guy when it came to putting the show together.”
Chase almost didn’t anchor the segment
However, Chase was meant to stay behind the cameras since Michaels was going to anchor. “I’d done the equivalent of 'Weekend Update' in Canada,” Michaels told Deadline. “But as we got closer to the air show, I began to realize that I didn’t think I could be the person who cut other people’s pieces and left my own in. So I gave 'Weekend Update' to Chevy, who was not a cast member, but a writer at the time.”
It turned out to be the right move because Chase was an instant hit. The more he got comfortable he got in the anchor chair, the more ridiculous his bits got, including his famous opening line, “I’m Chevy Chase… and you’re not.” On "Weekend Update," he hit the audience with unbelievable zingers on news like the deaths of China’s Mao Zedong (who would be replaced by “Imitation Mao”) and Spain’s Francisco Franco (who had a “restful summer” since he was dead). Outside of the segment, he also became known for his characters, like playing a “bumbling President Gerald Ford,” as The Hollywood Reporter described.
“Chevy’s likability is very important,” Michael told New York Magazine in 1975. “When an audience likes you, they let you get away with more. Chevy really feels the way he sounds on ‘Update,’ but he can make the material neutral. He’s not on a soapbox. And he never acts. When he played Ford, he was still Chevy.”
As for Chase, he chalked it up to his look. “I happen to come across relatively soft. My hair is short enough, I wear a tie and jacket, so I can do more offensive stuff,” he told New York Magazine. “But my mind is mean — I’ve got a lot of things I’d like to get out. And it would be harder for some of the others to do it.”
The current format of "Weekend Update" largely remains the same
While Chase was the first big-name departure in the show’s storied history, leaving during the second season, the anchor chair he christened has become one of the most coveted seats for comedians with its famous alumni list including Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.
But he’s left behind the only segment to survive through the 45-year history of the show. While the show has had two anchors in recent years, the style of comical news reporting with visits from special guests played by other cast members remains largely the same.
And the legacy he left doesn’t just remain on SNL. Chase is confident that the segment he started in the 1970s paved the way for all the political satire shows on the air today like The Daily Show, Real Time with Bill Maher and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. As he told Time in 2007: "My ego tends to think that, you know, I started it with my 'Weekend Update.'”