On July 24, 1976, two of Saturday Night Live’s most famous cast members briefly put aside their feud and embraced – if only to set up a gag.
The rivalry between Chevy Chase and John Belushi stretched much further back than their tenure as castmates on the show. Before joining the Not Ready for Prime Time Players, both comedians had been part of National Lampoon: Lemmings, an off-Broadway stage show that parodied Woodstock.
The production ran in 1973 and helped launch both men into the spotlight, but it was Belushi, not Chase, who received the most acclaim.
Tensions only heightened later that year with the introduction of The National Lampoon Radio Hour. Both comedians wanted to be named the show’s creative director, but it was Belushi who again won out (Chase remained as a cast member, but did not have creative control).
Watch Chevy Chase and John Belushi Perform in ‘National Lampoon: Lemmings’
The baggage of their rivalry followed Chase and Belushi to SNL, and the two weren’t shy about showing their displeasure for one another.
“They had a knack for goading each other,” noted authors Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad in the book Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live. “The first day Belushi arrived on the 17th floor, he walked into Chevy’s office and pointed at the picture of Jacqueline Carlin [Chase’s girlfriend] on Chevy’s desk. ‘Oh, you have one of those too?’ he said. ‘You’ve got the regular one. I’ve got the one with the donkey dick.’”
Part of the rivalry stemmed from the two men’s differing comedic styles. Belushi was a blue-collar type, unafraid to indulge in brutish or occasionally gross humor. Chase came from an upscale background and embraced an arrogant demeanor with his comedy. His acerbic wit projected a better-than-you attitude that rubbed Belushi the wrong way.
“Chevy always claimed he was responsible for making Belushi as fit as he was for civilized company by shaving his back and teaching him how to eat with a fork,” Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live explained.
Watch John Belushi and Chevy Chase on ‘Saturday Night Live’
“John and Chevy were always antagonistic and friends,” Belushi’s widow, Judith, clarified in the book Live From New York. “It was a love-hate kind of thing. They worked together well when they were trying to.”
In the first season of Saturday Night Live – then called NBC’s Saturday Night – it quickly became obvious that Chase would be the show’s breakout star. The comedian’s physical comedy, good looks and wry humor made him extremely popular with the viewing audience. As the show became a hit, Chase found himself as the program’s poster child. New York magazine dubbed him the heir apparent to Johnny Carson, while Time called him “the funniest man in America.”
“New York magazine comes out with Chevy on the cover,” producer Dick Ebersol recalled. “John is radically pissed off, because he sees Chevy running away with the show. Now it’s going to be all about Chevy. Onstage, John had to be the star, not Chevy.”
While praise rained down on Chase, Belushi fumed.
“They throw me bones dogs wouldn’t chew on,” Belushi would declare, referring to the perceived low quality of material he was given to perform compared with Chase’s sketches.
Watch SNL’s ‘Word Association’ Sketch With Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor
“Chevy was certainly easy on the eye back then. And he was also full of himself. He could present himself in a way that was funny and accessible to a certain degree. When he entered the room, the room changed,” former SNL cast member Jane Curtin recalled to the Archive of American Television.
“So it made sense that he would be the face. But then the face got a little big. It became a really big face, which ticked a lot of people off. John wanted to be the face, and other people wanted to be the face. It was tense when that happened.”
As Chase became a star, his backstage attitude changed. He’d talk down to castmates and writers, treating SNL like his show rather than a collaborative effort.
“The more famous he got, the more he pulled into himself,” one of the show’s writers later recalled. “When he was hungry, he was more of a team player.”
“He teased in the way that a big brother would, aiming for exactly what would hurt your feelings the most,” costar Laraine Newman explained to The Telegraph.
While many chose to express their resentment in mumbled tones, Belushi wore his animosity out in the open. He would regularly criticize Chase, unafraid of his coworker’s growing star power.
Watch Chevy Chase and John Belushi in SNL’s ‘Samurai Hotel’ Sketch
The backstage drama would be addressed onscreen on July 24, 1976. After a two-month summer break, the show returned with a new episode. In the cold open, cast members welcome each other back, genially asking how they spent their time off. Then Belushi arrives, sauntering over to the group in a white suit and sunglasses, offering a distinct “Hollywood” vibe as a nod to Chase’s stardom. He greets every other cast member, before looking at his rival.
“Listen, Chevy, I’ve been thinking about what I said,” Belushi begins. “We’ve been together a long time, friends a long time, and I don’t think that should stop us from being friends.”
Chase accepts the olive branch before engaging in a serious of progressively more complicated high-fives. At the end, Belushi punches Chase in the face, hurtling him off the stage. While the scene was played for laughs, there was undeniable tension behind it.
“[Belushi] was a little bit jealous that I had become the standout guy the first year, when John [felt he] deserved to,” Chase later recalled to Time. “And he did; John was our ringer. But television doesn’t care too much about ringers who are short and have a beard. Somehow they took to the tall, thin, handsome guy.”