At first glance, you might think that everything you need to know about Chris Farley could be written with a dull crayon on the back of a used paper plate—and it essentially was, in the tabloid frenzy following his death: fat, clumsy, loud guy who OD’d like his hero Belushi. Farley’s shtick, as expressed in five seasons of Saturday Night Live and three No. 1 films, was massively simple: He was the fattest of the fat, loudest of the loud, sweatiest of the sweaty, drunkest of the drunk. His comedy consisted almost exclusively of pratfalls and nudity and shouting. To many, he epitomizes arguably the worst era of SNL: the catchphrase-addicted, innovation-free, post-Myers, pre-Ferrell frat-house nadir of a once-mighty institution. The Farley canon, as he left it when he died in 1997 at age 33, is tiny and tainted: the discordant bellowing of Cindy, his fry-eating Gap Girl; his virtuosically incompetent celebrity interviews on “The Chris Farley Show”; Matt Foley, his supremely unmotivating motivational speaker who lives “in a van down by the river.” While even the most skeptical comedy snob must acknowledge, in Farley’s best work, glimmers of something great—a mastery of the algorithms of physical comedy so fresh and weird it seems to border on genius (cf. Foley’s gyroscopic belt-hitching)—every brilliant move tends to get washed out by lazy waves of thoughtless pandering.
The Chris Farley Show—a new biography by Farley’s older brother, Tom, and a former biographer of Belushi, Tanner Colby—shows that Farley’s simplicity was in fact a tremendously complex construct. The book is subtitled “A Biography in Three Acts.” Its opening section covers Farley’s first 27 years: boyhood pranks, meteoric professional rise, and—at the first little snort of success—spontaneous combustion into the very worst Behind the Music celebrity-flameout clichés. Farley grew up in a wealthy suburb of Madison, Wisconsin, where he was a local legend from childhood. In church once, on the way to communion, he filled his mouth with white Tic Tacs, fell face-first into a pew, and pretended to spit out all his teeth. In math class he crawled on his belly to the front of the lecture hall, hid behind a curtain, and—just as his teacher, a retired Air Force colonel, was delivering his customary terrible joke to end the session—mooned the class. (Farley’s parents were called in, but he wasn’t punished because the authorities laughed too hard every time they tried to talk about it.) In college he was famous for his naked beer slides down the bar and for his filthy room, which other students would visit just to marvel at the squalor. But even early on he exhibited the fatal Farley flaw: a tendency to seek approval at all costs. “He was immensely talented,” one of his former directors says, “but that talent was at the whim of whoever needed the next laugh.” Farley regularly belly flopped over the line between funny and wrong. He was expelled from high school after he exposed his penis, on a dare, to a girl in typing class; in college, he lit a house on fire with a smoke bomb. “He was our windup toy,” his older brother says. “You said it. He did it.”
Farley landed on SNL in 1990, where he distinguished himself in just his fourth episode as a male stripper competing with Patrick Swayze. (See here.) But everything went immediately wrong: The drugs got harder, the drinking more destructive. After his first SNL season, Farley made a drunken cameo at Second City, the venerable Chicago theater where he’d come up, and got booed off the stage. His life degenerated into an endless series of interventions, rehabs, and relapses. One of Farley’s counselors said his personality was the most addictive he’d ever seen. He started carrying clean urine samples in his pocket, ditched an SNL meeting to buy heroin in Hell’s Kitchen, and lunged out a high-rise hotel window, slicing his arm open from shoulder to wrist and nearly falling to his death. Finally, after a stint at a hard-core, prisonlike rehab center in Alabama, Farley reached the blessed oasis of Act Two: three heroic years of sobriety, and the source of almost all his best material.
Like Live From New York, another popular recent SNL book, The Chris Farley Show is an oral history, patched together out of scraps of interviews with Farley’s friends, family, and colleagues. (There are even a couple of intertextual shout-outs to the earlier book: Bob Odenkirk claims, for instance, that he was misquoted by the authors of Live From New York “because they’re dicks.”) The form seems particularly appropriate in the case of Farley, whose comedy was aggressively social and who was always obsessed with what people thought of him. The result is satisfyingly complex. His life is hashed out, piece by piece, by a small army of unreliable narrators, some with obviously self-serving agendas. (David Spade, for instance, is always defending himself, Norm MacDonald criticizing SNL—from which he was fired—and Lorne Michaels advancing his sage persona.) The man himself seems to have existed in a hall of mirrors. Some colleagues (from John Goodman to Jack Handey) insist that the “real” Farley was the bumbling, innocent, awestruck Midwesterner from the SNL sketch “The Chris Farley Show.” Others see that as an act: “That whole aw-shucks character … that was all very deliberate,” says one of his Tommy Boy co-stars. It “was a defense mechanism,” says Eric Newman, a production assistant. “It protected him, and it made people feel better.” When Farley’s longtime girlfriend implies that he essentially committed suicide (“He called me late one night and told me why he wasn’t going to stay sober anymore, and, at that point, we both knew what that meant”), a chorus of naysayers rises up to cancel her out: “Any idea that Chris wanted to die is bullshit.” “You have to discount anything Chris might have said to people, especially to women.”