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Comedy Isn’t Funny

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“Ah, Jim!” Farley exclaims. “That’s been a big laugh since sixth grade! Belushi farted, didn’t he? Bottom line, farts are funny!”

Downey seems unmoved.

“It’ll never happen again,” Farley says, but he can’t contain a giggle. “It’s the goddamn burgers! Lori Jo ordered up about 50 burgers! Jesus!”

“Well, Chris,” Downey says, mock solemn. “Look around. All these people are laughing at you. Not with you. And they’re your friends now, because you’re the big clown. But they’re gonna all go on…and you’ll still be there, just farting away.”

Farley starts kicking his legs like some demented Rockette, farting after each step.

“Someday, Chris,” Downey continues, still in his deadpan mode, “your son will be in a library with a friend, and he’ll pull down the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature. ‘Oh—January to March 1995. Hey, Dad’s in this one!’ ‘What’s it for? The ‘Fatty Arbuckle incident’—where he had that incident with the girl, and he was tried?’ ‘No, this is the one where he farts!’”

The rest of the room is tense, silent, and Farley’s face is reddening. Downey’s joke, more barbed than anything that makes it on the air at SNL these days, refers to a 1994 incident where Farley allegedly groped a female extra. (“He never grabbed her in any sexual area, but he was touching her leg,” says a witness who was in the limousine with Farley and the woman. “She was being nice about it, saying, ‘Can you just stop now?’ But she was annoyed. And we’re yelling, ‘Will you fucking stop it?’ Farley’s kind of laughing it off. Then he BA’d [bare-assed] some other limo driver.”)

Downey’s kidding about the possibility of Farley’s being hauled into court (no charges were ever filed, and Farley claims he just told the woman she “looked purty”). But he’s serious about shaming Farley into better behavior. And Farley is gasping.

“Daddy was a naughty man,” Farley finally says with a shrug. “C’mon—let’s all take a break and go down to the Village! Go cattin’ around!” He dances crazily, his mammoth belly wobbling. “Me and Adsy [Adam Sandler] are gonna go cattin’ around!”

None of the writers move.

Downey clears his throat. “All right. So we were on Andy Rooney…”

Farley and Sandler strut out of the room. After a total of about 90 minutes, the Rooney sketch is put aside; there’ll be still more tinkering tomorrow. But on Saturday, the sketch gets only weak laughs from the dress-rehearsal audience and is cut from the live show.

Lorne Michaels appears in the SNL writers’ credits each week, though he hasn’t really written a sketch in nineteen years. He has other ways of influencing the writing, however, some of which subtly drive a wedge between the other writers and Downey. “Lorne,” says a current writer, “will say, ‘You know, there’s an enormous desire to make Jim Downey laugh. That’s good—Jim Downey’s a hard person to make laugh. However, we also need to have pieces that Jim hates on the show—because America likes them.’”

A former key writer, who stays in close touch with the politics at SNL, sees all the machinations building to an ugly finish. “I’ve been in L.A., and all I’ve been hearing is ‘Jim Downey’s fucking up.’ That’s the story all these agents and producers are hearing. But Jim’s no different [than he ever was]. He’s a very funny guy. But Lorne picked that guy for a reason, and he kept him for a reason: Jim is a guy who will internalize everything, will not fight, will just rationalize to himself—and in his heart, is just dying. But Lorne doesn’t care. Jim’s gonna take the fall. It’s gonna be in the press”—the writer breaks into Lorne’s semi-British murmur—“ ‘Well, Jim, as wonderful as he is, had allowed himself to get a little out of touch, blah, blah, blah.’ Oh, it’s gonna be beautiful!” (Indeed, a tough New York Times piece about the show last September depicted Downey as the primary source of SNL’s problems.)

Downey admits he was deeply dispirited last spring when his father died and, three days later, he learned of his apparently imminent firing. But Downey seems more equanimous this time around. Friends say he expects NBC to come after his job again at the end of this season, and that his fate is out of his hands. “Unless the ratings improve or the press buzz turns around, he thinks it’s going to be a matter of how much Lorne is willing to push to save him again,” says one friend of Downey’s. (NBC’s Ohlmeyer declined comment.)

“Jim is incredibly important, because he’s a truly original comedy thinker,” Michaels says. “That’s, you know, of great value to me.”


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