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.”
According to the book, Farley’s talent ran far deeper than the public ever knew. “Chris was never captured in either movies or TV as good as he was onstage,” says one of his former directors at Second City. “He was too explosive. He just seems flat in all those movies. It’s like watching a large animal in a cage.” His castmates say they watched him perform in awe. He looked like Jabba the Hutt but was trained in ballet; when he was happy, he did perfect spontaneous backflips. He could get laughs just by stepping onstage or make people cry in dramatic scenes. Alec Baldwin, in particular, can’t stop raving: “Whenever I was watching Chris perform I would think, ‘How do I get where he’s at? How do I get to be as funny and as honest and as warm?’ ”
Gradually, an almost unrecognizable Farley begins to emerge: a subtle, skillful Dada genius. Off the air, he apparently emitted comic signals up and down the register, including a few notes that might never have been heard before—but the great filter of mainstream American comedy allowed only the most obvious squawks. MacDonald describes a recurring gag in which Farley would pull him aside and say, “Anyways, Norm. Did I tell ya I seen my friend Bill the other day, and I says to him, I says, I look him right in the eye and I says to him, I says, I says to Bill, I says to him, get this, what I says to him is I says, get this, what I says, you won’t believe what I says to him, I says … ” He’d sustain the monologue for 25 minutes without ever getting to what he said. “He’d do it 200 different ways,” MacDonald says. “It would just get funnier and funnier and funnier. When you can reduce something to four words and be funny for 25 minutes without an actual joke or a punch line, that’s genius. It’s not even really comedy anymore. It’s almost like music, like jazz variations.” (Lorne Michaels agreed to give the bit 30 seconds on “Weekend Update”; it was eventually cut.)
Farley’s meatier talent almost won him an intriguing alternate film career: the lead in The Cable Guy, the Amish bowler in the Farrelly brothers’ Kingpin, the voice of Shrek (in fact, he voiced most of the film before his death; Mike Myers revoiced it a year later), and—most tantalizing—the lead in a David Mamet drama about Fatty Arbuckle, the silent-film megastar whose career was ruined by false accusations of sexual assault. Unfortunately, a mercenary Hollywood system locked him into terrible movies, and seems to have triggered his final collapse. After reading a particularly terrible rewrite of Beverly Hills Ninja, Farley relapsed. (Later, he wept at the screening.)
Which brings us, regrettably, to Act Three. Reports of Farley’s lurid death, it turns out, have not been exaggerated. After a series of disastrous public appearances—he returned to host SNL with two hookers on his arm and staggered through the show on the verge of a heart attack—Farley partied for four straight days, smoked crack and snorted heroin with a call girl, then took her back to his apartment. When they argued about money, she got up to leave. He tried to follow but collapsed on the living room floor, struggling to breathe. His final words were “Don’t leave me.” She took pictures of him, stole his watch, wrote a note saying she’d had a lot of fun, and left. He died alone.
This is all more poignant because Farley seems to have been, in spite of his addictions and manipulations and occasional temper, an almost otherworldly sweetheart. He was deeply religious, affectionate, and charitable. He carried wheelchair-bound elderly people down staircases; he cried when he visited children in the cancer ward; he was the secret benefactor of a 70-year-old homeless-shelter resident named Willie. In fact, a handful of the book’s statements verge on hagiography. (MacDonald, for instance, makes Farley sound almost Christlike: “I don’t think Chris knew how to hate.”)
At the root of Farley’s tangled pathology was the most basic of all approval complexes: the need to please his father, a magnetic, corpulent, ultraconservative Irish-Catholic asphalt baron whose addictions to food and alcohol rivaled his famous son’s, and who was a world-class enabler. He gave his high-school-age kids drinking money, then refused to acknowledge their addictions as they grew up. He and Chris talked every day; Farley told friends that he stayed overweight for his father. Farley once lured his dad to a weight-loss clinic, only to see him walk out of the group therapy session, saying he didn’t have problems like those people. (He then took Farley on a binge-filled Florida vacation.) Just before Farley’s death, when his self-destructive behavior was particularly out of control, his friends and business associates wanted to freeze his assets—but his father denied consent. At the funeral, Farley’s father managed to struggle out of his chair—by then he weighed over 600 pounds—and wrapped his arms around the casket. He stopped drinking, cold turkey, and died just over a year later.
Five Takes on One Strip Act
THE SKETCH: CHIPPENDALES
Patrick Swayze and Chris Farley
“Fucking lame, weak bullshit. I can’t believe anyone liked it enough to put it on the show. Fuck that sketch. He never should have done it.”
Bob Odenkirk (friend, SNL writer)
“There’s no turn there. There’s no comic twist to it. It’s just fucking mean. A more mentally together Chris Farley wouldn’t have done it, but Chris wanted so much to be liked … As funny as that sketch was, and as many accolades as he got for it, it’s one of the things that killed him. It really is. Something happened right then.”
“I’d say it’s one of the funniest sketches in the history of the show.”
Robert Smigel (comedian, writer)
“I played one of the judges, and my experience was the same as anyone who’s seen it on television. I did everything I could to keep a straight face.”
“I knew in rehearsal that a star was born.”
Co-author along with Chris Farley’s brother Tom, Tanner Colby is an old hand at collaborating with family members on oral histories of OD’d comedians; in 2005, he co-wrote Belushi with the widowed Judith Belushi Pisano. As a humor writer for “National Lampoon Radio Hour,” Colby writes like an insider, but he’s not aiming to be SNL’s official biographer. Asked by the blog Dead Frog if he thought comedy needs wake-up calls from “street element” performers like Belushi and Michael O’Donoghue, Colby answered, “Yes. When SNL is nothing but a parody of Us magazine every week, it’d be nice to see satire with a little grit and teeth to it.”
The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts
By Tom Farley Jr. and Tanner Colby.