Many, many years ago, corpulent cut-up Chris Farley hosted a fundraiser for a blow-dried, super-slick local anchorman-turned-Republican-politician Scott Klug’s congressional campaign at State Street Brats, a fraternity-friendly beer and burger joint. I remember thinking very vividly at the time, “You know, if a giant meteor were to hit Madison I have a pretty good idea where I would like it to land.”
State Street Brats was notorious for their “Big Ass Burger," a two-pound monstrosity that came with a mess o’ French fries and a 32 ounce beverage. If you gobbled it all down in a half-hour without dying instantly of a heart attack you got a free t-shirt. Or some such horseshit. My girlfriend at the time was all, “Hey, you’re a voracious sack of shit with no dignity or self-respect. Why don’t you take the Big-Ass Burger challenge, you worthless waste of space? Oh, what exquisite pleasure I will derive from your pain!”
Being a weak-willed soul I acquiesced meekly. The Big-Ass Burger conquered me. I did not conquer the Big Ass Burger. Only the Chris Farleys of the world had the stomach, literally and metaphorically, for such a Herculean undertaking.
I feel terrible writing this now but I hated Chris Farley. I hated, hated, hated him. To my 19-year-old, co-op-dwelling, painfully self-righteous self the fundraiser represented a perfect storm of everything I despised: oily Republicanism, slick newsreaders, frat boys, and the fat blowhard who ruined Saturday Night Live with his frenetic mugging.
Yet I found myself very much liking the subject of Tom Farley and Tanner Colby’s engaging oral history The Chris Farley Show, today’s entry in the Silly Show-Biz Book Club, in part because he was such a Madison/Chicago kind of guy. It would probably be an exaggeration to say that Wisconsin has a culture of alcoholism and excess. But Wisconsin has a culture of alcoholism and excess.
In the introduction, Tom Farley writes that a favorite pastime among his family and friends is swapping Chris Farley stories. Farley and co-author Colby conceived of The Chris Farley Show as an attempt to preserve for posterity those wonderful little vignettes while constructing the ultimate Chris Farley story, an overarching narrative that would put all the puzzle pieces together to form a grand mosaic.
The book's subject was raised in a cozy suburban milieu where dad drank all the time and ate like food was going to be banned the following day and was beloved by one and all. Farley’s dad was a professional schmoozer (he owned a paving company), a man whose workday consisted of taking clients out for drinks and eating meal after meal.
Farley grew up fat and insecure but blessed with an almost preternatural ability to make people laugh. It was an ability he cultivated above all others. It was a gift and a curse, for Farley could never be sure if people were laughing at him or with him, if they were laughing in appreciation of a superb physical comedian or guffawing derisively at fatty acting a fool.
In a brutal, patently unfair, queasily voyeuristic New York magazine evisceration of one of SNL's bleakest eras the writer captures this conundrum when he quotes veteran writer James Downey telling a fart-happy Farley, “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.”
Downey’s depressingly prescient words anticipate the sad period just before Farley’s death where he’s reduced to hanging out with stockbroker types—the kind who call friends and gush, “Dude, I am so doing rails with Chris Farley! High five!”—because the people who genuinely cared about him had no interest in watching Farley kill himself with coke, heroin, and alcohol.
In Jay Mohr’s Gasping For Airtime the author depicts Farley as a comic saint on a monomaniacal crusade to get his castmates to laugh during their scenes. For Mohr it’s all part of Farley’s genius for spreading laughter and joy everywhere he went but I thought, “Wow, that doesn’t sound adorable. That sounds fucking obnoxious. If I was an insecure newbie Not Ready For Primetime Player the last thing I would want is a big star making me giggle on camera.”
Farley always struck me as an extremely sloppy performer who infected everyone around him with the giggles. Of course John Belushi was a sloppy performer as well, a force of nature who specialized in abstraction and free-form craziness. But there was a sense of anarchy and subversion to Belushi’s persona that added an element of danger to early Saturday Night Live; there was a sense, no matter how ridiculous or delusional, that Belushi was sticking it to the man.
That danger was at best theoretical; the iconic Animal House poster with Belushi wearing a sweatshirt reading “College” is just as pointless and narcissistic a display of faux-rebellion as any Che Guevara tee-shirt. But Belushi at least encouraged the reassuring fiction that he was raging against the machine. Farley, in sharp contrast, was more like the Man’s sycophantic jester. There was nothing anti-authoritarian about Farley. He swore proud allegiance to the Catholic church, various 12-step programs and the Republican Party. If Belushi was the symbolic figurehead of punks, rebels, slobs, stoners, slackers and no-goodniks then Farley belonged to frat boys, jocks, Young Republicans and the assholes shoving you in a locker this exact moment.
Reading The Chris Farley Show I gained a whole new appreciation for Farley as a man and a performer. Farley’s friends and colleagues create a multi-dimensional portrait of a fundamentally good man of childlike faith and infinite compassion who treated homeless people and halfway house denizens as peers and was incredibly generous and compassionate with co-workers, family and friends.
The Chris Farley that emerges here uses the ritual and repetition of Catholicism and Alcoholics Anonymous to ward off personal demons he could hold at bay but never extinguish completely. The oral history begins with a heartbreaking speech Farley gave at one of the many rehab institutes he frequented. Farley presents himself as just another addict all too cognizant that he could fall off the wagon at any moment and instantly lose everything he’s worked for.
There’s a fragility to Farley’s sobriety that makes it all the more remarkable that he was able to make it three years without relapsing before the series of binges that led to his death at 33.
It’s hard to view The Chris Farley Show outside the context of Bob Woodward’s Wired just as it’s hard to look at Farley outside of Belushi’s outsized shadow. Wired made the mistake of viewing everything through the prism of its subject’s drug addiction. Wired seemingly documented every time Belushi shot up or did rails. Yet somewhere amidst the obsessive cataloguing of binges and drugs consumed Woodward lost the essence of the man.
The Chris Farley Show errs in the opposite direction. It tells the story of Farley’s addiction largely through his constant attempts to get clean. Drugs figure prominently as the devil forever tempting the book’s weak-willed subject, not as his reason for being.
Farley’s life and career mirrored Belushi’s in uncanny ways. They were each both portly pranksters who followed a straight path from class clowning to Second City to Saturday Night Live to cinematic fame and household name status while juggling addictions. Belushi and Farley conquered the world yet at the time of their deaths they were each lost men grasping nakedly at projects that could be their redemption or another pit stop en route to the gutter.
For Belushi that project could have been Ghostbusters or a Louis Malle-directed satirical comedy opposite Dan Aykroyd. For Farley, the projects that could have pulled him out of a steep professional downward spiral were a plucky animated comedy called Shrek and a David Mamet-penned biopic of Fatty Arbuckle.
In a neat bit of irony, Farley hoped to escape the straightjacket of “fatty fall down, make funny” by literally playing a man nicknamed “Fatty”. Earlier in the book Farley is confronted with the kind of Faustian choice that really only seems like a choice in hindsight.
Early in his run on Saturday Night Live Farley played an aspiring Chippendale’s dancer opposite Patrick Swayze in a starmaking sketch. For Chris Rock and Bob Odenkirk the sketch was fat person minstrelry, an insult to Farley’s dignity disguised as a showcase for his skills. Odenkirk and Rock felt Farley should have turned the sketch down. But when you’re young and desperate to make an impression projecting a fat-positive image is probably not high atop your list of priorities.
I always resented Farley for epitomizing the shift in attitude from the halcyon Carvey/Myers/Hartman/Lovitz era to the adolescent monkeyshines of the Farley/Spade/Sandler epoch. Both The Chris Farley Show and the New York piece linked to above provide a fascinating window into the poisonous ecosystem that was Saturday Night Live in the mid-'90s, a lost era that pitted old-timers battling for turf (Al Franken, Downey) against boorish young bucks and kids just trying to hang on to one of the toughest workplaces in show-business.
In a particularly revealing passage in the New York article Janeane Garafalo recalls being bitched out by Franken for having the audacity to memorize a sketch instead of simply reading from cue cards like all of her peers. Farley flourished in this comedy dead zone but the big screen wasn’t anywhere near as kind.
Towards the end, Farley was planning his trips to rehab around his binges; he’d dry out for a week or two, adjust his tolerance accordingly, then indulge in the proverbial nightmare descent into booze and pills until it was time to dry out again. Farley clung zealously to his faith but in the end he proved beyond redemption.
The Chris Farley Show didn’t inspire me to put Beverly Hills Ninja at the top of my Netflix queue. But I now feel doubly awful about my knee-jerk earlier hatred of Farley. Show puts its subject into sharp focus, letting readers see the complicated, simple, fucked-up, righteous, beautiful man behind the shenanigans. In doing so it’s performed a valuable service.