Remembering comedy legend Chris Farley.
Let me tell you a story about a boy. A boy who remained a boy. He wanted his father’s love and admiration, as we all do. He was a scared boy, terrified of screwing up, afraid of blending into the background. Thing is, he also wanted to fit in. It’s hard when you’re overweight, bullied by kids in school and called “Fatso.” So this boy used his sense of humor as more of a sword than a shield. He struck first.
And he laughed at himself before others could laugh at him.
This is a story about an actor and physical comedian who quickly understood how his weight issues could work in his favor. He brought his unique brand of slapstick humor to Saturday Night Live and classic films such as Tommy Boy and Black Sheep. People fell in love with him. Fellow actors crowed about his warm personality, his kindness — well, before midnight.
Chris Farley was a gentleman and a sweetheart but reportedly one heckuva jerk when he got smashed-drunk or horizon-high. He binged hard on drugs and booze, an all-too-common trend among celebrities suddenly skyrocketed to the spotlight. Farley’s penchant for wild nights came to a screeching halt after a four-day bender in Chicago in 1997, when he was found dead in his rented 60th-floor high-rise apartment on Chicago’s Miracle Mile. Cause of death: overdose of cocaine and morphine. He was 33.
The boy had come back to Chicago, where it all began for him, where it all ended for him.
In the documentary I Am Chris Farley, actor Bob Odenkirk, who worked with Farley in his early days at Second City Chicago, summed up the way many in Hollywood saw the rising star: “It’s just rare that a person has that much joy and brings that much happiness to everyone around them. But with Chris, there’s a limit to how wonderful it is to me. And that limit is when you kill yourself with drugs and alcohol. You know, that’s where it stops being so fucking magical.”
But let’s go back to that magic. Farley’s instinct for comedic beats, pratfall hilarity and starting strong and finishing stronger made him a genius akin to early Jim Carrey on In Living Color.
Look at the sketch that elevated Farley to worldwide attention: On SNL in 1997, with Patrick Swayze hosting, the Dirty Dancing hunk and Farley auditioned for Chippendales in a dance-off. Swayze was his usual sexy self, cut abs and nary a roll in sight, while Farley went all out by stripping topless, his belly undulating with each hip thrust. He did the worm. He almost made fellow actors Kevin Nealon and Mike Myers break character and bust a gut laughing. Farley stole the show, as he often did whenever he was on-screen.
Matt Foley is Farley’s best-known character. You know him as the guy who lives “in a van down by the river!” It was his first of many collabs with SNL’s David Spade, but it was also his first of dozens of stunts where he flopped and jumped around, carrying his weight like a man empowered by his charming chunkiness, instead of hampered by it. Here, we saw how physical humor was going to be the badge of honor on an actor who didn’t write much comedy, who couldn’t make a name for himself with clever wordplay or singing.
But Foley’s careening personality was the human embodiment of Farley’s chief lament: “fatty fall down” was his sole crowd-pleaser. He knew how to ham it up for the audience, and that usually meant diving into windows, endless slips and jerky movements.
As if we needed another example, revisit the Tommy Boy clip best known as “fat guy in a little coat.” The writing isn’t incredibly clever, but what we get is Farley ripping a small jacket for a laugh. Simple as a dimple, sure, but not many actors then or now could pull off the facial expressions and body language that made Farley such a comedic legend.
Farley was eventually frustrated with his one-noted performances where his physicality was front and center in sketches and films. He wondered to fellow actors if he could pull off dramatic roles. Then again, comedy is how he built his career, and it’s how he owned every iota of stage time offered to him. Farley always went big.
But also go back to the SNL running sketch “The Chris Farley Show.” Farley played, well, himself: a regular blue-collar guy interviewed celebrities like Paul McCartney, asking inane questions like “Remember Beatlemania? Yeah, that was awesome.” It’s a telling sketch, because fiction didn’t sway far from reality. Farley was always starstruck by celebrity hosts on SNL, feeling like an outsider once again, maybe even an impostor alongside legendary actors like Nicolas Cage and Tom Hanks. Did the anxiety he drew upon for this sketch signal the depression that began to infect him?
It’s hard to speculate on what motivated this small-town Wisconsin boy to turn to heroin, pot, coke and prostitutes. Some believe he couldn’t say no to a party. Some say his hard-drinking father influenced his view of booze. Some say he felt lost when SNL fired him in 1995 and suddenly his comedy family was gone, leaving him with a good friend/movie partner in Spade but without his on-set father in Lorne Michaels.
If you want to see a before-and-after snapshot of Chris Farley, find early footage of the comedic tour de force he brought to Second City in the late ’80s. Then watch the cringeworthy clip of Farley hosting SNL two months before his death, looking disoriented, clumsy and just plain high out of his gourd. He supposedly showed up to the hosting gig with prostitutes hugging each arm. He fumbled his opening monologue and the audience got skittish. Is this the same Chris Farley from the Matt Foley days? Farley sensed the awkward unease and quickly reverted to his Matt Foley character, pumping his arms back and forth and shouting so loud his face turned red.
It’s vintage Farley but looks forced, like he wanted to recapture the glory days of being on a stage that nurtured him before it all went wrong.
On December 11, 1997, a week before he died, his good friend Jillian Seely had a heart-to-heart with him and later told reporters about Farley’s dismissal of going back to rehab centers he once frequented: “I know he wanted to get sober. But it was like he had cancer and the chemo treatment didn’t work anymore.” It’s heartbreaking to learn about someone’s resignation in the face of addiction.
On the night of his death, swaddling himself with booze, pot and coke, his last words to the prostitute who was almost out the door were “Don’t leave me.” Here was the boy again, desperate to fight the loneliness crippling his ego, even if it was with a stranger. He wanted to be loved, no matter the cost.