Note: this review was first published over at DCComedy4Now.com.
One of the more poignant and telling anecdotes from The Chris Farley Show, the new biography of the late Chris Farley, comes from Bob Odenkirk. Odenkirk, a writer for “Saturday Night Live” during Farley’s tenure as a cast member, and who would later partner with David Cross as part of HBO’s Mr. Show, tells of an evening in which Farley was in Odenkirk’s apartment, drunk. Many of Farley’s friends testified that he would often drink himself into a kind of energized hysteria and then proceed to destroy the furniture. Apparently any one of Farley’s friends could be a potential victim: the evening would start as an innocent get together, and end with a sweaty, wild-eyed Farley violently dismantling a futon. Later, these binges would find themselves as the staple of any SNL sketch Farley was in, but this evening it was Odenkirk’s turn to look on helplessly as Farley turned his dinette set into firewood. On this particular evening, Farley paused from his ritual, looked desperately at Odenkirk, and asked with an earnest, child-like innocence, “Odie, do you think Belushi’s in heaven?”
With his work now scorched into our collective consciousness (was there a frat boy in the ‘90s who couldn’t do a version of Matt Foley, Farley’s “motivational speaker”?) it’s not difficult for us to imagine Chris Farley in our living rooms seismically dismantling the second-hand sofa-bed. But the other Chris, the earnest, child-like one, is a bit more difficult to imagine. And yet so many of Farley’s friends testify that it was not only there, but it was actually the key to Chris Farley’s character. And it was this aspect of his personality that people loved, the aspect of him that helped them look past those times – at first infrequent, and then not – when his drug and alcohol addictions made him violent and unbalanced. The poet, critic and lexicographer Samuel Johnson once wrote that “inconsistencies cannot both be right, but, imputed to man, they may both be true.” If The Chris Farley Show is anything, it’s an attempt to catalogue and resolve those inconsistencies, inconsistencies that are in all of us, to be sure, but which were especially pronounced in Chris Farley.
We know about his work. And we’re all too familiar with Farley’s final few months and days: the all-too-frequent relapses, the booze and drug binges that cost him friendships and eventually his life; his final few hours, which made tabloid headlines. But brother Tom Farley and writer Tanner Colby seem to have written (though “culled together from interviews” would be more accurate) this book to rescue from those tabloid headlines the memory of a man whose heart was apparently as big as his appetites, whose generosity was informed by a deeply ingrained Catholic faith that never left him, and who felt that his gift – to make people laugh – was tantamount to being a moral obligation.
There was a side to Chris that few saw, a side that surprised even those who thought they knew him well. For instance, Chris’ Catholicism. Even at the height of his SNL popularity, Farley was usually at Mass every Sunday seeking expiation for his sins from the evening before. Fellow cast member Siobhan Fallon recalls frequently seeing him at Mass (they went to the same church) where Farley would sheepishly look up from prayers to tell her “God’s gonnna be mad at me this time.” This faith informed his volunteer work at a local NYC Catholic charity, something he also did without any fanfare. Indeed, at his funeral as well as at numerous memorial services, people came forward to testify to Chris’ generosity: at old folks homes, where he helped load wheelchair-ridden people up and down ramps and into passenger vans; at children’s hospitals, where he frequently entertained entire wards; the Chicago Bears hat that Chris wore in the “Super Fans” sketch, which should rightly belong in the Smithsonian, instead became the property of a homeless man that Chris befriended during his stay in New York City, whom he would also frequently take out to dinner and to the theater, and who tearfully testified at Chris’ memorial service a year after his death that it was the last thing Chris gave him. Lifelong friends and relatives, fellow cast members were floored when this side of Farley came to light: he told practically no one about it. It was something he just did.
This generosity extended to his fellow actors and writers. Nearly everyone testified at Chris’ generosity onstage as both a performer and someone who wanted to make a writer’s material work. Much has already been written about the competitive culture that Lorne Michaels foments at SNL, where both performers and writers are pitted against each other in a cuthroat effort to see who rises to the challenge week after week; combine this with the already competitive nature of comedians in general, and its easy to understand how SNL continues to produce, alongside some very funny people, some people whose behavior in public is sometimes downright awful: Chevy Chase, Joe Piscopo, Eddie Murphy. By all accounts, Chris was different. “At read-through,” Siobhan Fallon says, “people would purposefully not laugh at something even though it was funny, because they wanted something else to make it on the show. But Chris would laugh no matter what….He didn’t discriminate. He was honest.” Norm McDonald: “I don’t think Chris knew how to hate. ….I’d be complaining and I’d go ‘You know who sucks?’ And I’d go off about so-and-so, some guy on the show. And Chris would immediately go ‘I think he’s funny, Norm. Why don’t you like him?'” Writer David Mandel: “He always went out of his way to make sure people knew what material was yours, that they were your jokes, and he was just the guy who said the lines.” Chris’ talent?
Fred Wolf: Comics are a pretty strange breed. Put all of us in a room and we can fight among ourselves and disagree with all our bitterness and neuroses. But when it came to Farley, it was unanimous: he was the best.
Norm McDonald: What astonished me about Chris was that he could make everyone laugh. He could make a child laugh. He could make an old person laugh. A dumb person, a smart person. A guy who loved him, a guy who hated him.
Very few hated Chris, and many loved him. But in the end, the desire to be — and the ability to be — the funniest person in the room, any room, wasn’t enough. The gifts he felt compelled to use, either out of some sense of religious duty or some deep-seeded need to be loved, eventually proved to be his undoing. And as close as they were to him, the authors don’t spare Farley here. We see the alcohol and drugs eventually taking their toll on his friends, his work, and finally his life. He died on December 18,1997. He was 33.
His death is often compared with John Belushi’s: Two large men, both from the Midwest, both SNL stand-outs, the funniest men of their generation, both victims of drug overdoses. And Farley apparently idolized Belushi and romanticized Belushi’s life — and death. But while Belushi’s death seemed emblematic of the excessive times he lived in — hell, who wasn’t on drugs in the early ’80s? — Farley’s seems much more tragic, frustratingly so: with so much talent, energy, and generosity, Chris Farley was surrounded by people who loved and adored him unreservedly, people who had experienced at first hand what had happened to Belushi, people who deeply understood what was happening to him, and were still powerless to do anything about it. “The Chris Farley Show” is both a hilarious and heartbreaking object lesson in what it takes to be the funniest person in the room — and what it sometimes costs.