| Arts & Culture
Television Chris Farley Taught Me to Laugh and to Grieve
Only now, with my adult eyes, am I able to perceive the pathos in his performances and the potential he never had the chance to fulfill.
When Chris Farley died in 1997, I was twelve and somehow already blasé. “It’s shocking, but not surprising,” I knew to say, with an air of studied detachment. I was familiar with this narrative: a brilliant but troubled comic actor, unable to navigate success and straining his body with drug and alcohol abuse, gone too soon. John Candy had met the same fate three years earlier, but the seminal example was John Belushi, whose performance as Bluto in Animal House was canon in my comedy-loving family. The connection between Farley and Belushi is acute and tragic: Belushi was part of the original cast of Saturday Night Live , the show that launched Farley’s career, and both died at age thirty-three by overdosing on speedball. Farley had idolized Belushi, even while recognizing the signposts as he traversed the same path. When Chris Farley died, my parents shook their heads and said, “Just like Belushi,” and I repeated this pronouncement in the sixth-grade cafeteria, as if I or any of my friends knew what the hell I was talking about.
The truth, though, was that I had loved Farley with an ardent and adolescent passion. For years, my brother and I had been staying up late enough to watch SNL , and it’s hard to know where to delineate our enjoyment between the humor itself and the thrill of knowing we were watching something that wasn’t for kids. While our parents remembered the Belushi era, the early- to mid-’90s cast was our cast, and Farley was its twinkling star. His comedy was broad—pratfalls and manic energy—not far off from The Three Stooges shorts my dad showed me when I was a little kid. On my rush out of childhood, I loved Chris Farley instinctively. When he died, I hadn’t yet learned how to grieve.
Comedy only occasionally ages well. While some comic texts endure for centuries, the mode is typically so specific to its era—either because of what it critiques or how it delivers—as to become irrelevant, offensive, or incomprehensible with the passage of time. Standards of speech and behavior change, with contradictory effects: What once was mainstream becomes unacceptable, and what had been provocative is now tame (these days you can say practically all of George Carlin’s seven words on television). What’s more, hit comedy can be highly topical, a feature at odds with longevity.
And then there’s the way an individual’s innate sense of humor grows and changes over a lifetime. A baby will throw their head back and cackle over the goofy face you’re making—it’s literally the funniest thing they’ve ever seen. Childhood laughter is provoked by words and rhymes and books and movies. And at some point, you’re exposed to Sophisticated Humor, some of which you will like, regardless of whether you understand it.
In my family, comedy was communal. My parents shared their favorites— Animal House , Monty Python, Mel Brooks—and were disinclined to censor anything they found funny. Every Thursday night we tuned in to Seinfeld as a family, and then we all quoted the lines like scripture; I loved it even though I had only the vaguest notion of what was going on. What I loved was the feeling of being initiated into this realm and bonding through group laughter.
To revisit the media I cherished as a child is to confront the norms of the ’90s, to acknowledge what I’ve outgrown, and to recognize what I enjoyed without comprehension. What used to make me laugh now mostly strikes me as unfunny at best, unconscionable at worst (if you haven’t seen Ace Ventura since you were a kid, don’t). Returning to Farley’s work, though, is a unique sort of excavation. His comedy was so physical, so elemental and energetic, that it makes me laugh the same way it did when I was a child. Physical comedy may, in fact, be unusually ageless. Who’s to say, when Aristotle defined comedy as “a representation of inferior people,” he hadn’t just seen some oaf crash through a table? My response to Farley’s work may also be unwavering because all we have is his juvenilia, his pure and giddy “early” work. Only now, with my adult eyes, am I able to perceive the pathos in his performances and the potential he never had the chance to fulfill.
My primordial memory of Farley is his irresistible SNL character Matt Foley , the motivational speaker who makes a public example of his own failures, combining the worst aspects of corporate-American life coachery and law enforcement Scared Straight programs. His catchphrase, which promises that after a lifetime of bad choices you’ll find yourself “living in a van down by the river” is effective on its own—a pathetic image, a repeated voiced labiodental fricative “li v ing . . . v an . . . ri v er”—and to borrow an idea from linguistic theorist Roman Jakobson, “The secondary, poetic function of this [catchphrase] reinforces its impressiveness and efficacy.” But it was Farley’s delivery that made this character explode through the screen, until you felt like you were being berated, ridiculously, in your own living room.
His comedy was so physical, so elemental and energetic, that it makes me laugh the same way it did when I was a child.
Matt Foley was rare in the SNL pantheon of characters. Farley honed his skills on the storied Chicago improv stages, most importantly Second City. That’s where he developed the Foley character, and it killed. (In improv, Farley liked to name his characters after friends he spotted in the audience. The historical Matt Foley was a childhood friend who grew up to be a priest; Farley was a devout and sincere Catholic his whole life.) When Farley joined the cast of SNL in 1990, the fully formed Foley character was slotted right into the repertoire, rather than being subjected to the customary workshopping most new cast members faced. Self-created characters were unusual for Farley’s oeuvre too. Whereas many performers on SNL also write for the show, Farley didn’t. In the documentary I Am Chris Farley , friends and colleagues recall that Farley was intimidated by SNL writers and felt inferior to his cast members who had a seat in the writers’ room. Matt Foley, uniquely, was his, and perfect.
Rewatching Farley’s SNL sketches, I’m struck most of all by the effect he had on his fellow performers. In the SNL oral history Live from New York , Adam Sandler says, “Farley was a whole other level. It was not even a question of who we all loved and thought was the funniest. When he walked into the room, that was it.” Cast members and celebrity hosts alike were unable to stifle their laughter as Matt Foley screamed at them and ultimately, emphatically, smashed through a piece of furniture. Audiences responded to Farley of course, but you get the sense, through the way he held eye contact with other performers and through his habit of putting his face against theirs, that he was playing mainly to the other people onstage.
Farley’s breakout on SNL was a sketch that pit him against Patrick Swayze for a spot dancing in Chippendales , the hunky all-male strip show. (An audience favorite at the time, the sketch is now widely understood as a shitty piece of fat shaming. Bob Odenkirk, then a writer for SNL , reflects poignantly on the sketch’s deleterious effect on Farley in his 2022 memoir Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama ). Mike Myers played one of the Chippendales execs, and if you look closely, you can see him shielding his eyes, knowing that if he looked Farley in the face, he would dissolve into laughter. Myers later went on to borrow some of Farley’s dance moves from this very sketch for the musical sequence that opens Austin Power s .
Farley had the greatest chemistry with Sandler. You can see it in the way they smile at each other, like in the spoof beer commercial Schmitts Gay , which narrowly skirts being homophobic to land at cheeky and adorable. But I love to catch it in Sandler’s eyes, in moments when he’s as charmed by Farley as anyone in the audience or watching on TV. Take, for example, “ Lunch Lady Land ,” a song about the school cafeteria Sandler wrote and performed, for which Farley provided dance accompaniment. Wearing a standard-issue blue uniform dress, white apron, yellow rubber gloves, and a red wig under a hairnet, Farley leaps, twirls, and extends his limbs with all the articulation of a Rockette, showing that you don’t have to be small to be dainty. Only Sandler is mic’ed, but you see Farley lip-synching. When the song comes to the bridge, “Hoagies and grinders, hoagies and grinders / navy beans, navy beans, navy beans, navy beans,” Farley brings his sweet face right up to Sandler’s cheek, looking like a daisy stretching to the sun, and Sandler is about two seconds away from peeing his pants laughing.
Farley’s comedy was corporeal. His body, large and by turns strong and unwieldy, featured meaningfully in every character he played. His size was intentionally exaggerated by ill-fitting costuming or jackets that ripped when he bent over. He picked up more diminutive actors like they were small children. But Farley only gave the appearance of chaos. On the contrary, like the finest physical comedians—Charlie Chaplin, Lucille Ball, Fran Drescher—Farley had complete control over every muscle in his face and body. He could do cartwheels and backflips like a gymnast, and although it’s played for a laugh in the Chippendales sketch, his dancing was every bit as good as Swayze’s. He was nuanced, subtle, graceful. His blond hair, twinkling eyes, and easy smile gave him a boyish quality he never outgrew; people who worked with him frequently described him as “childlike.” His body was big, but the laugh often came from the smallest of gestures: a furrowed brow, a bashful grin, a nervous hand worrying a pant leg.
The way Farley was used on SNL belies these rare qualities. Farley knew how to utilize his fatness in the service of a joke. An iconic moment, from his film Tommy Boy : he puts on costar David Spade’s blazer and sways from side to side, singing “Fat guy in a little co-oat.” It was a bit he did off camera to make Spade laugh, and he generously shared this vulnerable moment with his audience. While self-deprecation is a cornerstone of comedy, Farley was made to humiliate himself through what he termed “fatty falls down” bits in a way his skinny castmates weren’t. Odenkirk wrote that in the Chippendales sketch, “Shame and laughter are synthesized in the worst way.” The Chippendales audition was a cheap joke at Farley’s expense, but when it got a big reaction, SNL writers opted to recycle that formula rather than explore what, if anything, actually made the sketch successful: Farley’s earnestness and precision.
On SNL , jokes about Farley’s size regularly intersected with him playing women, as in the recurring Gap Girls sketch and “ Zagat’s with Hank and Beverly Gelfand .” In these and similar sketches, drag was used practically as a joke unto itself, like it was funny enough that Sandler was wearing a skirt. Farley was able to elevate these characters, infusing them with eagerness and emotional intensity, but his efforts were undermined in the service of a base gag: his female characters were always food obsessed, so the joke, again, was just his fatness. These sketches broadcast an anti-fat message to their audience—especially to women—as well as to Farley himself. His peers at Second City and on SNL recognized him as a comic genius, yet the professional space in which he found himself, in which he found success, reinforced patterns of inferiority (hello again Aristotle), even worthlessness. His humor became inextricable from the supposed flaws of his body.
What breaks my heart is the feeling that Farley never learned how to protect himself. In Live from New York , SNL creator Lorne Michaels recalls that Farley didn’t know how to safely break pratfalls, a learnable skill essential to making physical comedy sustainable. Michaels says, “Chris had welts all over his chest. He just assumed that that was the price you paid for doing it.” He was taking physical and emotional hits for the sake of his comedy, a habit that, with more time in the industry and on this earth, he may have eventually been able to break. During his tenure on SNL , Farley also developed the drug habit that ultimately proved fatal. The oral history and biography The Chris Farley Show , by his brother Tom Farley Jr. with Tanner Colby, details how Farley began drinking excessively while still in high school. As he became a successful and well-known comic, he gained easy access to hard drugs. It was a version of the partying he loved as a teenage athlete, now wilder, more glamorous, more extreme. With the support of his family, friends, and colleagues, Farley sought sobriety, but he found himself in a cycle of rehab and relapse. In a letter to his parents written from rehab a week before Christmas 1995, Farley wrote, “I can’t tell you how awful I felt the guilt, the shame, the hard work to get those three yrs gone with a sip of that booze” [sic]. It’s a heartbreaking document, yet I can’t help but hear the last phrase, “a sip of that booze,” in Farley’s jocular voice.
Farley was let go from SNL in 1995 as part of a network-directed housecleaning, and his transition to film, already in progress, coincided with my growing into a movie lover. There is a phase in a kangaroo’s life cycle when it’s no longer a joey but hasn’t yet left its mother’s pouch for good: just gangly limbs sticking awkwardly out and an inability to decide what to do next. This was me at ten years old, equally obsessed with cartoons and Clueless , equally unfit in any marketing micro-demographic. Farley’s filmography, though, fit my needs perfectly. He had begun his film career with bit parts in SNL -adjacent movies, playing the love interest in Coneheads and a security guard in Wayne’s World . My brother and I, inching into adolescence, were learning the thrill of identifying cameos—the unhinged bus driver in Billy Madison , the rookie cop in Airheads : “That’s Chris Farley!”
Farley starred in only four films. He made two buddy pictures with David Spade, 1995’s Tommy Boy and, the following year, the very similar but not as good Black Sheep . The humor was pitch-perfect for adolescent boys and the slightly younger girls who looked to them to learn how to be cool. (This feeling never totally left me. Even in my thirties, I slept with someone because, although he was a film-school grad, his all-time favorite movie was Tommy Boy .) Then, in 1997, there was Beverly Hills Ninja , the movie that dares to ask, what if someone built like Chris Farley tried to be a ninja?
His final completed project was Almost Heroes , a (perhaps rightfully) forgotten Christopher Guest film that pairs Farley with Matthew Perry as two late-nineteenth-century explorers who believe themselves to be in competition with Lewis and Clark. As a preteen, completely ignorant of both Guest’s work and the hideousness of “westward expansion,” I loved this film. My brother and I must have watched it half a dozen times to see Farley climb a sixty-foot pine tree and steal an egg from a bald eagle who he first . . . punches in the face. In the days before YouTube, that meant borrowing the VHS from our public library and rewinding the scene over and over again. Almost Heroes was released in 1998, after Farley’s death. It was my first hint of what we had lost, an actor capable of so much more than a great catchphrase.
At the end of his life, Farley was working on a film that would have ushered in the next act of his career. An animated feature based on a children’s book, it was about a big ugly monster who scares away everyone and everything that crosses his path. It was Shrek , and in Farley’s hands, it would have felt autobiographical.
Farley died during production, having completed the majority of the voice work. But rather than salvage what they had, the filmmakers replaced him and rerecorded the entire picture. The role ultimately went to Farley’s SNL castmate, Mike Myers, and when I’m feeling generous, I see that casting decision as a loving tribute. But Myers’s Shrek, and the 2001 film that resulted, was a different beast entirely. Gone is the autobiography, the pathos, and the difference that this film could have made in its star’s trajectory. Myers, already a headlining star at the time, has since churned out three sequels to Shrek but has failed to develop as an actor. I imagine, if Farley had tapped into his inner ogre, audiences and the film industry at large would have seen the expansive skill he possessed, and maybe he would’ve finally believed it too.
We don’t know what else Chris Farley might have done. We never will.
If Farley were alive today, he would be almost sixty. He would, like Adam Sandler, be in his Oscar era. That doesn’t necessarily mean he would have transitioned into dramatic roles, but he may have learned how to create comedy that validated rather than humiliated him. Already in his lifetime, Farley was in talks for projects that would have been worthy vehicles for his talents. Like Belushi and Candy before him, he was considered for the role of Ignatius J. Reilly in a still-yet-to-be-made film adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces (Zach Galifianakis is the latest star attached to the project). He met with playwright David Mamet to discuss a film project about Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, the silent-film comedian who was thrice tried and acquitted for the rape and manslaughter of Virginia Rappe. If made, the film would likely have been problematic at best. But it could have been a career-defining role for Farley: physical comedy, celebrity, excess, vulnerability, and ruination.
We don’t know what else Chris Farley might have done. We never will. But there is one sketch from 1997 in which you can glimpse an alternate future, one of revelry and self-respect, that is how I choose to remember him. I was nine years old when the Nickelodeon sketch comedy show All That debuted in 1994. Airing on Saturday nights, it was intended as SNL for teenyboppers. I was already watching SNL by that age—it was, after all, how I first fell in love with Farley—but I actually got all the jokes on All That . The original cast included two fat kids: Lori Beth Denberg and Kenan Thompson. They were hilarious, and their size was never the punch line.
One of Thompson’s recurring characters was Chef Randy, who hosted a chaotic cooking show that inevitably ended with him covering whatever he made in chocolate. In one Cooking with Randy sketch, there’s a special guest all the way from Chicago, Chef Farley, who covers everything he makes with ketchup. So here we have two comedians who were both fat playing with food, but the joke isn’t that they’re pigs—it’s that they’re sooo silly. They maniacally squirt each other, and the entire set, with chocolate syrup and ketchup, eliciting hysterical laughter from the studio audience and at home in front of the television from twelve-year-old me. It was January 1997. Farley wouldn’t live to see the end of that year, but Thompson eventually went on to become the longest standing cast member on SNL .
When Shrek came out, I was fifteen. Too old for cartoons. But I still saw it in theaters, a choice I justified by Mike Myers’s standing as one of the most important comedians for my generation—by which I mean, of course, that we were constantly quoting Wayne’s World and Austin Powers . But I didn’t care for Shrek ’s winking humor, double entendres designed to amuse parents while passing unnoticed by children. Why couldn’t it be just a solid kids’ movie? And why exactly was he Scottish? On a gut level, I wanted a purer Shrek . Already I was starting to yearn for the innocence I had been in such a rush to outgrow. It would be years before I learned how to really think about Chris Farley, but I was beginning to understand how to mourn him, how to experience the loss of a great comic—vulnerably and in awe.