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“So I Says …”: Chris Farley Could Make Anything Funny

How a long-lost ‘Saturday Night Live’ sketch sums up the late comedian’s greatness

Alycea Tinoyan

Holy schnikes, Tommy Boy is 25 years old on Tuesday. In honor of its star Chris Farley, The Ringer is looking back at the comedian’s work, from his undeniable grace to a walk through his essential movies and sketches. Below is a breakdown of the long-lost sketch that explains how Farley’s greatness went beyond physical comedy.

In the early 1990s, Norm Macdonald decided to try an experiment. Back then, one of Chris Farley’s go-to bits backstage at Saturday Night Live was to excitedly begin to tell a story about running into a buddy, but instead of revealing what exactly happened between the two of them, he’d start the anecdote over. Repeatedly.

It went something like this: “I seen my friend Bill the other day, and I says to him, I look him right in the eye and I says to him,” Macdonald recalled to Tanner Colby and Tom Farley Jr. in their 2008 biography The Chris Farley Show. And then it just kept going: “I says, I says to Bill, I says to him, get this, what I says to him, I says …” Macdonald remembered Farley being able to carry on like this for almost half an hour.

On paper, the joke seemed designed to annoy the hell out of whoever was being subjected to it. It hardly seems like a joke at all—all setup, no punch line. But as Farley kept going and going and going, a wave of laughter would always slowly and inexplicably build. “He’d do it 200 different ways,” Macdonald told Colby. “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 punch line, that’s genius. It’s not even really comedy anymore. It’s almost like music, like jazz variations.”

Fascinated, Macdonald asked Farley to perform a version of his freeform opus on Weekend Update. During the May 14, 1994, SNL episode, hosted by Heather Locklear, Farley joined Update host Kevin Nealon—Macdonald succeeded him that fall—on the anchor desk. Midway through the segment, Nealon introduced him thusly: “And here now with an editorial is Weekend Update correspondent Jerry Sozio.”

At that point, the camera panned to Farley, who had a cigarette flopping out of the side of his mouth. “How are ya, Kev? Good to see ya!” Sozio said, shaking Nealon’s hand. He then looked straight ahead, clamped the butt between his meaty right middle and index fingers while audibly sucking in a final puff of smoke, thanked Nealon, and launched into his story. “So, I’m in the supermarket the other day and I’m waiting in the checkout line, uh, and all of the sudden, this guy cuts right in front of me, right…” Then winding up, Farley, who’d rolled the sleeves of his black blazer up to his elbows, started to laugh maniacally and quickly blurted out, “So I says to the guy, right …”

Within moments, Farley was rolling. In between taking drags off his cig, rapidly sticking his tongue in and out, and laughing dementedly, he looped through dozens of different versions of “I says to the guy…” As the routine progressed, he dropped in things like “Get this! Get this!” and “He’s standing there, right?” As time went on, the Studio 8H audience began to crack up. Farley had them rapt, on the hook with an interminably pointless story that he knew full well he had no intention of ever finishing.

Chris Farley could make anything funny. When he died of a drug overdose at the age of 33 on December 18, 1997, the world lost more than a brilliant physical comedic force. Farley, a veteran of famed improv troupe The Second City, had the uncanny ability to nimbly elevate whatever material he was given. That made him uniquely likable.

“What’s true about Chris in all of his comedy is that you’re just with him,” says Colby, who also cowrote a biography of the late SNL star John Belushi. “You just like him and you’re rooting for him in whatever he does.”

In the famous Chippendales audition sketch, a shirtless, dancing Farley confidently conformed to what he thought people expected from him. The high-strung motivational speaker Matt Foley melded Bob Odenkirk’s sharp writing and Farley’s comedic skills. And the mock interview program “The Chris Farley Show”—and later Tommy Boy—revealed Farley’s endearing vulnerability.

But nothing he ever did was as pure as Jerry Sozio. It proved the obvious: He didn’t even need jokes. Give him a short phrase and he’d blow it up into a giant bubble of laughs, keeping it inflated for longer than anyone else could. The “I says to the guy...” sketch is so good that it doesn’t even require a spectacular, climactic pop.

“You never get to the punch line,” Colby says. “He’s just being funny the whole time. And how he did it, I don’t know. There’s just a mystery to it. That’s just who he was.”

In about a minute and a half, only a fraction of the time Macdonald had wanted Sozio to ramble, Farley delivered more than 30 variations of “I says to the guy…” After finally running out of steam, he wrapped up with an epiphany, saying, “I’ve completely forgotten what the hell I came here for in the first place, Kevin. I got nothing. Zip, nada, outta here. Zip! Wazoo! Nothing!”

The slightly unnerved crowd, which was gradually warming to the segment as it went along, probably felt similarly befuddled. People were captivated by whatever they were watching, even if they had no idea what Farley was actually trying to do.

In the end, the sketch never made it past dress rehearsal. In Colby’s book, Macdonald says that SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels cut the bit because it went well past the 30 seconds that he had allotted for it. “It’s something that could definitely work on stage, if you’re in a long Second City show,” Colby says. “If you go nine minutes with that, then it just becomes this Dadaist performance-art thing that’s hysterical. I can understand why Lorne Michaels cut it for time.”

And so we’re left with a truncated version of Farley’s greatness. Thank God, Jerry Sozio will always be preserved on video, even if revisiting him is a reminder that his story didn’t end like it was supposed to.