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The Chris Farley Syllabus

From Matt Foley to his collaborations with David Spade to the tributes in his honor, here are the essential components of the Chris Farley experience

Mario Zucca

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 his ability to turn any small phrase into a joke. Below is the Chris Farley Syllabus, a guide to the fallen great’s life and many talents with a few tributes sprinkled in.

Tommy Boy and Black Sheep

Tommy Boy certainly wasn’t heralded as a minor classic upon its debut in 1995. Take Roger Ebert’s one-star review, which likened the movie to “an explosion down at the screenplay factory.” (“No one is funny in Tommy Boy,” he wrote. “There are no memorable lines.”) Or take a spin through Caryn James’s New York Times review, which bore the headline “How Stupid Is Tommy? Maximally.” (“As mismatched-buddy teams go,” she writes of Farley and costar David Spade, “Felix and Oscar have nothing to worry about here.”) And while it did better commercially than it did with critics, it wasn’t a runaway success: The movie grossed just over $32 million in the box office, less than half as much as Dumb & Dumber did that year. If Lorne Michaels was hoping for a Saturday Night Live big-screen breakout on the level of Wayne’s World, he didn’t get it with Tommy Boy.

But yet, we’re here, celebrating its 25th anniversary. That’s in large part thanks to the second life the film found on VHS and DVD. (According to director Peter Segal, Paramount told him in 2005 that Tommy Boy was a top-10 all-time home video seller for the studio: “I said, ‘You mean with The Godfather and Raiders of the Lost Ark and movies like that?’ and they were just like, ‘Yeah.’”) And for people of a certain age, it remains one of the formative viewing experiences of their lives—show me an American who was between the ages of 10 and 16 in 1995, and I’ll show you someone who has a Pavlovian response to the word “housekeeping” or has gotten the tune to “Fat Guy in a Little Coat” stuck in their head many times. And despite what James wrote in the Times, Farley-Spade was one of the most enduring odd-couple pairings of the 20th century. Here, you had Spade’s Richard, a snide man who spoke only in sarcasm, butting up against Farley’s Tommy, the simple, innocent scion of a brake pad manufacturer who saw the best in mostly everyone.

Tommy Boy, however, is more than just a collection of gags, one-liners, and buddy-comedy mishaps: It’s a movie with heart. Playing off aspects of Farley’s Midwestern upbringing (like his character, he also played rugby at Marquette and briefly worked at his father’s company), the plot kicks into high gear after his father dies of a heart attack at his own wedding. From there, because of a risky loan dad took out, Tommy and Richard go on a mission to sell enough brake pads to save the factory, and in turn, the town of Sandusky, Ohio. Sure, it’s clichéd. And sure, there are some overwrought moments. But Farley and Spade play it all with an undeniable pathos. There’s a reason Chris thought it was really good.

In 1996, Paramount tried going back to the Farley-Spade well again with Black Sheep. It had a similar setup—Spade’s character was again tasked with caring for Farley’s character, this time the misfit brother of a political candidate. The film came together almost too quickly: The studio fast-tracked it to capitalize on Tommy Boy’s home video success; at the time it was green-lit, writer Fred Wolf had completed just a small portion of the script. And while the movie’s most famous scene is an all-too-perfect metaphor for the drop-off in quality between the two films, Farley and Spade manage to hold the movie together through sheer will and chemistry.

Unfortunately, Black Sheep would be the last time Spade and Farley collaborated on the big screen. A little over a year later, Farley would die after consuming a lethal mixture of cocaine and morphine. But while we’ll never get a 30-year-later catchup, à la Felix and Oscar, we’ll always have Tommy Boy, a classic movie that busted out of the too-small coat the critics meant for it to fit in. —Justin Sayles

John Belushi

“Chris wasn’t blindly imitating John Belushi,” a friend of Chris Farley’s says in The Chris Farley Show. “Reading [Belushi’s biography] validated all the addictions and impulses that Chris already had inside of him.”

In so many good ways and so many bad ways, the story of John Belushi is the story of Chris Farley. Comedic geniuses with brash, loud styles who both just seemed so inevitable. Their rises from sketch anonymity to Saturday Night Live to briefly owning the comedy world were always bound to happen; that kind of talent and the sheer will to make a bit work are impossible to ignore. But the same brashness and recklessness that defined Belushi’s and Farley’s comedy also defined their personal lives, and tragically premature ends. Belushi and Farley were such undeniable, bright lights; giant balls of fire, of emotion, of seemingly pure id. But by the age of 33, both had already lived so hard and struggled so much. Coming into the comedy world, Farley was desperate to be the next John Belushi. He undoubtedly accomplished that goal, but you mostly wish he hadn’t. —Andrew Gruttadaro

Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker

Time to date myself: I remember when we first got Kazaa on the family computer and one of the first things my brothers and I downloaded was the audio of the Matt Foley skit on SNL, the one featuring Christina Applegate. That says a lot about how dire things were in the year 2002, but I think it says more about the iconic nature of the sketch—that it could be almost as funny sans visuals.

The premise—a motivational speaker whose own life is a terrible mess—is immediately funny, but it’s the details of Farley’s performance that make the thing. The way he pulls up his pants by the belt, the way he gets in David Spade’s and Applegate’s faces and begs them to break, the way he runs in place, the way he lets his voice crack the third (and fourth, and fifth) time he says “in a van down by the river!” No one has ever been as efficiently physical as Farley was, his booming voice and imposing figure used as weapons to startle you into submission. But at the same time, behind all the bluster, were fully formed characters drowning in pathos and personal struggle. Matt Foley is a perfect character to laugh at, but also to, weirdly, feel for. And that, somehow, makes it even funnier when he crashes through a coffee table.

For the Farley heads out there, there are many deep-cut SNL skits to cite. But the Matt Foley skit is the essential skit; it is The One. —Gruttadaro

The Chris Farley Show

There’s a scene late in The Chris Farley Show, the 2008 oral history of his life named after the famous SNL sketch of the same name, in which Chevy Chase leans into the young comedian, who by this point was near rock bottom. “I sat with him and I said, ‘Look, you’re not John Belushi. And when you overdose or kill yourself, you will not have the same acclaim that John did. You don’t have the record of accomplishment that he had,’” Chase recounts.

It was a harsh assessment, but it seemed fair in the moment: By 1997, Farley was a bankable star with three no. 1 movies, but he was hardly taken seriously. He was the guy who fell through tables, the Gap girl who bellowed when she wanted fries. Beverly Hills Ninja, his last leading role before his death, was a box office success, but it was hardly The Blues Brothers or Animal House. The Chris Farley Show, however, presents a seldom-seen side of Farley and his dedication to his craft: He took ballet lessons to improve his agility. His improv partners at Second City in Chicago were in awe of him. (“Chris was never captured in either movies or TV as good as he was onstage,” said one.) Tommy Boy costar Brian Dennehy said that Farley could’ve been a leading dramatic actor, had he chosen that path: “There was a sadness and a vulnerability and a fear that existed in his eyes. … You can see a little bit of it in Tommy Boy, but he hadn’t even really begun to explore it.” It’s impossible to finish reading this book and not understand how much Farley truly mattered—and how much more he could’ve done.

Unlike other looks at his life, The Chris Farley Show plumbs the depths of his substance issues. There are recollections of frank discussions and memories of failed interventions. None stick with you quite like Chase’s, but none ultimately proved to be so off-base. —Sayles

“Schiller Visions: Hidden Camera Commercials”

Even when Chris Farley was at his most physical, his presence was rarely imposing. He was the affable, agile giant; the class clown who cartwheeled himself into success. But his acting contained a largely unused gear: the ability to transform himself into something dark and menacing. And there may be no better display of that than an SNL sketch about hidden-camera commercials, of all things.

The premise is simple, if silly: Chris plays a café patron who just found out that his regular brew has been swapped out with Colombian Decaf Coffee Crystals in an attempt to obtain one of those “Oh wow, I couldn’t tell” reactions. Instead of being pleasantly surprised, Farley becomes apoplectic. Watch as the anger washes over his face:

In short order, he flips a table and grabs the waiter. The ominous violins swell, and the scene descends into madness. He’s unfazed as a chef breaks bottles over his head, instead shouting, “I’ll kill you,” while towering over his would-be victim as the entire café tries to contain him. In that brief movement, he’s not a comedian or a graceful-for-his-size actor: He’s a movie monster. It makes you wonder what he could’ve done with The Cable Guy, the Jim Carrey comedy thriller that Farley was originally in talks to star in. —Sayles

The Supporting Roles

This entire article is proof of Farley’s genius, but let us enter another item into evidence: the movies that he completely steals despite appearing in them for only about 10 minutes at most. Take Wayne’s World, in which Farley plays a surprisingly informative security guard. (The authority and hand gestures with which he describes the travel movements of an executive are tremendous.) Or Coneheads, in which he plays Ronnie the Mechanic, an impressively sweaty man with a thing for odd head shapes. Or, of course, Billy Madison, in which Farley plays the bus driver. The face journey he goes on after a student throws his sandwich at him is god-level; the cut from Veronica Vaughn asking, “Who would steal 30 bags of lunches?,” to a be-sideburned Farley chomping on a sandwich, cackling, is just perfect.

Only one man could do so much in so little time. NO YELLING ON THE BUS!!! —Gruttadaro

I Am Chris Farley

I Am Chris Farley is not a documentary in the vein of Amy or Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck—those are ultra-candid films that feel tragic from the opening credits roll. Like those movies, the 2015 look at Farley’s life grapples with its subject’s substance misuse issues. But I Am is not consumed with how Chris died and his stints in rehab. Instead, the movie homes in on his warmness, tracing his story from the charismatic kid who could get an entire school bus to sing “Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog” to a budding improv genius in Chicago to the new kid on SNL and beyond. There’s plenty of now-tragic archival footage, and Farley friends such as David Spade, Bob Odenkirk, Adam Sandler, and Mike Myers give their occasionally raw thoughts, but I Am never veers into the morbid. It’s a touching portrait of a man who meant so much to so many—from the people he cracked jokes with to the millions of fans he made along the way. —Sayles

The Adam Sandler SNL Tribute

What’s a tribute to Chris Farley if it’s not funny? In May 2019, Adam Sandler may have delivered the most perfect tribute to Chris that exists: a four-minute, 45-second song that splits the difference between Bob Dylan and Mark Kolazek and is tender, touching, and downright hilarious. He sings about the first time he met Farley, how he shows Tommy Boy to his kids, their last hurrah together at Tim Meadows’s wedding, and the time Sandler found Chris in the office crying while listening to a KC and the Sunshine Band song. But just when you’re ready to cry, he hits you with the perfect punch line: “I miss watching you hang out and try to get laid / But most of all, I miss watching you torture Spade.” It’s impossible not to laugh. Chris would be proud. —Sayles

Dirty Work

The movie featuring Chris Farley’s last role before his death is so criminally underrated; please sign off right now and go watch it. (It costs $2.99 on YouTube, an absolute bargain.) Farley is not a main character in this Norm Macdonald–led movie about two friends who open a business that specializes in helping people get revenge on others, but like his other supporting roles, he delivers an utterly memorable performance. He plays Jimmy. Jimmy is a normal dude with no notable afflictions. I’m just kidding—Jimmy is missing the tip of his nose, which was bit off by an Asian prostitute. Just a perfect, unbelievably deranged character for Farley to inhabit. And inhabit he does, starting with an iconic entrance, continuing with a beautiful moment when he plays “The Pina Colada Song” during a bar fight, and ending with, once again, getting his nose bit off by a prostitute. Great, iconic, forever-lasting stuff from Farley, a comedic presence we truly didn’t deserve. —Gruttadaro

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