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“So Elegant, So Sensual”: Chris Farley Should Be Remembered for His Grace, Not His Falls

The funniest person to ever break a table was so much more than just that

Harrison Freeman

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 essential movies and sketches to his ability to turn any small phrase into a joke. Below is a tribute to his undeniable grace, which went beyond the famous Chippendales sketch.

Early into the 16th season of Saturday Night Live in 1990, one of the biggest stars in the country pushed aside a row of red and silver streamers, and stepped onto the stage. The crowd laughed at him.

Or rather, they laughed because of the man who walked out next to him.

Patrick Swayze, who was fresh off Road House and Ghost—and whose hair was immaculately feathered—was simply the setup for the punch line of Chris Farley, whose very presence onstage was enough to set the crowd into hysterics.

At this point, barely anyone knew who Farley was. He was 26 years old, from Madison, Wisconsin, and, until very recently, seen only by comedy junkies at The Second City in Chicago. He had never had anything resembling a serious job (his parents looked after him financially in Chicago), and it wasn’t even clear to Chris’s brother, Kevin, if Chris had ever been to New York before getting cast on SNL. David Spade, who called his new SNL office-mate “Wisconsin Dundee,” said in his 2015 memoir Almost Interesting that, in those early days, Farley would take out just $20 at a time from the ATM, unable (or unwilling) to accept the fact that he had NBC money now.

And yet here Farley was, next to Swayze, the original (and superior) Channing Tatum—a soon-to-be Sexiest Man Alive, as declared by sexiness authority People magazine. It was Farley’s fourth show, and he had never starred in a sketch. Within seconds of his appearance, however, the crowd felt a deep attachment. And they would never let him go.

The Chippendales audition skit is the stuff of legends—easily one of the most beloved SNL segments of all time, and understandably so: Farley and Swayze dancing to Loverboy’s “Working for the Weekend,” erotically, in unison, as judges for the famous male revue show take it all extremely seriously, is comedy genius. Anyone who didn’t laugh would need to have ice in their veins—and, in fact, Kevin Nealon, one of the judges in the skit, said it was one of the hardest times he’d ever had not cracking up. (Mike Myers, also a judge in the skit, said in the 2015 documentary I Am Chris Farley that he had to resort to a tight-lipped, quizzical expression he described as “dog hearing a weird frequency” to keep it together.)

“I’d say it’s one of the funniest sketches in the history of the show,” says SNL writer Robert Smigel in The Chris Farley Show, a comprehensive 2009 oral history of Farley’s life written and put together by Tanner Colby and Tom Farley Jr., Chris’s oldest brother.

Funniest? Well, who is to say. (Also, the funniest SNL sketch is Celebrity Jeopardy!) But its popularity is not in question, at least: The Chippendales audition always shows up in “Best SNL Skits Ever” lists, usually near the top, and is currently the second thing to come up when you search “Chris Farley SNL” on YouTube, with 4 million views, despite the fact that the clip was posted only last year (as opposed to the no. 1 clip—Matt Foley, motivational speaker—which has nearly 13 million views in six years). It’s one of those rare SNL skits that basically everyone knows, and, even rarer still, that has continued shelf life. Hell, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that the esteemed Chippendales company probably wouldn’t even continue to exist if it wasn’t for the sketch.

Farley’s catwalk strut to the front of the stage before ripping his shirt off and rubbing it between his crotch is a moment that belongs in the Smithsonian, alongside other important works of American art like the music of Louis Armstrong or the photos of Dorothea Lange. It’s important to preserve it in the cultural record for future generations to see—crucial for understanding the history of comedy and television and the 1990s. But, as The Ringer’s Alan Siegel recently highlighted in his Comedy in the ’90s series, not everyone thinks it’s funny.

“I didn’t like the fact that the first thing he became known for was that Chippendales thing, which I hated,” says Bob Odenkirk in The Chris Farley Show. (Odenkirk worked with Farley at Second City, where he was the creator of the Matt Foley character, and as a writer at SNL from 1987 to 1991.) “Fucking lame, weak bullshit. I can’t believe anyone liked it enough to put it on the show. Fuck that sketch. He never should have done it.”

“I always hated it,” Chris Rock says, also in The Chris Farley Show. “The joke of it is basically, ‘We can’t hire you because you’re fat.’ I mean, he’s a fat guy, and you’re going to ask him to dance with no shirt on. OK. That’s enough. You’re gonna get that laugh. But when he stops dancing you have to turn it in his favor. There’s no turn there. There’s no comic twist to it. It’s just fucking mean.”

It’s not like the sketch was Farley’s idea, either, given that he was a performer at heart, and rarely, if ever, wrote anything by himself on SNL. (The Chippendales skit was, in fact, written by Jim Downey, a.k.a. the “everyone in this room is now dumber” guy from Billy Madison.) But Farley was also one of the busiest cast members during his time because he always gave a scene his all—and, it seems, because he always said yes.

“He called me and was like, ‘Lorne [Michaels] and everyone wants me to be a fat guy,’” Tom Arnold recalls in I Am Chris Farley. “‘They want me to do a sketch where I’m stripping for Chippendales with Patrick Swayze, and they want me to take my shirt off. And then I’m the fat guy. What do you think? It’s just embarrassing.’”

One of the most complicated aspects of Farley’s personality is that he was someone who lived to make people laugh—and succeeded in doing it even when he had just one line—but that he also was deeply insecure about the ways in which he did so. He perfected (and relied upon) self-deprecating physical comedy to the point that he pigeonholed himself into essentially one ongoing role—a role he had an increasingly contentious relationship with. (“Everybody laughs when fatty falls down,” he was known to say, somewhere between a joke and a lament.)

“On the one hand, Chris was acting like he was embarrassed about playing the fat guy,” Arnold goes on, about the Chippendales sketch. “But on the other hand he fucking loved it. That’s just the contradiction he was.”

“I can’t breathe, Jay,” Farley joked to Jay Leno in 1997, settling into his chair after one of his trademark high-octane late-night entrances. Fresh from a trip home to Wisconsin over the holidays, Farley’s favorite time of year, he brought some gifts to throw out to the audience and to give to the host: cheesehead hats and Brett Favre jerseys.

“I imagine you used to play football as a young man, didn’t you?” Leno asks Farley.

“I played a little ball, Jay!” he replies, standing up, flexing and ramping things up for the crowd, delighting over some college bros in the audience who are clearly loving it. “Sure, I did!”

“Were you good?” Leno asks.

“I was, uh … ” Farley trails off. He seems like he’s about to make another joke. Adopt another silly voice. Become another self-deprecating character. But then, briefly, the real Chris pops out: “Actually, I was pretty good. All-City: Madison, Wisconsin.”

This truth about Chris Farley is not the least bit hard to believe. Certainly the most gifted American physical comedian since his idol John Belushi, and arguably a candidate for the best physical comedian, bar none, since the silent era, Farley’s athletic abilities are apparent in basically every one of his skit, film, and talk-show appearances. He was a big guy, but he was extremely coordinated and agile—more so than most people half as lean. (It’s a lot harder than it looks to do a good pratfall, or jump through a breakaway table with impeccable timing and precision, like Farley did so often. And just look at him do full-on splits for Letterman like it’s nothing!) Several of his friends seem to think that if he was taller he would’ve been a legitimate candidate for the NFL.

“I remember when we started freshman football,” Dan Healy, a childhood friend, says in The Chris Farley Show. “[Chris] was already pretty overweight, and he was wearing these saggy gray wool socks with his football uniform. … I just thought, this poor kid actually thinks he’s gonna play? But he did. And he was great.”

“He was such a natural athlete,” Brian Stack, an improv castmate of Farley’s in Madison, says in The Chris Farley Show. “He was almost like a ballet dancer.”

When Farley got to college at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he started playing rugby, despite, again, being dismissed at first by the team for appearances alone. “To make the A-side as a sophomore was a big deal,” Eugene Graham III, one of Farley’s teammates, says in I Am Chris Farley. “Everybody on the team took it really seriously. They would jog four miles to practice.”

The team mentality is one that ran through Farley’s entire state of being. He liked to be a part of a team in sports, in family, in friends, in work. Improv is a team activity. So is sketch comedy. So is being in a buddy film. “He wanted to win, but he wanted the whole team to win,” Kevin Farley says in The Chris Farley Show.

But teams still need individuals to make plays: “When you put a spotlight on someone, there’s a very different kind of funny you need to deliver,” says Ted Dondanville, Farley’s friend and assistant, in The Chris Farley Show. “And that’s where Chris was like Michael Jordan: He would always make the shot.”

“He was an athlete,” Lorne Michaels notes in a 1998 Rolling Stone posthumous feature about Farley. “He knew how to use his body. He was incredibly funny with it, and, as they say in football, he could play hurt.”

In 1990, walking through the red and silver streamers to ultimately upstage an actual professional dancer in Swayze, Farley was not playing hurt. Far from it: He was at the top of his game. His weight and substance use were relatively under control, and his performance was razor-sharp. But not too long after, he began to lose that control—and it’s hard to say that audiences laughing at him just for the act of putting on a Chippendales outfit didn’t contribute to that. (“It’s one of the things that killed him,” Chris Rock says in The Chris Farley Show. “It really is. Something happened right then.”)

“He was always insecure about his weight,” Greg Meyer, a childhood friend, notes in The Chris Farley Show. “He’d project this attitude of not caring to everyone, but among the inner circle of guys, he talked about it quite a lot. He said it was the worst thing in his life.”

Even after spending years as one of the most adored entertainers in the country, Farley hung onto the hurt of growing up overweight. Driving around in a red convertible with a reporter for Rolling Stone, interviewing for what would become that posthumous feature, he mentions his childhood nicknames offhand: “Fartley, Lard Ass, Tubby, and, of course, Fatso was standard,” he says. But before letting moments like that linger, he switches gears and gets back to joking around.

“Chris was always the fat kid,” Kevin Farley says in The Chris Farley Show. “Kids can be pretty mean, and humor was his only weapon, from grade school on.”

Later in life, the humor approach didn’t work as well, and Farley resorted to other forms of self-defense, such as overeating, in addition to consuming dangerous amounts of drugs and alcohol. He seemed to erroneously think that his weight was why he was funny, at one point asking Jim Downey, perhaps jokingly but tellingly nonetheless, if he thought it would help the show to get “even fatter,” for comedy’s sake. (“’Cause I will,” he said.) His weight got worse, and his addictions spiraled. He ended up being in and out of rehab 17 times in the last few years of his life.

One of those times, at the Hazelden rehab facility in Minnesota, a doctor summarized his problems as follows:

Chris has identified that his use of humor serves the function of diverting attention from issues that may be painful … that it’s with humor that his family deals with conflict and pain … Chris sees his life and his drinking as a benefit to his work as a comedian, and this may complicate his motivation to get help for these issues … [Aftercare issues include] compulsive overeating, possible obsessive compulsive behavior …

Now watch the Chippendales skit again and see if you think it’s as funny as it seemed before.

In October 1997, at the height of his struggles with addiction, Farley went back to SNL to host for the first time since being fired two years earlier. At this point, an Us magazine exposé titled “Chris Farley: On the Edge of Disaster” had made the public well aware of the stakes, and in the cold open of the show, Lorne Michaels meets with Farley in meta fashion to address his concerns about letting him host. (This cold open would later be taken off the syndicated version of the episode.)

“Lorne, I’m telling you, his party days are over,” says Tim Meadows, before his old Second City castmate Farley enters the room. “His last trip to the ‘spa’—it did the trick. I mean, he’s been totally clean for six weeks. No booze, no women—still got the eating thing, I’m not going to kid you about that.”

“Well, we do need a host for October 25,” Michaels says.

“Cannot do better than Chris Farley, sir,” Meadows says. “Fatty falls down, ratings go up.”

At this point, Farley walks in. He looks and sounds awful (he blew out his voice in rehearsal), and Michaels, who needs more fake convincing, asks Farley if he can still fall through a table.

“Can I!” Farley says, and proceeds to jump with everything he has onto Lorne’s desk, which doesn’t give in the slightest.

“Chris, this isn’t a breakaway,” Michaels says. “But you can host.”

It’s a funny joke, in its own way, but it’s an unsettling image, regardless: Farley—the king of destructive physical comedy—jumping onto a table and not being able to break it. It’s like watching Michael Jordan brick a wide-open shot from the top of the key.

“I want you to know that everything’s going to be OK,” Farley says in the show’s opening monologue. “I’m a new Chris, OK, fellas?”

Two months later, Farley would be dead.

There are a good number of hilarious Farley SNL skits that don’t come up when you type his name into YouTube: Dante, How Much Ya Bench?, El Niño. One of those is the 1994 Olympic figure skating routine, which features Farley, dressed in frilly lace, doing a routine with Nancy Kerrigan.

The skit has endured in its own way because of Phil Hartman’s Hall-of-Fame delivery of the line “Uh-oh, ‘Pump Up the Jam’”—but that shouldn’t overshadow Farley’s unbelievable performance. He skates with legitimate elegance, floating across the ice like the good Wisconsin kid he is. And just like he did with Swayze, Farley goes toe-to-toe with a professional at their own game, stealing the show from them anyway.

Chippendales isn’t the type of sketch that you can erase from the legacy of Chris Farley—and there’s significant reason to believe that Farley himself wouldn’t want people to erase it, either. It’s impossible to say what, exactly, Farley thought about the skit, or if he really knew what to think. Ultimately, this kind of thing mostly comes down to whether you think people are laughing at him or laughing with him. And that decision is yours to make. In any case, maybe Chippendales doesn’t need to be the second thing that comes up when you search Farley’s name anymore.

“So elegant, so sensual” says David Spade in the Olympics skit, playing the color commentator to Hartman’s play-by-play guy.

“Let’s just sit back,” Hartman replies, “and drink it in.”

Nate Rogers is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Billboard, and elsewhere.


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