Thursday, August 13, 2015


Saturday Night Live.  Chris Farley and Patrick Swayze, shirtless and in tight pants, audition to be Chippendales dancers.  That is still one of my favorite SNL sketches, a piece that makes me laugh as much now as when I saw it performed live on NBC.  When Farley was a star, I didn't know about his personal demons -- his addiction to booze, drugs and food.  The news of his tragic death at age 33 in 1997 shocked and saddened his fans.  He was enormously talented, original and charismatic.  His untimely end left us wanting more.  Personally, I wanted to see a good director tap into Farley's dramatic strengths.  I sensed he had impressive dramatic skills.  I would've loved to see him play Ignatius J. Reilly in a film adaptation of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces.  Yes, Chris Farley untimely death left me wanting more.  I AM CHRIS FARLEY, a documentary that premiered this week on Spike TV, also left me wanting more.  But in a different way.  I felt like someone needed to dig for information.  The 90 minutes are interesting but they feel incomplete, like we missed a piece of a puzzle.  The SNL clips reminds us what a big huggable bear and comedy force he was on that show.
Dan Aykroyd, SNL boss Lorne Michaels, Mike Myers, Molly Shannon, Adam Sandler, David Spade and a few of Chris Farley's relatives speak in the documentary.  You sense that Farley's death has still left a hole in Mike Myers' heart.  We hear again and again about Chris Farley's kindness and his gentleness.  If you watch his SNL work, you'll notice that he wasn't a comedian/actor who sucked up all the oxygen and had to be the focal point of all big laughs.  He shared the spotlight.  He was a generous actor.  He committed to his characters.  That's where we saw his acting chops, the training he got from the revered Second City in Chicago that prepared him for Saturday Night Live.
He was a Catholic guy from Madison, Wisconsin who loved to make his father laugh.  He was the middle child.  He attended Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  So did I.  Then came Second City in Chicago followed by SNL, according the I Am Chris Farley.

For an attractive man of his bulk, he was a fabulous physical comic with more agility that his slim buddy and co-star on SNL and in films, David Spade.  Farley moved well.  Even his hair moved well. He reminded you of a Midwest Everyman, like when he played the Motivational Speaker character, seen in the pic above.  The friends who speak on-camera in the documentary, one of whom is a Catholic priest, obviously held him dearly in their hearts.  Off-camera, he drank too much.  He died from a cocaine and morphine overdose in Chicago.  What was the hole in his soul that made him hunger for those drugs?  It's not until about 50 minutes into the documentary when someone mentions his drinking problem.  That's followed by the mention that his mood could get dark when he drank. Almost ten minutes before the end of feature, we find out that he was in rehab 17 times.  Wow.  Here's a trailer for I Am Chris Farley.
There's talk about his happy childhood in Madison and there's talk of him going to Marquette University in Milwaukee.  Farley mentions Marquette to David Letterman in a clip from his appearance on Dave's show when Dave was still on NBC.  The doc cuts back to Farley's Wisconsin history but a couple of times it's not clear if we're talking about him back home in Madison or in Milwaukee.

I lived in Milwaukee for ten years.  I attended Marquette University and, after graduation, began my professional radio & TV career in Milwaukee.  I loved getting together with friends and taking that 90 minute drive to Madison.  That city was hip, liberal and avant-garde compared to Milwaukee.  It had a more youthful vibe.  It took me a while to get used to Milwaukee, especially during my early college years.  And not just because I was a Los Angeles kid who'd never been in snow, much less the Midwest.  Milwaukee was very racially polarized and Marquette was smack dab in the middle of that polarization.  I'm Catholic and grew up in L.A.  I was used to different races, religions, sexual preferences.  Marquette was very Catholic.  That meant repression, restrictions, sexual frustration and a lot of closet cases.  It wasn't like a campus in Madison.  It was rather conservative in the 1970s.  There wasn't supposed to be pre-marital sex nor was there to be any gay sex whatsoever.  Students must've been awed by Farley's energy.  It must have like having a live version of Animal House on campus.  But, at the same time, he must've felt limited.  I talked to one of my favorite Marquette theater department professors after Farley's death.  He said that Chris' powerful talent was evident then.  It was terrific to see.  But he also told me that one time, when Chris was in the wings during a stage show he was in, he was so full o' beer that he wet his pants.

Was Farley's talent appreciated and nurtured by faculty at Marquette?  Was he taking courses that he wanted to take?  Was he happy?  Did he graduate and then study at Chicago's Second City where he became an audience favorite?  Or did he drop out?  Did he have any Marquette romance?  Or was he lonely and fellow students just wanted the big, chubby funny guy to drink more beer and make them laugh?  If I was the director/producer of that documentary, I would've delved more into the Milwaukee years.  I would've contacted Marquette folks for interviews.  He was a top comedy star of TV and films and there's not one comment from a teacher or girlfriend from his college alma mater.  Why?  One friend mentioned that Farley remained a traditional Catholic in some ways.  I would have asked Farley's priest friend, Fr. Matt Foley, if Farley's addictions filled him with Catholic guilt.

I Am Chris Farley is often touching.  Some of the comments about him break your heart.  But it doesn't dig deep like the Nine Simone documentary on Netflix does (What Happened, Miss Simone?)  That one gave us answers.  This documentary didn't ask some probing questions where it should have.  What Happened, Miss Simone? is an excellent documentary.  This one is ok, but it could've been a lot better.

I Am Chris Farley is now available on VOD.

1 comment:

  1. The Chris Farley Show, the book, did a great job of exploring Farley's personality. One of the best showbiz books I've ever read.


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