The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts

Having just read Le Freak, and having learned a bit about what harm drugs can do to a creative life, I felt primed for Chris Farley’s book. I thought I knew what I was getting into. I thought, somehow, even though I know this guy died, his effervescence will still provide me with some light as I read. On some level, I was right, because the recounting of his stories is impossible not to laugh at. The man was one of the funniest humans ever to live. As put so succinctly in the intro, “You could be the funniest guy in the room just by describing some of the stuff Chris did.” But mostly I was very, very wrong, because The Chris Farley Show is the most cautionary piece of writing I’ve ever read.

Nile Rodgers’ story seems undeniably triumphant after reading what happened to Chris Farley. And I have to commend Rodgers for being one of the strong ones, one of the people who eventually overcame his addiction, learned to live a sober life, and thrived without his old habits. Farley’s story is the opposite. It’s one of constant, sad, cyclical success and failure. It ends in failure. It shows that addiction can come from anywhere, even white-collar Wisconsin. And with each of Farley’s successive relapses, it shows firsthand how deeply one person’s addiction can affect the very large support circle around them.

The book is written in the same style as Live From New York, with hours upon hours of interviews compiled thematically and chronologically. It’s really a feat, and Chris’ brother Tom Jr. did it all with the help of Tanner Colby, to very powerful effect. This book is so tragic, with such clear evidence to telegraph the downward spiral, that your heart aches for Chris to be able to read it himself before it was too late. It’s the kind of thing I’d be inclined to give another addict, in the hopes that some of the horror would get through to them to convince them to stop. But what do I know about addiction? (Very thankfully, not much.)

I think the hardest thing about reading this book was knowing that Farley would die the whole time, and having to experience each of his aforementioned sobering-ups and relapses anyway. Because, as I said above, he didn’t experience them alone, even if he thinks he did. His brothers, his coworkers, his girlfriends, his parents, his spiritual leaders—they all went through the trenches with them, and some of them (namely his brothers and coworkers) were also on their own paths of addiction and unintentionally enabled his. Despite being the strongest, funniest comedian in the world, Farley was an incredibly weak person when it came to substances. He also had the incredible disadvantage of a stubborn-beyond-all-belief father, one with his own drinking problem who didn’t recognize that his son’s behavior somewhat stemmed from dad’s appalling refusal to set a newer, healthier example. Fr. Matt Foley, Chris’ childhood friend and the namesake of his future best-loved character, put it this way on p. 130:

Growing up, we were always told you can be critical inside the home, but don’t ever bring it out in the street. That’s an Irish Catholic thing, a clan thing. In Chris’s case that aversion to dealing with matters openly would be even more multiplied, because if Chris had an eating and a drinking problem, that would mean somebody else in the room had an eating and a drinking problem.

Not only did Farley’s repressed guilt—maybe guilt is not the right word for it, since he rarely understood the consequences of his actions; maybe “repression” is fine on its own—manifest itself in the form of addiction to drugs and alcohol, but it also reared its ugly head in his relationships. Because he was so funny, and so talented, and so responsible for other people’s success without ever intending to be, people kind of cleaned up the mess behind him without forcing him to adjust his own methods of (in)sanity. Easier said than done, of course. But seeing it all written out makes it that much more painful. Farley’s ex-girlfriend divulged some of her frustration with his arrested development on p. 282:

Some American Indians have a ritual where you’re not allowed to be a part of the tribe until you leave, go out in the wilderness, rename yourself, and come back. Then you’re accepted as a man. But we don’t have that in our culture. That’s why families in the country are falling apart, and why women have to deal with all this Madonna/whore bullshit. It’s because men don’t grow up, and Chris never grew up.

Of course, if you boil away the tragedy from that quote, you’re left with childlike wonder, which translated to the magical comedy that is most of Chris Farley’s legacy. The guy belonged in front of all of us, making us laugh with his heart, his depth, his generosity. He was apart of that SNL group that changed the game in the mid-’90s, with Sandler, Spade, Rock, and everyone else that’s insanely famous now. He made it okay not to be the same-looking comedy nerd. He made it okay to be both good at sports and great at comedy. He made it okay to give a character everything you’ve got. Former SNL writer Nate Herman said it this way on p. 79: “If the stage is the only place you feel real, it makes sense to make the whole world your stage.” That was Farley’s attitude in a single sentence, really.

Chris Farley was a complicated person, to say the very least. He didn’t live long enough to uncomplicate himself, but he did use a lot of his complexities to comedic advantage, as Bob Odenkirk describes on p. 324: “At the core of being funny is frustration, and even some anger, at the world. And Chris had so much constantly happening inside him that he was always being chased into that corner. He was always living inside that space, and that’s why he was just funny all of the time.”

Read this book to gain a better understanding of the depth of Farley’s talent and addiction and, please, pass it along to someone who might benefit from knowing about the dark side before they turn to it themselves.

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