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.

Nebraska

If one movie a year or so came out in black and white, I’d be really into that. The Artist started the trend, and Nebraska is continuing it, and I hope, say, the third Expendables keeps it alive. I have very lofty dreams.

I don’t think Nebraska would have had the same effect or feel or staying power had it been filmed in color. From start to finish, it was dripping with nostalgia, the timeless kind, and color would have given it too much life. All the actors–Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk–looked as lively as they could get in black and white, and their simple existences as stark as the contrast between the two shades.

Bruce Dern is going to get nominated for this film, as well he should. He’s great in it. And part of me wants him to win because he’s had such a storied, yet underrated, career. But Nebraska isn’t the most difficult role he’s ever performed. Woody Grant is a quiet guy, and much of Dern’s performance was in his face, his posture, and his silence (starting to notice a theme?). Dern was the perfect person to play Woody because he didn’t have to reach much to capture Woody’s essence. He’s not Woody, to be sure, but he’s operating on a similar wavelength.

My pick for standout performance is June Squibb’s. She is the most colorful of the black and white characters; her motherly demeanor and appearance is overshadowed by her crass feistiness, and she definitely gets the most laughs per square inch on screen. Will Forte, perfectly cast as Woody’s youngest son David, must have had to restrain himself, having worked in improv comedy for so long. (Bob Odenkirk, too! They showed their stern sides. Props.) I also loved Angela McEwan as Peg, one of Woody’s girlfriends from ages past. It’s enjoyable to watch David learn about his father through other people, since his father doesn’t reveal much, and then subsequently grow closer to his father without even having to reach out.

Of course, the other standout performance is Alexander Payne’s. Despite the bare-bones-ness of the script, he manages to turn the expansive landscape of Nebraska into a very complicated place, filled with old grudges and new beginnings and long-standing traditions. Each time the camera pans back, we can see for miles, and it looks like nothing, but it’s everything to every member of the extended Grant family. They live these lives in the middle of nowhere, getting riled up over things that seem unimportant, but in the context of their mostly empty lives, the occurrence of, say, a seventysomething townie winning a million bucks is a big effin’ deal. The minutae truly matter, and truly listening to one another instead of talking into the ether matters even more. I thank my lucky stars that I didn’t grow up in the middle of nowhere, but sometimes I wish I knew what that silence sounded like.

The Ben Stiller Show

If ringtones were still important to anyone, I’d strongly consider making The Ben Stiller Show‘s theme song play every time I received a phone call. Addendum to that sentence: If ringtones and phone calls were still important. How times have changed…

Times have changed. Ben Stiller used to be really, really hot. He’s still rather dashing, but damn, he was jacked back then. It’s very easy to forget. Do yourself a favor and remind… yourself. You’ll also be reminded that Bob Odenkirk was super hot back then, and Janeane Garofalo was super hot back then. Both of them have also aged incredibly well. (No comment on Andy Dick.) Props to that cast for going into middle age with good hair and great humor.

The Ben Stiller Show made me appreciate the ’90s. Think about that for a second. I hadn’t really, truly appreciated them until now because I hadn’t felt old enough. Not that I’m old. But to me, and up until this point, ’90s nostalgia seemed really contrived and unnecessary because the ’90s weren’t that long ago. They’re still fairly recent, as far as I’m concerned. But there was a different comedy mentality back then, and while this show wasn’t the most brilliant of all the sketch shows, it was certainly charming and odd and hilarious in its own right.

My only beef with it is my same beef with SNL: I am thoroughly irked by sketch shows that contain too many impression-based bits and too few original character- or premise-based bits, and Stiller was definitely heavy on the former. Incredibly, though, Stiller himself managed to look like most of the people he was impersonating. There is something magically transformative about his unique face. Plus, the power of the so-bad-it’s-good makeup doesn’t hurt. Oliver Stone, Tom Cruise: these are not men that I’d think Stiller resembles, but he proved me wrong. He barely looked like himself in most of the sketches.

There were a few impression sketches that stood out to me, though. I can’t find video of “Three Men and an Old Man,” but suffice it to say that between Stiller, Odenkirk, and Dick, they cast the three men the best and most unexpected way. Here are my other two favorites, “Counting with Bruce Springsteen” and “The Mohican Master 2000.”

I can only think of one original-character sketch that I truly loved. (Maybe I shouldn’t be so harsh for criticizing their lack of sketches like this, because this one could have been the only one, and it would have dominated. Fuckin’ great.)

Yes. Es-yay. Absolutely delightful. High hits, decent misses, this show. And it’s all tied together with very genuinely sweet anecdotal commentary from Stiller and whichever cast member was available to appear bitter or jokey that day, and maybe also a guest star. Stiller has a humble-guy conversation with, say, Sarah Jessica Parker or Garry Shandling, neither one is sure why they are there, there is no explanation, and then the next sketch starts. It all feels very unplanned, and I imagine it was very scripted, but I liked how the disorganization came all the way back around to being organized. Stiller had a vision, and it only got to manifest itself in thirteen episodes, but it was enough for me. The germs of Zoolander and Greg Focker are embedded deep within the sketches of this show, as is the talent of the four stars. Pretty nerd-cool to think about that trajectory.

The Spectacular Now

Thinking back to when I watched “teen movies” in middle school and high school, I’m almost embarrassed by the aesthetic they showcased. Girls wore short skirts, guys wore clothes that matched, and everyone spoke in complete, clever sentences. None of this is actually true, though I did know a lot of girls in both middle and high school who dressed semi-sluttily, but the movies have always insisted that it is. Until The Spectacular Now.

The teenagers in this movie are real, fully-formed-yet-not-formed people, which is how they should be. They don’t have perfect bodies, they wear clothes that make them look more immature than they are, they don’t really know how to present themselves, they laugh nervously and insert “like” whenever possible, and they have no depth because they haven’t yet been presented with anything hard enough in their lives worth focusing on. I really, truly appreciated how genuine these characters seemed, how even though they suffered from the typical lack-of-awareness that all teenagers suffer from, they each displayed a palpable potential. Were they actual people, and not just characters on a giant screen, they gave me a sense of hope in their generation, that they’d at least turn out to be thoughtful, functioning humans. Maybe not responsible ones, but certainly ones with a conscience rooted in something.

Shailene Woodley carries herself incredibly confidently, generally speaking, but her character, Aimee, only does so with adults. Around her peers–including Brie Larson’s charismatic Cassidy, her polar opposite despite their similar taste in men–she is timid, as though she feels she shouldn’t quite be there. This selective confidence resonated strongly with me, as I always felt more comfortable around adults growing up, and always hesitated around people my own age because I suffered from not-cool-enough syndrome. I heard from one friend that her transformation from shy to fly girl, for lack of a better phrase, is a downfall, since her love interest starts her on a drinking path, but I’d argue instead that he helps her to loosen up. It’s nice to see her enjoying herself, expressing herself, letting go, being a teenager. It’s something I wish I had done more of myself at her age.

Her aforementioned love interest, Sutter, is played pretty effervescently by Miles Teller. He reminds me a whole lot of Jeremy Allen White on Shameless, in that he somehow embodies the very disparate qualities of sexy and infantile almost simultaneously. Teller is at once charismatic, yet completely untrustworthy. It’s hard to say how much of himself he truly takes seriously, but he’s found a way to earn the respect of many of the adults in his life, despite being such a consistent fuck up. The faces of Andre Royo and Bob Odenkirk pop up in fatherly, mentorly roles for Sutter, and it’s hard not to yell at him for listening to Bubs and Saul, but he sees their happy, simple teacher and store clerk lives (respectively) as boring, unchanging, settling. Settler = Teller + Sutter, a little. Even more unsettling is seeing Kyle Chandler play Sutter’s dickweed dad. Coach Taylor tried hard to go against type here, but he’s too damn wholesome.

I hope this movie (and the few others that have started bubbling to the surface) marks the revival and reboot and redux of the teen movie genre. Enough of the unrealistic expectations and the glamorization; kids need something they can connect to. And maybe, too, do nostalgic adults.

Mr. Show

Thirty episodes later, I feel like I’m part of some sort of hidden cultural lexicon. I now know where Druggachusetts is, and how insane that guy’s taint is, and many other things that [exclusivity coming] just wouldn’t make sense in a world without Mr. Show. It’s an intense, weird investment of time, definitely “patchy” (as it was described to me before I watched it), but if you’re a self-proclaimed comedy nerd, it’s worth it. And then you’ll be able to bring it up in conversation and be that person that made the profane reference that no one gets. (I’m speaking from experience.)

Flower-sweatered and beat-up-shortsed David Cross and crisp-suited Bob Odenkirk are weird guys, and they sort of eschew mainstream sketch comedy. Odenkirk was actually a writer on SNL for a little bit, and as I learned in a book I’ll be reviewing shortly on this here blog, he wasn’t a huge fan of the way things worked over there. To each his own, for sure. And so he and Cross did their own thing, on a network that allowed swearing and nudity and general heathenness, and the results were oft hilarious. Oft not, too, but that’s part of it. They were giving their version of a sketch comedy show a shot, and in the process they also trained a bunch of writers who have now come to be the leaders of LA alt-comedy, like Paul F. Tompkins, Scott Aukerman, Sarah Silverman, Tom Kenny, John Ennis, Scott Adsit, Jay Johnston, and Brian Posehn. The world is an odder, better place because these guys are making it funnier. Trust. And, even more credit to these, they’ve all aged incredibly well. It’s not often that you look better at 40ish than at 25ish. (PFT gets more dapper with age, folks.) It’s pretty fun seeing them all as kids, clearly goofing around and having the greatest time. It’s like The State, except it’s not The State. Apples and oranges, but still fruit nonetheless.

Odenkirk and Cross are still at the tops of their games, branching out into different kinds of acting while always remaining somewhat oddball. If you closely examine Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad, for example, you see that he’s not really a straight-up serious portrayal; Bob Odenkirk does it a bit tongue-in-cheek. Conversely, on Arrested Development, there’s an earnestness to David Cross’ Tobias Funke that’s almost tragic. These guys commit so well to their characters, no matter the size of the role, that it’s impossible to tell when they’re joking around because they’ve got sincerity nailed. Maybe that’s why their sketches worked so well even when they didn’t look the part. They committed.

Before I shut up and let some of my favorite sketches speak for themselves, there is a very special, brilliant aspect of Mr. Show that can’t be conveyed in YouTube clips. It’s the fact that these guys made a point of unifying all the sketches within a show, be it under a single theme or through some sort of hilariously weak connection between the last scene of one sketch and the first scene of the next. Shows just don’t think about that continuity anymore, though admittedly commercials probably prevent it from being a more prevalent feature, but it was incredibly refreshing to see just how much thought went into the show as a whole, and to see all the sketches flow so smoothly into one another. It was as close to old-fashioned, I Love Lucy TV integrity that a show with this much talk of boobs and balls could have. I digress, though. Here are the bits that cracked me up the most:

“Change for a Dollar” from “The Cry of a Hungry Baby,” Season 1, Episode 1

“Drunk Cops” from “The Biggest Failure in Broadway History,” Season 2, Episode 3

“Everest” from “The Story of Everest,” Season 4, Episode 4

“Inside the Actor” from “Sad Songs are Nature’s Onions,” Season 4, Episode 9

Finally, my absolute favorite, “Swear to God.”

Breaking Bad, Season 2

Sometimes I think I should rename this blog “behind the times” or “finally jumping on the bandwagon” or “late to the party” or some other cliche phrase to indicate that I typically don’t watch things that everyone likes until they’re off the air, or whatever. But then I remember that Chris Hardwick hasn’t seen The Wire, and I feel much better about myself.

So, Breaking Bad. My various trusted television sources were right–this show most definitely gets better with time. The first season left me very underwhelmed, much in the same way that Parks and Recreation‘s first did, too. Both shows only got a few episodes to make a go of it, and while you could tell there was something special there, none of the characters seemed particularly compelling. Sort of shells of interesting people played by very talented actors. But both shows got second-season pickups, and never looked back. Breaking Bad is clearly a TV powerhouse, but it does its thing without any pretension whatsoever. It’s weird, too, because its network, AMC, houses the most pretentious show(s) on TV: Mad Men and The Walking Dead, which I admit I watch, but my very use of the word “admit” shows that there’s a little embarrassment there. The shows aren’t quite as mind-blowing as everyone makes them out to be, whereas Breaking Bad is tride and true, un-glamourous, un-trendy, exactly the way TV ought to be. It’s entertaining, it makes you think, it gives you a taste of something you might not otherwise experience.

One thing I really like about Breaking Bad, which I think became very apparent this season, is how unapologetic it is. Unlike many other “quality” shows running right now, Breaking Bad doesn’t try to justify its characters’ bad behaviour or teach its audience something really deep about humanity. Or maybe it does, but the lessons aren’t saccharine or obvious. They’re there, I suppose, embedded deep in the hearts of the characters, but you don’t necessarily have to learn anything from them. You can just enjoy the show for what it is.

Bryan Cranston is incredible; this can be gleaned from his Emmy three-peat, but I want to say it anyway because he’s such an underdog in Hollywood. He’s such a normal-looking dude, one that you’d think could never play anything other than an accountant or, say, a goofy dad (Phil Dunphy would be NOTHING without Hal), yet Cranston completely transforms into Walter White the second you see him on the small screen. He’s terrifying and sympathetic, and all of the other adjectives that have probably been used to describe him. He becomes this real, conflicted, heartbreaking person, the embodiment of a tragic hero, and while I can’t necessarily say that I want him to come out on top (because I know he won’t anyway), I find it fascinating to watch him try.

It’s sort of interesting how this show presents so many characters in so many tough situations, and yet for me it’s hard to give them my full support. I think Walter gets most of it, by virtue of his impossible drug-cancer-baby predicament, but the rest of the characters give “gleaning sympathy” the old college try, and very valiantly so. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it just means I have less emotional investment in the show (and more, I don’t know, plotline investment? story investment? who cares). RJ Mitte is adorable, but he’s got these eyes that suggest something so hurt all the time, which make him magnetic whenever he’s onscreen. Anna Gunn is so strong and so cardboard at the same time, the beautiful, work-ethical mom with something dark that I suspect we’ll find out about as the show progresses. Her sister, her bro-in-law, Bob Odenkirk, Giancarlo Esposito… I could go on about how awesome they are, but the only person who can hold a candle to Cranston is, of course, Aaron Paul. I love him under any circumstance on this show, even when Jesse is being a total dickbag. Paul is so real, too, which is why they’re such a mesmerizing duo, with this bizarre non-chemistry that sucks you in to their fucked up not-so-little world. I was sad for Jesse when Jane (the chameleonic Krysten Ritter) drugged herself dead, but it’ll only make him a more fascinating character, and it’ll only give me another reason to watch Season 3.