When Chris Farley died in 1997 at 33 from a speedball-related drug overdose, part of the tragedy stemmed from the way his death more closely mirrored that of his hero John Belushi than any of the accomplishments in his comedy career. (Both died at the same age of the same cause.) Farley was a popular performer on Saturday Night Live, but his final year on the show was one of its least memorable. His movie career was marked by Tommy Boy, a mildly successful and mildly amusing dumb buddy comedy, and a short string of disasters that followed. His career is now permanently relegated to a long list of Hollywood what-could-have-beens.
On the surface Farley’s life story was a typical story of crash and burn. His work seemed destined to fade from view, primarily because there wasn’t much of it to be preserved. In The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts Tom Farley Jr. (Chris’s older brother) and Tanner Colby (who co-authored a similarly styled biography of Belushi) use an oral history format to memorialize his career, document his intense struggle with a variety of inner demons, and more successfully reveal an enormously sweet and caring individual, who had a public service streak that surprised even his closest friends and family members when revealed after his death. Though at times repetitive and stymied by the limitations of its format, it is an engrossing and dignified portrait of a man who came to a pathetic end — collapsed on his apartment floor begging a prostitute not to leave him alone.
As the subtitle makes clear, the book is very deliberately broken up into three acts. The first covers the majority of Farley’s life from growing up in a well-to-do family in Madison, Wisconsin to his start at SNL, emphasizing how the great strides made in his career coupled with his worsening addictions. (The writers indicate that he was practically a raging alcoholic after his first time getting drunk in high school.) The first act ends with his finally taking rehab seriously after Lorne Michaels temporarily fires him from SNL. Michaels “had been through it with John, and I wasn’t doing it again”. The second act concerns the following three years, the only time when Farley was able to sustain his sobriety for a significant period of time, and when he was most successful on television and in the movies with Tommy Boy. The final third begins in December 1995 when Farley relapsed and never really recovered.
The effect of this structure and the heavy emphasis on the quotes used to tell Farley’s story through oral history — primarily from family members and comedians but also girlfriends, priests, and high school buddies — is to show somebody whose whole life was defined by his struggle for sobriety and the issues that surrounded it: an alcoholic father and a family that tried to drink and laugh away their problems, overeating, playing the “fatty” character, longing for acceptance, feelings of inadequacy towards women, and a personality that was vulnerable to the simplistic good/evil dualities of old school Catholicism. (This last part is especially ironic since one of his great spiritual mentors, Father Matt Foley, come across as one of the most intelligent and forward thinking interview subjects.)
There is a confessional aspect to having Farley’s story told strictly through the commentary of others, as they try to sort out and define their relationship with Farley. At times, this is a strength. A complex community of personalities radiates around the main subject and a detailed, varied portrait inevitably appears.
But reading about people saying “Chris was this” and “Chris was that” renders Farley voiceless and overemphasizes the helpless childlike persona that emerges as the subjects try to praise him and separate the sweet self they knew with the self-destructive addict. Here a more skillful and subtle approach to the editing would have been appreciated, along with a stronger approach to the occasional authorial interludes to inject more thoughtful analysis with third person descriptions of Farley’s life.
Not that there aren’t plenty of intelligent offerings. David Spade sounds not unlike the cold comedic persona he’s famous for, but his honesty about his relationship with Farley — about their disagreements and how he could be fun yet overdramatic and self-serving — are refreshing and paint a more complicated picture of Chris outside the male Madonna/whore complex indulged in elsewhere.
Colby and Tom Farley Jr. are not deluded about Farley’s accomplishments: “Tommy Boy lives on today as a minor classic, a staple of cable-TV comedy, and a brief glimpse of what might have been.” But he undoubtedly had talent and I wish the authors had found a way to include more descriptive anecdotes of his intuitive gifts. There are one too many “Farley was hilarious”/”that was Chris” comments. Robert Smigel and Bob Odenkirk, who worked with Farley as writers, do offer consistently in-depth commentary on his work. Odenkirk discusses how the anger and frustrations he lived were funneled through his acting: “He made a lot of unhealthy choices, but that was the healthiest choice he could make to deal with the feelings that he had.”
The Chris Farley Show is strongest in detailing the genuine hard work Farley put into trying to be sober and to try and be what he defined as a good person. Farley lived an almost secret double life volunteering at senior centers and churches and half way houses and in everyday acts of anonymous kindness. In these stories we see a Chris Farley not defined by drugs and alcohol or material success or John Belushi. and here the book offers him a quiet redemption that feels entirely earned and makes the desperation and disappointment that plagued him elsewhere tangible and his tragedy resonates beyond that of a standard cautionary tale.