By Brian D’Ambrosio
Thirteen years has passed since Madison’s Chris Farley died from a drug overdose at age 33. Boisterous on the big screen, notoriously wild away from it, he has left behind a legacy remindful of both comedy and crisis. Farley’s routine – categorized in five seasons of Saturday Night Live and three No. 1 films – was as straightforward as it was stereotypical. He was presented to the world as overweight, obnoxious, obtuse, sweaty, and wasted. These tragicomic depictions are forever enshrined in the colorful annals of American television and film comedy.
In a book released 2009, “The Chris Farley Show,” Chris’s older brother, Tom Farley, and a former biographer of John Belushi, Tanner Colby, revealed that Farley’s seemingly one-dimensional life was in reality an inordinately complex pathology. Subtitled “A Biography in Three Acts,” the book paints a compassionate – though by no means hagiographic – portrait, shedding greater insight as to how Farley’s friends struggled with his self-destructive vices: they were feckless when it came to stopping the drug habit and reckless lifestyle that sent him to an early grave.
The book traces Farley’s trajectory from his affluent, Irish-Catholic upbringing in the Village of Maple Bluff to his improvisational routines and comedic stints in Chicago to his five ambivalent years on Saturday Night Live and onward.
“There are no great depths when it comes to describing the worst parts and stories of Chris’s life,” says Tom Farley. “I didn’t want to define Chris by his addictions, or try to define his addiction as something that’s unique. That’s because so many people reading the book can relate to his problems. There’s a lot of good coming from it. Chris brings to life so many issues that so many others have.”
Found at the bedrock of Farley’s complicated personal afflictions was the most primitive of all self-esteem issues. He constantly sought validation in others. More specifically, he felt compelled by the need to satisfy his obese, ultraconservative father whose food and alcohol dependencies equaled his son’s. Chris often told friends that he stayed overweight to please his dad. Tom Farley Sr. provided his high-school-age children beer money, and then disavowed his role in fostering their addictions. At his son’s funeral, Mr. Farley – straddling 600 pounds – scarcely managed to make it out of his chair to wrap his arms around the casket.
“When it came to Chris, dad was the definition of unconditional love,” says Tom. “To try to help him was hard for dad; he didn’t see that negativity in Chris. That’s because if he did then he’d then have to see it in himself. Chris saw that dad was disconnected and detached from the unpleasant truths of his own life.
“We grew up not talking about these things, and this is my way of removing the façade. All of Chris’s life he needed to seek approval because he did not see himself as the things people told him he was. He could not believe that he was funny.”
One issue the book tackles is just what the legacy of Chris Farley the comedian really is, and it proves that the often-repeated mantra “Farley wanted to be John Belushi” was nothing more than a fallacy. Farley’s death was similar to The Blues Brothers and Animal House star’s. Just like Belushi, Farley’s fan base exploded thanks to Saturday Night Live, and both died at age 33 of drug overdoses.
“The Belushi connection still gets a lot of attention,” says Tom. “But Chris really didn’t want Belushi’s life, but he did want his status and notoriety. Chris read Wired and he was scared by Belushi’s drug problems. His real idol growing up wasn’t so much Belushi but Jackie Gleason.”
The narrative fills in a portrait of a tormented genius, a lovable dolt, a zany college chum, a self-deprecating overeater, and an inept romancer. While there are plenty of frank details about Chris’s eventual demise and death, amusing remembrances abound as to how he worked his way up from the suburbs of Madison to his aspiration to be an SNL star. Colleagues such as John Goodman and Jack Handey insist that the true Farley was the bumbling, unworldly Midwesterner from the SNL skits. Tom concurs that his brother’s naivety was no schtick:
“Chris always felt that he was exporting who we are in Wisconsin, love us or leave us. He was very much Wisconsin, true and true. When he first got to New York City and was just hired by SNL, he had no money. We had lunch and he borrowed some money, it was $150 bucks. Soon I get a phone call from Chris. He had walked into a three-card Monte game, and he’d lost it all. In a lot of ways he was very astute, but in a lot of ways he was just a knucklehead from Wisconsin.”
Revisiting the traumas and sharing the scars of familial hardship has been therapeutic for Tom Farley, for the book writing process bestowed him a renewed sense of purpose and vigor. In fact, he focuses much of his attention these days on lecturing children about substance abuse issues while using his brother’s life as a cautionary example.
Writing The Chris Farley Show has even brought Tom closer spiritually to his brother and perhaps has even blessed him with a sharper empathy of the demons that wore him away.
“I was his uptight older brother,” says Tom. “And that was how he usually saw me. However, when delving into the book, I began to see him as a victim of his addictions, and in a new light altogether. My real fear – and this is why I decided to write this book – was being 60 or 70 years old and not being able to remember my little brother.”
Read more of Brian D’Ambrosio’s articles, stories, and odd travel items.