Chris Farley was a corpulent Saturday Night Live veteran like John Belushi. He died of a drug overdose like John Belushi (at the same age, no less). And now, with The Chris Farley Show, he gets his own biographical treatment just like — you guessed it — John Belushi.
The ”oral history” form of presentation — essentially a string of anecdotes from friends and family — is popular in the Saturday Night Live canon. (See Bob Woodward’s 1984 Belushi bio, Wired, and 2002’s Live From New York.) It’s no wonder: Everyone involved — Chris Rock, Tim Meadows, David Spade, Rob Lowe, and Tom Arnold — are terrific storytellers.
In exacting detail, Tanner Colby and Farley’s brother Tom dutifully trace the comedian’s life from his wealthy upbringing in Madison, Wis., to his improv days in Chicago at the ImprovOlympic and Second City theaters to his five semi-distinguished years on Saturday Night Live and beyond. As with any good oral history, The Chris Farley Show moves briskly and the reporting is deep. (The most notable omission from the celeb-packed tome is SNL peer Adam Sandler.) Farley’s own physicality is a good metaphor for the book: The meal is overstuffed with gossip and dish, whether it’s Spade lamenting a fallout with Farley over a girl (it was never truly repaired) or Rock scolding Farley’s famed Chippendales sketch with Patrick Swayze. ”There’s no comic twist to it,” explains Rock. ”It’s just f—ing mean. A more mentally together Chris Farley wouldn’t have done it.”
Farley doesn’t come off as particularly likable — hookers, drug addiction, and his deepest insecurities are on full display. Still, he ultimately emerges as more than just a sweaty beast who gave good pratfall. Here’s a guy who lived to please his 600-pound alcoholic father (wonder where those demons came from?). Beneath the unhealthy physique was an almost graceful athlete. He was a deeply religious man who attended Catholic mass twice a week. But for all of the candor, Farley makes a little too much of its subject’s talent. The second-coming-of-Belushi proclamations flow endlessly; at one point, Farley is even compared to Johnny Carson. His first film, 1995’s Tommy Boy, is dubbed a ”minor classic.” Perhaps. If the other Oscar nominees are Black Sheep and Beverly Hills Ninja.
It’s actually Chevy Chase who, while blasting Farley over his narcotics addiction, puts his legacy in proper perspective: ”Look, you’re not John Belushi. And when you overdose or kill yourself, you will not have the same acclaim that John did. You don’t have the record of accomplishment that he had.” Very true. In fact, this unflinching, well-written book outshines any Farley highlight reel. B+