Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Chris Farley Show

No one was more surprised than me to see a biography of Chris Farley show up on the several of the Best of 2008 lists last year. Like a lot of people, I was a fan of Farley in the loosest sense; I enjoyed him on SNL and will admit to laughing quite a bit at Tommy Boy, but for the most part he seemed like a one-note comedian. I was surprised to find out just how talented and therefore tragic his early death was by reading The Chris Farley Show, an oral history of sorts compiled by Farley’s brother Tom and professional writer Tanner Colby.

I picked up the new paperback copy two weeks ago and flipped through it, surprised to see that the majority of the text was made up of compiled quotes from interviews with those close to Farley. The book is structured into three sections, called acts, which follow a fairly predictable pattern. Act One leads up to Farley joining the cast of Saturday Night Live, Act Two deals with the struggles with addiction and sobriety, while Act Three chronicles the decent into addiction that ultimately killed the man. Predictable a
s this may be, the different perspectives provided by using the actual voices of interviewees rather than the clinical voice of a traditional biography offer real feeling in insight not just into Farley, but also into some of the well-known people who knew him.

Farley wasn’t a stand-up comedian, but rather an improvisational actor, something that shouldn’t really surprise anyone who has followed some of the more successful casting choices on SNL since. Yet what isn’t so widely known is that almost everyone who knew him thought that he could have made a fine actor, even be an Oscar contender, if he could just find the right vehicle and get his act together. I had not heard that David Mamet had written a script for Farley based on the life of Fatty Arbuckle, only to see the project wind up forever in limbo due to Farley’s inability to get insured due to his drug problems. Since finishing the book last week, I have often wondered what such a movie would have been like. And with Jim Carrey winning a couple of Golden Globes, it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to imagine Farley being honored as well.

Farley’s struggles with his weight were a source of his comedy yet painful for him at the same time. He struggled with wanting to break free of the roles he seemed confined to, where ‘everyone always laughs when Fatty falls down,’ and into something more complex and fulfilling. Such a struggle is commonplace among such actors, yet the book illustrates his feelings with such emotion tat it is hard not to be moved.

Tom Farley is the force behind this project, and he should be commended for the frank portrayal of his brother’s life that is shown in this book. Things aren’t whitewashed at all, and a nuanced picture of the life of Chris Farley shines through. Different people remember events differently, and both voices are heard. This is especially true with regards to the famous Chippendales scene with host Patrick Swayze. Its popularity can be testament to it being a success, but many like Chris Rock argue that it demeaned Farley in a way that surely led him further into addiction for a skit that had no real comic payoff beyond laughing at a fat man.

Unfortunately, Farley seems to be viewed as another John Belushi, a SNL star who just couldn’t escape his addictions. But as The Chris Farley Show demonstrates, he was much more than that. For those interested in reading a compelling story of misunderstood man told in a unique way, the stars have aligned for this is the book for you.


Matt said...

Interesting review--though of course you wonder how much of the book's "unrealized-potential" narrative is an invention of the author--who is Farley's brother, and so has a stake in his legacy.

Incidentally, Jim Carrey has NOT been nominated for an Oscar (though he's been nominated for six Golden Globes and won twice).

Jon Polk said...

I think a cynical interpretation of such a book is normal, yet I didn't get a sense that the information was being manipulated or presented out of context. I suppose one could contrast this account of Farley's life with another, but I am unaware of another such narrative nor do I think i would be up for actually reading it.

Thanks for pointing out the misinformation about Carrey. I should have looked that up rather than relying on memory.