The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts
by Tom Farley and Tanner Colby
Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: Viking Adult (May 6, 2008)
By Joanne Weintraub
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MCT)
MADISON, Wis. — Shaking hands with Tom Farley Jr., I don't quite see the resemblance to Chris.
Shorter, darker and much thinner than his late brother, Tom, at 46, looks like the businessman and dad he is, where Chris, who died 10 years ago at 33, never outgrew his resemblance to an enormous kid.
Over coffee, though, I can see that, behind Tom's glasses, his eyes are light blue, the same shade that looked out from all those pictures of his kid brother. Those baby-blue eyes that, coupled with his dangerous bulk, made Chris Farley appear to be two-thirds frat boy and one-third altar boy.
Growing up in a play-together, stay-together kind of Madison family, of course, the two brothers had more in common than just their eyes.
Tom, who has come to talk about his new biography, "The Chris Farley Show," displays some of his famous sibling's restless energy and ready humor. There's also the gentlemanliness — Chris, despite his notorious excesses, was famous for that among friends — that prompts Tom to arrange our meeting a mile east of the Capitol so I don't have to fight the infamous isthmus traffic on my way in and out of town.
Then there are the things you can't see. Some of them are in the book, notably Tom's own history of alcohol and drug abuse and the years of rationalization that kept him thinking that, well, at least he — like his parents and two of his three other siblings, onetime heavy drinkers all — was no Chris in that department.
Chris stopped using alcohol and drugs more than a dozen times, only to die while under the influence of both. Tom has been clean and sober for years, a former teetotaler who now limits himself to a pint of Guinness on St. Patrick's Day.
But, for all his success battling these demons, another continues to haunt him.
That, too, was a huge one for Chris.
"Food is the worst thing," Tom says, gesturing toward the modest paunch under his polo shirt. "My wife is a marathon runner, but me, I can't get myself to eat right and exercise and lose these 20 extra pounds."
It's tempting to say that Tom is Chris writ small, but that's unfair to both of them. A more complicated and far more interesting version is in the book.
"The Chris Farley Show," which Tom wrote with comedy writer Tanner Colby, is an oral history of the Madison native's rise and fall, based on countless hours of interviews with those who knew him.
The list is long, and many of the names are famous: David Spade, Alec Baldwin, Chris Rock, Al Franken, Conan O'Brien, Molly Shannon, Janeane Garofalo, Tim Meadows, John Goodman, Chevy Chase, "Saturday Night Live" boss Lorne Michaels.
Many of the funniest and saddest stories are from those who knew Chris at Marquette University in the mid-'80s, including Matt Foley, the buddy whose name he swiped for one of his most outrageous "SNL" characters, a wigged-out motivational speaker who lived "in a van down by the river!"
There are pals, too, from Madison's Edgewood High School, guys Chris still hung with years after he became rich and famous. There are old friends from Red Arrow summer camp in Trout Lake, where people say he learned almost as much about comedy as he did on Chicago's improv circuit.
"Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago," Tom says fondly. "That's sort of his Bermuda Triangle."
Naturally, the book has lots of stories from his brothers — not just Tom but Kevin, 42, and John, 39, both actors. Tom and his co-author talked to Chris' only sister, Barb, 48, and their mother, Mary Anne, 72, but wound up not using their anecdotes in the book.
"For my mother," Tom explains, "it's still very hard. It's still about losing her son."
The Farley patriarch, Tom Farley Sr., died at the age of 63, 15 months after Chris was found dead in his Chicago apartment. Some of his children were surprised that Tom Sr. lasted that long.
Both an alcoholic and a voracious eater for much of his life, Tom Sr. weighed 600 pounds when he died. For years before that, until his health collapsed and he was essentially housebound, he was the life of the party.
But it's a funny thing, his son tells me: "When my father died, we figured out that it was really Mom who was the funny one. She's just hilarious, but in a quieter way than he was. That's where Chris got a lot of it."
Long before Chris made a name for himself on "SNL" from 1990-'95 and in movies like "Tommy Boy" and "Black Sheep," the Farleys were semi-legendary in the well-heeled Madison suburb of Maple Bluff. They were one of those big, hospitable Irish Catholic families everyone knew from church or Edgewood High or just because there was always something fun happening at their house.
Much of the fun involved drinking. Cocktails were served and comedy ensued. Tragedy came later.
For those prone to addiction, the Farley household "was a perfect storm," Tom says: freely flowing booze, a love of parties and a firm refusal to talk about "personal" problems. You drank too much, you sobered up on your own, then you drank some more the next day. Maybe you talked about it at confession, but you certainly didn't consider anything as sordid as, say, Alcoholics Anonymous.
College, where Chris roomed with a Budweiser company rep, provided more training in binge drinking. At the Avalanche, a favorite bar in the Marquette area, he perfected a new sport, the naked beer slide.
But Marquette bestowed blessings as well on the former varsity football player.
"Growing up, we didn't have a lot of choices: you played sports," Tom writes in the book. "But at Marquette a dean said to Chris, `Why don't you try out for one of the plays?' Chris was like, `Guys don't do that.'
"But he did it anyway and eventually found out that he wasn't an athlete who happened to be kind of funny. He was an actor who happened to be very athletic."
Madison's Ark Improv Theatre, which also launched actress Joan Cusack, was Farley's first professional gig. But it was while working at Chicago's Second City Theatre that he was discovered by Michaels, which changed everything.
The book recounts Chris' rapid rise at "SNL," where, with Adam Sandler and David Spade, he was part of a brat pack that was seen as excruciatingly funny by some fans and irritatingly childish by others.
Long before starting to work on the book with Colby, Tom, who was a finance and marketing executive in New York for much of the time Chris lived there, had heard most of the "SNL" stories: about the origin of the Foley character, the "Bill Swerski's Superfans" bits ("Da Bears!"), the Farley-Sandler-Spade "Gap Girls" and other sketches; about the drinking marathons and drugged-out lunacy interspersed with stays at a dozen different detox and rehab facilities and attendance at AA meetings.
The New York story he hadn't heard before is one of the book's most moving: an account by a nun, Sister Peggy McGirl, of Chris' friendship with a 70-year-old homeless man named Willie.
Tom knew that Chris, a devout Catholic, had quietly visited and entertained elderly people served by his Manhattan church, St. Malachy's. What he learned from McGirl was that his brother's relationship with Willie transcended mere volunteer work.
"Chris took Willie out to dinner every week," McGirl says in the book. "Chris treated him as an equal, always. He would take him to Broadway shows, take him out to ball games.
"Whenever he had to go away for work, he'd send Willie postcards, and whenever he came back he always brought Willie a souvenir. They were friends for over five years (until Farley died)."
Chris' death — which occurred, almost unbelievably, when he was the same age as John Belushi, his role model in both comedy and self-destruction — eventually inspired many of those around him to clean up their own acts. Among them was everyone in his immediate family except for Barb, who'd never been much of a drinker, and Tom Sr., who seemed to feel it was too late.
The tragedy also led the family to establish the Chris Farley Foundation, which uses humor and frank talk to teach kids about drinking and drugs. Tom, who moved back to Madison four years ago with his wife, Laura, and their three teenagers, recently stepped down from his job as marketing director of the city's Convention & Visitors Bureau to finish the book and head the foundation.
Mary Kate, Emma and Tommy Farley have asked their father some of the same questions school groups ask when he talks to them on behalf of the non-profit group.
What's the hardest drug Chris ever did? Did you do drugs yourself? Isn't it true that pot isn't as bad for you as alcohol?
He tells them that Chris tried heroin, but that it was alcohol that he abused worst and longest. Tom says that, yes, he himself was into drugs years ago but that he's put them behind him. And he says that pot is not only against the law but has brought its share of accident victims to the emergency room.
With his own kids and all kids, he says the most important thing is not to sweep the drinking issue or any other problem under the rug, the way his parents did "when people didn't know any better."
"I tell my kids, `I don't expect you never to drink, (but) I want you to be safe. I tell you in all honesty, if you're stuck somewhere on a Saturday night and you've been drinking and you're afraid to drive home, call me. Don't be afraid to make the freakin' call.' "
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