Saturday Night’s Children: Chris Farley (1990-1995)

Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 36 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.

Whether you admire his overly physical, overly sweaty, overly overweight and beet-red and all-around over-the-top legacy or find it too representative of SNL’s early 90s dependence on frat boy humor, most fans can agree that Chris Farley had a fire inside that raged every second he spent onscreen, from his timid bumbling and self-hatred in “The Chris Farley Show” sketches to his frantic and boiled-over motivational speaker Matt Foley. More than just being solid, Farley was also an SNL devotee to the core, so much so that he followed in the tumultuous and ultimately fatal path of his hero John Belushi and devolved from a young improv star to a bloated alcoholic addict. But while Chris was still here he pushed every moment to the limit, and no cast member has been able to match his vein-bursting level of mental and physical commitment since.

Born in Madison, Wisconsin, Farley grew up in an Irish Catholic family with four siblings and was a clown almost from birth, playing pranks in church and in school from an early age, including mooning his whole class in front of his retired Air Force colonel teacher. After graduating from Marquette University in 1986 with degrees in communication and theater, Farley briefly worked for his father at the Scotch Oil Company before studying improv at the Ark and later, Improv Olympic and Second City in Chicago in 1989.

For SNL’s 16th season in 1990, Michaels chose to hire a slew of new cast members on top of the late-80s remainders, and at one point the season had a staggering 16 players. Farley was brought on as a featured player alongside newcomers Chris Rock and Julia Sweeney. Writers Rob Schneider and David Spade were promoted to featured players soon after, followed by Adam Sandler in January and Tim Meadows a month later. Add that to regulars like Dana Carvey, Mike Myers, Phil Hartman, and the rest, and the competition for airtime was steep. Luckily, Farley had already made a now-infamous first impression with the audience during his fourth show when he posed as a Chippendales stripper alongside host Patrick Swayze.

Farley had a host of recurring characters, the most popular being the bizarre belt-pulling (and Bob Odenkirk-created) Matt Foley and his catchphrase “…living in a VAN down by the RIVER!” who he appeared as eight times. Similar to Foley was Bennett Brauer, the increasingly angry Weekend Update guest with a penchant for air quotes, as well as Todd O’Connor of The Chicago Super Fans, who had a penchant for frequent heart attacks. But he also knew how to channel his energy into subtler roles, like Cindy in the Gap sketches or the old Zagat’s-obsessed wife Beverly Gelfand alongside Adam Sandler as her tired and defeated husband Hank, or his impressions of Tom Arnold, Norman Schwarzkopf, Meat Loaf, Carnie Wilson, Jack Germond, Roger Ebert, Andrew Giuliani, and many other portly icons. He also had two recurring characters with Chris Rock – the rapper/TV show host B Fats on “I’m Chillin” and as Sandman the clown on “The Dark Side.” Farley viewed all his characters in a similar way: “Basically, I only play one character; I just play him at different volumes.”

But as high as Farley rose with his SNL success, his descent into hardcore partying ended up taking over. Early signs included a drunken appearance at Second City after his first year on SNL, which ended in him getting booed offstage. And while he did have a stint in rehab and three subsequent years of sobriety, Farley’s inner demons – as well as, perhaps, his oft-documented desire to entertain others at even the most dire cost to himself – eventually overshadowed his SNL stardom (he and Sandler were fired in 1995) as well as his budding film career, which began in 1992 with SNL movies Wayne’s World 1 and 2, Coneheads, and Billy Madison and grew into starring roles with Tommy Boy in 1995, Black Sheep in 1996, and Beverly Hills Ninja in 1997. His struggles and frequent rehab trips also held up production of his final film Almost Heroes, which was released after his death along with Dirty Work in 1998. He had also been set to voice Shrek, make a Matt Foley feature film, and star in a Fatty Arbuckle biopic by David Mamet.

Farley made his final SNL appearance as host on October 25, 1997 and opened with a sketch called “Permission to Host” in which he insists to Lorne Michaels that he can perform his hosting duties without any issues. In the sketch (you can read the transcript here), Tim Meadows vouches for Farley and delivers an eerie line: “Cannot do better than Chris Farley, sir. I mean, fatty falls down, ratings go up.” Not even two months later on December 18, 1997, Farley was found dead in his Chicago apartment by his younger brother John; the autopsy later showed drug overdose as the cause of death. He was 33 years old, just like Belushi before him, and was left alone to die by a call girl who, according to the biography The Chris Farley Show, “took pictures of him, stole his watch, wrote a note saying she’d had a lot of fun, and left.”

Despite Farley’s sad and tragic death, his lesser-known reputation as a kind, religious, compassionate, and approval-driven sweetheart has only grown since his passing. His funeral reportedly had over 500 friends, family members, and comedy collaborators in attendance, and his SNL legacy has yet to be matched for wild do-anything-for-a-laugh recklessness. In Live from New York, writer Tim Herlihy calls him “a great weapon in the writers’ arsenal” and admits to using him as a device to save his sketches: “If you were writing a sketch and you got to page six and nothing was happening, you would just say, okay, ‘Farley enters.’ I did that so many times in so many sketches. It was a trick that always worked and never failed, especially in read-through.” Chris Rock, who was hired at the same time as Farley, put it this way: “Two guys named Chris, hired on the same day, sharing an office, okay. One’s a black guy from Bed-Stuy, one’s a white guy from Madison, Wisconsin. Now – which one is going to OD? That just goes to show you.” Whether you laugh or flinch when you rewatch that Chippendales sketch, it all comes down to one core concept: Farley would do anything – anything – for a laugh, and he got plenty of them during his short lifetime.

Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.

Saturday Night’s Children: Chris Farley (1990-1995)