You can’t think about Chris Farley and not have an opinion of him. I got the assignment to review “The Chris Farley Show” by his brother Tom and Tanner Colby, author of “Wired” a story of John Belushi’s own meteoric rise and fall, and thought, “Jesus. Chris Farley? Beverly Hills Ninja? Really?”
The story of Farley, as he’s affectionately called by his friends in narratives compiled almost a decade after the “Saturday Night Live” star’s death by cocaine overdose, is on the one hand a group of friends remembering a person frequently described as a force of nature, and something of a book of regrets: looking back on their friend’s all-consuming drug problems, alcoholism and inexorable self-destruction, the closest friends and colleagues of Chris Farley are sorry they didn’t do anything to save their friend.
You’ve heard it before, the story of The Great Artist brought down by drugs; Edie Sedgwick comes to mind; Jimi Hendrix; and of course, John Belushi.
And so the book takes two directions, and is pulled between them constantly. Was Chris Farley a comic genius, a force of charisma unlike anything his friends “" teammates at Second City and “Saturday Night Live” “" had ever seen? Or was he, as his brother describes him, a deeply religious kid, ashamed of his weight and scared of the devil, hungry for love?
I suppose the question is: why can’t we think of him as both? The book, a series of interlocking, transcribed oral narratives, constantly toes the same line between self-important exoneration and apology with which most celebrity postmortems wrestle, to no clear answer.
Is that the core of the narrative? It has to be. The book might be an oral history, but given that it was co-authored by the man who, essentially, taught Chris Farley how to live, it has to have been delicately constructed to toe the line.
When the book’s authors made the decision to get away from straight-forward narrative biography and let the voices of Farley’s friends simply take over, the reader is thrust into a complicated narrative less about the actor himself and more about the difficult feelings everybody had for Farley.
Should they save him, or should they laugh? Nobody outside of Farley’s family admits to guilt by complicity; only Farley’s own siblings recognized in the book that Farley, and their entire family, had serious issues.
And in a way, co-author Tanner Colby is to blame. Early in “The Chris Farley Show” Farley’s brothers discuss how Chris read Colby’s book about John Belushi’s drug problems, “Wired” and describe how he took all the wrong lessons away from the narrative. According to “The Chris Farley Show” what Farley learned form Colby’s book about his on-screen idol was, essentially, that if Farley drank to excess and was a wild and crazy man, people would love him.
The worst part of the whole sordid thing is that everybody did love Chris Farley despite, or in spite of, his incredible self-immolation. I got the feeling from the book that the people around Farley thought of him as a beautiful train wreck: a huge, powerful force, completely destroyed. They wanted to slow down and watch, but couldn’t bear to pull bodies from the wreckage.
The troubling thing is, reading the book and watching clips of Farley’s performances, I couldn’t help but read into them deeply. When Farley’s most famous character, motivational speaker Matt Foley (named after a childhood friend) scolds David Spade and warns him that he will end up thrice divorced and in a van by the river, I couldn’t help but wonder if Farley was yelling at himself: an alter-ego character that came out and talked to everybody but the actor responsible for bringing him to life.
The book, like Farley as he’s described, will draw you in, and you won’t want to look away. I found myself captivated as much by the better days Farley had, the honest-to-god funny stunts he pulled growing up, as I was by his absolutely stupid binge-drinking once he found fame at Second City and “SNL.” I couldn’t decide which was more powerful, the good or the bad, and I get the impression that this is what the authors wanted.
After all: if they’re wrestling with their own guilt, shouldn’t the reader? If everybody who ever knew Chris Farley beyond his shitty, fratboy movie was so conflicted about him, shouldn’t people who are drawn to his story also wrestle with it?
So that’s what you get when you pick up “The Chris Farley Story”: conflict, indecision and guilt. Thinking back on it, I can’t help but think about Macbeth’s soliloquy: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.”
What have we got to remember Chris Farley? YouTube, Hulu, DVDs, and “Tommy Boy.”