by Preston Tolliver
Twenty years ago, a new era of slapstick comedy was born. And then it was taken away from us way, way too soon.
March 31 marks the 20th anniversary of Chris Farley's leading debut on the big screen, when he portrayed Tommy Callahan, son of Big Tom Callahan, a man whose death put the fate of his auto repair parts business in the hands of his dimwitted -- albeit lovable -- son. It was the first of many where he'd play that one character -- a man we not only laughed at, but with. Today, it's the highest-rated film that Farley led, hitting an even 7.0 on IMDb, a rating that really undersells the talent he brought in all his roles.
Of course, “Tommy Boy” wasn't the start of his comedic career, only the first of his leading roles on the big screen. He spent five seasons on “Saturday Night Live,” creating such memorable (and perhaps some of the most quotable) characters as cynical-and-far-too-personal news correspondent Bennett Brauer, Todd O'Connor of Bill Swerski's Superfans, his nervous and self-deprecating host of the Chris Farley Show, and of course, Matt Foley, a manic motivational speaker, a role that would preface his comedic tag team reign with David Spade.
On his roles alongside Spade: they were short-lived. But although they only starred in two films together – “Tommy Boy” and its follow-up “Black Sheep” -- those films are what fans of Farley generally remember most. If Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder are Pippen and Jordan, then Farley and Spade were more Bill Murray and Wayne Knight in “Space Jam.” They were fun to watch, but they were still one piece and a ton of experience away from being great. You could argue that they could at least prove competitive to other popular film duos: Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, but “Tommy Boy” and “Black Sheep” alone wouldn't come close to sniffing the Big Screen Tag Team Championship.
Some of Farley's best ‘SNL’ roles were single-use: his sketch alongside Patrick Swayze comes to mind (though it has been criticized as mean, a skit where some laughed at Farley more than it did with him), the two vying for a dancing position with Chippendale's. Swayze had the looks and the body, but Farley had the agility and the laughs. For a 300-pound man, he moved on stage and screen with grace, doing cartwheels in a way I've yet to perfect at 150 pounds skinnier.
What was unique about Farley's short film career wasn't the characters he played -- he only had one, at least in terms of his leading roles: the lovable screw-up, who brought with him to every movie an arsenal of fat and uncomfortable jokes. What was unique was his talent to take that character and introduce him to new settings, and each setting take the viewer on a different ride to the same means -- an ending where that lovable screw-up finds redemption and his happily-ever-after. It was always the same story, and it was always told the same way, but with entirely different words and backgrounds.
He got his foot in the big screen door through cameo roles alongside other ‘SNL’ alumni -- playing Milton in “Wayne's World,” Ronnie in “Coneheads” and a creepy-and-all-too-realistic bus driver in “Billy Madison.” Some of these even overshadow some of his starring roles, such as his not-so-popular “Beverly Hills Ninja,” where he plays that same character, only as a ninja named Haru who keeps getting saved by Robin Shou ("that guy from Mortal Kombat," as he's more commonly known), until finally Haru gets to save Shou and get the girl.
His curtain call would come in 1998 with the posthumously-released “Almost Heroes,” where he played Bartholomew Hunt, playing his regular shtick to Matthew Perry's Leslie Edwards, who really was just Chandler Bing in colonial garb. It was slaughtered by critics, even today holding a 5.7 rating on IMDB and an abysmal 8 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. It was released over six months after Farley's death, the end result of drug abuse and a weight problem that may have been Farley's greatest punchline. He was 33.
Being human (especially one with a lot of time on his hands), it's fun to imagine an alternate reality, one where Farley overcomes his drug addiction and his career gets the chance to skyrocket. Like any daydream, the possibilities are endless and frankly, fun to think about. Here are a few:
* Farley and Spade continue tag-teaming the comedy genre, culminating in a buddy-cop movie in which Spade is a hardnosed detective and Farley is the new-guy whose skills at solving cases can only be described as "prophetic and 'incredibly detrimental to the department's integrity'." The film, “Law and Disorder” (working title, willing to budge), gets nominated for Best Comedy but is edged out. Meanwhile, Farley and Spade continue to move up in the "Best Comedy Tag Team," and eventually challenge Pryor and Wilder's 20-plus-year reign.
* Every awful Rob Schneider cameo in Adam Sandler movies is replaced with Chris Farley. Imagine Chris Farley dressed as a backwoods Louisianan yelling "You can do it!," followed up by his hoarse laugh and tell me it doesn't make that movie ten times better.
* “Grown Ups” still happens for some reason, but Farley replaces Kevin James. James, meanwhile, goes on to make “Hitch 2” with Will Smith, which barely beats out “Law and Disorder” (tentatively titled) for Best Comedy.
* Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Jane Curtin perform the same Weekend Update bit they did for the ‘SNL’ 40th anniversary show, only at the end, the camera pans to the right for Chris Farley's revival of Bennett Brauer. He ends his best-rant-yet by flying over the audience one last time. The crowd goes wild.
* After “Almost Heroes,” Farley spends the next 15 years making comedy after comedy, but keeps coming short of any big-time awards. He then transitions into drama, and wins Best Actor for his leading role in biopic “High Times: The Rob Ford Story” (tentatively titled). This skyrockets him into a new chapter of his storied film career, and he becomes the next Daniel Day-Lewis.
Chris Farley was extreme, intense, manic, sometimes sweaty and always hilarious. He was goofy, fun and quotable ("Fat guy in a little coat," "...living in a van down by the river," and "Aww man, yeah!"). He quickly became a giant staple of slapstick comedy, oftentimes compared to John Belushi, and his death left a giant void in slapstick we've yet to really see filled. But until it is, I'll keep thinking about what could have been.