“Fatty Rolled, Chris Farley Smoke”
—Big Sean, “Flowers”
I am standing in front of Chris Farley’s tomb for about 30 seconds before I start worrying about what, exactly, is the “appropriate” amount of time to stand in front of someone’s burial spot that shows that you are paying your proper respect. Is it a few minutes? Do you spend an hour? Is this something that could be answered by Yahoo Answers? My editor never mentioned how long I should I should actually spend staring at the gold raised letters and marbled wall of the final resting place of one of the most memorable comic actors of the ‘90s. He just told me to go there.
The reason why makes sense in the context of this website, but was virtually impossible to explain casually. Even though he died in 1997, Farley, he of the tragically short movie career that peaked with Tommy Boy, remains something of a go-to comedian reference in rap songs. Everyone from indie stalwarts Danny Brown, Cage, Ab-Soul and Heems to major label dudes like Big Sean, Drake, Tyga, Ice Cube and J.Cole have used Farley’s name in songs. Surely there’s a reason he gets referenced more than any current SNL cast member, or why only Adam Sandler (thanks to Kanye West) is as ubiquitous a comedian in rap music. What about Farley makes him so eminently rife for reference?
I didn’t know if there was an answer, but we figured me going to see Farley’s grave couldn’t hurt. I’ve lived in Madison for four years, and within five miles of Resurrection Catholic Cemetery that whole time, and never went, because I wasn’t sure how I’d react. Farley was the first (and maybe only) celebrity I ever really looked up to. For a generation of us in Wisconsin, he was a staple of those “A Famous Person From Wisconsin” proto-research papers we’d have to write in middle school, and as a fat kid who tried to make people laugh to cover his own insecurity, I could relate to him. I can remember being in the supermarket line in 1997 during Christmas break, and feeling unbelievably crushed reading all the horrible details about his death in the National Enquirer. I couldn’t imagine what I’d do if I was face to face with the death of a comedian I worshipped when I was 10.
On my drive through the lush, tree-lined, typically suburban Madison neighborhoods that surround the well-manicured cemetery, I couldn’t shake the worry that I’d show up to Farley’s grave and be turned away. It wouldn’t be by some police force protecting the chapel, but by a stereotypical overly nice, 67-year-old woman (the kind that keep church spaces all over Wisconsin open) who would tell me I shouldn’t be hanging out gawking at dead people. Because I am an over-planner, I already knew my way to the cemetery—poetically, the main winding path to the chapel lines up with Farley Avenue—and knew the hours of operation, the rules (the case of beer I thought about bringing was out), exact directions, and knew there wasn’t staff located in the chapel, but at an information center closer to the outskirts of the sprawling cemetery. The woman might come, but at least I’d have a minute to see Farley before she’d guilt me out of the place.
And because of the over planning, I knew exactly where Farley’s tomb was inside the mausoleum. During my Google searches of the cemetery, I found something more macabre than going to someone’s grave to try to explain why Big Sean rapped about them a few years ago: there are a handful of video tours of the mausoleum, rolling cemetery grounds, and parking lot shot in order to show other people on the Internet exactly where Chris Farley is buried. Visiting people who are in a cemetery is a total abstraction: You are assuming that they are really buried where the tombstone says they’re buried, and trying to recall positive memories about them based on your location near that abstraction. I feel like visiting cemeteries over computer networks is as close to living in The Matrix as you can get.
“I’m the black sheep but Chris Farley wears the crown”
—Drake, “Thank Me Now”
The most obvious answer to “Why are rappers still shouting out Chris Farley?” is that “Farley” is a really rhymable word. The research is debatable—and subject to a lot of comment flame wars on English forums—but apparently the most rhymable word in the English language is “me,” which of course rhymes with “Farley.” But mere rhymability can’t explain it all.
For a comedian remembered as often and fondly as he is, it’s worth noting Farley only ever starred in three movies: Tommy Boy, Black Sheep, and Beverly Hills Ninja. He had bit roles in only seven more. That’s a ridiculously low number: Rob Schneider has been in 43 movies. Adam Sandler has been in 37. Farley’s early death had one positive: it prevented him from becoming like some of his SNL castmates, as he never had to be in a Spanglish, or a Click, or a The Animal, or a Joe Dirt, or a Grown Ups 2 (though he certainly would have been in that one if he had been alive). His early death allows him to be remembered completely fondly; it’s easier to bronze his performance in Black Sheep that he isn’t out here groveling for kid movie money.
Despite what comedy websites and the Internet’s “sophisticated” attitudes towards comedy tell us, everyone’s comedy appreciation evolution stops when they turn 12. Whoever you think is the funniest person on earth when you are 12 will always be, in the back of your mind, the funniest person on earth. It’s why old men still watch the Three Stooges and can’t get why they never made anything as funny as that again. It’s why people who were sentient during Eddie Murphy’s brief standup career still consider him the best. It’s why a whole generation of people think that Friends is the best comedy sitcom ever.
And it’s also why Farley keeps getting mentioned in rap songs. When Danny Brown, J. Cole, Drake, J.R. Writer, Ab-Soul, and Big Sean were 12 years old, they were watching Tommy Boy and laughing their asses of. It hasn’t been properly appreciated how huge that movie was among 12-year-olds between 1995 and 2001. I bet there are 12-year-olds right now who could recite the scene where Tommy self-sabotages his first sale. It’s probably more of a tween boy sleepover comedy staple than any Adam Sandler movie ever was.
“I’m John Belushi meets Chris Farley when I party”
—Nacho Picasso, “Haile Selassie”
“Bitch I wanna party like Chris Farley”
—Danny Brown, “Die Like a Rockstar”
“So I hope when I’ma die, dope like Chris Farley”
“I Chris Farley O.D. with the tommy, boy”
—J.R. Writer, “100 N The Clip”
No matter how weird YouTube cemetery tours are, they are actually useful. The ones showing Farley’s tomb allowed me to locate it about 10 seconds after I entered the chapel at Resurrection Cemetery. I wish I could say that the physical location is something “special” or that it serves as a metaphor for Farley’s life, but it doesn’t. It’s in a sunny anteroom in the chapel, in between the main sanctuary and other mausoleum rooms. We’d all like to think that our burial spot will take on some great meaning—that our physical grave will mean something to the people coming to visit it—but when you get down to it, if you’ve seen one grave you’ve seen them all. So does Farley’s grave befit the legend that was his life? Does any grave befit that person’s life? I’m sure the people next to him lead just as memorable lives, just not notorious enough to be mentioned by Nacho Picasso.
I realize I’m skating around the obvious here: Chris Farley gets mentioned in rap music all the time because he was well known as a prodigious drug abuser, to the point where that’s arguably the most well-known thing about him. Tales of his drug abuse are legendary, and to say hip-hop has something of an interest in drugs is to travel in vast historical understatements.
The way that we romanticize overdose deaths never meshes with what actually happened, though. So while we like to imagine Farley’s drug problem as a semi-necessary evil that made him the wild man he was on SNL all those years (would he have been as manic and funny as Matt Foley without the blow?) the details of his death are profoundly sad.
His last week on Earth was spent running around Chicago strip clubs high on freebase. One night Dennis Rodman sent one of his bodyguards to take Farley home; when Dennis Rodman is a voice of restraint in your life, you are out of control. But the saddest detail—which I remember from that tabloid—is that the last time anyone saw Farley alive, he was on his knees begging a stripper to stay overnight with him because he didn’t want to be alone. This was a guy who was at least one of the three most famous comedians in the world at the time, and he was so lonely he was begging someone he didn’t really know to not leave him. Not exactly the blaze of glory you’d imagine Farley going out in.
“With him and at him, Brown Chris Farley”
I’d be seriously remiss if I didn’t make special mention of Himanshu Suri from Das Racist, who is the most prodigious Chris Farley-referencer in all of hip-hop. By my count, he’s mentioned Farley in at least five songs (“Relax,” “All Tan Everything,” “Cowabunga Gnarley,” “A Different World” and “Zoo Too”), and more across freestyles. It’s a favorite trope of his—calling himself the “Brown Chris Farley”—and the drug overdose connection is present in Heems’ work; he spent a lot of Wild Water Kingdom worrying about his substance habits killing him. But Heems referencing Farley is more complicated than that.
That line above from “Relax,” for instance, encapsulates a lot of the troubled relationship Farley had with being famous. His whole life he was funny, but he was never sure if people were laughing at him, or with him. There are stories of him telling Second City castmates that people were coming “to see the fat boy fall down.” Basically every profile/story written about Farley in the press mentioned his belly and his sweating. A New York magazine dismantling of SNL during the Farley years seemed built around a quote from a SNL writer telling Farley that everyone laughing at his farting were laughing at him, not with him.
That concern speaks to the main worry Heems expresses in his songs; that he’s being otherized by the community that has embraced him (the white indie rock rap fan) and that he can’t tell if people are being sincere when they like him. It’s a fear that is there for all of us, really: How are you sure that anyone’s feelings towards you are “real”? That worry might have been the real thing that killed Farley. I’m not saying there’s a “right” way to reference Farley in song, but there is a way that will bum you out when you think about it.
Back at Farley’s grave, I am considering how being buried in a mausoleum makes the reality of your death, in a way, more forceful. It puts you on a wall and forces you into direct eye contact with people who are there to see you, and who are left Googling whether or not people in tombs in mausoleums are buried in coffins or just a skeleton behind a slab (it’s the former). In the end, all we are really promised in life is a rock in a field, and the vague hope that people will remember us, so that we don’t just become a forgotten hunk of granite between floral arrangements. Death has a way of making all of us equal—all being famous guarantees is sweet mausoleum placement—and probably the best possible outcome is that people will drop references to you in songs where they totally wash Wiz Khalifa. I think that’s what that Kansas song about us being dust is about.
And just when I was wondering how I should process seeing Farley’s grave, a guy walked into the chapel and told me it was closing time. In that moment, the theoretical guilt I felt in my car became very real. I realized I probably shouldn’t go looking at a celebrity’s grave to try to provide context for something that I noticed in a lot of music I like. All told, I was in front of his crypt for nine minutes. I don’t think I’ll ever go back.
Andrew Winistorfer confronts his own inevitable demise daily. He's on Twitter — @thestorfer