Was Chris Farley Funny Because He Was Fat?

'I Am Chris Farley,' Spike TV's new documentary about the deceased comedian, brings back to life his flushed face, strangled shouts, and flailing bowl cut.

|
Aug 6 2015, 3:00pm

Still from 'I Am Chris Farley.' Farley at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel Shoot in 1994. Courtesy of Michael Grecco Photography, Inc.

Amid all the recent civil rights landmarks, it'd be easy to overlook the quietly vogue moment we're experiencing with fatness. Starting from, perhaps, the death of James Gandolfini—that undisputed heavyweight—to Meghan Trainor's fat-positive anthems, the size-22 Tess Holliday's People Magazine cover, and an increasing acceptance of heavier celebrities: Melissa McCarthy, Jonah Hill, rapper Rick Ross, Lena Dunham, Gabourey Sidibe, Zach Galifinakis, and dozens of other celebrities whose talents might have gone underappreciated in another time.

And now there is I Am Chris Farley, Spike TV's new documentary about the deceased comedian. Produced by director Brent Hodges (of A Brony Tale) and Derik Murray (Facing Ali), the film consists of interviews with Farley's close friends, interspersed with photo montages, home videos, and career highlights. Its lineup of talking heads delivers a soft-kill shockwave of 90s nostalgia: David Spade, Christina Applegate, Jon Lovitz, Bo Derek, Adam Sandler, Jay Mohr, Bob Saget, and even the elusive Lorne Michaels.

Watch an exclusive clip from 'I Am Chris Farley' here:

Though still fondly recognized and widely quoted (usually by unfunny guys, though it's not his fault), Farley isn't often included among the great innovators of comedy like Bruce, Pryor, Rivers, Carlin, Radner, Cosby, Kaufman, Hicks. Whether that will change over time is anyone's guess, but in the meantime this documentary places him in a sub-lineage of fat male comedians, noting that he idolized Jackie Gleason, John Belushi, and " the fat kid from Meatballs." Considered alongside his SNL contemporaries, we can see that Farley was a gentle iconoclast: The earnest, bear-hugging innocent playing off the twin avatars of Gen-X dudeness: the affable slacker Adam Sandler, and the withering sarcast David Spade.

There are no curveballs in I Am Chris Farley, no skeletons uncloseted. "We just wanted to tell his story. There's no odd angle," Hodges told me over the phone. We learn that he was a deeply earnest Catholic, and that his "motivational speaker" character is based on his former rugby teammate (a hilariously serene Catholic priest). But for the most part, his early life was Americana by-the-numbers: happy Wisconsin family, Catholic school, summer camp, class clown, football, beer. His path to fame was similarly conventional: a Second City stint under Del Close, SNL, then Hollywood. We come away with the sense that he was an earnest, well-liked guy with some self-esteem and addiction issues, the sort of guy who took his clothes off in public for laughs. "You don't see that many people hating him— everybody loved Chris Farley," Hodges said.

Unlike most comedians who get the biographical treatment, Farley is known more than anything as a performer: "He didn't write, or read, or really do anything, but he was funny, and that was more important," David Spade remembers. And more than anything, his comedy was physical, and just hearing his name brings to mind his flushed face, his strangled shouts, and flailing bowl cut, the nimble herky-jerkiness of a Pixar character.

Still from 'I Am Chris Farley.' Chris Farley, Jill Talley, Bob Odenkirk, Holly Wortell and Tim Meadows perform at Second City in Chicago. Photo courtesy of Virgil Films

Which is all just a way of saying that his comedy was deeply rooted in the fact of his weight. Just shy of 300 pounds at the end of his life, all of his best-known bits are about his weight, whether it's Matt Foley crushing a coffee table, the Chicago Bears superfan pounding his chest to decongest his heart, or the striptease with Patrick Swayze. This is reflected in his friends' probably unconscious tendency to use size metaphors when describing him: There was "always something massive he was doing, something big, something huge," he had a "big appetite for life," he played the "biggest" characters, he was a "giant" star, his talent was "huge," his money was "huge," his laughter is "huge and thick and long" (Adam Sandler—go figure).

Why do we laugh when fat people get hurt? Why are comedies so packed with collapsing chairs, torn trouser seams, popped shirt buttons, objects bouncing off of bellies with a kettle-drum sound effect? It's even true in cartoons: Think of Ren slapping Stimpy, or Homer Simpson tumbling down the Springfield Gorge. Perhaps the overweightness helps us maintain the illusion that they feel less; that any pain, physical or emotional, gets cushioned and absorbed.

That's plainly not how it was with Farley: His pratfalls always looked pretty painful. Apparently they were—his castmates claim that he never broke his fall with his arms or stage props. Also notable is the fact that his comedic injuries were usually self-inflicted. "Chris was just taking it as pain," says Lorne Michaels. "He wasn't paying close enough attention to see that there was a way to do it and not hurt yourself. His commitment was total." Compare that to Jim Carrey, the only comparably famous slapstick comedian of the time, whose characters were always cheerfully invincible: Ace Ventura, Fire Marshall Bill, and the Mask never winced.

Still from 'I Am Chris Farley' from Farley's time at Marquette University. He graduated in 1986. Photo courtesy of Mark Hermacinski/Virgil Films

"His vulnerability was what made him unique," Hodges told me. "We saw what made him happy and we saw what made him frightened and scared." In other words, Farley was a fat guy with thin skin, for whom comedy was a form of self-mortification. He was aware of the double bind that the source of his appeal could also be cause for ridicule—in his first Letterman interview, he recalls his principal telling his mother, "You know the students are laughing at Christopher, not with him." And Tom Arnold confirms: "Chris was acting like he was embarrassed about playing the fat guy, but on the other hand, he fucking loved it, and that's the contradiction he was."

That goes a little way toward explaining his competing impulses. He didn't interview much, and those he gave were essentially comedy performances. (In the Letterman appearance, he comes out cartwheeling and head-banging, but then writhes uncomfortably in his seat like an injured soccer player.) He constantly called attention to himself—dick-flashing in typing class, chugging a Diet Coke to impress Glenn Close—yet kept his personal life private. He would declare that he was going to be a huge movie star, but was painfully self-deprecating. Despite being titled I Am Chris Farley, there's actually only one moment in the film where Farley speaks candidly about himself outside of a stage or set, in a behind-the-scenes clip from Tommy Boy: "I think when fatty falls down, everyone goes home happy," he mumbles shyly, and then twists the knife: "It's easier than dialogue. I don't have much brain."

But this isn't to imply that his comedy schtick was some telling symptom of his premature death by overdose, at the thoroughly Catholic age of 33 (the same, mind you, as Belushi). His death was not a pratfall. Anyone watching the film for sensational details and explanations about Farley's death will come away completely ungratified. In fact, what's remarkable is how little adversity he seemed to face: His childhood was happy, his fame grew swiftly, he was widely liked and admired, and the only real kink in his career was the critical response to his films.

Why did it happen, then? Really, don't ask. Comedy is notorious for these kinds of tragedies, but addiction is common everywhere, and in Farley's case, it wouldn't be fair or accurate to trot out the clichés: the price of fame, the shame of obesity, the demon of addiction, the tears of a clown. "We always want a reason, we want to blame someone, but it doesn't have an answer; addiction doesn't make sense," Hodges said to me. "He's the only guy who knew what he was going through."

So I Am Chris Farley is best watched with the expectation of revisiting his best bits, and hearing his family members, close friends, and famous collaborators remember him fondly, in a van down by the river.

I Am Chris Farley is now playing in select theaters and airs Monday, August 10 on Spike TV. The film will be widely available on August 11 on iTunes, VOD, and DVD.

Tony Tulathimutte is the author of Private Citizens, a novel forthcoming from William Morrow in 2016. Follow him on Twitter.

More VICE
Vice Channels