I hope Chris Farley’s mom Mary Anne had a nice Mother’s Day last Sunday. I hope her four living children called from wherever on earth they were to say they love her, sent her cards that made her giggle and flowers that make her happy. If anybody was nearby, I hope they stopped over with the grandkids and fussed over her more than usual. And I hope these bright spots in the day brought her joy, because you have to believe Chris Farley’s mom was in pain. I imagine it was a quiet pain, the kind you feel down deep, the kind that washes over you, then weighs down like an anchor on the tips of your toes. The kind of pain that can only come over a mother who has been made to endure the death of a son—a young son, a loving son, a smart and funny son.
Mrs. Farley’s son was the kind of famous only a handful of humans get to be. Rock-star famous. Some Saturday nights Chris Farley was the funniest damn guy on the planet—at least to the parts of the planet that aired Saturday Night Live and the people on the planet who could stay up late enough to watch him. How somebody could get into a character the way he did—with such “gusto,” as one person who worked with him back in his Madison improv days put it—is the stuff of genius.
The Chris Farley Show, released in hardcover by Viking last week, describes in detail the funnyman’s rise to renown. But to the Farley family’s credit the story does not shy away from the ugly tailspin into obliteration that followed. To be honest, it sort of feels like E! True Hollywood Story with a purpose. Chris’s biography is at times so sad it’s almost too hard to go there with him—even in the pages of a book. But his brother Tom, who co-wrote the book, did. He went there. He says it took him ten years, but he did it. And so I think you should, too.
I promise you won’t regret it. To be honest, I had no personal or professional investment in the book (see the blog before this one). I only know Tom a little, though I think he’s a really nice, warm, well-meaning guy. I certainly don’t know the rest of the Farleys or anybody particularly close them. My closest claim is a friend who grew up a few blocks away from their home in Maple Bluff. That and the time I stumbled into a Northwoods bar to find Chris holding court on a visit to the summer camp he and his brothers cherished. It’s a memory I’ll never forget.
As for Chris’s career, I wasn’t all that impressed with the guy the few years he was an uber-celebrity. Hated Tommy Boy. Still do. Other than the fact that I’ve spent the last fourteen years living in his hometown, and for the last eight I’ve edited a magazine named for that city, I didn’t have any compelling reason to connect with the story—and yet I devoured the extremely well-edited string of recollections from the people who knew him like it was my first meal in a week. SNL captain Lorne Michaels said part of Chris’s attraction was you felt like you knew him. But after reading the book, it’s clear I didn’t. I had no idea the depths of his talent or the sad, frightening toll his addiction took on him and his loved ones.
After speaking with Tom yesterday during a taping of Neil Heinen’s For the Record, I came away feeling like the book was cathartic for him, and that it’s given him a renewed energy to pursue his noble efforts to reach kids battling addiction through the Chris Farley Foundation he runs. Tom turned me on to one more reason to read, appreciate and share this book with others: it can help heal people. Read the speech Chris gave at the Hazelden rehab facility during his three years of sobriety, then turn the pages that lead to his death just a few years later. It’s a real wakeup call to how deep and devastating it is to battle alcohol and drugs.
Tom told us that when Chris was sober, “nobody could touch him.” The skits etched into our collective memory, such as motivational speaker Matt Foley and rabid fan Chris fawning over Paul McCartney, were crafted and performed when the man was healthy. When Chris’s mom could sleep at night.