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Friday, May 16, 2008

Remote Controlled: Q&A with Tom Farley Jr.

I blogged a few weeks ago about "The Chris Farley Show" after reading a few interviews with Chris' brother, Tom Farley Jr., who co-authored the book with Tanner Colby. The book is an oral history of Chris' life from the perspective of family and friends, including David Spade, Chris Rock, Alec Baldwin, Lorne Michaels and others.

Having put out a press feeler at that same time, the book was shipped to me and I read the entire 336 pages in one sitting. It was a quick read -- a humorous, insightful look at Farley's meteoric rise from reluctant Marquette theater student to "Saturday Night Live" mega-star, but ultimately depressing because of his hard-fought sobriety leading to a relapse, and ultimately his death.

I can tell you this about the book: you don't need to be a Farley fan to read it. I'll cop to being more of a "SNL" fan than anything, but there were some rich, emotional layers and plenty of candid interviews. Farley's intricate relationship with Spade, for instance, is broken down with detail for perhaps the first time. There are also interesting nuggets about Chris' Wisconsin background and other enjoyable factoids -- Bob Odenkirk of "Mr. Show" wrote the original Matt Foley sketch while at Second City, Farley was the original voice for "Shrek," stuff like that.

Anyway, check out the main story for the paper here. I figured some people might want longer cuts from the interview, so here's a large portion of the Q&A with Farley Jr. Also, the Wisconsin Historical Society Museum is hosting a "Farley Remembered" exhibit from now until Nov. 15. Check out more here, and for added info and chapters from the book, visit this link.

Was it tough to dredge up some of the more painful memories of Chris, or had these stories been floating around amongst friends and family since he died?

“By going out and talking at middle schools, high schools, colleges … I realized very quickly that these groups required all that honesty. So I was in that mode, and you know, it was a relief, because it was such a roller coaster with Chris. It was hard to see someone you were so connected to, and really enjoyed as a true friend, go through what Chris did. And to be put through what Chris put us all through, nobody was interested in a, ‘Yeah, Chris was such a great, funny guy’ book. It had to be the whole story.”

What really jumps out in the book is that Chris seemed to really, truly try to stay sober, but he just couldn’t slay that demon. And then by the end, some of his closest friends took a defeatist attitude.

“Anyone touched by addiction knows it so well. You go through all the emotions. And you see it in the book, that the same person will talk about Chris with loving remembrance and humor, but then there’s some anger. And we tried every tactic. Chris went through every type of rehab. Everything was tried. But even if everyone does those things that they have to do, until it clicks with the person who needs it, it’s a difficult road. And when people have these old school stigma opinions about addiction, man, I guess all I can say is that I’d be amazed to find somebody who doesn’t know someone who’s had to battle addiction before.”

Well, despite the relapses, there’s real sympathy for Chris in the book. It’s very depressing at the end.

“That’s great. That was my great hope for the book. This is the mode I’ve been in for 10 years. I’ve never been about Chris Farley, the celebrity, and my connection to him. It was always about, ‘How can I bring about his story and use it to help people?' And frankly that’s how Chris would have wanted it, too.”

While reading, I thought of that classic “Saturday Night Live” monologue with Steve Martin as host and how Chris does a song and dance by saying, “Not gonna have a drink tonight! Not gonna get liquored up tonight!” I don’t know if I’d be able to smile at that after reading about his addiction.

“That was all right, though. He was clean and sober for three years. And you know, it was funny. There was a message there, too. He used himself to deliver a message, and if you compare that to the last time he hosted “SNL” and how they did that opening scene (“SNL” has chosen not to re-air the opening scene, where Chris is clearly in horrible shape having relapsed) trying to do the same thing with his drinking, and he was a MESS, well, that just wasn’t funny at all. Actually, that was really sad.”

Despite the trappings of fame and Hollywood, Chris never forgot his roots. He was Wisconsin to the core.

"He really loved telling people that. What Chris was doing was exporting who we are in Wisconsin. We’re a community-based state. Everywhere you go, you get that sense of community. And also a sense of, ‘This is who we are.’ I laughed, because in one interview I told someone, ‘You know, it’s like these knucklehead Chicago people calling us Cheeseheads. You want to call us Cheeseheads? Fine, we’ll wear them on our heads. Yeah, we are who we are. And you can’t frame us any differently.’ ”

Chris’ problems started immediately after he had his first drink, and you make it a point to stress the heavy drinking influence in your family, the normalcy of having alcohol around all the time. What was it like to see Chris sober for those three years?

“After so long, to see Chris healthy, and just being really intelligent about his industry and his career, I was just in awe. It was just like, ‘Wow!’ Once you see that -- and my brothers (Kevin and Johnny), all of us, through the course of time stopped drinking, too -- we saw that whole idea of, 'Wow, what did we miss out on (by getting so drunk)?' So with Chris, it just gave me a real appreciation for how strong addiction can be. It was eye opening and it was devastating at the same time.”

The turning point in the book and in Chris’ life is when he relapses around the time of “Beverly Hills Ninja.” The book points out that he never drank while working, but it was off-camera where he was feeling the stress of a career that maybe wasn’t putting him in the kind of roles he really craved. Was there one factor that overwhelmed everything else when it came to his using again?

“I don’t think it was one particular movie. Chris, for all the talk about idolizing (John) Belushi, Chris certainly liked what John did. But remember, John was, for two years, the most famous guy in America, and Chris had a different experience altogether. There’s a difference between being the most famous guy and just generally being loved in certain circles and, you know, the popularity was a different thing. So it was a different experience, and while Chris liked what John did, Jackie Gleason was always his guy. He wanted to put his heart into everything, and you saw a little of it in “Tommy Boy.” And then it kind of disappeared on him. So that was disappointing. He was basically forced to make “Black Sheep” and he kind of went in sour. So I think, if you’re close to the edge like that, like any addict, they look for reasons to relapse.

"To answer your question, though, if I had to point a finger, I think it was just the industry in general. To be in recovery, you have to bring yourself to this very humble place, and for some of these recovery places, one of them, you know, they let him out to go buy a Viper. How humbling is that? I gotta get a new car. OK …"

And then there’s the Oscars story, about how one of the rehab centers allowed him to go to the Oscars, but the lady in charge had to accompany him and she had to have an expensive dress and started rummaging through his gift baskets …

“Oh, and of course, the Oscars. I mean, he was constantly being taken out and always getting calls from management. You really have to be, it has to be this monk-like existence if you want to make it work. You have to come to grips with yourself, and he just wasn’t there. “SNL,” why he was so successful in his recovery there is that he had that immediacy. Every single day he had laughter. He had people around him telling him he was funny. That was the kind of affirmation he needed on a daily basis. A movie set, the same thing. But all of a sudden, there’s six weeks of downtime between movies, and you know, that was gone. For a guy in recovery, that was a critical part of it. That's why we saw this roller coaster, this up and down.”

He also seemed pretty naïve about the world. Loyal to a fault. Always wanting to please people, which seems to date back to self-esteem issues as a child. The sad clown sort of thing.

“We were all brought up in a close community here in Madison, and our parents really instilled in us a strong faith. Wisconsin itself instilled in us great values, and the result is, Chris saw, or really thought that there was good in everybody. For him, it was all about making people laugh. Everyone was deserving of that. I told Chris -- and that works when you’re here in state -- yeah, we work that way. It’s still incredible to people that your word is your contract here. And it’s still very much like that. But I told Chris, not everyone has your best interest in mind. Not everyone is good. These people selling you drugs, telling you to take harder and harder drugs, what is the good in that? And he couldn’t grasp that. He was shocked by that.”

And that was something he never could cope with.

“It started out on the playground. You had to be damn quick to beat him to the punch if you were going to call him ‘fatty.’ He got there first. And it just disarmed you. You know, ‘Watch fatty! Now what are you gonna say?’ And then he made them laugh and kind of won them over to his side. That is how the process went with Chris throughout his life.”

Was it hard to write about your dad in the book? (Tom Farley was a heavy drinker and weighed 600-lbs when he died shortly after Chris passed away. He was in denial about Chris’ problems to the end.) To cast, maybe not blame, but a certain level of responsibility, at the feet of someone you loved so dearly?

"That was tough for all of us as a family, to look back and realize that situation. We all loved dad. Dad was an incredible individual, larger than life in several ways. All of our friends in Madison loved dad. He went around the state with his asphalt business, he was this guy, a middleman getting bid business from state counties to get their road work. A huge man in a blue blazer, an impeccable tie, and he’s going to meet with state highway committees of gentleman farmers everywhere in the state. And they loved him. You would think, there’s no way they could have anything in common, but dad connected to them. To see him in these little taverns outside of town, holding court with the highway commission, you wouldn’t imagine it in a thousand years.

"And Chris had that same ability. But there was this resistance to communicate. It was always , ‘Dad’s perfect. He looks great. That new blazer is great,' even though it was a size 54 blazer, you know? It really dawned on me when I got married, and my wife said, ‘Why do you keep saying that your dad looks great, that he’s so healthy?’ And it was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t know.’ And for Chris to be large, too, he must have been really confused. He just didn’t understand, didn’t know what to do about it.”

Was it a matter of your dad needing to be more a father and not a friend to Chris?

“Dad was very black and white, very specific. The drinking with him, you know, that’s why I like going out with the (Chris Farley Foundation), to schools and communities in state. I speak the language. It’s such a brutal environment here. It’s such a brutal drinking culture in our state, one that, at the same time, produces such wonderful people. It’s weird. Incredibly bizarre, really. So it’s hard, because drinking is such a delicate communication to people. I think Chris almost felt like, ‘Well, if I stop drinking, now I feel like I’m leaving dad out. If I get thin, I’m leaving dad out.’ It was strange.”

Did anything surprise you while collecting stories?

"I figured everyone had gone through the same roller coaster we did, so those things didn’t surprise me. It was the other stuff. My parents gave us this great faith, great values. We all practiced those, yet Chris seemed to take it to whole new level. There were stories of him befriending a homeless guy, and beyond that, taking him to dinner whenever he was in town, writing to him. He saved this guy’s life basically. Here’s this guy on top of the world, with all this money, and he’s spending his free time in a church with priests, and these homeless people. And it was the same thing in recovery. People still send me e-mails about how, 'Chris, made me laugh during the worst part of my life.' He made recovery in these places, these facilities, so much better. And you know, it was always everyone else first, Chris last.”

What has reaction to the book been like?

"Incredible. Even in the past 10 years, you knew about Chris, the funny stuff. And you knew his ending, but the book was really more about Chris and what kind of person he was. People who weren’t fans, who didn’t like his humor -- and they might have had preconceived notions that are still mired in that stigma about addiction, ‘Oh, he brought it on himself. He wasn’t funny.' -- I got so much of that through the years. So it was nice to go on this media tour, Diane Sawyer on 'Good Morning America,' Greta Van Susteren, have them read the book, and say after, all that negative stuff was gone. There was real compassion for the first time. I heard the stigma behind a lot of interviews before, but now I could feel compassion."

What is it about that negativity, the need to judge someone based on what they saw in an “SNL” sketch or on a news report?

“Even if Chris didn’t have an addiction, and maybe it’s just because I feel it in Madison, the liberal side of Madison, but as a wealthy person, he would have been judged as not being good. Down here, they love to talk about the rich all the time. But my father taught us that with opportunities, you have to do that much more. And Chris did so much for people. He wasn’t a lavish spender, really. His clothes were his clothes. He was very simple for someone making all that money. And he really tried to help people. But with all that, I think people have a tough time looking at the human side -- when people are given so much. Plus, then you have to look at yourself."

Knowing your humble roots, did you ever have a moment when you looked across the room and thought to yourself, ‘Man, Chris has it good. He’s as big-time as it gets.”

“He was my brother. That’s who he was to me. He was always just my brother. A lot of that was because Chris was always true to his roots, so I never thought of him as a celebrity. You know, anytime someone pointed out to me his celebrity status, I would tend to say, ‘Nope. He’s just a Wisconsin boy.'

"And so this book really was about my brother, because I’ve always used Chris’ celebrity for a different purpose. First it was to talk to schools. Deal with my own grief. And I saw that as I went in, his name recognition -- teenage kids stop what they’re doing and listen so intently. So as a marketing guy myself, I thought, there’s a brand there. You can’t get kids to listen at 100 percent levels on these topics, so I’ve always used that. Same with the book. I didn’t want them to see the other side of celebrity. I wanted them to see the other side of my brother.”

Does any moment stick out in that respect?

“I’ll never forget going to Chris’ second year sobriety anniversary. And he’s down in Hell’s Kitchen, New York, meeting with all these homeless people. And he’s telling them, ‘I’m no different from you. I woke up this morning and had to get through the day. And we did. You did it. I did it. That’s all that matters.’ And I’m in the back of the room saying, ‘I don’t know who this guy is.’

“And then having people like Alec Baldwin say, 'God, I wish I could have had his ability to identify characters, the way he brought himself to a scene so fully and honestly,' and it was just like, ‘Wow, I always thought he was the same screw-up from when we were kids.' "

“When he was sober, Chris was untouchable. Incomparable. But drugs and alcohol robbed him of that talent. Was he still funny? Yeah. Maybe for the first five minutes ... But not compared to what he could be, and was at one time. That’s really the legacy going forward.”

-- Thomas Rozwadowski, trozwado@greenbaypressgazette.com

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2 Comments:

Thanks for posting this interview, Thomas. Your story in the paper last week was excellent. Keep up the great work.

By Anonymous Anonymous, At May 22, 2008 at 8:46 PM  

Losing a family member at the tender age of 33 is incredibly tough. It’s even more complicated when that young person lived his existence in a bigger-than-life way, like Chris Farley – and his trials and tribulations are witnessed by millions.

In his new book, The Chris Farley Show, Chris’s older brother, Tom Farley, Jr. – with help from co-author Tanner Colby - pieces together his late brother’s life in the form of an oral history with interviews from most everyone who encountered Chris. This includes family and friends from his youth, on through the “Saturday Night Live” family, and people from his hit movies, including Tommy Boy, Black Sheep, and Beverly Hills Ninja.

The book is an easy, breezy read, and was excerpted last month in Playboy.

You can LISTEN to the Mr. Media/BlogTalkRadio.com interview with Chris Farley's brother, Tom -- who is director of The Chris Farley Foundation -- by clicking HERE!

By Blogger Bob Andelman, At May 25, 2008 at 11:02 PM  

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