Remember Chris Farley's most endearing sketch on Saturday Night Live ? 'That was awesome'

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·7 min read
Remember Chris Farley's most endearing sketch on Saturday Night Live ? 'That was awesome'
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Fall 1991. The World Wide Web was in its infancy. The Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse. In early September, Nirvana released their hit song "Smells Like Teen Spirit," trailblazing a new genre in popular music. In many ways, the world was at a pivot point, reviewing its past and sowing the seeds for the future.

And at Studio 8H in Rockefeller Center, a young Chris Farley uttered a phrase on Saturday Night Live, which perhaps best captured the excitement and uncertain energy of this turbulent period: "That was awesome."

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE

Al Levine/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images Chris Farley with Paul McCartney on 'Saturday Night Live'

The premise of SNL's "The Chris Farley Show" was simple: The comedian portrayed himself as a bumbling, sweet-natured TV host, nervously interviewing celebrities. Playing into his innate charm and innocence, at the time the sketch tweaked Farley's loud, more physically demanding persona. This was a performer who broke through stripping in a Chippendales sketch, and who once stormed into a UFO with his pants falling down during another episode. Originally conceived by writer Tom Davis, who enlisted Jim Downey, "The Chris Farley Show" placed Farley in a sketch scenario where he would not be able to perform over-the-top. The idea turned out to be one of Farley's signature bits.

As SNL head writer, Downey had long backstage interactions with Farley, a bona fide comedy stan, who would enthusiastically recreate classic routines and moments, with no pay-off. "We submitted it, actually, as a joke at read-through. I thought it was too inside, so it would never make it on the air," Downey later recalled in The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts, co-written by Farley's brother, Tom. "But Lorne [Michaels] liked it immediately."

The first sketch debuted on Oct. 5, 1991, opening with a cheesy yet earnest theme song that totally set the tone. The episode's host, Jeff Daniels, appears as Farley's guest/victim, whom the anxious comedian introduces as "one of the greatest actors around, um, I guess." Even before things get underway, the first joke lands.

"The Chris Farley Show" feels like a predecessor to Between Two Ferns. Stammering through his questions, Farley is both hilarious and cripplingly uncomfortable to watch. Daniels resists the urge to roll his eyes at the meandering and inane line of questioning. Somehow, the conversation pivots to Farley's love of Die Hard. In these excruciating moments, Farley becomes an audience surrogate – who hasn't been faced with a larger-than-life star or personal hero and been completely tongue-tied?

Particularly in classic sketches like this, the audience's energy is palpable. You can tell they immediately get it. There's no learning curve, as Farley quickly commands laugh after laugh — not through pratfalls but serving a master class in awkwardness — from pointlessly describing a scene in Something Wild ("Remember when…"), to getting unreasonably upset with himself for getting a small fact wrong, to bonding with a caller named Dawn over their shared love of Terminator II. It's electric.

SNL cast member Siobhan Fallon Hogan, who played Dawn in the sketch, remembers working with Farley fondly, noting: "Chris was as fabulous, lovable and as wildly humble off-screen as he was in 'The Chris Farley Show' sketches."

"The Chris Farley Show" returned a few weeks later on Nov. 16, 1991. The episode featured a murderers' row of classic characters and sketches: Deep Thoughts With Jack Handey, Toonces, It's Pat, Massive Headwound Harry, and Zoraida the page. Near the end of the show — following a rare for the era women-driven sketch featuring Fallon Hogan — you hear that classic G.E. Smith guitar bumper and the "Farley Show" theme fades in; surprisingly, Farley was not joined by the night's host, Linda Hamilton, but "one of the greators directors of, uh, all all time," Martin Scorsese. Farley is a fan of Scorsese's movies, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas, "which is completely awesome."

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After recounting the immortal clown scene between Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, Farley brings up the controversial The Last Temptation of Christ, a film about Jesus' dual nature. He brings up the scene where Jesus (Willem Dafoe) becomes enraged at the moneychangers and overturns the table. "Was that your idea?" he inquires. "No, it's from the New Testament," deadpans Scorsese. He then insists Scorsese reenact the famous De Niro scene from Taxi Driver. Even back in 1991, Scorsese was already a Mount Rushmore figure in American film.

Downey originally did not want to bring the sketch back again after the Scorsese cameo, reasoning people would tire of seeing the same premise repeated over again. But, for the Feb. 13, 1993 episode of SNL, Farley insisted.

In the Alec Baldwin-hosted episode, Farley interviewed one of his childhood idols, the Beatles legend Paul McCartney, who was on as musical guest to promote his album Off the Ground. In the sketch, the former Wings frontman is ever patient and encouraging, despite the comedian asking about him getting arrested and jailed for attempting to bring marijuana into Japan.

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In the interview's best moment, Farley asks Sir Paul: "Remember when you were in the Beatles? And, um, you did that album Abbey Road, and at the very end of the song, it would.. the song goes, 'And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make'? You.. you remember that?" After McCartney replies yes, Farley pauses: "Uh, is that true?" It's such a simple and perfect follow up. McCartney answers: "Yes, Chris. In my experience, it is. I find, the more you give, the more you get." It's a perfect moment. Somehow, through his sweetness and anxiety, Farley belts a rock journalism home run.

And then, it was over. "The Chris Farley Show" ended as a trilogy, and perhaps for the best – it did not linger like some of SNL's more overexposed recurring characters. After all, Farley was playing himself. However, if you squint, super-fans can enjoy this season 19 cold open, where Farley discusses host Kim Basinger's past relationships with overweight men who resemble him. Many of the classic "Farley Show" traits are present. It's not the same, but it's got a similar spirit and cadence, like the writers were devising a new way to incorporate the awe-struck, gentler Farley back into the show.

30 years later, "The Chris Farley Show" remains a standout example of SNL playfully and wryly commenting on one of its most beloved cast members. Put Lil Baby Aidy, or even some of their meta moments featuring Pete Davidson, under a microscope and you will see some of the "Farley Show" DNA. Would the lovable brake pad salesman in Tommy Boy exist without this as a prototype?

And yet, decades later, the sketch also feels singular in its treatment of Farley as a person. Fallon Hogan (whose film Rushed recently debuted in Europe as A Mother's Fury) puts it this way: "'The Chris Farley Show' was incredible because it really was art imitating life. Every Monday there would be a meeting with whoever was the host that week and Lorne would go around the room and we would each have to tell the ideas we had for a sketch. It was like being on the hot seat as you pitched your ideas. Chris's interview with Paul McCartney was a brilliant sketch as his performance was as hilarious as he would be in the meetings, as he would get flustered pitching his idea. If he didn't like his pitch he would whack himself in the head just as he did in the sketch."

In considering Farley's legacy, any best-of reel must spotlight "The Chris Farley Show." It's the rare example of a late night comedy sketch perfectly capturing a performer's contributions to SNL, superlative comedy chops and humanity in one fell swoop.

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