Chris Farley‘s turn as a Chippendales dancer opposite Patrick Swayze remains one of the most famous sketches in Saturday Night Live history. In roughly six minutes, it introduced America to their new favorite funnyman, a once-in-a-generation comedic talent who could bring an audience to laughter simply by appearing on-screen.
Yet those close to Farley believed the sketch also contributed to the star’s untimely death on Dec. 18, 1997, at the age of 33.
“‘Chippendales’ was a weird sketch. I always hated it,” friend and SNL co-star Chris Rock later admitted in the book The Chris Farley Show. “The joke of it is basically, ‘We can’t hire you because you’re fat.’ I mean, he’s a fat guy, and you’re going to ask him to dance with no shirt on. OK. That’s enough. You’re gonna get that laugh. But when he stops dancing you have to turn it in his favor. There’s no turn there. There’s no comic twist to it. It’s just fucking mean. A more mentally together Chris Farley wouldn’t have done it, but Chris wanted so much to be liked.”
“That was a weird moment in Chris’ life,” Rock continued. “As funny as that sketch was, and as many accolades as he got for it, it’s one of the things that killed him. It really is. Something happened right then.”
The Chippendales scene epitomized Farley, both good and bad. In the sketch, he showcased comedic timing and an uncanny gift for physical comedy. Behind the scenes, he so badly wanted to be accepted that he put aside his own reservations.
“He called me and was like, ‘Lorne [Michaels] and everyone wants me to be a fat guy,'” comedian Tom Arnold recalled. “‘They want me to do a sketch where I’m stripping for Chippendales with Patrick Swayze, and they want me to take my shirt off. And then I’m the fat guy. What do you think? It’s just embarrassing.'”
Watch Chris Farley’s ‘Chippendales Audition’ Sketch
Struggles with his weight and body issues plagued Farley throughout his childhood. In comedy, he found a defense mechanism. Humor was power, and he worked hard to get every laugh.
“Farley was such a sweetheart,” SNL writer Jack Handey recalled in the book Live From New York. “He would come offstage after being in one of my sketches and put his hands together in a sort of prayerful motion toward me and go, ‘Was that OK, was that OK?'”
“Chippendales Audition” took place in Farley’s fourth SNL episode and marked the first sketch in which he starred. It quickly made him a breakout cast member, a status he’d further cement with characters such as Matt Foley and Todd of Bill Swerski’s Superfans.
As Farley became a household name, his addiction spiraled.
“I’d see him doing shots of tequila, literally throwing back shots in a way that made me cringe,” recalled Tom Davis, a Saturday Night Live writer who found Farley at a bar near the show’s studio on multiple occasions. “On one such night I told him, ‘Chris, don’t go back to the office. Don’t let them see you like this.'”
The comedian ignored Davis’ suggestion. “Twenty minutes later we were both back in the office. He was obviously drunk in front of these younger writers, and it was funny to them. He would entertain them and they would all laugh. But if you were aware of what was going on, it wasn’t so funny. He would slap himself so hard that you could see the mark on his face, and that would get a laugh from those writers, but I would see the mark on his face, and I just saw disaster.”
On Saturday Night Live, Farley became a star. He then followed in the footsteps of other alumni, like his idol, John Belushi, and parlayed his popularity into a fruitful movie career. Tommy Boy (1995) and Black Sheep (1996) were box office successes. But as Farley became a Hollywood A-lister, drugs and alcohol fueled his nonstop lifestyle.
“Look, you’re not John Belushi,” Chevy Chase once told him in an attempt at tough love. “And when you overdose or kill yourself, you will not have the same acclaim that John did. You don’t have the record of accomplishment that he had.”
Friends and family attempted to intervene, pleading with Farley to get help. The comedian went in and out of rehab 17 times over the last few years of his life.
On Oct. 25, 1997, Farley returned to host Saturday Night Live. Much of the night’s sketches sought humor in Farley’s addiction battles. Less than two months later, he’d be dead. After a night of partying, the comedian overdosed on a combination of morphine and cocaine, commonly known as a speedball.
Even in his last days, Farley did everything he could to make people around him smile. As he was caught in the throes of addiction, the only thing he craved more was laughter.
“I think Chris just wanted to make people laugh,” SNL alumni Kevin Nealon later opined. “He wanted to make sure that he was funny. He always felt that he had to be funny. That was his torture.”