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Farley on Letterman, 1994: An appreciation

Chris Farley’s first on-air appearance with David Letterman captured the oddball charm of both men.

Chris Farley’s first on-air appearance with David Letterman captured the oddball charm of both men.

It might come as no surprise, but we here at Tone Madison are by and large David Letterman folks. Tonight’s Dave’s last night, so we thought it’d be fitting to take an extended look at the first time Chris Farley was on his show, back in 1994. Sure, there are Madison natives more famous than Farley who have landed on the couch opposite David Letterman, but do you really wanna watch Chris Noth get chatted up about playing Mr. Big on Sex & The City? Probably not.

“Ladies and gentlemen, run for your lives, it’s Chris Farley!” So begins Farley’s first appearance on The Late Show. Farley immediately admits that he’s, understandably, very nervous. Even by Farley standards he’s a fidgety mess, and it’s incredibly evident that being there on that stage and sitting across from that dude is a huge deal for him,

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Even once he’s stopped squirming in his seat, Farley easily pulls laughs from the studio audience and Dave with the slightest of physical gestures. It’s amazing to see the huge and sincere laughs that Farley manages to squeeze out of Dave with such simple stories sold with those solidly delivered punchlines. Letterman was never stingy with his laughter, but the connection he made with Farley on that night was unusually strong and immediate.

Farley was a big man and is rightfully remembered for his equally large over-the-top physical comedy, but here you see the surgical precision the guy had under all of that, holding all the moments for just the perfect amount of time, and nailing the tones and pitches of his reactions to get the most out of them.

Taking his guest’s childlike fawning in stride, Dave assumes a fatherly role, chiding Chris for not buttoning down his collar. Whether consciously or not, Letterman would play this role on every one of Farley’s subsequent visits to The Sullivan Theater, going so far as to wipe chocolate from a prop Academy Award off his face and even kiss him on the cheek a couple of years later.

Farley returned in 1995 and 1996 to promote his David Spade buddy films Tommy Boy and Black Sheep, respectively, and each appearance incrementally upped the ante. In 1995 he did a cartwheel on his way to the couch, and in 1996 he carried an audience member all the way out to the street and deposited him in a dumpster before heading back in and pulling another cartwheel (“I’ve done this show an awful long time, and that, right there sir… was the finest entrance a guest has ever made,” Letterman told him).

Sure, all that insanity makes for great comedy and those later visits to Late Night might ultimately be more memorable, but they lack the subtleties and heart that marked the genius of both men. We’ll miss David Letterman, and watching all this just makes me miss Farley that much more.

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