Chris Farley’s 1990 Chippendales sketch is what happens when a hapless everyman challenges Johnny Castle to a dance-off — innocent, seemingly accidental tomfoolery ensues, with Castle emerging as the winner. Farley starred in the skit with Dirty Dancing’s late Patrick Swayze, one year before the latter was named People’s Sexiest Man Alive. 31 years later, the sketch (which immortalized Farley as a top-rate comedian) is considered epochal by Saturday Night Live standards, and featured a bombastic, bumbling type of self-deprecating humor not seen till Keenan Thompson, Fred Armisen, Bobby Moynihan, Conan O’Brien, and Jack Black many years later. Unfortunately, not even established icons are exempted from backlash. The sketch, though historic, hasn’t aged gracefully, with fresh eyes branding it fatphobic and ableist, even for the times.
Bob Odenkirk of Breaking Bad fame co-wrote I am Chris Farley, a biographical piece on the late comedian, where he openly lambasted the skit and writer Jim Downey’s intentions for creating it. Odenkirk found the sketch disrespectful to Farley’s memory and the legacy he left behind as a beloved funnyman. He called it “f*cking lame, weak bullsh*t” and that Farley “never should have done it.” Former SNL cast member Chris Rock shares Odenkirk’s sentiments. “I always hated it,” he says. “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.”
While the sketch does inadvertently promote unhealthy body image, fellow performer Robert Smigel was quick to defend the concept on The Howard Stern Show, insisting Chris Farley’s charisma (as Swayze’s polar opposite) is what made the sketch. Smigel claims the very fact Farley attempted to match up to Swayze is motivating in itself. He elaborates:
“What was amazing about the sketch and what people forget is that Farley was incredibly nimble. He was an athlete and he danced incredibly well in that sketch, and he had this fantastic energy. In a way, it was a very empowering sketch, and I think that is what people felt the first time they watched it. Like, ‘Look at this guy go and be completely proud and unashamed, and just going for it.’ He’s an amazing physical comedian. He was the most explosively funny person, and I think most people who worked (with him) at that time would agree with that.”
Chris Farley’s 1990 sketch tells the story of two wannabe dancers trying to make it as a Chippendale. Swayze and Farley both pulled the same moves, their only difference being a clear discrepancy in physique. It could be argued Chris Farley technically bested Swayze in energy and talent, with the latter’s only defining characteristic being his well-sculpted body. Swayze’s character was depicted as being timid and insecure, and the punchline Smigel claimed both Odenkirk and Rock had missed was the way Swayze acted as if he didn’t think he had the chops to win, lending more credence to the sketch ultimately being empowering for Farley.
The skit was notably fatphobic in tone, with the show’s would-be producers unabashedly calling Farley “fat and flabby,” contrasting with Swayze’s “lean, muscular, healthy physique,” though they did mention Farley’s dancing was “great” and his presentation “very sexy.” Jim Downey echoes Smigel’s statements, reminding critics audiences adored the sketch for Farley’s spunk and apparent dancing ability, rather than the style of his build.
SNL cast members of old often discussed the sketch among themselves, according to Robert Smigel, with the consensus being, this was Chris Farley at his best. Chris Rock, however, characterizes this moment as Farley’s downfall, adding, “That was a weird moment in Chris’s life. 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.”
Smigel directly references Rock in his interview, telling Howard Stern, “I was in a debate about it with some people who wrote Chris Farley’s book, which was everybody weighing in on Chris’s life and what happened to him. And I think someone in the book said, ‘that sketch was the first step in killing him’ because it was like he had no respect for himself by doing that sketch.”
Chris Farley’s celebrated SNL career ended on December 18, 1997 from cocaine and morphine overdose, same as fellow cast member John Belushi only 15 years earlier. Farley is still regarded as the quintessential SNL personality, the perfect comedian, to this day.