At the Wisconsin Historical Museum exhibit Chris Farley Remembered, a monitor shows a loop of highlights from the Madison native's Saturday Night Live stint. Included, naturally, is a sketch featuring Matt Foley, the hopeless motivational speaker who was Farley's best-known character.
In the uproariously funny skit, Foley tells skeptical youths how to avoid a desperate future -- a future that in fact is Foley's desperate present, a sad life of homelessness. Avoid drugs, Foley loudly suggests, or "You're gonna be doin' a lotta doobie-rollin' when you're livin' in a van down by the river!"
Farley's undoing was, of course, not marijuana but stronger stuff. A placard in the exhibit clinically notes that he died Dec. 18, 1997, at age 33, because of "opiate and cocaine intoxication with coronary atherosclerosis." Still, Matt Foley's gag about the toll of drug abuse is poignant, even ominous. At the time of his greatest success, did Farley worry about the dire turn his life was taking, and channel that worry into comedy?
Clearly Farley was concerned about his drug use, so much so that, as the small exhibit notes, he sought treatment an astonishing 17 times. That grim disclosure comes at the end of an outline of Farley's life and career: his boyhood in Maple Bluff, his education at Edgewood High School and Marquette University, his comedy career in Chicago, New York and Hollywood.
Illustrating the story are various mementos, including Farley's Edgewood football jersey and the loud Matt Foley jacket. One museum case documents Farley's movie career, which consisted of several slapstick comedies and some smaller roles. Another case holds a chunk of Farley's star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame.
The exhibit's greatest tribute is that brief loop of SNL highlights. Farley was perhaps the show's finest physical comedian, and it is marvelous to see him contort his big body, whether as a figure skater or a would-be Chippendales dancer.
But watching Farley perform is also sad, because his life and career were so short. To contemplate his death -- to contemplate the death of any young addict -- is to wonder what might have been.