For those of a certain generation (namely, most of the writing and editorial staff of this site) Tommy Boy was a formative film. With a brash and boisterous performance by Saturday Night Live‘s Chris Farley, the story of the hapless underdog who must help save his family’s auto parts company is indicative of the mid-90s shtick where a long series of PG-13 comedies involving goofy but lovable dumbasses entertained teens, especially when the films ended up dominating home video with the opportunity for interminable rewatches.
Shot in and around Toronto (including at what’s now the Distillery District in the east end of the city), the film continues to find new generations of fans that fall for Farley’s hi-jinks. We spoke to Peter Segal about directing Farley in his 1995 debut film, about its surprising second life at home, and how modern comedy cinema has shifted in focus.
The following has been edited for clarity and concision.
What’s something that fans might not know about Chris Farley?
He was an athlete and he was competitive. We talked at length when we drove to meet Brian Dennehy. We knew that the ratings for Saturday Night Live were not great and the expectations of an original movie not based on SNL characters put us also in the doubtful column. Chris looked at me in the car and said, “You know, everyone expects us to fail, and the only success we’re going to have is with a win. We have to make a movie that works.” It was a bonding moment for me that was very genuine and real and based on fear and competitiveness. Anyone who worked on SNL will tell you it was very competitive. Chris didn’t want to go out there with a failure as a first starring role, especially with [Adam] Sandler out there doing his first starring role with Billy Madison shooting almost simultaneously.
Billy Madison was also shooting in Toronto at that time. Was there a sense of Lorne Michaels was just moving his cast to Canada?
Billy Madison was not a Lorne-produced movie. That was Sandler on his own, and so I think there might have also been competitiveness with Lorne Michaels wanting to make sure that a product that had his name on it had the same kind of quality that his television empire had. I think one of the reasons that Tommy Boy may resonate with fans is that it’s not just Chris screaming and falling through tables, although we had that too, to play to his base. I saw an opportunity, having worked with him a couple of other times and spending time with him off camera, to show the audience other aspects of his personality, the more sensitive side. We found the right combination of the sweet and the salty [aspects] of his sense of humour, and I think that’s why the movie seems to last.
The film has echoes of another Canadian, John Candy
John Candy’s a good example of a path that I thought Chris could have taken. Uncle Buck in particular, was Candy’s version of what I thought Chris displayed in Tommy Boy, a combination of a sensitive side with the comedy.
How has the film gone from a moderate theatrical success into a cult favourite?
I didn’t realize how the movie really stuck in the zeitgeist until a few years after when I would be travelling and kids would get in an elevator with me and start saying “housekeeping.” They’d do the scene, not even knowing I was on the elevator or I had anything to do with the movie. A friend from my high school days who was a Top Gun fighter pilot called me and said, “I just want you to know that when our pilots get in their flight suits, we sing ‘Fat Guy in a Little Coat.'”
I think Tommy Boys permeates different generations. After the tenth anniversary of the movie, Paramount was sending crews all over the country to interview the cast and put bobble head dolls in its packets and this big “to-do.” I said, “Why are you making such a big deal out of this tenth anniversary?” They said, “Tommy Boy‘s a top ten seller for Paramount.” [I asked] “What does that mean? This year? On home video?” They said, “No, in history, for Paramount, on video.” [I replied,] “Do you mean with The Godfather and Raiders of the Lost Ark?” And they said “Yeah!” Now there is no VHS anymore, and the home video market is kind of drying up, but back in those days, that’s really where this movie reached the mass audience, not just in the theatres.
You’re making modern comedies now, like this spring’s My Spy. Certainly some of the jokes in Tommy Boy have dated better than others. Could you talk about the shift in tonality and how you see modern comedies being different from when you were making them a decade and a half ago?
I think comedies in the ’90s were maybe a little more set piece oriented. I came up working with Chris on his HBO special. I met Judd Apatow for the first time and he and I co-wrote those HBO specials. I’ve known Judd over the years and he has sort of paved the way for more adult oriented comedies that are more honest and less set piece bound – although you’ll still see set pieces in movies like Bridesmaids, etc. I also think the newer films lean towards R [ratings] where people talk more naturally and you don’t have to say “friggin.'”
Tommy Boy would have been very different if he had been saying “Holy shit!” all the time.
Yeah, exactly [laughs]. But I think because we were stuffed into a PG-13 envelope, you got “Holy schnikies!” and maybe that’s part of its charm.
Tommy Boy is currently available on Blu-ray.