Death By Laughter


Photo by John Urban

Tommy Farley sent along an advanced copy of the book he co-authored, along with the talented Tanner Colby, about his brother Chris.

It is a good read.

But the show biz triumphs and travails of Madison’s comedic son were of less interest to me than the spot-on snapshot of the life the Farley family lived in Madison and the role that alcohol played in that existence.

It was less a condemnation of the lifestyle than an honest assessment. An assessment that could be made of many Madison and Wisconsin families. Including mine.

The Chris Farley Show speaks of the link between social, hale-fellow-well-met drinking and the slide that happens when that consumption becomes personally destructive, as it did in the case of young Chris.

As a Madison Irish, I can attest to the siren song of beers at the rail with friends. It is the life that I grew up with. And much of it is good. Some of the best times I have ever had have been over foaming heads when the singing starts.

But for me, and many others, it is a dangerous dance.

The truth is that we drink a lot in Wisconsin. What’s more, we are proud of it. And if you are Irish, double it. We embrace as well as any other tribe mankind’s eternal desire to alter consciousness for distraction and solace from life’s banality and pain. It makes us colorful and fun on the stool, but behind the mirth there is sadness and regret.

We all know the friends who are haunted by their consumption. As we know and admire the brave ones who finally confronted the fact that they could no longer drink and stopped.

What made the Farley book so powerful for me is that I know many of the young men quoted in the book. They are members of my younger brothers’ posse, and so they are members of mine. I have been golfing, fishing and sipping with all of them.

It is important to note that although Chris Farley was funny, he was not the only guy in that Madison gang who could make you laugh. They all could … and still can.

In fact, I can say without any hesitation that they are the funniest squad of guys you could ever share a beer with. They possess a collective comedic gift created by a strange blend of Madison ethnicity, family, time and locale that is truly rare. But that collective gift is also a curse. A curse that killed Chris Farley.

What the book so poignantly details is the burden of the funny drinker. Of how every bar becomes a stage. And every show requires Herculean consumption. Chris felt that burden, and according to those closest to him, would have fallen under that weight regardless of fame.

Since Chris’ death his brother Tommy has attempted to make some sense of it. To do the Catholic thing and help others learn from the tragedy. All Tom really has to do is have folks read the book.

It will help us understand the brutal truth of excess and humor.

Of the laughs and madness at midnight and the unbearable sorrow of morning.

It is the awful truth of the funny drunk.

If you are sad, generous, haunted and gifted enough, folks will let you die alone for their amusement.

Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Comments? Questions? Write john@jrpinc.com.

Madison Magazine - June 2008
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