Hear the name Chris Farley, and what image pops into your head of the late great sketch comedian? Farley jiggling it next to Patrick Swayze as dueling dancers in a Chippendales audition? “Da Bears” Superfans member most likely to have a heart attack? Tommy Boy, perhaps?
None of those Saturday Night Live or movie characters ever lived in a van, down by the river. None were able to make such a lasting impression in their debut that they would appear eight times on SNL. None of those characters were motivational speaker Matt Foley.
On Friday night’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon — 14 years after Foley’s last appearance on SNL as well as Farley’s death — we learned that the character was Bob Odenkirk’s favorite thing he has ever done in comedy. Odenkirk created Matt Foley in 1990 when he co-starred with Farley in that summer’s Second City mainstage production. As Odenkirk explained to Fallon in the here and now:
“I’ve written many things and many sketch shows. That was one that just came out the way it was done. And then Chris — and my little daughter asked me a few years ago, ‘Dad, what was your favorite thing in show business that you’ve ever done?’ And I thought about it for just a second, and I said doing that sketch. I don’t think she had seen it yet. The motivational speaker, Matt Foley, with Chris Farley every night at Second City. Him this far from your face, doing that character. Oh my God.”
Star-crossed comedians they were that summer of 1990; Odenkirk had just left SNL as a writer; Farley, just about to join as a cast member.
Chris Farley would take Matt Foley with him. But it took almost three seasons for him to break out the character on the live show — and break out he did. The penultimate episode of Season 18 found Christina Applegate hosting on the night of May 8, 1993. In the first sketch, parents played by Phil Hartman and Julia Sweeney invite Matt Foley over to the house to give children (Applegate and David Spade) a lecture/pep talk after they found pot in the house. Foley emerges from the basement, and as soon as he begins swiveling his hips and adjusting his belt, Spade and Applegate barely can contain their laughter.
They learned, we all learned, that failure to follow Foley’s advice would lead you to a life “in a van down by the river!” Just like Foley. Each sketch invariably ended with the family deciding to heed his advice, shortly after Foley launched into a pratfall that broke the living room table.
Foley returned the following fall for Season 19’s Halloween episode to confront some teen-aged pranksters, including that episode’s host, Christian Slater. They wrote laughs for the other cast members into this second edition, as well as an escalated number of pratfalls for Foley
The sure sign that Farley’s Foley was a hit as a recurring character: Bringing him back barely a month later for his second appearance of the season, and third of the year, for the Christmas episode. Now they’ve mixed things up by changing the scenery. Take Foley out of the living room and put him into the shopping mall as Santa. Except he’s not trying to be Santa Claus. He’s still Matt Foley, just this time, he’s a “motivational Santa.” And since Spade cannot be a teen to be provoked into giggles, he’s playing Santa’s elf. Foley tells the children his own version of “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” and it’s not all holly, jolly down by the river. Especially when you cannot slide down the chimney with care.
The Matt Foley would make two more appearances that season. Just like Ernest, Foley followed up a Christmas theme by going to jail. Only Foley wound up in prison, and he and his fellow cellmate (played by that episode’s host, Martin Lawrence) were scaring straight a group of juvenile delinquents (including Spade, Adam Sandler, Tim Meadows, Rob Schneider and Jay Mohr). Phil Hartman remains the other constant in these sketches as the character who helps introduce Matt Foley to the group in question.
Foley would appear three more times during Farley’s tenure on the SNL cast. He closed out a tribute to Phil Hartman on Hartman’s final SNL in May 1994 as a sleeping Matt Foley in Hartman’s lap. He helped inspire host George Foreman in December 1994 to continue his boxing career by allowing Foreman to knock him out, outside his van down by the river. And in the cold open for April 1995’s episode with host Courteney Cox, Foley went bilingual to help discipline Mexican children played by Jay Mohr and Morwenna Banks. He followed his wall-breaking pratfall with yet another “Whoopise daisy!” and the classic line in a different tongue: “Vivo de Nueva York, ES SABADO NOCHE!”
After Farley left SNL, he was in talks to develop Matt Foley as a full-fledged movie role. The SNL character as movie star wasn’t a new concept, and even more so during the 1990s, when the success of Wayne’s World inspired Lorne Michaels to produce similar ventures for The Coneheads, Al Franken’s Stuart Smalley, The Roxbury Brothers (Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan), Molly Shannon’s Mary Katherine Gallagher (Superstar) and Tim Meadows’ Ladies Man.
The final time we’d see Matt Foley onscreen, however, occurred when Farley returned to host SNL on Oct. 25, 1997. He encountered an almost entirely new cast to motivate when he entered Tim Meadows’ gym: Ana Gasteyer, Will Ferrell, Jim Breuer and Molly Shannon.
Farley’s Foley seemed to labor a bit more with the dialogue in that sketch. His plaid sport jacket seemed to fit even tighter than before. What we didn’t know then was how much Farley needed a motivational speaker in his own life. Less than eight weeks later, Farley died of a drug overdose in his Chicago apartment. He was only 33.