When Chris Farley died in 1997 at the age of 33, tributes poured in from fans and fellow comedians, all celebrating what a boisterous talent he was. His career highlights, including his time on Saturday Night Live, ran on a loop. And, invariably, audiences were reminded of the classic sketch that launched his stardom. 

“Chippendales Audition” aired on October 27, 1990, the fourth episode of that season of SNL, which was Farley’s first season on the show. He wasn’t yet the comic dynamo we’d come to know later — it was that sketch that changed everything for him. And now that Hulu is about to premiere the dark drama Welcome to Chippendales, about the famous male-striptease revue, it’s natural that older viewers may think back to that sketch. For a while there, you couldn’t hear the word Chippendales, or listen to the Loverboy anthem “Working for the Weekend,” without picturing Farley’s gyrating, shirtless torso. 

It’s a very funny idea for a sketch, which explains why it currently has eight million views on YouTube. But it’s also among the most debated of all SNL sketches, with cast members and writers differing in their opinions of whether the point of the joke was actually mean-spirited — perhaps even toxic to the man who became famous because of it. Or, as Farley’s friend Chris Rock once said of “Chippendales Audition,” “t’s one of the things that killed him.”

A former high school athlete, Farley had grown up idolizing John Belushi, longing to get into comedy. And although he had always been a bigger guy, he wasn’t going to let that hold him back. If anything, it was extra-motivation. “All the fat comics, they’re my favorites,” Farley once said. “I watch them over and over again. The great comics can fall on their faces, but then they can say, ‘Oh, baby, you’re the greatest.’ They show their heart and their vulnerability.”

When he was hired for SNL, Farley (like any new cast member) was seeking the sort of signature role that would make him a fan favorite. “The first show he didn’t have much,” SNL producer Mike Shoemaker (now a producer on Late Night With Seth Meyers), said in the 2008 book The Chris Farley Show, “because nobody knew him to write for him at that point. But that always takes a while. We knew he was going to hit big, and he did it pretty quickly.”

“Chippendales Audition” was dreamed up by Jim Downey, one of the all-time great SNL writers. For those who don’t remember, the sketch’s simple premise is that two men are auditioning for the final spot as a hunky dancer in Chippendales. One is a guy who looks like Patrick Swayze named Adrian. One is a guy who looks like Chris Farley named Barney. With absolute straight faces, the Chippendales judges are torn — they’re both just so talented — and so they ask the two men to dance to “Working for the Weekend” to determine a winner. Downey had written the sketch because Swayze was going to be hosting, saying in The Chris Farley Show, “You had a guy who was sort of built like — to the extent that I notice these things — like a male stripper. And he obviously could dance; that was how he’d come up in show business.” 

Because the sketch was played without winking — Farley gives it his all, the judges seem genuinely impressed with both men’s dance technique — the obvious contrast between the two actors’ bodies was all the more apparent, and therefore funny. Mike Myers, who played one of the judges, says in The Chris Farley Show, “I knew in rehearsal that a star was born.” 

Farley’s fame only rose from there, the comic often portraying characters whose outsized personalities matched his plus-size figure. On SNL, he’d explode in anger, fall down and break things. Even on his fake talk-show, where the joke was that he was terrible at interviewing celebrities, his self-loathing was mammoth. Later, Farley transitioned to movies, but he was still getting laughs for being such a big guy, especially in contrast to his rail-thin buddy David Spade. It became his shtick, which could sometimes also be a pigeonhole. 

“Although I love this kind of comedy, sometimes I feel trapped by always having to be the most outrageous guy in the room,” Farley admitted in a 1996 interview. “In particular, I’m working on trying not to be that guy in my private life.” But like his hero Belushi, Farley battled drug addiction, dying of an overdose a year later. “I still have to work on my weight and some of my other demons,” he said in 1997. “Once I thought that if I just had enough in the bank, if I had enough fame, that it would be all right. But I’m a human being like everyone else. I’m not exempt.”

As Farley’s legacy has only grown over time — fellow SNL castmate and good friend Adam Sandler dedicated a moving song to his pal on his recent standup tour — “Chippendales Audition” is often cited as a career pinnacle. (The same is true of Swayze, who died in 2009, the sketch mentioned in his obituaries.) But there’s also been discussion about what might have been harmful about the bit — in general, how fatphobic it is and, specifically, how it might have contributed to Farley’s negative self-image. As Tom Arnold later recalled about talking to Farley before the sketch aired, “He called me and was like, ‘Lorne and everyone wants me to be a fat guy.’”

Bob Odenkirk, who worked on SNL, hasn’t minced words about his feelings regarding the sketch: He hates it. In The Chris Farley Show, the Better Call Saul actor dismisses “Chippendales Audition” as “ucking lame, weak bullshit. I can’t believe anyone liked it enough to put it on the show. Fuck that sketch. He never should have done it.” When Rock was on The Howard Stern Show last year, he admitted, “Here’s the thing: The sketch is funny. I’m not going to say Farley dancing as a Chippendales dancer isn’t funny. … he felt ugly, he didn’t feel attractive. He didn’t feel like people really wanted to be around him and that sketch kind of fed into that.” 

Others continue to defend “Chippendales Audition,” including SNL writer Robert Smigel, who argued, “What was amazing about that sketch and what people forget is that Farley was incredibly nimble. He was an athlete, and he danced incredibly well in that sketch, actually. And he had this fantastic energy. And like, in a way, it was like a very empowering sketch. And I think that’s what people felt the first time they watched it, like, ‘Look at this guy go and be completely proud, just unashamed and going for it.’”

It’s not a completely unreasonable position. One of the things that makes “Chippendales Audition” funny is that Adrian is hardly cocky because he has such a chiseled physique: If anything, he’s intimidated by Barney’s moves and utter confidence, forced to up his game because the guy he’s competing against is absolutely bringing it. If the sketch was just about the two men battling it out, you could see the joke as being empowering: Barney isn’t going to let anyone tell him he’s not as sexy as Adrian. The problem is the bit’s second half, when Kevin Nealon’s judge explains to Barney that he’s “fat and flabby,” essentially ridiculing him for not realizing he’s unattractive. (Swayze, who’s incredibly sweet in the sketch, treating Barney like an equal, unfortunately gets into the act as well, saying that Barney is very sexy, even though “his body is so bad.”)

Obviously, it’s hardly only men who deal with body-shaming. In her essay “The Idea Is to Look Like an Idiot,” culture writer Sophia Benoit decided to revisit “Chippendales Audition,” realizing that “Chris Farley is an excellent dancer. He’s keeping up with fucking Patrick Swayze. And still, the joke is: Ha-ha-ha, what if fat people were good at dancing and people took them seriously? Growing up, I just knew that dancing, like many things, was something I was not supposed to do with my fat body.”

And yet, there have been some who took inspiration from Barney’s unflagging confidence, seeing “Chippendales Audition” as someone worth emulating in characters they were creating. Funny enough, Albert Lozano, a designer at Pixar, said he based Dug, the adorable dog in Up, partly on Barney. “Dug thinks he’s an Alpha Dog and thinks he belongs with the rest of the pack, just like Chris Farley thought he could be a Chippendales dancer next to Patrick Swayze,” Lozano wrote. “We wanted to think of Chris Farley as a dog.”

From that perspective, there’s something perhaps endearing about the sketch, this idea that we should be who we want to be, even if the rest of the world doesn’t see us that way. All of us, no matter who we are, don’t “fit” in certain situations: We don’t look “right” or fit the model of what’s “normal.” But the only way to change those narrow-minded perceptions is to challenge them — to be like Barney, dancing to that ridiculous Loverboy song with all his might. 

But that kind of nuance is probably beyond a 1990 Saturday Night Live sketch, which is mostly playing on the idea that, hey, Chris Farley isn’t as sexy as Patrick Swayze. Rock is being hyperbolic when he says “Chippendales Audition” is “one of the things that killed” Farley, but the pushback the sketch has received over the years is worth remembering in terms of what’s underlying many jokes — namely, pain and a lot of shame. Of course, that’s also what can make things funny — an understanding of the shared insecurities we all have. 

I will say that one of the reasons I always liked “Chippendales Audition” is that I felt like Barney: I’m never gonna be as hunky as Adrian. But Barney isn’t giving up. He’s gonna be him. Plus, the good-looking dudes may be sexy, but they’re often not as funny as somebody like Chris Farley. To me, there was always something inclusive about that sketch, reminding all us underdogs that we’re cool, too. At the end of “Chippendales Audition,” Adrian says that he never saw Barney again, but that he never forgot him, the man who “brought out the best in me.” The sketch may be mean-spirited, but Adrian isn’t. He admired Barney. I kinda did, too — even if Saturday Night Live tried to make him (and Farley) the butt of the joke.  

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