Artwork by Cap Blackard (Buy Prints + More!)
On March 31st, 1995, Chris Farley and David Spade crashed into theaters with Tommy Boy. Not exactly a critical darling — Roger Ebert famously dubbed it “one of those movies that plays like an explosion down at the screenplay factory” — the coming-of-age road comedy debuted at No. 1 and pocketed an admirable $33 million dollars nationwide. Twenty years later, the Lorne Michaels-produced venture has become a cult classic and one of the best-selling titles on home video.
To celebrate, Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman called up an old friend, former Consequence of Sound writer Jay Ziegler, to chart the film’s underdog success and explain why it’s without a doubt the greatest portrait of the late Farley. Along the way, the two also pieced together a short list of forgotten quotes and spent an evening talking at great lengths with the man who made it all happen: Mr. Peter Segal. There’s even original art by Cap Blackard and Steven Fiche!
Below, we’ve broken down the whole ketchup popsicle into three sections:
Michael Roffman (MR): Tommy Boy has something that no other Chris Farley comedy would ever capture again and that’s heart. Critics and fans tend to single out the chemistry between the late comic and his sarcastic co-star David Spade, but there’s a rare funereal spirit to Peter Segal’s coming-of-age road trip romp. And that vibe is what makes Farley’s physical humor or Spade’s signature quips so tenacious even decades later.
It’s odd. Out of all the iconic scenes that I could choose to remember, the first that comes to mind isn’t even remotely funny. It’s a gorgeous wide shot of a tree-lined trail, which Tommy shuffles down after burying his father. Even as I write this I can hear the bagpipes and see the fall leaves rippling in the wind. Then I have to remind myself that it’s supposed to be a screwball comedy.
But that’s what I love about Tommy Boy and that’s what inherently separates it from many of its ’90s contemporaries. Segal crafted a comedy that shares less with Tamra Davis’ Billy Madison and more with John Hughes’ Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. And not only because that film also captured two mismatched imbeciles on the road (an uncanny parallel, admittedly), but for the way it tugged for tears as much as it did for laughs.
Jay, our history with this film goes way, way back — to around 2004, when we were studying at Florida State University. By habit, the two of us would waste entire afternoons at burrito houses, quoting the script or obsessing over its weird supporting characters, like Zach Grenier’s neurotic Ted Reilly. Because of this, I can still recite the entire Zalinsky commercial by memory (including the jingle) or recall quirky musical cues like “Eres Tú”.
We’ve lived with this film for 20 years. What are your thoughts? What still draws you to Tommy Boy?
Jay Ziegler (JZ): Aside from Farley’s obvious talents, the supporting characters really do bring the story to life. There’s a truth behind these people that makes the story so accessible. Look no further than Big Tom Callahan, portrayed beautifully by Brian Dennehy. He’s in the film for 10 minutes tops and yet he’s such an unforgettable force. His larger-than-life love for his family and business is palpable, and his bond with Tommy hits all the right notes. They really do resemble a father and son tandem, both in physical appearance and quirky mannerisms.
There’s a scene that speaks to this power. It’s a quiet moment when Dennehy and Farley are alone upstairs before the wedding. Big Tom is reminiscing about Tommy‘s mother with a touch of melancholy. He’s still pained over her loss — despite being moments away from marrying his new beau, Beverly (Bo Derek) — and Tommy picks up on this. He reassures him, saying, “Dad, it’s cool. I just want you to be happy.” It’s tender moments like this that add a little nuance to the ribald humor that fuels Tommy Boy.
Yet some of the supporting cast is just downright funny, too. Rob Lowe, who brilliantly plays Beverly’s cantankerous “son” Paul, reprised his villainous spirit from Wayne’s World, only with more leather and menace. While Julie Warner, fresh off The Puppet Masters, embraced a little comedy herself as Tommy‘s girl-next-door love interest Michelle. When she snaps at the shoreline kids (“Listen up you little spazoids…”), it’s definitely a far cry from her earlier days being charmed by Michael J. Fox in 1991’s Doc Hollywood.
Artwork by Steven Fiche
MR: Dan Aykroyd also really nailed his bit part. As the all-powerful, ever elusive Zalinsky, he steals the final scene with his whiplash delivery that’s chummy, self-assured, and 100% Chicagoan. Similar to Dennehy, he doesn’t ever feel shoehorned in for sake of star power. Instead, there’s a depth to his character that delivers on his preceding mythos.
For instance, I love the way he dictates a gift card to his curious assistant (Jonathan Wilson): “Marty, find out where the police are going to be taking him. Send over a bottle of bubbly with a bucket of ice and a card. Have it say, “Tough break, get drunk on me. Use the bucket to ice down your marbles, Yours, Z.” Classic Aykroyd.
Although the script’s credited to screenwriters Bonnie and Terry Turner — both responsible for a gooey bearclaw’s worth of comedy back in the ’90s (e.g., Saturday Night Live, Wayne’s World, Coneheads, The Brady Bunch Movie) — the real credit goes to Fred Wolf, who was SNL’s head writer at the time. He was essentially given a shredded script and tasked to rework it alongside Segal as filming commenced.
That’s pretty remarkable.
JZ: True, but we can’t deny the lightning-in-a-bottle chemistry between Farley and Spade, easy as it may be. The two were brilliant together on SNL — think Bob Odenkirk’s/Saul Goodman’s masterpiece “Matt Foley” sketch — but here their talents shift between wit and humility. And despite this clearly being a vehicle for Farley, Spade also gets to play just as integral of a role. As Richard Hayden, he’s one of the best second bananas in a comedy, working with cutting remarks and a weighty chunk of pathos. The latter, which involves balding and being friendless, is what makes his outward confidence so intriguing.
Still, this is Tommy‘s story, and it’s quite a tragic one. We watch as his life unfolds before us, from realizing the party is over to accepting the responsibilities of his family name. It’s a coming-of-age tale, but it’s hardly from the same teenaged cloth that wove Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club. No, this is the acceptance of a future that exists far outside any school hall: adulthood. Yet, even so, anyone can identify with Tommy‘s struggles of where to fit in, whether it’s personal, career, family, etc. After all, you can also get good look at a T-Bone…
MR: What? I’m failing to make a connection here … Joking aside, I agree that there’s a very adult tone to this film, but there’s also something assuredly American and Midwestern about it, too. Let’s think about the Callahan family for a second. They’re a long line of successful capitalists, but they’re also populist by design, willing to stick their not-so-jeweled necks out for their own common man — the blue collar folk, if you will.
Isn’t that the principal cast of Tommy Boy?
Really, save for Zalinsky’s Chicago empire and the con artists Beverly and Paul, the entirety of the film tends to highlight America’s lower to middle class. The lonely pit stops, the scummy gas stations, the dingy motels … these are all consistent set pieces for the film’s series of hilarious vignettes. And to the film’s credit, the people within are presented as-is: frustrated but coping.
Now, earlier I described the film as being “funereal” and that’s not just because of ol’ Big Tom’s casket. Look close enough and you’ll notice there are many references to life and death: There’s the decommissioned factories in Sandusky, Ohio; the not-quite-dead deer; and how Tommy‘s quest is to save the town from collapsing into poverty (and, of course, towards the “whores … running around, doing their little behind-shake for the men folk…”).
I think, in a way, Tommy Boy says as much about the death of America’s working class as it does about adulthood.
JZ: I agree. The film really does a fine job in capturing that struggle, especially what a corporate takeover might entail for the oft-forgotten “Rust Belt” cities of our county. Now, you mentioned the decommissioned factories and that’s something that’s always haunted me here. Throughout the film, Segal cleverly masks these urban tragedies beneath the more obvious surface humor.
One scene that always grabs my attention is when Tommy comes home for the first time to Sandusky after his seven-year stint in college, only to witness (with Richard) the adjacent factories to Callahan Auto in ruin, closed up and forgotten. This includes both the tire and muffler plants, respectively.
While the scene is played for laughs between the two leads, with melted chocolates raising the upsell value of Richard’s precious GTX, this brief glimpse into the harsh changes of Tommy‘s city are indirectly and subtle in its power. From one angle, they’re essentially background fodder for the scene’s comedic setup, but they also foreshadow the troubles to come.
Think about how tough it is for Big Tom to get funding from the bank to power the new brake pad division for Callahan Auto. He eventually schmoozes them, but there’s something odd about their initial hesitations, especially given their long-running relationship.
MR: No, the stakes are unbelievably high here for a comedy: If Tommy fails, the whole town fails. There aren’t too many premises in this genre that teeter on such weighty circumstances, but that sense of danger gives the comedy an edge. Every sale they flub, every town they pass, and every highway hiccup is one more notch on the ladder towards redemption.
That’s why I never understood the confusion and parallels fans make between this and 1996’s Black Sheep. By comparison, there aren’t many legitimate stakes to the “spiritual sequel,” namely because Farley’s character, Mike Donnelly, isn’t much of a hero. He stumbles into trouble and begs for fifth or sixth chances. Lock him in a room and everyone’s safe.
Tommy Callahan doesn’t have that luxury. He has to change.
JZ: Not to sound bleak, but this all goes back to our favorite subject: death. Death plays a primary role in the story, symbolizing said changes and pushing Tommy to the eventual discovery that you can never really go home again. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s actually something worth rooting for: Tommy goes from a run-of-the-mill, happy-go-lucky frat boy to a wonderful human being with a big heart and even bigger responsibilities.
MR: I’ll admit I’m a little partial to Tommy Callahan. Growing up, I was the obnoxious fat kid in the back of the class, cracking stupid jokes for yucks and making an ass out of myself in front of my classmates and teachers. My insecurities piled higher and higher over the years, but never once did I shy away from trying to get a laugh. So, when Chris Farley came around, I really connected with his style of comedy, namely because he never appeared to be inhibited by his broad physical appearance.
On Saturday Night Live, when most of the jokes capitalized on his weight, he rose above the occasion by exerting an almost unnatural display of physical strength. It made the obvious gag even funnier, which is why I’d wait each Saturday night with my VHS tape ready and my remote control in hand, so I could watch each skit again and again. Save for Norm Macdonald, there hasn’t been a player on SNL that I’ve been obsessed with more.
Yet something really struck me about Tommy Callahan, and here’s why: He was treated not as a goof but a goofy hero. He doesn’t exactly start that way, as you noted, but he’s given early opportunities, which is something that’s quite rare and incredibly appealing about Tommy Boy. He doesn’t get the girl in the end; he gets her early on. He doesn’t find the answers too late; he finds them naturally over the course of the film. In other words, he’s a worthy protagonist.
I don’t know. It was really refreshing as a kid.
JZ: That’s a great point. Farley always appeared to be up for a laugh and to surprise any of his audiences. That’s why his portrayal of Tommy was such a departure from his regular routine. He still goes for laughs, especially the physical comedy (e.g. cow-tipping), but his dramatic flashes are what make this film so remarkable. Bottom line: He could act given the right role, which is what makes his death even more depressing. He was never really given another chance following Tommy Boy. Black Sheep? Beverly Hills Ninja? Almost Heroes? It’s a damn shame.
MR: Oh, the lost roles of Farley run deep and are damn extraordinary. Because of Black Sheep, he turned down leading roles in The Cable Guy and Kingpin — which, to be honest, worked out for the best given who they cast (Randy Quaid, especially) — and he eventually said no to David Zucker’s BASEketball, another smart move on his behalf. Look, I’ll argue for that film any day and watch it any given afternoon, but it really only works because of Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
No, what really stings are the “what if” roles that were in development, specifically the long-gestating film adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces (which some believe to be a “cursed” project), a Fatty Arbuckle biopic (which would have been his first real dramatic performance), and, of course, his starring role in Shrek (which went on to gross billions). There was even talk about him doing a third Ghostbusters, but God knows if that ever would have happened. Still, those three projects would have altered his trajectory altogether.
It’s funny, though. Some might argue that all those follow-ups you mentioned worked off the same winning formula as Tommy Boy. They’re not exactly wrong; after all, each one of those films pairs Farley with a thinner, somewhat smarter co-lead. But, they all come across as so campy and patched together and transparent. Of course, Tommy Boy isn’t an Oscar winner, but there’s a quality to this picture that sadly vanished for Farley by the time the credits rolled.
Earlier, I illustrated a favorite shot of mine, and to be quite honest, I could list out several more just by memory. This really is a striking film, but there’s a reason for that: Victor J. Kemper. Now, the name might not ring a bell for some, but Kemper’s a longtime Hollywood veteran who has lensed iconic dramas like Karel Reisz’s The Gambler or Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon in addition to landmark comedies like Carl Reiner’s The Jerk or Harold Ramis’ National Lampoon’s Vacation. Let’s just say he found all the right levels for Tommy Boy.
JZ: To be fair, Almost Heroes did pair him up with Christopher Guest and Dennis Dugan was a pretty reliable comedic filmmaker around the time of Beverly Hills Ninja, but yeah, their finished work just pales in comparison.
Can we talk about the awesome soundtrack of Tommy Boy for a minute?
It’s stock full of Midwestern bands. Paul Westerberg, of Minneapolis-based Replacements fame, offers up his 14 Songs trucker anthem, “Silver Naked Ladies”; Madison, Wisconsin’s Timbuk3 gets things moving with “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades”; while Chicago’s The Smoking Popes add some charm to the credits with “My Lucky Day”. Maybe it’s just me, but these little additions really helped capture the film’s Midwestern vibe. Even if you’ve never set foot in Ohio or Illinois, one viewing of this movie offers a truly aural experience. It’s a visceral vacation, a home away from home.
It also helps push the story. One scene, which has since become one of the most iconic highway moments on film, involves Tommy and Richard fiddling with the knobs on the radio, only to stumble upon The Carpenters’ iconic hit, “Superstar”. Both are playing the “cool guy” factor here and daring each other to change the station. “I can live with it if you can,” retorts Richard. Then, in a flash, they’re singing and embracing it with tears of joy. It’s a shame the hood had to pop up, though.
But that buildup is fantastic and even more memorable than what follows outside the lonely Prehistoric Forest. The two characters are bonding and the music makes it all feel so tangible. To this day, every time I hear “Superstar”, I always imagine Farley’s intense face singing the lyrics, especially the “I loooove yooou” at the end. It gets me every time.
MR: Oh, I’m the same way with the verses on R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World…” and especially “Come On Eileen” by Dexys Midnight Runners. I actually went out and bought the soundtrack solely for the Dexys song — truth be told, I had never even heard it before. To this day, I still can’t hear the chorus without mimicking Farley’s hand gestures. It’s like I lived under power lines as a kid, or something…
But we can’t discuss the music without at least mentioning David Newman’s whimsical score. I usually hate the word “whimsical”, but it’s an apt description: The seasonal bells tickle all of the awkward vignettes in a humorous juxtaposition, while the strings in the main theme add a touch of elegance. And, fun fact: According to the DVD commentary, Segal also used compositions by James Newton Howard and George Fenton from Dave and Groundhog Day, respectively.
Jay, we could talk for days about this film and we pretty much have. So, we should probably wrap this up before we start sharing our theories on why Kevin Farley appears at the wedding or how the kid at the lake (Dov Tiefenbach) could be playing the same character he does in Harold & Kumar. That can be discussed on our free time, which I guess is the best thing to come from this feature — allow me to explain.
Prior to this, we hadn’t spoken in almost six years. Drama, differences, life, whatever … we just lost connection. Never in my life did I think that Tommy Boy would be partly responsible for such a bond. Similar to Tommy and Richard, we’re catching up over lost time, but unlike those two, we didn’t have to wreck a ’67 Plymouth or disguise ourselves as flight attendants. So, that’s a relief.
To quote Tommy:
JZ: You know, I never put that together until you said that, regarding Tiefenbach’s character. You could make that connection, even if it’s a ridiculous stretch. But hey, that’s another reason why I love this movie. Each scene has its own quirks, its own memories, and its own connections that the audience can make to myriad other things. Tommy Boy delivers and only gets better with each viewing after each passing year.
I’m living proof. The film came out the day after my 10th birthday — March 31st, 1995 — and I’ve probably seen it over a hundred times since. I can still remember seeing the previews on both TV and later as coming attractions on old VHS tapes. Because of this, I’ll never naturally hear Michael Sembello’s “Maniac” ever again. The way they took the studio version and synced it to Tommy’s gas station mud dance is burned into my cerebellum. I’ll live with it forever.
Admittedly, I never did get to see the film in theaters. My parents taped it on TV and we would watch it every weekend, eventually quoting it out in public. One time, in the late ’90s, we went to Chili’s for dinner and my younger brother yelled out “Holy Schnikes!” when the food arrived. About four or five biker dudes that were behind us turned around, gave us the thumbs up, and erupted in laughter. I still remember that as if it were yesterday.
So, yes, I’ve lived 20 years of my life with Tommy Boy, and for us, Mike, this film has been a part of our lives for over a decade. Stretching from college to Chicago to the future, it hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. It’s true, almost six years have passed, and that’s what it is, the past. Life happens and it’s a beautiful thing. Much like Richard and Tommy, we are, indeed, catching up over lost time. But now we can leave out the barfing on the anthills and go look for some Chicago-style meat lovers’ pizza.
The salesmen have left the building!
Listen up, spazoids! Turn the next page for 10 Forgotten Quotes Worthy of New Laughs…
10 Forgotten Quotes Worthy of New Laughs
The problem with a great comedy is that all too often the big laughs gloss over the clever giggles. Tommy Boy is no exception and if you chuckle too long, you’re bound to miss either Mr. Reilly’s awkward gibberish or one of Richard’s many barbed zingers. To counter that loss, we’ve assembled a short list of memorable lines that may have zipped past you faster than Paul’s shirt shot up Michelle’s office mail chute.
10. “No, it’s gotta be your bull…”
Start using this one if you have, indeed, derailed.
09. “Forget about R.T. He’s just pissed off ’cause he recently found out what a loser he is.”
Michelle Brock’s fiery tirade against Sandusky’s bratty, shoreline kids is one of the film’s top moments, sure, but her acid tongue on the loading docks is our first introduction to her dark interior.
08. “Went a little heavy on the pine tree perfume there, kid.”
Dan Aykroyd was hardly ever this cool in the ’90s.
07. “Is there anything to do in this town besides eat?”
Rob Lowe really needs to play a prick more often.
06. “Well, it’s gotta be on the map. Davenport, I mean. Because you say it’s 22 miles away. And you’re really smart, yet it’s not on the map.”
Richard couldn’t be any more condescending to the grumpy gas station employee, who he refers to as “chief,” and that last line of scorching sarcasm couldn’t be any funnier.
05. “For Christ’s sake. Once during the war I visited a prostitute, and my life has been a living hell ever since.”
Given the gravity of the situation, it’s understandable if this boardroom elder’s response to his whore-shaming wife’s paranoia doesn’t ring a bell. However, their little Great Depression-inspired bit is such a random aside that it feels new every time.
04. “It’s not over yet, Lee Harvey.”
When Tommy, Richard, and Michelle present their evidence to the boardroom, Paul isn’t having any of it, telling Beverly: “That’s it! You’re not gonna take this.” Richard’s left-field zinger here is strange enough to warrant one of the better facial reactions of Lowe’s career.
03. “These shoes are Italian. They’re worth more than your life.”
Lowe never once lets up on being a narcissistic asshole. This line is his best, for the delivery alone.
02. “Oh my God, we’re gonna die!”
Write this down: Zach Grenier is the best. The ever-neurotic Ted Reilly is hands down the most nuanced character in all of Tommy Boy. His open admission here happens right when Tommy storms the board room with a (not-so) explosive vest. The anxiety probably did a number on his one kidney.
01. “Now I know you want to sit there and keep being not slim, but we gotta work a little today.”
Considering Farley’s Star Wars gag has lived on long enough to change how people actually remember the infamous quote from The Empire Strikes Back (ahem, it’s “No, I’m your father”), Richard’s best insult is easily tossed aside. How he makes “not slim” somewhat of an adverb is absolutely genius.
It’s called reading. Turn the page and read our Q&A with director Peter Segal. Take Tyenol for headaches.
Q&A with Director Peter Segal
In 1994, an aspiring thirty-something filmmaker named Peter Segal made his directorial debut with the third adventure from Lieutenant Frank Drebin, Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult. A surprise box office smash, the Paramount comedy landed him another gig with the studio, pairing him this time alongside two rising Saturday Night Live stars. Twenty years later, Segal, who has since lensed multiple blockbuster comedies, reflects on his little-movie-that-could … and did.
There’s something about Tommy Boy that’s so different from its ‘90s contemporaries. Looking back, there’s a heart to this film that beats much louder than, say, Billy Madison or even over any of Farley’s other films. Did you know you had something special on your hands back in 1995?
First of all, thank you very much, that’s very nice of you to say. At the time, I will tell you that this was a movie that was born out of an incredibly chaotic experience. So, if I could predict that we would wind up with a heartfelt movie that had a lot of laughs in it at the time we began, I would be lying. We basically had a script that we threw out, in the beginning, called Billy the Third: A Midwestern, and I think the only scene that remained from the original script in the final product was Tommy changing in the airplane bathroom. The rest, I wanted to tell a story about two guys from different sides of the tracks that both worked, or had relationships with Tom Callahan Sr., and through a set of circumstances were forced to work together to not only save the factory, but eventually the town.
The studio originally wanted it to be a story about two brothers, meaning the Rob Lowe character and Chris Farley. And I just didn’t find that interesting. So they assigned Jim Downey and Fred Wolf, who had been head writers for Saturday Night Live, to come out and help me with whatever vision I had for this. I had worked with Chris on a couple of projects before this, an HBO special and an episode of The Jackie Thomas Show where he played Tom Arnold’s brother. And I thought he was the funniest guy I had ever met in my life, so when this opportunity came at me, that was the glue. It was pure and simple Chris Farley. So with the script, I was willing to undertake that challenge just to get an opportunity to bring Chris Farley to the big screen as a lead character. He’d been in Spring roles and Coneheads and a couple of other things, but he’d never been a lead character.
What I didn’t realize was getting the story right took a little longer than expected. We missed the summer hiatus for Saturday Night Live, and when you do that, that means you now have to do the impossible, which is split time shooting a movie while the SNL season is underway. We were up in Toronto and we would shoot for a couple days and then Chris and Spade had to go to New York to rehearse and do SNL, fly back in the wee hours of Sunday morning to shoot another two days. The good news about that was it gave me a few days each week during the shoot to write. So it was almost like The Newsroom; we would write long-distance with each other, and the copy would be ripped out of the printer, taken to the set, and they’d read it.
So, where the heart was, as the goal, I did have a couple ideas. I wanted Big Tom Callahan to die, to force this adventure to take place and put a lot of pressure on the characters. But then somewhere toward the end, the idea was to have the spirit, not necessarily a ghost per se, but the spirit of Tom to be guiding young Tommy for the rest of his life, and we did not know how to crack that. And so we literally started the filming with — by that point, we had 60 pages. When we split the SNL season, because I knew we missed the window, and because then both Downey and Wolf had to go back to the show, I didn’t think this movie was going to get made. I didn’t think it was possible to be successful, so I tried to quit before we began shooting. I said, “This is a disaster in the making, we should all just cut our losses.” Paramount didn’t feel the same way, and I was threatened with a lawsuit, so I said, “Okay, fine, look, you know, fine. Ship me off to Siberia, but this is insanity, we’re starting a movie with 60 pages.”
What I realized years later is that Lorne Michaels has made a career out of starting Monday with a blank page, and by Saturday having 90 minutes of live television. I was just the guy that had to figure this out. So I called Fred [Wolf] after I conceded that I was going to do the movie, after all, and I said to him, “We are in trouble here. We have half a story. Let’s come up with some ideas. We know eventually this is going to be a road trip. What are some funny things that have happened to us in our lives?” I thought to myself, Well one funny thing, recently I was at a gas station and I didn’t have the car close enough to the hose, I drove back and I hyperextended my door. That was me.
So I wrote that down on an index card and threw it on the carpet. I said, “Okay, you,” and Fred said, “Well, one time I changed the oil in my car and I forgot to take the can out and the lid flew up while I was driving.” I said, “Oh, that’s good, put that down.” Then I had one where I was on a date when I was living in Arizona during high school, and I was in a sailboat with the girl, and it was a total dead calm, and people on the side of the lake were yelling insulting things at me, and I was screaming back, and I go, “Okay, maybe there’s something there.” So we put down stuff and said, “Alright, let’s see if we can weave this story together.”
That’s how it went.
With Farley and Spade at your disposal, you had two notorious improv actors. How much did that factor into the filmmaking and storytelling?
There was almost zero improv during the film, but what we did do is … we were so desperate for material that, Dave and Chris were great buddies, and they would constantly joke with each other off set, and sometimes when I would hear certain things, I’d write it down and we’d put it in the script. For example, one day Chris tried on a new sport coat for the movie after a wardrobe meeting. And he goes up to Dave and says, “Dave, does this suit make me look fat?” Dave says, “No, your face does.” So I said, “Wait, that’s gold! It’s going in!” And it was like that. “Fat guy, little coat” was something that Farley did at SNL in the offices just to annoy Spade and [Adam] Sandler and Chris Rock, and so we put that in the movie.
The interesting thing about that, though, is “fat guy, little coat” was never a song. He just said it — that’s how it goes. And we had to go back and reshoot the scene for some technical reasons. I remember my editor saying, “Oh my God, look at this outtake.” I’m like, “What?” And by the time we turned the cameras around on Spade, Farley was getting so bored that just to try to get Spade to laugh, he sang the song, “Fat guy in a little coat.” And my editor said, “Dude, you gotta go back. You gotta go back and have him sing it this time like he did in the outtake, because he wasn’t on-camera.” And so the song “fat guy in a little coat,” I attribute to Bill Kerr, my editor. That was his idea to go back and get it.
The improvisation in this movie was off-screen, but it was still moments taken that were not in the script. And again, the index card stories, we found a way to weave them in.
Is that also how the film became quasi-autobiographical for Farley? It’s almost like a spiritual world of his own design.
He was in a good place when we filmed this movie. He was clean and sober. Before the film, when I worked with him on The Jackie Thomas Show, Tom and Roseanne, right after I yelled “wrap,” put him in a car and took him straight to rehab — they did an intervention. And obviously after Tommy Boy, he fell off the wagon again, but during Tommy Boy, he had lost weight, he was seeing his priest who was his friend, that was his version of AA. He was trying hard, and so I got his attention. We knew that the cards were a little stacked against us. We didn’t have a script, and at the time, Saturday Night Live was in kind of its nadir — the ratings were bad, the reviews of the show were not good, even though they had one of the most prolific casts. Farley, Spade, Sandler, Rock, Mike Myers. But everything wasn’t aligned, and so we kind of huddled together. And I remember this one day, we went to dinner to meet Brian Dennehy, and I was driving with Chris to The Palm restaurant in Hollywood, and he said, “Pete, everyone’s against us on this.” I said, “Yeah, I know.” He said, “The only victory we’re going to have is if we make a success.” And I said, “Yeah, you’re right.” And I think that’s when he decided to give himself to the writing process, not just be funny, but describe himself as a person when we were writing and coming up with stories. So I think that’s why you may sense that there’s a reflection of him in this film, and I think that’s accurate.
How long was Brian Dennehy on the set?
How many days? I don’t know. See, because we were splitting time with SNL, it was probably a 40-day shoot, but that was spread out over 60 days, so I don’t really know how many days he was in.
He’s only in the film for a short period of time, but he seems to have made such an impression on everybody.
I don’t know exactly how many days, but I do remember Brian telling me how impressed he was with Chris’ bravery in the Chippendale’s sketch for SNL. He said, “You know Pete, for a large man, that is a very gutsy thing to do. And I gotta tell you, I laughed my ass off, and I wanted to not only meet that guy, but work with him.” And the cool thing was, there was the Ray Charles number that they did at the wedding, and that was a fun thing for them to rehearse, because they had to spend a lot of time together, and a lot of hours even though it may not have looked very well choreographed, they still had to practice. And so I think that’s where they really bonded during the rehearsal for that scene.
It’s a great scene and leads into some of the film’s most beautiful shots. Speaking of which, how were you able to capture the Midwestern vibes and scenery so well? Didn’t you shoot in Toronto and Los Angeles?
Well, we knew we couldn’t actually afford to shoot in Ohio, so we scouted a lot of areas in Toronto, and I have to say, not having the money to send me to Ohio, it was a little bit of a shot in the dark that we got it right. But the cool thing is, I have a few friends who lived in Sandusky and told me later that they thought we did a beautiful job filming their state and their city. And I thought, Wow, well I guess we succeeded. We fooled you, because we weren’t even there. One friend of mine, Lauren Shuler Donner, said, “Well, I lived in a nearby town, Cayahaga Falls, and I’m just telling you, you mispronounced it. It’s not Caya-HO-ga … Caya-HA-ga.” I’m like, “Oh boy.” And in other films, we kept using the town of Caya-HO-ga Falls as a little homage to It’s a Wonderful Life. So I apologize to Caya-HA-ga.
That’s so funny — we’ve been quoting it as “Caya-HO-ga” for years. With regards to the shooting, though, how was it like working with veteran cinematographer Victor J. Kemper? What was his process?
He’s one of the great cinematographers and this was only my second movie. I still had a lot to learn and Vic was a wonderful mentor. But we had a nice relationship because I am overly prepared. I actually storyboard every frame of every movie that I do. (I’ve learned to now storyboard less, and just go with my gut and instinct.) So, I knew if I was going to be the young punk on the set, and working with a great cinematographer like Vic, that I at least wanted to be prepared. I may not have been right half the time, but I at least wanted to have a plan so we could make our days and I wouldn’t look embarrassed in front of the crew.
I think he realized early on that he could rely on me for a plan, which is usually a great relief to any DP. That way they don’t have to come up with the visual innovation of the movie on their own, because some directors are less skilled visually than others. He could relax, and then concentrate on lighting rather than designing shots. And the nice thing is that we had very few sets on that movie; it’s all practical locations. There were a couple of sets that we built, but a lot of it takes place in the countryside of Toronto.
For example, the cemetery. I spent weeks looking for the right one, because I wanted kind of a farmland community feel. I wanted it to feel like we were way out there. And I didn’t approve a lot of the suggested cemeteries that were offered, which were more urban and closer to town. And that particular location isn’t exactly film-friendly, because we had to drive an hour and a half, but it was very important to me, and I think it is one of the things that makes the film feel like we captured Ohio.
What was the most difficult scene to shoot?
Without a doubt, the deer scene, because apparently you can’t train a deer. When I told the deer wrangler the shots that I wanted and showed the storyboard of the scene, he said, “Well, this I can’t do, this I can’t do … I can do this one.” There was basically one shot an actual deer could do, and it was the very last shot in the scene, where the deer is standing on top of the car, and it jumps off and runs away. I said, “That’s it?” And he said, “Yeah.” So I said, “Okay, fine, we’re going to have to build an animatronic deer. We can figure it out.”
To get that one shot, here’s what we had to do: We had four Plymouth GTXs in the movie, and we had to donate one of them to the deer farm. They put the car in the pen with the deer, and we put bushes around it, and we hid the cameras in the bushes with lights. Every day, for one month, they put a ramp at the back of the far end of the car, so that the deer could crawl up and shit and piss and eat food in the car, until he literally smelled himself and was comfortable. One night at the end of that month, he was going up to take a dump and the camera lights turned on like an ambush. That’s how they got the shot.
As for the terrible animatronic deer robot, at the end of the day, we had to kind of hand puppeteer the thing, and then, the actual deer inside the car destroying things was one of our grips literally with a deerskin over his shoulders and wearing antlers. He was acting like a deer because there was no way we could get a deer or taxidermy inside the car, so we used a guy in a deer suit.
Artwork by Steven Fiche
Was it difficult to manage the cast behind the scenes? Farley, Spade, Lowe, Dan Aykroyd … that’s a lot of talent in one sitting.
No, I welcomed any ideas from any actor or anybody on the crew, always. That’s just the way I am. I could tell that both Chris and Dave were a little intimidated by Dan Aykroyd, because he’s such a legend, and Farley came out of Second City in Chicago, as did Aykroyd, and I think Farley obviously idolized John Belushi, and you know Aykroyd’s relationship with Belushi. I think he felt he was just once removed from the legend that inspired him so much.
I remember one day on the set, when we were filming Tommy being late to class in the very beginning of the movie, there was one bit, which we ended up cutting. He was running across the tops of all these cars setting off the car alarms — you might see it in the outtakes — but he stopped and he did this expression, which was 100 percent John Belushi. It was like the moment in Animal House right before Belushi grabs the rope and swings like a swashbuckling pirate across the road at the end of the parade.
And I said, “Chris, that’s totally Belushi, you can’t do that.” He goes, “Why not?” I said, “Because you’re Tommy Callahan and you have to play the same guy every day.” He goes, “What? I don’t want to play this guy every day.” I said, “Okay, well I don’t know how to break this to you, but you have to play the same guy every day, you can’t play another guy from another movie today.” It was funny, but that was Chris, that’s how much he idolized that guy.
Did you two become close after the movie?
Yes, I adore Chris. And going through something like that, and having worked with him before, I will forever have a very close bond with him. I will say, though, that right after Tommy Boy, we both got offered a lot of movies together, and 99.9 percent of those movies were all crap. And I kept telling Chris, “No, don’t do this. No no no, that one’s bad, no wait. You need your Uncle Buck. You need one that actually has heart and comedy. Don’t just do something wacky to collect a paycheck, you’re in a great position right now.” I don’t think he believed me. I think he thought I just didn’t like him anymore, and I said, “No, you don’t understand.” And I ended up having to write him a five-page letter telling him that not only did I like him, but I was trying to protect him. He understood that later, but there was definitely a time when it was like, “Come on, just get back on the same horse and do it again,” and I said, “But we just did that.” That was a little bumpy for a period there, but I think that he came around. By the time he did realize it, he was also falling off the wagon again, so I kind of lost him at that point.
So many lost projects, too. The Confederacy of Dunces, the Fatty Arbuckle biopic, Shrek…
By the way, Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott, the writers of Shrek, I know that they wanted Chris to be in it, but one of the reasons they wanted him to be in it was because they patterned the relationship between Shrek and the Donkey after Spade and Farley in Tommy Boy.
Artwork by Steven Fiche
Oh, I can see it. After all, Shrek is a road comedy and works off similar tropes — for example, an entertaining soundtrack. Tommy Boy has one of the best, hallmarked by heavy hitters like R.E.M. or The Carpenters yet also by a number of Midwestern acts like Paul Westerberg, Timbuk3, and the Smoking Popes. Was it a conscious decision to pull music from the locales the film’s set in?
Well, originally there was no money in our music budget and the studio thought we were just going to use a garage band. But then I took score from other movies as temp, and put it into a lot of the scenes for the heart and for the scope of the adventure. There were definitely moments that we wrote music and specific songs, like R.E.M.’s “End of the World…” and a couple of the other songs, Ray Charles, etc. that were musical elements to the movie. Those specific songs had to be in there. And when we had the combination of this lush score with these classic songs, we realize now that the icing on top is that we could just come up with a contemporary soundtrack to complement those classic sounds that would give it a younger vibe and feel, and that’s where G. Marq Roswell, our music supervisor, came in and made a lot of great suggestions.
We were just at a special screening of the movie for the 20th anniversary at Quentin Tarantino’s cinema, and he was just playing his favorite films of the ‘90s, and Tommy Boy was the selection for comedy. And he had his own personal, pristine 35mm print, and so me and a couple of the crew members went to go see it — Bill Kerr, my editor, Michael Ewing, our associate producer, Mike Sale, our assistant editor — and we were kind of nudging each other when certain songs came up in the movie, because we had to remind ourselves, “Oh, this is a pretty good soundtrack.” It holds up 20 years later.
The whole film does. There isn’t much that’s dated. We still see a lot of the stuff that’s going on; small towns are still being taken over by corporations. It’s really timeless.
Yeah, I think we tried to use timeless architecture. We chose this old whiskey distillery in Toronto, which I don’t think exists anymore, to be used as Callahan Auto. The car itself, a ‘67 Plymouth GTX, was already a classic car, so we knew that wasn’t going to be dated. Beyond the look of the movie … as I mentioned, a lot of the songs were classic songs, and the best way to keep yourself timeless is to stick with the classics. Bottom line: The story itself is about friendship and working together and failure and how you react to failure, and death, and then pure elation when you win, and those are timeless ideas.
Your follow-up to Tommy Boy was My Fellow Americans, a hilarious political comedy starring James Garner and Jack Lemmon that pokes fun at our nation’s politicians. One might argue there’s a political undertone to Tommy Boy, too, specifically how the working man is consistently ripped off by the Zalinskys across the world. Was that a subtle commentary or just a coincidence?
No, we definitely knew. Even though we had no script, we knew the bones of the story. We knew that once this visionary leader of this small mom ‘n’ pop company left with his big expansion in progress, building the new brake pad division, and spending a lot of money on that investment, that there would be a lot of pressure on his company, and that’s great for comedy. In all good comedies, you have to have a good dramatic spine, and so when the pressure was on the company to basically fold after Big Tom died, that really is a great motivator for your characters to rise to the challenge and save the day. Then it becomes a page-turner. You’re curious about how they’re going to do it when the odds are stacked against them. And we looked at the real world of corporate takeovers, and the rarity of these smaller companies surviving in this corporate, conglomerate world, and we just held up a mirror to what was actually going on in certain areas of the country, and used that as our backdrop.
Why do you personally feel this film resonates two decades later?
I think a lot of people talk about the humor, which is probably number one. There are a lot of comedies out there that are funny. What makes one comedy stick over another? I don’t know. My best guess is it’s a chemical reaction of the story, the people that are in it, and the timing of when you’re telling that story and when it comes out. And I think some of it is the underdog story, absolutely. I think people usually gravitate towards underdog stories.
Also, it was a little bit of an underdog story for two actors from Saturday Night Live. As I mentioned earlier, the show was getting hit by critics, and so for two guys to do a non-sketch-related movie, an original story with two cast members, that was unusual and original. And so that, combined with what the story was about, combined with the fact that we dared to have not just disposable jokes in the movie, but tried at least to tell a story that had an emotional spine to it, those are the things that people talk about.
You can always tell and get a sense of when a movie is or isn’t going to stick. It doesn’t have anything to do with box office, really. It has to do with how people talk to you about the film within the first six months of its release. And what happened with Tommy Boy was that a lot of people said, “Wow, I didn’t expect that. There was a lot of heart.” And I kept hearing that. And the movie only opened to eight million, and I think it did $33 million at the box office, but where I realized the impact of the movie was during the 10th anniversary. Paramount called us and said, “Hey, we’re gonna do a big deal for the 10th anniversary. We’re gonna put out a whole new package with bobblehead dolls. We’re gonna send film crews around the country to interview the cast, get all the stories, blah blah blah.”
I said, “Wow, this is wonderful. Why are you guys spending so much money on this?” And they said, “Well, it’s a top 10 seller for us.” I said, “What does that mean exactly? The year it came out, you mean?” And they said, “No, it’s still a top 10 seller.” I said, “You mean in Paramount’s history?” They said, “Yeah, in home video and DVD, it’s a top ten seller for Paramount.” I said, “You mean like with Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Godfather?’ They go, “Uh huh.” So that’s where this movie has become immensely popular: at home. You won’t see that in Box Office Mojo.
In hindsight, that’s not too surprising. Growing up, friends or neighbors’ VHS collections usually involved a configuration of Tommy Boy, Wayne’s World, Back to the Future, etc. To be in that sort of club is pretty fucking great.
Yeah. I read an interview once with Mike Nichols, and he talked about how people would come up to him and say, “Ugh, I love The Graduate.” And he would say, “Y’know, I’ve made a few other movies too.” But I welcome the fact that we should be so lucky to have any movie remembered so many years after. And I don’t know if anyone knows at the time that a movie is going to be successful. Just remember, It’s a Wonderful Life was a flop. 2001 was a flop when it came out. Certain movies like that go on to be iconic, and yet at the time, critics piss on them and the audience doesn’t know what’s there. And thank goodness for home video and on-demand and everything that people can sample from later, especially now, because with so much out there on television, etc., you get lost.
Scenes from Tommy Boy pop up sometimes during hockey games. Hockey games!
Oh, I hear “Holy Schnikes” all the time. That’s a total Farleyism. I will admit this: I said to Chris at a party once after the movie opened, I said, “I’m really proud of the fact that I think we’ve got a couple of original catchphrases in this. We got ‘Schnikes,’ we got ‘That’s gonna leave a mark.’’’ And then Chris said, “No no no, I got that from John Candy.” I’m like, “… What?” He’s like, “Yeah, John Candy says that in Planes, Trains & Automobiles.” I said, “You got that from that?’ It was too late. But I swear to God, I adore Planes, Trains & Automobiles, and I forever am grateful that they inspired Chris. Any time I hear that, people reference Tommy Boy as if that’s where that line came from.
The critics have finally come around, too. Do you feel vindicated or, at this point, are you like, “Well, that doesn’t matter”?
I think it was Entertainment Weekly who actually retracted their initial “D” grade and raised it to a “B+”, which was cool. Quite frankly, a lot of the critics who crapped on the movie back then are dead now, so I don’t think we’ll ever get a retraction. Someone even printed online the other day some of the reviews that came out, and I think that the cool thing, if you look at the chat threads, is that people say they just didn’t get it. And that’s great. I couldn’t ask for more. I think the funniest thing was that the first review that we read was The LA Times, which was great. They likened Chris and Dave to Abbott and Costello, and we thought, Oh my God, I think we might actually have a well-reviewed movie!
I think The LA Times was the only good review, so I don’t know. I don’t think critics got it at the time, for whatever reason. If they changed their minds, great, but unless they literally did what Entertainment Weekly did, we’ll never know. By the way, Roger Ebert changed his opinion in 2001. He slammed it when it came out, and then a few years later, he said, “You know what? I was wrong.” The fact that we’re talking about it like this now, to me, that’s the most satisfying thing.