Of Bulls, Brakepads and Bees: Tommy Boy At Twenty

Comedy Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin

Despite his relatively brief time as a cast member, Chris Farley’s five seasons on Saturday Night Live remain just as off-puttingly hilarious now as they were two decades ago. While comedy’s oftentimes topical narrative naturally lends itself to a quick expiration date, Farley’s trademark characterization of the loveable wrecking ball evoked an immediate timelessness. The aftermath of Farley’s tragic death at 33 brought along the predictable albeit sincere comparisons to the comedian’s forbearers, the most notable being John Belushi, whose own death at the same age and under eerily similar circumstances had come only 15 years earlier. The associations between the two were understandable—both actors fully embraced (often literally) the full-on physicality of comedy at its most absurd and unpredictable, yet where Belushi’s comedic persona took on a more abrasive and animalistic characteristic, Farley’s characterization managed to be as endearing as it was disconcerting.

With the end of his tenure as an SNL cast member at the conclusion of the show’s 1994-1995 season, Farley’s career might just as easily become long forgotten and turn into the stuff of “where the hell are they now” storylines that had followed many of the comedy sketch show’s cast members. Instead, the then 31-year-old Wisconsin native took on a role that would unashamedly lampoon his own Midwestern blue-collar upbringing and take the well-worn road trip comedy beyond formulaic tropes. Released in March of 1995, Tommy Boy was an emphatic and sidesplitting “yes” to the question of whether or not Farley could succeed beyond the walls of Studio 8H. Despite being largely panned by critics at the time of its release, (including the late Roger Ebert, who awarded the film a single star, likely spraining both thumbs in the process), Tommy Boy was a box office success, earning $32.7 million during its theater run.

20 years since its release, the ill-fated journey of Farley’s Tommy Callahan and tiny curmudgeon Richard Hayden (played wonderfully and probably not with much difficulty by David Spade) is just as relevant as it was in 1995, if not moreso. Pairing the slapstick buffoonery of Farley’s bull in a china shop anxiety with Spade’s insecurity masked as smarmy assholism, Tommy Boy is more than the sum of its buddy comedy parts. Though the economic boom of the 1990s was a welcomed reprieve from Reaganomics and George Bush’s “thousand points of light” predecessors, the turnaround didn’t help the kind of middle-class manufacturing that made companies like Callahan Auto and towns like Sanduskey , Ohio possible. Still reeling from the overcooked economics of the 1980s and the increasing globalization of the 1990s, the middle class worker’s struggle in that decade was represented with no more honest absurdity than in Tommy Boy.

The film’s plotline doesn’t intentionally align itself with the political reality of its context, but even if there wasn’t any social relevance the story would still connect with audiences due to Farley as the charming moron Tommy Callahan. Farley’s ability to emote Tommy’s stupidity might otherwise be a simple take on simple role were it not for the fact that the character’s most unappealing traits (and there are many) end up being his most powerful attributes. Of the film’s numerous memorable scenes, the montage of Richard and Tommy’s failures at selling the Callahan brake pads to an assortment of middle-aged businessmen is hysterical enough on its own, yet the scene reaches its sort of shit luck zenith for the duo as Tommy ups the ante on his sales pitch, resulting in at least one toy model car fire, the hypothetical carnage of an unwitting family senselessly killed by cheapskate consumerism, and the irreversible psychological scarring of a police detective on his first day on the job.

The majority of director Peter Segal’s comedies have been safe passages through every fish out of water (but with amnesia!) trope (50 First Dates) or just Eddie Murphy In a Fat Suit Again Part 12 (Nutty Professor II: The Klumps). That’s not to say that Segal’s work has been entirely limited to that, but rather that Tommy Boy would cast a shadow on any great comedy that followed it, much less one built entirely around a script of Adam Sandler yelling or Eddie Murphy farting next to Janet Jackson. What worked then and still works now for Tommy Boy is that there are no gimmicks. There are no fat suits or silly plotlines involving a shrill Marisa Tomei or an equally as intolerable Jack Nicholson as a batshit therapist, both of who make Adam Sandler look calm and reasonable in Anger Management.

Nope. Tommy Boy keeps things simple. You have two idiots driving across America’s heartland to save dear old (spoiler?) dead dad’s dwindling auto parts business by selling the factory’s new brakepads. There are a few factory scenes throughout the movie, but one that’s always stuck with me, admittedly because it reminds me of my own father, is the almost artfully long shot of the factory floor supervisor who is absolutely, unequivocally not interested in anything Tommy or Richard happen to be selling. Why? There’s no guarantee on the box. It’s a great setup because the doofus duo are trailing this skinny old set-in-his-ways and close to retirement worker who just wants a damn guarantee, not in words or promises, but on a just as useless label on the side of the box (like Callahan’s competitor Ray Zalinsky, played with perfect salesman smarm by Dan Aykroyd).

The scene doesn’t last very long at all, but it gives what could have been a half-assed plotline some clarity. The aforementioned floor supervisor is quickly revealed to be just as off-putting as Tommy and Richard, going so far as to engage in conversation with one of the boxes with the guarantee on the side, using different voices to drive his point home, and just appearing like he’s lost his mind, or at least has let his obsession with sticker guarantees go far beyond wherever those boundaries happen to be. What works next in the movie isn’t some brilliant untapped resource of smart comedy, but it does offer a point of distinction from the glut of buddy and/or road trip comedies that relied on little more than Cinemax-level T&A and the old reliable digestive system gone awry comedic standby.

It’s simple. Tommy says exactly what the viewer is thinking. Whether brake pads or light bulbs or tubes of polenta, it does feel nice to have a guarantee, but at the end of the day it’s just a bunch of words placed on the side of the box or tube to make the consumer feel better, not to declare any kind of authenticity. This is the best cheese in the world! Guaranteed! means nothing. Zilch. Tommy Boy’s humor lies smartly in that common sense arena of comedy where there are more than a few scenes that could easily (and probably have, to some degree) occurred in real life.

Similar to the essential road trip comedy Planes, Trains, and Automobiles from eight year earlier, Tommy Boy is a damn funny look at opposite personalities being stuck in a vehicle together, the ensuing chaos, and then the epiphany where both realize their commonalities. Cue the strings, pull back camera, tilt upward, roll credits. There is no heartbreak at the end of Tommy Boy, though, and no big reveal. Both Tommy and Richard are still insufferable jackasses but have managed to use their shortcomings to successful ends. In that way, Tommy Boy makes no attempt to “redeem” its main characters in some groan-worthy dénouement. Why? Because it doesn’t have to, and it still doesn’t 20 years later.

Jonathan K. Dick writes for Rolling Stone, NPR, The A.V. Club, Pitchfork, and other neat places like the one you’re reading right now. Unimportant things: olives, laugh tracks, side B of 2112 / Important things: pies, Rush, The Dune Trilogy, Tilda Swinton.