On May 8, 1993, Chris Farley made Saturday Night Live history when he premiered Matt Foley, the overaggressive motivational speaker who “lives in a van down by the river.”
Even though it was the character’s SNL debut, it wasn’t the first time audiences had witnessed the glory of Foley. The character’s origin could be traced back to Second City, the Chicago improv troupe where Farley got his start.
While at Second City, the comedian befriended Bob Odenkirk, a fellow performer who would go on to have a successful career in his own right. After an evening performance, the two were part of a group engaging in theater games. One instance involved improvising an anti-drug speech for high school kids.
“Chris did a version of Matt Foley,” Odenkirk recalled in a conversation with Conan O’Brien. “He didn’t have the glasses or the suit, but he was just hectoring the kids with that empty, ‘By golly, you kids are gonna get it together!’ It was just that voice of a coach who just really doesn’t know what he’s saying but is trying to put a lot of emphasis in it.” Farley’s embodiment of the character stuck with Odenkirk even after he left the theater that night. “I just went home with that voice in my head. It was very funny, and I sat down with a legal pad and wrote up that sketch.”
Matt Foley started appearing in Second City shows regularly, performances Odenkirk still rank as the most fun he ever had in his career. “It was just amazing how it came to life and filled that theater every night,” he noted of Farley’s uncanny talent. “Because I’d never seen anything hit so hard every time, and Chris wouldn’t leave the stage until he made all the performers laugh. He was driven to make you laugh when he did the sketch every single night.”
When Farley left Second City for the bright lights of Saturday Night Live in 1990, Foley went along with him. But the motivational speaker wasn’t immediately thrust onto TV screens. Farley quickly became one of the sketch show’s most popular stars, delivering memorable turns as a Chippendale’s dancer opposite Patrick Swayze and helping create Bill Swerski’s Superfans, a sketch centered on stereotypical Chicago sports fans and their rallying cry of “Da Bears!” It wasn’t until Farley’s third season on the show (and SNL‘s 18th overall) that he unleashed the comedic fury of Matt Foley.
Watch Chris Farley as Matt Foley on ‘SNL’
The episode’s host was Christina Applegate, then enjoying her Married … With Children fame. The actress would appear alongside David Spade in the sketch, playing two teens in trouble after their parents (Phil Hartman and Julia Sweeney) found a bag of marijuana. Enter the tornado of motivational speeches by Matt Foley.
“Now let’s get started by letting me give you a little bit of a scenario about what my life is all about,” the character aggressively began. “First off, I am 35 years old. I am divorced. And I live in a van down by the river!” Laughter erupted, the studio audience already hooked.
From there, Farley took his Foley character through many memorable lines – from reacting to Spade’s character wanting to become a writer (“Hey dad, I can’t see real good. Is that Bill Shakespeare over there?”) to commenting on drug use (“From what I’ve heard, you’re using your paper not for writing, but for rolling doobies!”).
With every twist and turn of his oversized frame, Farley elicited more howls from the audience. His castmates weren’t immune, as Spade and Applegate can be seen clearly laughing during the sketch. Much like his Second City days, Farley didn’t stop until his co-stars were cracking up.
“In rehearsal, he’s done the thing with his glasses,” Spade later recalled, alluding to Farley’s distinctive movements. “But he’d never done the twisting his belt and hitching up the pants thing. He saved that for the live performance, and so none of us had ever seen it. He knew that would break me.”
By the time Foley crashed through the family’s living-room table, SNL had its newest breakout character. “He made that character whole,” Odenkirk would later explain to the Chicago Reader. “It’s not a gimmick. You felt like there was a real person in that character.”