EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from the opening of Jonathan Herron’s book, Holy Shift. Jonathan leads one of America’s fastest growing churches, LifeChurchMichigan.com. Part of his “training” was his time spent at Second City in Chicago. Holy Shift is about unleashing contagious enthusiasm on church leadership teams; equipping leaders to leverage laughter and passion; and creating sustainable momentum in reaching younger crowds for Christ.
My dad was a pastor, which means our family went to church every single Sunday. This was great for introducing me to the gospel and receiving Christ into my life at a young age but was horrible for my chosen vocation of comedy. You see, we were Presbyterians, a group of Christians not really known for producing high-quality, razor-wit comedians. Our pastors know how to dress up in dark robes like Obi-Wan Kenobi, but we tend to shy away from open-mic comedy nights. Presbyterians must think it’s funny to say that we are God’s “frozen chosen.” I don’t get it. I always found it curious that if you rearrange the letters in Presbyterians, it spells out Britney Spears. That I do get.
Anyhow, I loved our little country church in the fields of Iowa. Looking back now, I realize we didn’t have much to do in Iowa. When you’re surrounded by cows, chickens, and pigs, your options tend to be limited. In my spare time, I excelled at corn-on-the-cob speed eating. What can I say? We are Iowans. We like simple. We thought that the capital of Wisconsin was W.
The day after I graduated from high school, I begged and pleaded with my parents to drive me to Chicago to see a show at Second City. The birthplace of improvisational comedy, The Second City in Chicago has produced most of the major comedy stars over the past half century: Alan Arkin, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Mike Myers, Stephen Colbert, Steve Carrell, and the voice of Homer Simpson, Dan Castellaneta. Without Second City, there would have been no Saturday Night Live, no Ghostbusters, no Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and no Simpsons. If I wanted to move toward writing and performing comedy, Second City was my first stop.
As we parked the car a block away from the comedy theater, we looked over our shoulders and noticed another historic landmark: the Moody Church. Constructed in 1924, Moody Church was the result of the aggressive evangelism of Dwight L. Moody in the late 1800’s. Literally and figuratively, I believe that the intersection of church and comedy can be felt at the corner of North and Wells. Many Second City performers and students (including myself years later) would attend worship at Moody Church on Sundays at 5pm and then head over two blocks to the theater to create comedy. There’s a symbiotic relationship there; comedy and leadership are not as far apart as you would suspect.
Fresh out of high school, I found the comedy show that evening to be hypnotic and mesmerizing. I was hooked: Second City was where I wanted to go and learn the principles of comedy. As soon as I could afford a full tank of gas later that summer, my aim was to wave goodbye to Iowa and hello to Chicago.
Turns out I needed to arrive in the Windy City a few days ahead of Columbia College’s freshmen move-in so that I could interview at Second City for a hosting job. When I got the call a few days later that I was hired, I hit the roof! I was in! I didn’t care if there was grunt work involved and all my weekend hours would be spent cooking and cleaning; the idea of rubbing shoulders with established comedians was intoxicating.
One particularly busy night in the fall of 1997, I was handed the tickets for a couple who were eager for the evening’s performance. I quickly sized them up and was astonished at the sight. The young woman was HAWT (yes, H – A – W – T)! She was beautiful, blonde, in a gorgeous evening dress, and had sparkling blue eyes. Hawt.
Her date, on the other hand, was NAWT! He was overweight and sweaty, sported slicked-back-yet-frazzled hair, tie askew . . . definitely
NAWT! Do you remember the old musical segment on Sesame Street: “One of these things is not like the other?” That was this guy! He did NOT go with HER! As I began leading them to their table, I silently wondered, What is this, a joke? Did she lose a bet somewhere? Is this guy her cousin?
Their tickets were for the best seats in the house—remarkable because only Second City alumni or relatives and close friends can secure the best seats. I glanced back at the couple to see if I recognized either of them. Nope. Must be friends of a cast member, I guessed.
As I politely pulled back their chairs to help seat them, I looked down at the tickets one last time to quickly use the last name listed and wish them a good evening. They were sitting down as I realized what I was saying mid-sentence: “Thank you for being our guests tonight at Second City, Mr. Faaaaaaaarrrrrrrrley.” My mouth went dry as cotton balls and my palms became clammy. This was Chris Farley!
As I stumbled back toward my manager to assist the next guests waiting in line, she grabbed my ear. “You see Mr. Farley over there with his date? We want to make sure he has a very good time tonight. At intermission, I don’t want anyone bugging him for photos or autographs. It’s going to be YOUR job to usher Farley out of the room and act as his bodyguard.”
Bodyguard? Me? Hadn’t my manager seen my body frame? If I were a superhero, my name would be Captain Toothpick. At intermission, I dutifully whisked Chris Farley out of the main theater and into a holding room. He was very kind, down-to-earth, and, well, sweaty. But I didn’t mind; I had a front-row seat to a rich and famous comedian! We exchanged some small talk, and at the end of the night I thought that was that. Turns out Mr. Farley would be making multiple visits to the theater over the coming weeks . . . and I was the Tommy Boy star’s designated body man for each visit. Over time I was able to closely observe the side effects of stardom.
I remember one night Farley came barreling into the theater with a group of friends. Once we had them seated at a large table near the front, Farley pulled out a wad of hundred dollar bills and began liberally handing them out to his party. They pocketed their cash and scattered. I thought it was odd.
Another time Chris came to a show under the influence of something. He looked like more of a mess than usual and smelled like he hadn’t showered in days. When he began loudly heckling the comedians on stage, I had the awkward duty of discreetly trying to remove Chris Farley from the audience.
Even though I was a front-row witness to some blaring warning signs, I had zero sway over Farley’s downward spiral. My role was being the young, impressionable college kid from Iowa who thought it was cool to hang out with one of my comedy idols. As I bragged about my adventures to friends back home, folks thought I was making this stuff up.
So I became determined to snap a picture with Farley.
My opportunity came that December at Second City’s annual Christmas party for employees and alumni. Closed to the public, this was a night of celebration and revelry . . . and Chris Farley was there! I found him in the back swapping cocaine with some of the kitchen staff. He looked like he had been partying for a few days straight at that point. I jumped in with friends for a group shot, and there in the back of our photo, posing alongside us college kids, was a drunk Chris Farley.
This was the late 1990s, a bygone era before Instagram and Facebook. We didn’t have digital cameras with instantly-uploadable photos. Nope. I had to head across the street to a 24-hour Walgreens to drop off my film for three-day development (three days—oh the horror!). I was excited because on that cold, wintry Monday night in Chicago’s Old Town district, I had partied with Chris Farley.
Thursday morning I was sitting down for a college class when a buddy came in the door. “Hey, Herron! Did you hear about Chris Farley?” he announced. “You bet,” I replied. “I just partied with him two nights ago, and I’ll pick up the pictures after class!
“No,” my friend pressed on, his voice lowering a bit. “I mean, did you hear the news about Farley? They just discovered his body in the John Hancock Building.”
Turns out that two nights after my photo was taken, Farley was continuing a four-day partying binge. After smoking crack and snorting heroin with a call girl, he took her back to his apartment in the John Hancock Building on Michigan Avenue. There was an argument about money that caused her to get up in a huff. Chris tried to follow but instead collapsed on the floor, struggling to breathe. His final words were, “Don’t leave me.” Instead of calling 9-1-1, the escort stole his watch and wrote a note saying she’d had a lot of fun, then left.
Chris Farley died alone.
You can discover the rest of Jonathan Herron’s story in Holy Shift.