Fat Men, Little Coats: The Oral History of Tommy Boy

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“To this day, people stop me on the street and say they love Tommy Boy. It’s the ultimate movie for fifteen-year-old boys. And if you compare Tommy Boy to what they’re making today for fifteen-year-old boys, it’s the fucking Magnificent Ambersons.”

That’s Rob Lowe, quoted from Tom Farley and Tanner Colby’s Chris Farley biography, “The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts.” And holy mother of god is that accurate. As someone who was a fifteen-year-old boy during the height of Tommy Boy’s popularity (and can remember being a high school dweeb, bonding with the popular baseball player sitting next to me in Spanish class by doing the “it doesn’t hurt here, or here, but riiiiiiiiiight here” bit), Lowe speaks the truth. Tommy Boy is a small but treasured comedy classic. It’s easy to watch; just enough belly laughs and quotable moments to drive you to a second, third or fourth viewing; just enough heart that it’ll grow on you just a bit more each time. If Orson Welles ever made a movie where a guy attempts cow tipping, slips and falls in mud and then you realize, hohohoho there’s probably poop in that mud, that movie would be Tommy Boy.

So in honor of Tommy Boy’s 20th anniversary (which is today), we reached out to Peter Segal (director) and Michael Ewing (associate producer) to fill us in on what made Tommy Boy, well, Tommy Boy.

In the beginning…

Michael Ewing: Well, at first it was a concept that Lorne Michaels had, and that he pitched to Sherry Lansing, about two brothers. And so the original idea would have been about Chris Farley and Rob Lowe. And so when Pete came on as the director, he felt it should be about these two guys, [David Spade] and Farley, and their friendship.

Peter Segal: What was it called… oh gosh the [original title]… Billy the Third: A Midwestern, is what it was. But we were in pre-production at the same time that Billy Madison was in pre-production, and we didn’t want two SNL related films with the same title. So we went into a tailspin, spent months coming up with, what it eventually was named.

Segal reached out to SNL writer Fred Wolf, and the two of them sat down to rewrite the script to re-focus the story around David Spade and Chris Farley’s characters. But the writing process went long, and Tommy Boy found itself in a time crunch- about to enter production with only two-thirds of a finished script.

Segal: Normally, when you’re doing an SNL film you shoot in their hiatus, the summer hiatus. We had used our summer hiatus to figure out what the movie was going to be, and by the time we did figure it out, we were in the SNL season. So it became, you know, really difficult. At one point, even I thought it got so out of control- the fact that Fred had to go back to SNL and the script really wasn’t there- that I didn’t think the movie would be possible. So I even tried to leave. I tried to quit the movie. And you know, I was threatened with a lawsuit, so I had to stay.

Ewing: The guys had this crazy schedule, that they would fly in a plane back to New York, from Toronto, and then they’d work a couple of days at SNL for rehearsal, then fly back, work a couple days on the movie, then fly back, work a couple more days on SNL. So they’d do the show, then fly back on Sunday night.

Segal: I realized I was being shipped off to Siberia, otherwise known as Toronto, with no docket to shoot. So [Wolf and I] said “Ok, let’s brainstorm. We’ve gotta come up with something. Things that happened to us in our lives- let’s just come up with a bunch of index cards, we’ll throw ’em on the carpet and we’ll string a story together.” And the first thing I said was, “Well the other day I was trying to get gas at my local gas station and I parked a little too far away from the pump so I backed my car up and I hyperextended my door. Ok that’s one little piece, let’s write that down.” And [Wolf] said “Well one time I, you know, put some oil in the car and I forgot to take the can out and the hood flew up in my face on the freeway.” I go “Ooh, that’s a good one let’s put that down.” And it went from there.

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We thought this movie was barely gonna get there, because literally we had no script and we were making it up.

Even as the shoot progressed, the casting process wasn’t anywhere near finished. Farley and Spade were onboard, as were Bo Derek, Brian Dennehy and Dan Aykroyd. However, the one actor seemingly confirmed from the start- Rob Lowe- had yet to be officially cast.

Ewing: There was a scheduling problem and we didn’t know if [Lowe] would be available, so finally we had to go through a whole casting process.

Segal: We were filming the scene on the lake, the dead calm, and then eventually the end of the movie- we were still auditioning who was going to play Paul. You know, Tommy Callahan’s brother. Or step-brother. And I remember that Matthew McConaughey flew in from, I think Texas. He was just coming off Dazed and Confused. And he auditioned in this little shack by the side of the lake that was just covered in mice turds on the floor and it was this really bizarre moment.

Yet, when Lowe was cast, he ended up uncredited for his role in Tommy Boy. To this day, Segal and Ewing are still unsure about just why that was.

Segal: I think it’s the same reason why I grew a beard- we all thought it was gonna tank. We thought this movie was barely gonna get there, because literally we had no script and we were making it up. And I think because he didn’t know what the movie was when he signed on- because we started shooting with 66 pages- I think he probably felt like he was just going to do this favor, for Lorne. And because he had come off Wayne’s World, which was very successful. And you know, call it a day.

Ewing: It must have been some kind of contractual thing.

Oh, and many of the smaller roles were left unfilled.

Ewing: I’d get a call from Pete, “We’ve got a new character we’ve got to cast!” “But it’s two o’clock in the morning!” “Wake up the casting director!” And so it was, “Oh and by the way, wake up the casting director, and the character starts the first line that we’re shooting in the morning.” So it was that kind of a movie.

Segal: I was just coming off my first movie, Naked Gun 33 1/3, and it was a hit and I thought I was probably taking that initial boost from the Zucker brothers and throwing it in the trash can and lighting it on fire. But I just clung to one thing the whole time and that was my love of Chris Farley.

“Does this suit make me look fat?”

Ewing: The magic between Chris and David is just incredible, and they would ad lib, and sometimes they would just be talking in conversation and they’d say something so funny, and we would say “Wait- wait what did you say? Quick, write it down!” and put it in the scene. And I think that is how the line- “Does this make me look fat?” “No, your face does”- I think that was just in conversation.

“Fat guy in a little coat…”

Segal: Well, “Fat Guy in a Little Coat” was a bit that Farley had done around the offices at SNL, according to Fred, and originally in the scene he just spoke the words- “Fat guy in a little coat, fat guy in a little coat.” And we had to reshoot the scene for some technical reasons and my editor [Bill Kerr] called me and said, “Dude, look at this take right here!” The camera was on Spade, and Chris was doing lines over and over and he was getting a little bored and so he started improvising, and off camera he sang the lyric. He sort of made up a song for “Fat guy in a little coat,” and [Kerr] said “When you go back to reshoot this, get him on camera singing it this time, because it’s way funnier when he sings it rather than just when he says it.”

“Did you eat a lot of paint chips when you were a kid?”

Segal: When Rob Lowe is hosing the mud off of Farley after the cow tipping scene, at the gas station, I called [Wolf] and said “Fred, this scene is a little dead, it needs a funny beat.” And he said “Well describe the shot for me” and I said “Well, you know Rob’s hosing him off, there’s a lot of backlit water just splashing off of him.” And he says, “Huh. Flashdance.” I went “Bingo, got it, thanks.” So every day my editor, Bill Kerr, who’s one of my best pals, would like, call me and say “Where the fuck did that come from? That wasn’t in the script!” And then I’d say “What script? What are you talking about? Expect this every day dude, this is how it ‘s going down.”

“New guy’s in the corner, puking his guts out…”

Ewing: Yeah, that was in the script. Even though it seemed improvised, that was all written. That scene plays great, still.

Segal: Very little came on the day. I think because, quite frankly, we were too frightened to show up to the set with nothing written. We already felt naked as we did as it was, with the precarious nature of the script.

“My car… is completely destroyed.”

Segal: [Wolf] told me this story of an actual 911 call that I think played on Howard Stern- that this guy, who I think was calling 911 as an actual deer he hit- he tried to put it in his car- it came alive and started biting him and he was talking to the 911 operator as it was biting his leg and it was the funniest fucking thing I’ve ever heard.

Ewing: [Deer] don’t do what you want them to do and so they have to be trained over weeks and weeks and weeks with food placed in the car. To get the deer to go into the car to jump out, right? So we had a pen made with a fence around it, with the deer put in with the car, and the deer would, you know, slowly get up and down off the car, up and down off the car.

Segal: They tried to coax the deer up the ramp on its own to eat the food and pee and poop in the car so it would smell itself and be comfortable. And they did this for one month, and then one night they turn the lights on like an ambush, and the cameras rolled. And the lights being turned on is what scared the deer and it ran away. So that one shot took one month to film.

Tommy Boy finally hit theaters on March 31, 1995. Financially, it was a success ‐ pulling in nearly $33m at the box office ‐ but critically it was an entirely different story.

Ewing: The first review that we saw was in the LA Times. It was a great review, and liking the team to Abbot and Costello and Laurel and Hardy. And so that was the dream review. I think that was the best one. I think the rest of them were not so good.

Segal: It was hammered by critics. Saturday Night Live at that time was going through a very tough spot… the ratings weren’t great, the show was getting shit on by critics, and I think anything related to Saturday Night Live at that point was also getting shit on. And we were related.

Ewing: But there’s been some reevaluations that have happened, and [Tommy Boy] seemed to have had such a lasting affect on audiences. Like, we were at the tenth anniversary we were talking to the Paramount people who were doing the special release- the “Holy Schnike Edition” ‐ and we were helping them out with that, and they said to us, “Well, this is one of the top ten videos from Paramount. And we said, “Oh really, you mean when it was first released on VHS? What do you mean?” And they said “No, one of the top ten, period. Of sales.” We said “What? You mean…” Well, in the top ten for Paramount it would have to be The Godfather and Raiders of the Lost Ark. That’s crazy, but evidently it had that kind of success in DVD and VHS and, you know, it continues. So that’s kind of where it lived.

Tommy Boy also has a few fans in high places… say, Quentin Tarantino.

Ewing: We just went to the New Beverly Cinema and Tarantino had used his copy of Tommy Boy and showed it. It was pristine. We couldn’t believe it.

Segal: I didn’t know that he was as much a fan of Tommy Boy, and so it was a real honor that when he decided his favorite films of the 90s, at his New Beverly theater, that Tommy Boy was included. And the cool thing for me was, I thought they were just going to project a Blu-ray, digitally- but apparently Quentin had a personal copy of Tommy Boy as a 35mm print, which I don’t even have. And I found out just as I was going up to introduce the film in front of the audience. And so it was a real treat for me to see a 35mm print projected in such great shape, 20 years after the the last time saw a print, which was literally at the premiere.

Ewing: It seems like we just celebrated the tenth anniversary of it, when we got Chris his star on the Walk of Fame for the tenth anniversary… and they didn’t even want to do that. No, they gave us trouble, the chamber of commerce, because they said he was, you know, he had died of a drug overdose and that’s not the kind of example they wanted to give to young people. And I said “Oh my God, for God’s sake you’d have to rip up the entire street! If that stuff bothers you… My god.” It’s a little late for Hollywood to be worried about that.

Segal: What I think struck people more than anything was the heart that the film had. They expected Farley and Spade to be funny, but they didn’t expect it to have the soft spine that it did and have a story that made you care about the characters and I think that’s what was surprising. I think, really, that’s what made it sing.

Ewing: It’s been a joy to watch people respond to that movie over the years, and it’s hard to believe that its been 20 years, you know?