When I started rewatching Black Sheep on the occasion of its 20th anniversary, it quickly became apparent that this piece would be more of a post-mortem than a straight-up appreciation. The movie certainly has its rabid fans (one of those weird things you learn from being on the Internet too much), and while I could never be an unabashed cheerleader, Black Sheep has a few moments worth appreciating: Chris Farley putting his fist through a capsized voting booth to pull out an old lady. Gary Busey telling David Spade “I can go to your momma’s and start a small fire in her panties.” Most of the police car-filled-with-nitrous-oxide scene (a totally pedestrian bit on paper, but so much more when mixed with Farley/Spade chemistry).
For the most part though, it was a failure. Not a commercial failure, mind you, Black Sheep‘s lifetime gross was only about $200,000 less than Tommy Boy. But posterity doesn’t care about that stuff. Black Sheep was so transparently an attempt to recapture the magic of Tommy Boy that watching it is bittersweet. It makes me nostalgic for David Spade and Chris Farley as a team, but feels so tone-deaf about what made Tommy Boy great (or at least intensely likable) in the first place, that you wonder if Tommy Boy was a fluke.
I don’t want to believe that, so instead I thought we might try to understand what went wrong. Black Sheep had Chris Farley and David Spade at the peak of their careers, plus Gary Busey and Penelope Spheeris, the director of Wayne’s World. As David Spade says in his recent memoir, Almost Interesting, “it should’ve been a slam dunk.” Even looking at it 20 years later, I agree.
Chris Farley Yelling is Funny. Should He Yell… More?
Black Sheep eventually rewards you for sticking around — with the car scene, and a reasonably grounded third act that would’ve worked well in a better movie — but its worst flaws are apparent right from the start. In the opening scene, Tim Matheson gives a rousing speech in his run for governor of Washington State (which I guess was juuust far enough removed the Midwest, where Tommy Boy† was set, to not be a ripoff, while retaining just enough of the spirit of the Heartland). Meanwhile, somewhere else in town, Matheson’s character’s brother, Chris Farley, drives around in a converted butcher’s truck with a loudspeaker and Matheson’s picture on the side, doing some campaigning of his own (all set to your typical, overbearing ’90s comedy score, with lots of goofy horn noodling). Only there’s a pack of dogs chasing him (they can smell the meat on account of it used to be a butcher’s truck, you see) which eventually leads to Farley cussing out the dogs over the PA, his truck crashing into the campaign event, old ladies clutching their pearls, etc. A big ol’ comedic set piece! Why not go big right off the bat, right?
This is similar to Tommy Boy‘s opening, but only in the broadest, bull-in-a-china-shop strokes. Tommy Boy opened with Farley late for class — crashing through a fence, inadvertently traumatizing a nerd (a great moment), eventually showing up looking disheveled and receiving a withering look of contempt from his tweedy professor, before answering “Herbie” Hancock on his history final and passing with a D+. (I will likely be able to recount this scene from memory on my deathbed, which is neither a confession nor a brag.)
Both scenes include lots of fatty-falls-down humor, horrified bystanders, and too-loud horn music. But there’s a pretty basic difference between the two. “Late for class” is a relatable premise. Within that, Farley just hams up his natural oafishness, in a way that’s pure slapstick, but retains his inherent charm. It feels easy. Comedy should feel easy. You never question why Chris Farley would be running to make a class like you would, say, why he’s cursing dogs at the top of his lungs — Is his character terrified of dogs? Does he think the dogs are going to chew through the car doors? Are the dogs deaf? — with his finger still on the loudspeaker button (which would seem to negate his reasons for screaming, and reveal him as too stupid to be able to operate a car). In the first scene of Black Sheep, they’ve already invented a preposterous situation where they didn’t need one, and had the supposedly-lovable character react to it like raving sociopath. Where the opening scene in Tommy Boy invites you in, Black Sheep‘s is almost a disclaimer: Check your logic here, we’re not going to be trying very hard. Your reward will be Chris Farley shouting.
It’s a microcosm of the rest of the film – flailing wildly for humor while trying to recreate something they don’t seem to understand.
†Additional trivia: Tommy Boy, written by Bonnie and Terry Turner, was originally called “Billy The Third: A Midwestern,” but was changed on account of being in production around the same time as Billy Madison, and they thought it’d be weird to have two SNL movies come out around the same time with both main characters named “Billy.” Happy accident, “Tommy Boy” is a better title.
A Pre-Greenlit Script and a Hot Director
It would be easy to blame Black Sheep‘s script, but there’s at least some evidence that it wasn’t the problem. Coming off the success of Tommy Boy, everyone involved was pretty keen to go back to the well. Fred Wolf, who had done punch-up work on Tommy Boy, wrote the script for Black Sheep, which had already been greenlit. According to David Spade, Farley had signed a two-picture deal before Tommy Boy (this being his way of showing that he was a professional and a “company man” despite his trips to rehab), meaning he was working for a fee set before Tommy Boy. Spade, meanwhile, got to renegotiate and, as a result of coming off a hit, would be getting paid much more. In the meantime, Farley had been offered $3 million (a massive payday) to star in The Cable Guy. So when Spade read the Black Sheep script, he knew that if he liked it, he and Fred Wolf could get paid, and if he didn’t, Farley could go make more than either of them doing The Cable Guy. As he writes in, Almost Interesting, he ended up liking it.
That night I read it and realized it wasn’t perfect but there was a funny movie in there. I thought we could work with Fred, pepper in our extra jokes, and everything would work out fine.
Next, Paramount brought in Penelope Spheeris, who was hot off Wayne’s World, then (and still) the most successful SNL movie by a wide margin. To hear Spade tell it, Spheeris deserves a lot of the blame for Black Sheep. It’d be easy to look at Spheeris’ IMDb page, assume she had a couple of fluke hits, but didn’t really understand comedy, but I don’t think that’s it, not quite. This was a woman who directed Suburbia (a punk rock classic I watched almost as many times as Tommy Boy), who taught Albert Brooks how to make movies for SNL, who had worked with Richard Pryor while she was still a film student. She should’ve gained at least some comedic chops just through simple proximity. And all things being equal, she’s probably directed more, better movies than Tommy Boy director Pete Segal has. She also grew up in a family of carnies, which isn’t necessarily relevant here, but still deserves mention because you never ignore a thing like that.
The way Spade tells it, Spheeris just never bought Farley and Spade as a team.
Trouble started right away. Penelope told us right off the bat that she didn’t love Tommy Boy and that she knew how to make Chris and me funny. That’s where someone should have pulled the plug. Then she ripped forty pages out of our script and said she would fix them with her writer. Fred and he had a few bad meetings and he was essentially kicked off the project from then on. She was making so much more money than us, she outranked us and that was hard for Chris and me to deal with. I wish [Tommy Boy director] Pete Segal would have done it but he was tied up. We all had it down and could have really made that thing a crusher. My gut told me Mike and Dana had made all the comedy decisions on Wayne’s World but for some reason they were giving the credit to Penelope. I didn’t get it. […]