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. […]
In the movie, Chris and I shot a lot of scenes apart. This was odd, because the whole point was our chemistry.
I could tell she really thought Chris was a great talent. Unfortunately I could also tell she thought I was not. It was package deal, and unfortunately for her I was part of the package so she had to deal with me.
It’d be easy to dismiss this as sour grapes on Spade’s part, but Spheeris’ own account mostly backs up what Spade says she thought of him. As she was quoted in the the Farley bio The Chris Farley Show:
SPHEERIS: My problem with Black Sheep was that then and to this day I find Chris Farley absolutely, brilliantly, hilariously funny. I don’t think I’ve ever smiled at anything David Spade’s ever done. Chris was lovable and positive, and David was so bitter and negative. You take your pick.
I still have a recording of a message David left on my answering machine. He said, “You’ve spent this whole movie trying to cut my comedy balls off.”
To deny Spade’s contribution to Tommy Boy is to miss the point. Farley’s manic neediness and broad pratfalls generated the biggest laughs, but in the absence of anything else, they’d get old pretty quick. Farley needed Spade’s cynicism and bitchy one-liners to play off of, as evidenced by the fact that none of the movies he did without Spade really worked. If that’s what Spheeris really thought of David Spade at the time, it would probably be enough to poison the finished product.
And there are a lot of Black Sheep scenes where the two are apart, and even more scenes where the two are together, but Spade isn’t really doing much. As in the scene where their characters first meet, at the auto shop where Farley is working on his car†. Farley slams the hood on his own thumbs (how would you even do that?), and Spade just sort of stands there not noticing. (I guess him not noticing is the joke?) It’s a pretty lame premise to begin with, made even worse by the fact that it wastes Spade, and sort of turns him into an idiot for not noticing. I guess he’s the dumb one now?
Conversely, all of Black Sheep‘s best scenes have both of them. One of my favorite moments is when Farley has Spade in the back of their borrowed cop car, after they’ve been pulled over by the local sheriff, and Farley has to try to talk their way out of it. Farley introduces himself as “Officer Jack Mehoff,” which is a dopey joke, to be sure, but what makes it work, and the reason why it’s memorable, is that right after he says it, he turns around in his seat to mouth “jack me off” to Spade in the back seat, who gives him a “Yeah, good one, bro” nod. “Jack Mehoff” isn’t a funny joke, but these two guys bonding over it is. Especially the way just the short shot of the look on Spade’s face communicates that he doesn’t want to give Farley any encouragement, and knows he shouldn’t, but has to concede this point to him anyway because “Jack Mehoff” is just too good not to. There’s an entire relationship built up in that one look. And to me, in barely a minute of screen time, it’s a more honest depiction of how male friendships actually work than anything Entourage ever did.
That said, I don’t entirely buy the idea that Spheeris and Spade didn’t like each other and that ruined the movie. For instance, if they hated each other so much, why did they turn right around and work together on Senseless, two years later? “Money” is one potentially easy answer, but it doesn’t seem like either were hurting for work at the time. It sounds like they grew to dislike each other, probably for personal rather than professional reasons, and remember their animosity as a constant, colored as it is by later interactions. David Spade gets called a douchebag often enough that you have to wonder whether it’s at least partly true, but to me he’s also more interesting comedically than he ever seems to get credit for. It’s easy to call him “negative,” since being cynical was sort of his shtick, but it’s also sort of missing the point. Or at least, ignoring the intended pathos. Spade’s mean jokes weren’t cruel so much as they were the false bravado of an underdog (transparently so, if you were paying attention) – the pip squeak who probably got the sh*t kicked out of him a lot skewering the popular kids. I could see Spheeris choosing to forget that if she didn’t like him personally, but I doubt she missed it to begin with. It’s there in Black Sheep, just with the volume turned way down.
†An old muscle car remarkably similar to Spade’s character’s car in Tommy Boy. The first a Plymouth GTX, the other a Pontiac GTO.
A Sketch Dramedy
Whatever the case, Black Sheep came out feeling both at odds with itself and sort of half-assed. Most of the comedic setpieces are of the think-about-it-for-more-than-two-seconds-and-it-doesn’t-make-sense variety, and other aspects are just head scratchers. Early in the movie, when Farley is playing football with a group of kids (he works for the Parks department, after all), he catches a pass from the new kid, runs for a touchdown, and then rubs it in (“Losers take the walk!”) until the other team goes home and the game is over. “Screw this, let’s go play kickball!” the one curly-haired kid with the bowl cut says to the other, which is kind of a funny line. (Curly-haired kids could never catch a break in ’90s movies. It was bullsh*t.)
Now, aside from the fact that a 300-pound, 30-year-old man just gloated over scoring a touchdown against a group of middle schoolers, to the point that it ruined their game (to go along with the theme of the movie thinking it was cute for Farley to act like a sociopath), when Farley walks triumphantly off the field with the new kid, the boys just leave the football sitting there on the grass.
Did anyone making this movie ever attend middle school? Did any of them ever own a football? (Penelope Spheeris can be forgiven for this since she grew up in a family of carnies, after all.) Remember in Boyz In The Hood when young Ice Cube faces down a drug dealer to get his brother’s football back? Yeah, it’s more like that. This isn’t a major plot point, obviously, or even a minor one, but it’s one of those moments that expose a filmmaker for not really giving a sh*t. Part of that may be that Spheeris approached it like she was making “just a dumb comedy” all along. In this Flavorwire interview from last year, she says:
I just could never do anything that had any depth to it after Wayne’s World.
I just spent one season — and that was enough — as story editor [on Roseanne]. Right after that, I got Wayne’s World. That’s the end of any kind of serious moviemaking right there.
Hard to tell if she really thought comedies were beneath her at the time, whether she was half-kidding, or just got burnt out dealing with studios later on, but Black Sheep has an undeniable “just give the pigs their slop” feel to it in a lot of places. Whereas Tommy Boy used a lot of material from Farley and Spade’s real relationship (Fat Guy in a Little Coat, Housekeeping, and “Shut up, Richard” all grew out of things they’d actually do to each other), Black Sheep just kind of flails around, grasping at ridiculousness in an inconsistent sort of way. “Maybe it’d be funny if Farley had a bat in his hair and Spade hit him with a broom? Sure, why not.” If you’re not a fan of Tommy Boy, it’s probably all the same to you. If you are a fan, it isn’t, not even close.
Even weirder than just leaving the football on the field is Farley’s weird pseudo-pedophile relationship with the kid in general.
“Is your mom picking you up?”
“My parents got divorced. I live with my grandma now.”
Cue the tinkling pianos. The whole subplot seems torn from some hilarious-by-accident after school special. And when Farley finally drops the kid off at his grandma’s doorstep, he’s about to leave but turns back, like a rom-com heroine realizing her true love was right there all along. “Scott. God gave you a hell of a throwin’ arm. And I’ll be damned if I’ll let it go to waste. I want you on the football field, you and me, every day, workin’ on your game, how’s that?”
If Scott’s grandmother was even a mildly competent guardian, she would’ve demanded a background check right there. It’s never a good thing when a comedy movie goes for “heart” and ends up with “creepy by accident.” Black Sheep shifts haltingly back and forth between “Let’s throw every joke at the wall and see what sticks” to an attempt at a heartfelt story. It seems to exist in separate, conflicting movie realities.
That too seems to have been the result not necessarily of bad writing, but of attempting to square conflicting creating visions. As Spade tells the writers of The Chris Farley Show:
And Chris wasn’t helping much, because he thought he should be doing more dramatic stuff, that the movie should be more about his character and Tim Matheson’s character and less about me. He even hinted that “would I mind” if I got paid not to be in it so they could make it more of a dramedy. And I don’t think he meant it to be offensive to me. He just wanted to act and didn’t want to keep doing fatty falls down. Personally, I thought it was too early; we needed more experience before we tried to do those things.
The Farley-Matheson relationship in Black Sheep sort of works, and the Farley-Colleary relationship doesn’t really work at all. (Incidentally, Scott Colleary was played by Michael Patrick Carter, who previously starred in Milk Money, hasn’t acted since Black Sheep, and is all but invisible on the web. Anyone know what he’s up to these days?). The sad truth of it is, Farley didn’t need a sappy subplot to prove he could do more than fall down, just a reasonably realistic situation. He didn’t get too many in Black Sheep, and he died about a year and a half later.
Or Maybe It Was A Girl’s Fault
The Chris Farley Show introduces the most tabloid-friendly possible explanation for Black Sheep of all: Farley and Spade were fighting over a girl! In an even more too-good-to-be-true twist, the girl in question was Lorri Bagley, the naked swimming lady from Tommy Boy. It sounds like terrible fan-fiction. By the way, if you’ve never heard Lorri Bagley’s voice before, it’s worth a clip here:
Anyway, the story is that she sorta kinda dated David Spade before going out with (I say “going out with” so my mom will know what I mean) Chris Farley.
SPADE: Dating, not dating, whatever. I don’t know what you want to call it. We were certainly hanging out a lot. I wasn’t her boyfriend, but we were very close. And I didn’t find out from them. It was an accident. For some reason, I wasn’t supposed to know. So if she and I weren’t dating, then why was I being kept in the dark? And whatever. The problems with Lorri were that I felt somewhat betrayed on both sides. I felt like, here’s my friend. I always made sure he got to hang out with us because he said he had no one else to be with, and to have that bite me in the ass later didn’t sit right.
Farley and Spade may have wanted different things out of the movie, but their chemistry isn’t missing from it. It’s just easier to see that chemistry when the two are having a conversation, as opposed to, say, falling down a hill inside a cabin, as in one of Black Sheep‘s bits. Eric Newman, an associate producer on Black Sheep who later went on to bigger and better things, puts it more bluntly in the same book: “I don’t think the quality of that movie was in any way affected by the deterioration of their relationship. While their problems may have impaired the process a little bit, that movie, in its DNA, was a turd.”
For people who loved Tommy Boy, and seeing Farley and Spade as a team in general, Black Sheep is this weirdly disjointed final offering. There’s evidence of their chemistry and signs of their diverging paths almost in equal measure, all wrapped up in a story that was probably never more than half-baked to begin with. It leaves you with a few good scenes and a bag full of hypotheticals. Would they have kept going separate ways? Figured their sh*t out and gotten the band back together? Who knows? Black Sheep continues to be remembered, not because it’s a great movie, but for what could’ve been. Other than Tommy Boy, it’s all we’ve got.
This is an updated version of an article that originally ran on August 4, 2016.