Chris Farley Played Jon Favreau On The Improv Stage Before Either Of Them Became Famous

According to various online biographies, director Jon Favreau graduated high school in 1984 and attended Queens College for only three years before dropping out in 1987. As he recently said on an episode of the "Smartless" podcast, he was immediately offered a high-paying job at the investment firm Bear Stearns, hooked up with the gig by a friend's dad. Given Favreau's age, this would definitely be considered "selling out" at the time. The easily earned, large-salary job was once something young aspiring artists eschewed, preferring a hard-earned, low-money career in the arts. (See also "Tick, Tick... BOOM!") Favreau was bitten by the acting bug at a young age and always had his sights turned on performance. 

After about a year at Bear Stearns, Favreau quit. It seems he just barely missed Black Monday. It also seemed that he hated it. After another brief try at college, Favreau dropped out again, this time for good, and drove out to Chicago to dive into the city's thriving comedy scene. 

Recall that Chicago is the seat of the famed Second City comedy troupe, an extended network of theaters and performers that put on improv and sketch comedy shows all over the city. By the late 1980s, the Second City was a well-known source of talent that was frequently hired to appear on "Saturday Night Live." Many, many aspiring comedians floated in and out of the troupe's orbit, and many others were indeed hired to be part of Lorne Michaels' various sketch programs. Harold Ramis, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Bonnie Hunt, Dan Castellaneta, Richard Kind, and Alan Arkin are among the school's many famous alumni. 

Notably, "SNL" cast member Chris Farley was a graduate. Farley and Favreau, on one fateful night in 1988, were in the same theater together. 

The dream

Favreau admitted on "Smartless" that he always enjoyed improv and acting, saying that it was a low-stress gig:

"I like that there was no pressure on me, so it was like school plays, and that was just a fun time for me. Improv was great, because when people went up on their lines, that was the most fun, like when you could be on stage and get out of that, but I never thought it was an option."

After the crash and the disillusionment with Bear Stearns, Favreau talked about his move to Chicago, describing the crowd that drew him there and how he made ends meet. He also recalled very sharply one magic night of going to see some improv at a famous Chicago comedy institution, and the game they played with him. Favreau was the one who gave the prompts, and the comedy troupe was to take it away. In his words: 

"That's when I saw people doing improv in Chicago. I had a friend who was taking classes at iO and at Second City, and I was like, this is the best. I was in my 20s, I think I was 22 at the time. I knew how to bartend [...] I volunteered to be on stage, and the first thing I remember, they interviewed me about my day. It was the Improv game at iO called 'The Dream,' where they interview you about what happened that day, and then they improvise in front of you what your nightmare is going to be like that night, based on your responses."

Anyone who has been to a live improv show will likely be familiar with a similar game, but a notable "SNL" cast member was on stage with him that night.

The power of improv

Yes, the man who took Favreau's role on stage was none other than Chris Farley. Not only did he have an early celebrity-to-be-to-celebrity-to-be encounter, but Favreau was astonished at how improv actually worked. They really do, he found, make stuff up on the fly. In Favreau's words: 

"So they did that with me, and I was on stage doing an interview, getting some laughs, and then Chris Farley played me. So that was my first experience seeing improv, was Chris Farley playing me, and watching them really improvise. [...] When you see good improv, you think, 'Oh, is that just a shtick they have up their sleeve, right?' But I know they improvised it all, because it was all coming off of my interview, and I was completely flabbergasted."

It may have been his encounter with Farley that shaped Favreau's eventual skills as a director. He talked a little bit later in the interview about working with Vince Vaughn, his co-star in both the 1997 film "Swingers," which Favreau wrote and starred in, and the 2001 film "Made," which he wrote, starred in, and directed. Favreau admired Vaughn's ability to ramble and improvise for minutes at a time, completely on the fly. Indeed, Favreau admitted that Vaughn's ability to improvise was so sharp and fast, that, as a co-star, all he could do was stand aside and play the straight man. 

His work on "Swingers" and "Made" laid a firm foundation for Favreau's career as a filmmaker. He eventually gained mainstream studio experience on films like "Elf" and "Zathura." He is now one of the premiere directors at Disney, having made "Iron Man," "The Lion King," and "The Mandalorian." 

Farley, one might say, was the bearer of his fate.