Almost everything actor Kevin Farley knows about being funny he learned from his big brother. “People said he was a partyer,” Farley says of Chris, the gifted Saturday Night Live comic who died in 1997, at 33, of a cocaine and morphine overdose. “But his work ethic was triple anyone I’ve ever seen. I learned a lot from him. Chris believed his characters were real people, and he brought 100 percent of himself into each one.”
So when MTV’s boy-band parody movie 2 Gether sent out a casting call last October for the role of Doug Linus (an optimistic baby-boomer oaf who persuades his kid brother to let him join his band), Farley stepped out of his balding, 35-year-old, classic-rock-loving self and shamelessly belted out a Backstreet Boys song to win the part. The spoof ranked No. 1 in its February time slot with 12-to 24-year-olds, prompting MTV to green-light a weekly series that will make its debut Aug. 15. 2Gether has even toured live, opening for Britney Spears (their next show is on Aug. 28 in Boston), and released a CD that features songs such as “U + Me = Us (Calculus)” and “Say It, Don’t Spray It.” Says Farley’s real-life brother John: “It’s ridiculous! He’s a grown man, for God’s sake, and he’s wearing Bungle Boy pants!” (“That’s Bugle Boy!” snaps Farley.)
Despite the generation gap, Farley’s 2Gether castmates—Evan Farmer, 22, Alex Solowitz, 20, Michael Cuccione, 15, and Noah Bastian, 16—insist he’s one of them. “Kevin’s the reason we’re successful,” says Farmer. “He embodies the humor in our performances.”
Even as Farley’s career emerges from his brother’s shadow—a task made harder by their resemblance—it’s easy to spot Chris’s intense brand of physical humor in Kevin. But Kevin welcomes the comparisons. “I’ll get that as long as I live,” he says. “Chris is still in people’s hearts and minds—that’s his legacy.” As is the Chris Farley Foundation, which the family founded in 1998 to teach kids about the risks of drugs and alcohol. It’s a topic the Farleys know all too well: Kevin, John and mother Mary Anne are recovering alcoholics (Kevin joined AA in 1993 and has been sober for six years). “The family stopped drinking years ago—Chris led us,” says Mary Anne, 64, who runs the foundation. “He was going through his sobriety, and we looked at each other and realized, ‘What are we doing?’ I credit Chris for showing us that path.” While the pain of his death still cuts deep, the Farleys find solace in humor. “Chris didn’t like being fat,” says Kevin. “But he thought, ‘If I make a joke, it’ll be easier for everybody.’ It’s how all Farleys deal with things—we make a joke of it.”
Laughter has always been at the family’s core. Growing up in Madison, Wis., the third of five kids, Farley remembers his dad, Tom, an asphalt-company owner who died last year at age 63, rousing the entire clan to watch Saturday-morning cartoons together. (Brother Tom, 38, is a radio promoter in Fairfield, Conn.; John, 31, is an actor; Barbara, 40, teaches preschool in Eagle Heights, Wis.) At Edgewood High School, both Kevin and Chris played football and were class clowns. Says Farley’s best friend Richard Thompson: “There isn’t a line in the Meatballs/Caddyshack movie genre they didn’t know!”
In 1986 Farley graduated with a business degree from Marquette University in Milwaukee and began working for his dad. “Then I hit what they call rock bottom,” he says, laughing. Bored with sales, he headed to Chicago in 1995 and began taking comedy classes. Two years later he relocated to Los Angeles, where he guest-starred on sitcoms until his 2Gether breakthrough last fall.
Relaxing at his two-bedroom Irish cottage in Pasadena, Farley, who is single, reflects on losing his brother. “You’re faced with a choice,” he says quietly. “You can either be depressed or move on with your life. I carry on with laughter because that’s what Chris would want.
Paula Yoo in Los Angeles