Tom Farley on the business benefits of improvisation

Always the more serious brother, Farley says he still learned a lot from his famous comedian brother, Chris.

Tom Farley was always the more serious older brother, but when one of your siblings is Chris Farley, it’s easy to look serious by comparison. Chris, the late Saturday Night Live comedian and screen actor, rose to the heights of fame before he left us much too soon in a drug overdose, and while that was more than 20 years ago, Tom still pays homage to his kid brother — and the life lessons his humor taught — in everything from speaking engagements to his professional life as a realtor for First Weber in Madison.

We were out to get more than another glimpse of “life with Chris,” where Tom has a seemingly endless stream of hysterically funny stories, when we caught up with Tom for a brief conversation prior to a recent speaking engagement before the “Brauds Network,” a group of professional women in Madison, where he talked about the business benefits of improvisation — not unlike the kind practiced in the entertainment world.

IB: Even though the [Chris Farley] Foundation has been closed for some time, do you still speak about substance abuse?

Farley: I do it a lot, constantly, like one or two times a month throughout the state, and then sometimes beyond. Next month, I’m going to South Dakota, so yeah, I still get around with that message.

IB: Does the fact that marijuana is being legalized in states around the country make your pitch more complicated, or is your approach more about abuse than use?

Farley: It depends. It’s more about prevention. When I say drugs and alcohol, I mean the really hard drugs and alcohol, the stuff that really robs you of yourself. So, it’s on the prevention side, and I do a lot of talk on the treatment and recovery side, as well. At this point, there is a bigger need, especially with the opioids, and it’s about how we treat this. How do we make sure people can get back on solid ground and be a productive part of society?

IB: So, it’s not more complicated?

Farley: No, I stay out of that conversation. As far as marijuana is concerned, I was always more concerned about the decriminalization aspect of it. Whether it was legal or illegal, I didn’t want to get into that conversation, but I certainly believed that jails shouldn’t be crowded with people that had a little bit of weed. I think that’s costing society a lot more. I wished that before people start talking about legalization, they delved a little bit deeper in decriminalization.

IB: Do you think medical marijuana is a good first step before legalization, or do you think it should all be done at once here in Wisconsin?

Farley: Well, as every state has proved that has done that, anyone will be able to get a card. Those restrictions are as loose as they possibly could be, so at that point it might as well be legal.

IB: What about improvisation in the business setting. What’s the business case for that and what are the best areas of business for its use?

Farley: One of the first things I talk about is that we have been taught in our careers in business, from day one, that you want to be part of a team. The team is the thing. It’s all about the team. For me, what improv has told me is that it’s not about the team. I don’t talk about the team because with a team, there is always somebody who feels they have to be in charge and be the quarterback, and there is always somebody who feels like the last kid picked for the team.

I like to talk about ensembles where, whether you’re the big tuba or the small flute, if you’re playing to the best of your ability, that makes the song. That makes everything fine. It doesn’t matter whether you’re loud, big, and brassy, or small and don’t talk much. As long as you’re doing the best you possibly can, then you’re a valuable part of the ensemble. So, I steer away from teams and talk more about creating ensembles, and that’s what improv taught me.

IB: What areas of business operation is improv most applicable to?

Farley: Certainly, idea generation. Another thing that we’re looking for in business development, in trying to come up with the next big idea, one of the things we are taught is just list the ideas. Suspend judgment because a lot of times someone will come up with an idea, we’ll judge it negatively, and while there are certain parts of the idea that might not be very good, there are some parts that might work, especially if combined with another idea.

But when you negatively judge that full idea right off the bat, that whole thing is gone, and you forget about all aspects of that idea. So, suspend judgment, look at the whole list of what you’ve come up with in these idea-generation sessions, pick the best things that go together, and then you’ll come up with amazing things.

IB: So, it’s a good innovation process, basically.

Farley: Yes. Another thing is to eliminate status when you’re trying to come up with ideas, or during a meeting, because when there is somebody in charge, you’re always trying to think about what the person in charge wants to hear. So, suspend judgment and eliminate status. That’s when the best ideas come out.



IB: You’ve talked in the past about how you were affected by Chris’s pranks, but you weren’t the first sibling to be roasted by a famous comedic relative. I remember the late Alan King poking some good-natured fun at his brother, the doctor. Looking back, did Chris teach you a life lesson about being able to laugh at yourself?

Farley: Oh, 100 percent, and it wasn’t until I moved back to Wisconsin that I realized what he was trying to do. Because here I was, all my life, trying to be this character, this caricature, this image of who I thought I was supposed to be, or who my dad wanted me to be, or who society wanted me to be, and Chris was just being Chris. He was making friends and people loved him because of it. He was just being Chris, and even when he went to Chicago and then New York and then LA, people loved him in this very competitive industry because he was just being Chris from Wisconsin. He never forgot that.

I was struggling because I was trying to be someone else and I think what Chris was trying to tell me all those years was, ‘Tommy, just be yourself.’ When I got back here to Wisconsin from New York and got back to my roots and started understanding what makes us so different here in Wisconsin, that hit home. I talk a lot about the Wisconsin DNA, and I finally got it. I got what he was trying to do. He was still a pain in the ass, but I understood why.

IB: Did you eventually give as well as you got, needle-wise?

Farley: Uh, totally. I was still always the older brother, so that was fun.

IB: So, what are you doing for First Weber?

Farley: Well, I was a lender before. I’ve had some banking experience throughout my career, and so I thought I’d get involved in that. But I didn’t like lending because I just wasn’t … Well, nobody ever says, ‘Thank you so much for that great mortgage you got me.’ They thank you for the great house you got them. So, I was always jealous of the realtors who were out there doing some fun stuff with clients, and I’m more of a people person, so it gets me out of the office. I thought, ‘That’s probably where I should have ended up, as a realtor,’ and so I’ve been doing that, and it’s very interesting.

IB: And when you close on a home, I would imagine that it has some very special satisfactions.

Farley: Yeah, I’ve gotten some good referrals from people who I’ve known for a long time. Some friends of my mother, who just were moving out of the house they’ve been in for 30 years in Maple Bluff, and they wanted a condo and I got them a really nice one. You know, it was just that time when they needed to get into something a little bit more manageable. So, yes, it’s been kind of fun to help people like that.

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