The saddening and too-early death of comedian-satirist-author Tom Davis prompted memories of my interview with him on the publication of his memoir a few years ago. Wry, self-effacing and effortlessly funny, Davis was happy to discuss a colorful life which may be best remembered for the edgy comedy sketches that he wrote — often performed with partner Al Franken — for the early, anarchic Saturday Night Live episodes of the mid-70s. RIP, Tom Davis.
I think that Tom would especially enjoy the lacerating irony of the article’s title, given his demise. — Jay Blotcher
The formative years were formed by mavericks, iconoclasts and misfits. They were pirates, and this was pirate television.
—Tom Shales & James Andrew Miller
Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live (Little, Brown & Co., 2002)
Tom Davis was a member of that first pirate band, the freshman class that strafed the airwaves in the fall of 1975 and moved television into a new era. Sociologists explain it thusly: For the first time, comedy was being written by people who had been suckled by the tube. Davis was one-half of Franken and Davis, a stand-up act that started as dweeby high school friends in Minneapolis. A pair of cheery nihilists, they fast-talked their way into Lorne Michaels’s new empire and even scored a recurring segment known as The Franken and Davis Show.
Davis was prim Bud Abbott to Franken’s unbridled Lou Costello. That is, if Abbott and Costello had been frequent acid-droppers with a left-wing streak of comedic genius. The Franken and Davis Show hummed with the off-kilter vibe of that first season — a vibe fueled by equal parts of weed and cocaine. The beanpole and the halfback effortlessly mind-freaked viewers with humor that would never pass the corporate censors at NBC-Universal these days.
One vivid example: the Royal Deluxe II commercial, where a rabbi, to test a car’s smooth ride, performs a circumcision in the back seat. Another: Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber starring Steve Martin. Signature Franken and Davis — which is to say pitch-black and merciless, was the Brain Tumor Comedian segment where Davis brings out a man (Franken) with a brain tumor, his head swathed in a huge bandage. His dying wish is to tell jokes on television, but his deteriorating mind can’t remember punch lines. And then blood starts pouring from the head wound…
Maintaining a comedic stance predicated on outrage and taboo subjects is not easy. But the SNL cast and its writers walked the talk. Their own lives were equally frenetic, marked by excess; they were simply channeling the insanity into their work. What happened to the fledgling cast is TV history. Belushi was the first to self-destruct. Chase and Newman went into rehab. Davis wandered the wilderness for years, coping with a penchant for drink and drugging that had morphed from a quest for wisdom into simple and sloppy addiction. Clean of body if still slightly addled of mind, Tom Davis has been a full-time resident of Hudson since 1997.
His reminiscences of life before and after SNL are collected in a fashion both scattershot and poignant in the book Thirty-Nine Years of Short-Term Memory Loss (Grove Press, 2009). His old pal, comic-cum-Senator Franken not only supplies the foreword; he provided memory jogs to his former partner while Davis wrote the book. E-mails between the two appear among the pages.
Still capable of a deadpan quip, Davis insists there was an ulterior motive to incessantly quizzing his buddy.
“I was actually challenging him to see what his version was,” Davis winks in a leisurely telephone interview. The result, he said, was a cross between Rashomon and the childhood game of “telephone.”
“Everyone has a different version. I was delighted with his introduction which is unexpurgated and uncensored.”
So any hard feelings over Franken’s insistence in the foreword that Davis’s drug use split them up? Another Rashomon moment, Davis said.
“Certainly, my substance abuse was a huge issue as he went through Al-Anon. I do write about that pretty exactly in the book. We broke up in 1990. Al says it was drug use but that’s not what my accountant said.”
Writing his memoir, he said, was a gambit after failing to sell several screenplays; among them, an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan.
“The problem with getting your movie made is that you have to share your vision with a hundred other people,” he said. “And it takes some character qualities that I obviously don’t have to get through that gauntlet. Franken obviously has that intestinal fortitude, so I chose a very good partner who could do those things. And some of the stories in my book demonstrate Al’s strengths that complemented my weaknesses.”
As he began the project, the collective impact of years of toking, boozing, turning on, dropping and snorting surged to the fore. Davis “realized my memory was shot full of holes.”
By drafting the events of his life in a chronological fashion, however, the memoirist could retrace his steps, which included dropping acid with The Grateful Dead, gigs at The Comedy Store on the Sunset Strip, and dropping acid with Dr. Timothy Leary. (Davis keeps a portion of his guru’s ashes in a cluttered kitchen cupboard.)
Once he apprehended the who-what-where-when specifics, Davis reconfigured the saga of his life into thematic chapters. The titles are self-explanatory. Some examples: Chapter 6: First Love and Sex. Chapter 7: San Francisco to Cambridge, Early ‘73. Chapter 9: Fuck Johnny Carson. In 12-Step confessional fashion, Davis recounts his own picaresque travels, but is less forthcoming about the men and women who rode shotgun.
“With friends and lovers, you have to be gentle,” he said. “Friends asked me to omit some tales of their youthful escapades because their teenaged kids would read them.”
Davis apportions a good amount of his book to his years at Saturday Night Live. (The book is subtitled The Early Days of SNL from someone who was there.) As a companion to the Tom Shales oral history, Thirty-Nine Years provides several stories that Davis didn’t (or couldn’t) volunteer when interviewed for the 2002 book.
The author insists there was no temptation to settle scores. Even Lorne Michaels, a legendary megalomaniac, receives kid-glove treatment. Davis, who tangled frequently with his boss during the years at Studio 8H, now glows in recounting how Michaels made a last-minute appearance at his Manhattan book party last fall.
“I told him I loved him and he said he loved me too,” he said. “He’s the patriarch over there at Saturday Night Live and he’s a guy who changed my life and I’m grateful for all of that.”
Tom Davis has fans among Gen Y people; his legacy revived when SNL’s first years were committed to DVD. Writers currently toiling for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert worship at his feet and can recite vintage gags verbatim. Davis shrugs off the adulation. “It’s not like I am a celebrity.”
As for his next project, Davis has no game plan. He ponders writing a novel, but misses the weekly pressure afforded by SNL’s weekly deadlines. Until a sense of urgency beats a path to his door, Tom Davis is content to live quietly in the woods on the Taconic Creek, overfeeding the birds and squirrels on his property and awaiting weekend visits from his Manhattan girlfriend Lindsay Brice.
“I like my solitude.”
Jay Blotcher is an Ulster County-based writer
Featured photograph by Matt Petricone