People

Tom Davis, Comedian

Has Al Franken, Davis’s former comedic partner, lost his sense of humor since going into politics?

Tom Davis
Photo by Sean Smuda

5 THINGS
YOU DIDN'T
KNOW ABOUT

Tom Davis

1) He understands the “angst” of being a Vikings fan.

2) He considers 1978 the peak year for SNL.

3) He held his book party at Comix in NYC. “Lorne came, and he doesn’t drink, but he had a glass of vodka.”

4) His favorite band now is The Fab Faux, a Beatles cover band fronted by Will Lee, “the greatest bass player in the world.”

5) In his opinion, the best sketch he and Franken ever wrote was “Mr. USA,” from the 1977 SNL season.

Jerry Garcia has been dead since ’95, but Tom Davis is still a Deadhead. He has that touch-of-gray, zonked-out, happy-to-be-in-the-universe look that people my age have only witnessed in documentaries and Doonesbury comic strips. And at 56 years old, he’s still trippin’. “When I went to Burning Man last year, I did some LSD,” he says. “I didn’t do mega doses, but I did do it three days in a row.”

But when you read Davis’s new book, Thirty-Nine Years of Short-Term Memory Loss: The Early Days of SNL from Someone Who Was There (Grove Press, 2009)—about his years as Al Franken’s writing and stand-up partner, first at Blake High, then at Dudley Riggs’ Brave New Workshop, and finally during the golden years of Franken-Davis on Saturday Night Live—you realize that Davis might be the most accomplished Deadhead you’ve ever met. If he’s burnt out, it’s because he burned so bright for such a long time.

Davis still has enough of his faculties left to tell some fantastic stories. The book is filled with his drug experiences, sure—doing speedballs with Jerry Garcia, getting sloshed and high with John Belushi. But the book is packed with tales of these same gigantic personalities getting a tremendous amount done. Davis was there for the gestation of SNL producer Lorne Michaels’ groundbreaking television show, and he writes about serving Michaels’ towering ambition, whether writing Conehead sketches with Dan Aykroyd, writing Nick the Lounge Singer sketches with Bill Murray, or getting his heroes—such as Fran Tarkenton and, yes, The Dead—on the show.

Most important, Davis provides insight into his intense coming-of-age partnership with Franken. And while he was writing Thirty-Nine Years, trying to piece his memories together through the past haze, his old friend just happened to be back in Minnesota running for the U.S. Senate. You can imagine Franken backstage at a fundraiser in Brainerd, replying to Davis’s e-mails: “Yeah, Tom, we did Harrah’s in 1974. And you remember that Cassandra Peterson, who later became Elvira, was in the show.”

In the foreword to your book, Al writes that you guys broke up in 1990 because of your drug use.

Well, that’s what Al says, but that’s not what my accountant says. [Laughs.] But certainly it played a large part. When Al’s first child—Thomasin Davis Franken, a girl—was born in 1981, Al stopped getting high. I’ve made a conscious choice in my life not to have children because I didn’t think that a parent should be high and raising a child.

Is it possible to be a parent and do drugs?

I’ve known children of people who did drugs and raised their children, and they’re wonderful—but none of them take drugs.

Why did you decide to write a book now?

Well, I had the time. At one point, I wanted to get my movie made, but that requires 100 people to share your vision, and I didn’t have that power in my personality to get all those people in a row.

But you know everybody!

Well, here’s the thing: I was never really in show business; I just did shows. Some of us were like that. Lorne was a brilliant businessman. So was Dan Aykroyd. Most people who had been in my position would have been very wealthy and famous. So it’s either a function or a dysfunction of my personality.

Why is that?

Well, part of that quality you see in the book. I blurt things out.

So did Al.

He doesn’t blurt things out anymore. And he’s not as funny anymore. There’s a deadly serious side.

Was it always there?

Yes. Al always had . . . I mean, he was brilliantly funny, but he always had this serious side, about the politics especially. I learned about politics from him. And we considered ourselves satirists.

Does that mean he’s lost his sense of humor?

No. He still has a sense of humor. But he has this very sober responsibility as a leader and a representative [who must deal] with life and death issues. He doesn’t joke about that. We used to joke about anything and let the censors sort it out.

How did you reconstruct your memories for the book?

Well, the first draft was chronological. So I created my own reference. And it was unreadable. But for me it started to make sense, and then I found the themes in my life. That’s why, when you read my book, each chapter has its own chronology.

There is a series of e-mails that runs through the book. Al was running for senator at the same time he was helping you remember who opened for you guys in Reno.

You can see that our relationship is still there just in the exchange of e-mail. His memory was not as perfect as he thought it was, but I never corrected him, because I’m happy with not censoring him. I like to hear what he thinks happened. I don’t bother to say, ‘That’s not the way I remember it.’ Because it’s just perfect the way it is.

Now he’s in such a different world. They pounce on every tiny mistake in politics.

Yes, they could’ve taken my book and used it against him. But we didn’t print the book—we didn’t even have galleys—until after the election. Because I would’ve felt terrible. I mean, look how close this election was. If my book would’ve hurt him . . . ack! What point would that have served? That would have made me look awful. Because I love him, for one thing.

In the book, you mention that Lorne made a video of the Franken-Davis show that included your spot-on impression of the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. The video didn’t sell, but you said, “If either of us becomes president or shoots the president, at least we’ll have one for posterity.”

It was pretty convincing. Al got Mick’s expression and the moves and stuff. We were imitating that exact tour in ’82. Mick Jagger was wearing those yellow flip-flop pants and Capezios. We saw several shows. The Rolling Stones still are the greatest show on earth.

You’ve hung out with the Stones?

Yes. Keith is the most personable and amiable. And Charlie Watts is the sweetest guy in the world. Ronnie Wood is a regular Joe. Mick is the one who’s out of control. But he knows it. He’s aware of what people are thinking. Every asshole in the world wants to come up and say, “Hey Mick!” But that’s his problem.

Do you identify more with Keith than Mick?

Here’s the funniest story: Keith Richards’ booze of choice is Rebel Yell. I once heard him call to get another case. He went, “Hello, this is Mick Jagger speaking. Yes, I need another case of Rebel Yell.” So he didn’t get, “Who? Keith who?”

So you’re a “Keith” and Al’s a “Mick”?

Maybe.

You said yourself you never correct Al.

Exactly.

But Al clearly has no problem correcting you.

That’s the nature of our relationship.


 

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