Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 38 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member every other week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
Whether it’s John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Mitch Hedberg, or this week’s tragic loss of Robin Williams, the world of comedy has a long history of assigning instant legend status to beloved comedians who die too soon. Maybe it was because he was more of a writer than SNL cast member – or that he was the lesser-known half of recurring SNL duo Franken and Davis – but Tom Davis was never given the same amount of mythological hindsight as some of his contemporaries, even though he epitomized the show’s reckless and famously drug-fueled first five seasons. But Davis was also behind some of SNL’s earliest hit sketches, and he helped springboard the talents of Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, and more into national stardom. “He was there from the beginning,” said Lorne Michaels after Davis’s death in 2012. “No one saw things the way that Tom did. He was funny, he was original and he was always there to help, no matter the hour. And I always trusted his laugh. I can still kinda hear it.”
Davis spent his childhood in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he first befriended a young Al Franken. The two began writing short pieces to perform at assemblies and delivered the morning announcements together at school, and they soon took their duo act to local comedy clubs. Then at age 16 he attended a Jimi Hendrix concert, which changed his political views and creative aspirations forever:
As I walked into my first rock concert, I wanted to be a marine in Vietnam. Three hours later, I walked out wanting to grow my hair long, smoke pot, and make love to girls. Hendrix at the Minneapolis Armory, and it was all over.
After high school, Franken set off to attend Harvard to study government, while Davis went the hippie route by attending the University of the Pacific in California after learning that it had a foreign study program in India – the perfect opportunity to smoke opium – which he did, but not until after dropping out of college after a year. He studied improvisation back in Minnesota under Paul Menzel and Del Close before moving to Los Angeles, where he reunited with Franken to continue honing their act together and tour college campuses. They submitted a writing packet for Lorne Michaels’s new NBC show Saturday Night and were hired for the show’s debut season in 1975; they were paid together as one employee and shared a $350/week “apprentice writer” check.
Often collaborating with Franken, Davis worked as a writer from 1975-1980, 1985-1994 (including a season as co-head writer with Franken and credits as a producer), and once again in 2003 to write for the Aykroyd-hosted season finale in May. He appeared regularly with Franken in the ‘75 “Pong” sketches and “The Franken and Davis Show” segments starting in 1977 – a series of fake variety show bits in which they identified as “international Communist revolutionaries” – and was officially credited, along with a handful of other writers, as a featured player for SNL’s fifth season after Aykroyd and Belushi left to star in The Blues Brothers. He had no major recurring characters of his own and impersonated only a few figures from 1979-1990 (Eg Begley Jr., former White House Plumbers chief operative G. Gordon Liddy, former Secretary of the Treasury John Connally, Regis and Kathie Lee producer Gelman), but Davis’s major SNL legacy lies within the show’s hippie-inspired moments, such as Richard Nixon drunkenly yelling at a bunch of presidential portraits or “Ask President Carter,” in which the president (Aykroyd) advises a caller struggling through a bad LSD trip (Davis) to “relax, stay inside and listen to some music, Okay? Do you have any Allman Brothers?”
Many Davis-written sketches helped catapult SNL’s performers into mainstream fame, such as Steve Martin’s recurring bloodletting-happy “Theodoric of York” character, The Coneheads (inspired by Davis and Aykroyd’s acid trip on Easter Island), public access art show host E. Buzz Miller, and “The French Chef” starring Aykroyd as a blood-soaked Julia Child. According to Bill Murray, Davis saved him in a writers meeting by offering to write an ending for his “Nick the Lounge Singer” sketch – which Murray claims “reversed his fortunes on the show” – and went on to co-write all of Nick’s appearances with Murray and Paul Shaffer up until the 25th anniversary episode in 1999. Other sketches include “The Mr. USA Pageant,” “Lord Douchebag,” Christopher Walken’s ‘90s “The Continental” sketches, and the 1975 commercial parody “Spud Beer”: “You’ve just had a heavy session of electroshock therapy, and you’re more relaxed than you’ve ever been in weeks … Now is the time, time for Spud.”
Aside from writing for SNL, Davis also appeared with Franken in a 1984 special Franken and Davis at Stockton State as well as two Grateful Dead documentaries and wrote and appeared in Lorne Michaels’s The New Show in 1974, the 1993 Coneheads movie, and an autobiographical film in 2001 called Hitting the Wall that was never produced, but had Al Franken Chevy Chase, Molly Shannon, and Bill Murray signed on to appear. He and Franken split ways in 1990 after tension rose from Davis’s drug use, but the two eventually reconciled, and Franken even wrote the introduction for Davis’s 2010 memoir Thirty-Nine Years of Short-Term Memory Loss: The Early Days of SNL from Someone Who Was There. A little over two years later he died from throat and neck cancer at age 59, and Franken – already a US Senator at the time – delivered a heartfelt and lengthy eulogy in his honor while live C-SPAN cameras rolled. Not soon before he died, Davis wrote a piece for The Incident Report called “The Dark Side of Death” addressing his cancer that best encapsulates his never-ending sardonic humor even in the face of death:
I wake up in the morning, delighted to be waking up, read, write, feed the birds, watch sports on TV, accepting the fact that in the foreseeable future I will be a dead person. I want to remind you that dead people are people too. There are good dead people and bad dead people. Some of my best friends are dead people. Dead people have fought in every war. We’re all going to try it sometime. Fortunately for me, I have always enjoyed mystery and solitude. Many people in my situation say, “It’s been my worst and best year.” If that sounds like a cliché, you don’t have cancer. On the plus side, I am grateful to have gained real, not just intellectual empathy. I was prepared to go through life without having suffered, and I was doing a good job of it. Now I know what it’s like to starve. And to accept “that over which I have no control,” I had to turn inward. People from all over my life are reconnecting with me, and I’ve tried to take responsibility for my deeds, good and bad. As my friend Timothy Leary said in his book, Death by Design, “Even if you’ve been a complete slob your whole life, if you can end the last act with panache, that’s what they’ll remember.” I think I’ve finally grown up. It is odd to have so much time to orchestrate the process of my own death. I’m improvising. I’ve never done this before, so far as I know. Ironically, I probably will outlive one or two people to whom I’ve already said goodbye. My life has been rife with irony; why stop now? As an old-school Malthusian liberal, I’ve always believed that the source of all mankind’s problems is overpopulation. I’m finally going to do something about it.