Ideally, there are moments in your life where beauty, sadness, memory and inspiration merge to make you smile, cry, and reflect. I felt this wonderful sensation last night and it lingers still. Comedy needn't always be angry and bitter, a release valve for one's darkness. It can also make you glad to be alive, extending and enriching your life in the process.
I experienced this directly at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, where Tom Davis talked about his comedy career. I hadn't seen Tom in the flesh for some time, though we've kept in touch through email. Of all the original SNL vets, Tom is one of the gentlest and sweetest men to emerge from that show, in direct contrast to his and Al Franken's slash-and-burn comic sensibility. He reminds me of Flaubert's dictum: Be orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your art. Tom would be the first to confess that his life hasn't always been orderly, but his art has decidedly been violent, sometimes shockingly so.
As the audience settled in, a tall older man with a ball cap pulled over his white hair walked toward me.
He looked up. "Dennis! Hey man! How are you!"
We embraced, Chevy kissing my cheek.
"So glad you could make it!"
"Wouldn't miss it."
The lights dimmed.
"God bless Michael," he whispered, patting my arm, finding his seat. When these guys see me, they see O'Donoghue, whom they still adore, Chevy especially. I remain happy that I ignored my publisher's pleas to write an Albert Goldman-type bio. It may have sold more copies, complementing Bob Woodward's necro-porn take on Belushi, yet I wouldn't have received the love and respect from my comedy heroes that continually blesses my life. I've made some stupid fucking decisions over time, but my creative approach to Mr. Mike wasn't one of them.
Stage lights came up, and out walked Tom to enthusiastic applause. I had been told months ago that Tom is dying of cancer, but this was kept quiet, at least to a larger circle. You really saw it when Tom emerged -- gaunt, gray hair falling out, a certain brittleness in his step. It was heartbreaking. Yet Tom seemed energized, smiling, waving to the audience. He was assisted by Carl Arnheiter
, a UCB regular who's interviewed numerous comic figures both here and in LA.
The conversation was light, informal. Tom read a bit from his memoir, 39 Years of Short-Term Memory Loss
, then called for Chevy to join him on stage. They talked about the political material written with Franken and Dan Aykroyd for the 1976 presidential election, followed by a screening of the Ford/Carter debate sketch from the Karen Black show. Chevy, while funny, deferred to Tom, saying it was his night and soon returned to the audience. The rest of the program shifted between Tom's remembrances and more classic SNL clips.
In the middle of all this, Tom commented on his appearance. He announced that he was dying, that the warmth he felt from the crowd inspired him to share information that to now was relatively private. This hushed the audience, happy expressions turning sad. But Tom had none of it. He's clearly at peace with his condition, cracking jokes about cancer and the approaching end. After screening perhaps his and Franken's most celebrated sketch, Aykroyd's Julia Child bleeding to death, Tom called it a night. The crowd, led by Chevy, gave him a standing ovation.
In the crush afterward, Chevy took me to see Tom, whose eyes lit up when we met. "This is my friend Dennis Perrin," Tom said to the young comics surrounding him, throwing his arms around me, squeezing tight. I wanted to cry, but Tom was so upbeat that I shared his enthusiasm.
"You wanna get a drink somewhere?" he asked.
"You can drink?"
"Not as much as I used to, but yeah, I still like a taste."
Chevy couldn't join us, said his goodbyes and left. Tom, his friend Lindsay who assists him, me, Carl Arnheiter, and several other friends and admirers went off to find a nearby pub.
As we walked, Tom and I talked about many things. I asked how long he has. "I don't know. Maybe a year. I feel real good lately so who knows."
"So it's irreversible?"
Tom smiled. "Yeah. It's in my bones. What are you gonna do?"
At the pub our party took up a long table. I sat opposite Tom and Lindsay, and he began quizzing me about SNL sketches, whether this or that piece still held up, was any good, etc. I asked him about the Mardi Gras show. Tom laughed, telling us how truly crazy that week was in New Orleans, that the show barely got on the air and tanked when it did. He then asked me about my stand up, and I shared a bit of the Black Muslims on acid routine, which Tom loved. There are few sensations more humbling than making a comedy influence laugh. That I can make a dying hero happy for even a moment is beyond my ability to describe it.
It was getting late. I told Tom I had to go. He stood up, came around the table and hugged me tightly. I kissed his cheek and said that I loved him. "I love you, too," he replied, then invited me to his place upstate when I'm next in town. I hope I can make it in time. I'd hate this to be my final meeting with Tom. But if it is, it was a warm, beautiful goodbye.