Friday, February 20, 2009

SNL Survivor

The contrast couldn't have been clearer. Attending Michael O'Donoghue's wake in his crowded New York apartment, pressed up against the likes of Lorne Michaels, Chevy Chase, Buck Henry, Al Franken, Margot Kidder, and James Taylor, I could see that these former cutting edge figures had settled into quieter, comfortable lives, sipping bottled water, straight as arrows.

Then I smelled some incredibly pungent weed. It seemed at once out of place and perfectly appropriate. I turned and spotted Tom Davis, Franken's former comedy partner and sometime collaborator with O'Donoghue, toking on a large joint. A few people looked at Davis with pinched, agitated expressions. But he didn't care. He kept hitting that number, spreading the thick, sweet scent over those who long ago gave up such chemicals. Davis offered a direct reminder of what the original SNL offices smelled like, something that the late Mr. Mike, a weed fancier himself, would've appreciated.

When I became O'Donoghue's biographer, I got to know Tom Davis a bit, and learned that his pot smoking was not a stunt. He still enjoyed the bud, and made no apologies for his preference. Problem was, he was practically alone among his old comedy peers, and this had a negative effect on his writing career. Once a powerful voice within SNL, Davis was soon marginalized and banished, unable or unwilling to embrace clean corporate living. His humor remained sharp as his former colleagues softened their approaches, another professional strike against him.

Looking back, Tom Davis doesn't appear to have many lasting regrets.

His new memoir, "Thirty-Nine Years of Short-Term Memory Loss," details his triumphs and defeats, offering one of the more candid looks inside the original SNL. Davis lays it out so honestly that he had Grove Press delay the book's release until Minnesota's Senate race ended, not wanting to give Norm Coleman any ammo against his ex-partner Al Franken. This generosity of spirit permeates Davis' memoir, though he's not lax in the graphic remembrance department. Some of his anecdotes, primarily those dealing with his heroin and cocaine use, are hard to read, simply because you wonder how he survived some of these scenes. Yet he did, and is here to tell us how it all went down.

Davis' timeline jumps all over the place, from his upbringing in Minneapolis, to he and Franken struggling as club comics in early-70s Los Angeles, to his intense friendships with Timothy Leary and Jerry Garcia, his many relationships with incredibly beautiful women, and naturally, his various runs on SNL, beginning in 1975. His depictions of Lorne Michaels, "The Boss" as Davis calls him, are the most forthright since O'Donoghue, who rarely if ever kissed Lorne's ring, a requirement for many seeking comedy fame. Not that Davis trashes Lorne; he repeatedly thanks SNL's godfather for the opportunities Davis enjoyed. Still, Lorne comes across as a Machiavellian figure, pitting egos against each other, showering certain people with praise while freezing others out. As Lorne became wealthier and more powerful, these traits solidified, turning SNL into a mirror of his personality. The show's rough edges were sanded down to the bland, celeb-worship model we see today. None of this reflects Davis' comedy, which is why over time, he too was slowly erased from SNL.

The writing on the wall became evident in this scene:

"I returned to the show as a writer in January of '88, and was given my own office as far away from Lorne's as possible. Things had changed and I hadn't . . . Dana Carvey (I thought it was Danic Harvey) was immensely popular with the Church Lady character. As I took a seat in the writers' meeting with Jim Downey, now head writer, he asked me what I thought of the show.

"I: 'It's great -- but what is it with this Ruth Buzzi Church Lady shit?'

"Jim: 'Gotta love ya' for that, Davis.'

"He laughed. Then I took a joint out of the breast pocket of my flannel shirt and lit it up. There was a collective gasp from all the young writers.

"Jim: 'Uh Tom -- there's no more smoking in the office.'

"I put it out."

The beginning of the end.

Davis produced some first-rate sketches, proving he'd maintained his satiric chops. But his chemical appetites became a distraction, and helped fuel his nasty break-up with Al Franken, who had quit drugs and tried to get his partner to do the same. Davis wasn't interested. Ironically enough, Davis later tried to talk Chris Farley out of drug taking, an emotional appeal that clearly didn't register. When Davis explained to Farley how his abuse was similar to John Belushi's, and that Farley was barreling toward oblivion, Farely smiled, which caused Davis to cry.

Despite the human wreckage that Davis recounts, it was drugs that inspired SNL's most identifiable characters: The Coneheads. Davis and Dan Aykroyd traveled to Easter Island where they ate acid and soaked in the giant stone heads staring off into eternity. "The Heads! The Heads!" Aykroyd kept saying, and soon he and Davis turned these visions into what remains one of SNL's strangest creations. The physical impact of the giant skulls combined with Aykroyd and Davis' conceptual, mechanical dialogue instantly set The Coneheads apart. Though Davis contributed to other classic SNL moments -- Aykroyd's Julia Child bleeding to death perhaps the most memorable -- and performed a number of great Franken and Davis bits, The Coneheads are perhaps his true comic legacy.

Drugs are only part of the story. Tom Davis has written a book any fan of American comedy will enjoy. His mind remains keen, his comic insights penetrating, his natural humor and humane persona evident throughout. Tom is one of the good ones. How I wish I hit that joint at O'Donoghue's wake.