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Live! From New York! It's Saturday Night!

The Early Days of SNL

Web-Exclusive Book Review by Charlie Clark

Thirty-Nine Years of Short-Term Memory Loss: The Early Days of SNL from Someone Who Was There

— Courtesy of Grove Press

Throughout his bid for a U.S. Senate seat, comic Al Franken downplayed his past as an edgy comedian. So it's with masterful timing that along comes his former comedy partner with a raunchy memoir revealing a hamper of Franken's dirty linen. Tom Davis is an authentic '70s holdover hippie. Back in the day he appeared, Zelig-like, writing and performing alongside some of the greatest entertainers of recent decades. Now he has committed to paper the anecdotes and aperçus that he can reconstruct in the fog of his better-living-through-chemistry hangover. And yeah, he recalls enough to prove he was (mostly) there.

Davis evolved from being a young Grateful Deadhead to practically moving in with Jerry Garcia. He was intimate enough with the late Timothy Leary to inherit three grams of his body's ashes. And when Davis and Franken dined in London with a certain ex-Beatle, they had the foresight to charge the meal on an American Express card, prompting Davis to claim that the IRS was "so impressed we had Chinese with Paul and Linda McCartney that they immediately suspended" an audit.

Okay, so he’s a name-dropper. He wows us with vignettes about how Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts didn’t understand that "Saturday Night Live" was live, how he took a stoned Robin Williams on a tour of Minneapolis by night, and how Franken, concerned that SNL writers would miss a deadline, once slammed the door of his office to stop a piano-playing George Harrison from distracting them.

But for an insider's view of SNL, you could do worse than these brain droppings from a veteran of the spoof-fest founded during the Ford Administration, when Franken and Davis, as he rightfully says, were "writing top-notch political satire." Davis tells how the idea for the Coneheads germinated on a trip he and Dan Aykroyd took to Easter Island. He describes how producer Lorne Michaels, after overhearing Davis bad-mouthing him from a men’s room stall in Rockefeller Center, ordered up a private executive bathroom.

Davis's prose drips with boomer rebellion and narcissism. He favors the F-word and spurns sentimentality (even in describing the suicide of a failed comedian). He boasts of his high-volume illegal intake (entering a rock show, "we carried joints, cocaine, balloons of nitrous oxide, and half-pints of booze in our boots"). And he offers far too much information on his sex life.

His Minnesota boyhood was notable for his estrangement from his father. Dad "regrets sacrificing to pay my tuition to go to a prep school, where I was supposed to make lifelong friendships with old money, get into a good college, and become a lawyer," he writes. "Instead, he got a hippie with attitude." It was at that school that Davis met Franken, an impudent kid with a large mouth, who was prone to migraine headaches. The Franken-and-Davis shtick congealed at a 1970 workshop satirizing President Nixon. When Franken went off to Harvard, Davis dabbled in college, majoring in concerts. But in 1973 he and Franken set out in a '63 Buick clunker crossing the country to chase their show-biz dream. Davis confesses that he stopped at the Continental Divide to urinate in both the Mississippi and Colorado rivers.

In Los Angeles with their ladyfolk, the two camped in a one-bedroom and supported themselves as department store Santa Clauses. After getting stiffed by the Johnny Carson "Tonight" show, they got their break in 1975 by submitting scripts to an executive sitting poolside at the Chateau Marmont for an as-yet unnamed NBC comedy show.

Sure, Davis is a free thinker, but would it kill him to try some chronological order? Plus a few dates and fewer abrupt transitions? ("I quit [a job] and went to India"). We wait until page 161 to learn how he took up the craft of comedy writing: "Tripping at Grateful Dead concerts, I found that I would have wonderful series of comic ideas. I learned to carry small notebooks and pens."

At SNL his grim humor on such topics as bulimia and the Holocaust created clashes with network censors: "It was my raison d'etre as an SNL comedy writer always to try to find something funny about major disasters in the news as they happened." This detachment affected his hot-cold relationship with the doomed John Belushi, whose consciousness-altering habit relied on Davis as a supplier. Once, after Belushi performed at a corporate event at New York's Sheraton Hotel, he ripped the state seal of Minnesota off a wall display and gifted it to Davis. But after Belushi's celebrity caught fire, the star grew irritated that Davis was insufficiently awed. "This may explain why I now live alone in the woods," Davis writes. "I never really was in Show Business—I only did shows."

There is pathos in Davis's tale of his partnership with Franken—evident jealousy at how Franken overshadowed him in the '80s, even though they both fell victim to the SNL vets' syndrome of tanking in Hollywood movies. After Davis was fired from SNL in 1994, he and Franken could barely get it together for a long-promised reunion performance at their old school.

Davis's period piece ends not with a bong but a whimper. In 2004 he happened to catch an episode of "Jeopardy" in which a clue was: "He was the comedy partner of Al Franken." All the contestants were stumped.

Charlie Clark is a longtime Washington writer who catches
Saturday Night Live on TIVO the next day.

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