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New memoir recounts early days of ‘SNL’

Al Franken's former comedy partner Tom Davis has written a new book, "Thirty-Nine Years of Short-Term Memory Loss." Davis reminisces about Franken and "Saturday Night Live," where the two were writers and performers.
/ Source: The Associated Press

In the comedy duo of Franken and Davis, Tom Davis says, he was Garfunkel.

The quiet guy, in other words, overshadowed by his flashier partner, Al Franken.

"If we were Sonny and Cher, he would be Cher," Davis says.

But now Davis is enjoying the spotlight with his new memoir, "Thirty-Nine Years of Short-Term Memory Loss." Subtitled "The Early Days of SNL From Someone Who Was There," Davis recounts his partnership with Franken that started at a suburban prep school and continued through "Saturday Night Live," where the two were writers and performers, before breaking up in 1990.

Davis, 56, also details his friendship with counterculture legends Timothy Leary and Jerry Garcia (the two tried unsuccessfully to write a screenplay of a Kurt Vonnegut Jr. novel); his own drug use (he first took LSD watching "2001: A Space Odyssey" with friends at a Twin Cities drive-in); and his travel as a young hippie to India in the 1970s.

Davis, whose hair and beard now are now gray and stylishly trimmed, says his stories are those of his generation.

"We all went to India, we all took the acid, we liked the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead, we marched against an unpopular war — all those things that make up our generation are well represented in my stories," Davis says.

Davis' first book seems a patchwork, with chapters not in chronological order. But Davis — who says he had short-term memory problems as a child, even before trying marijuana — says he chose to devote chapters to themes after his first draft proved to be "absolutely unreadable."

Wearing aviator glasses, jeans, tennis shoes and a sports jacket, Davis sips water while retelling anecdotes in his deep rumble.

His childhood — spent watching "The Mickey Mouse Club" on television while wearing Mouseketeer Ears — was happy. Davis was the older of two brothers. Their dad worked for 3M. Their mom was the 1950 Queen of the Lakes of the Minneapolis Aquatennial, an annual summer festival.

"There was plenty of dysfunction after I left childhood," Davis recalls with a laugh. His own antics prompted his decision not to have children (he now lives in upstate New York, where he has a girlfriend and is separated from his wife but not divorced).

"I know what I put my parents through. The phone call from India. 'I'm broke and I've got hepatitis A.' Dad sent me the money," Davis said.

When Tom met Al
It was at The Blake School where Davis, the laconic Scandinavian who never intended to become a comedian, met Franken, the acerbic Jew. Davis says the two worked well as a team, making announcements at morning chapel, and decided they might have a career together.

"Franken and Davis as a comedy team never really succeeded," Davis said. The duo honed outrageous bits such as "Brain Tumor Comedian" — with Franken playing a would-be funnyman struggling with inoperable brain cancer — at Dudley Riggs' Brave New Workshop in Minneapolis. But Davis says while Franken and Davis were a good act for colleges and nightclubs, they never got their own TV show.

"So I'm the guy who held Al Franken back for 20 years," Davis jokes. (Franken, locked in a recount battle for U.S. Senate, was unavailable for an interview but issued a statement calling Davis "a great friend" and wishing him "nothing but success.")

Reminiscing about ‘Saturday Night Live’
Friends call Davis intelligent, kind and generous. Bill Murray recalls how Davis volunteered to help Murray — then the new guy on "Saturday Night Live" replacing Chevy Chase — complete his "Shower Mic" sketch, which evolved into a series of "Nick the Lounge Singer" sketches.

The sketch had Murray singing into a microphone-shaped bar of soap and pulling his wife, played by Gilda Radner, into the shower. But three minutes into reading the script, Murray said that's all he had.

"There was this silence," Murray told The Associated Press. "And Tom Davis said, 'I'll help Billy finish that script.' That was the only voice that came."

Davis and Franken stayed with "SNL" until 1980, then returned in the 1980s. Franken developed his sweater-wearing, lisping Stuart Smalley (an over-the-top character that Davis hated) and eventually turned to movies, a liberal radio talk show and a political career. Davis, feeling frozen out at "SNL," left the show in 1994.

Despite his break with "Saturday Night Live," Davis says he'll always treasure his moments of laughter working on the NBC show. At a recent party celebrating his book, Davis says he ordered an ice sculpture of "SNL" executive producer Lorne Michaels. Michaels was delighted, recalls Davis, who says he hugged Michaels and told him he loved him.

"It's my family. It's my extended, dysfunctional family, and I love them," Davis said.