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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

An Interview with Tom Davis

Posted by Andrew Stout on Tue, Mar 17, 2009 at 10:55 AM

TONIGHT AT POWELL'S, Tom Davis will read from his recently published memoirs, 39 Years of Short-Term Memory Loss: The Early Days of SNL From Someone Who Was There. It's probably the most candid first-hand account of Saturday Night Live by someone who doesn't have an ax to grind. As Davis said in a phone interview last week, "one of the themes from my book is where you get your ideas from." True to his aim, there are scenes which describe or hint at the origins of such classic sketches Davis helped create; sketches like "The Coneheads," "Theodoric of York," and, my all-time favorite, "Troff 'n' Brew" (sadly unavailable for embedding). Davis will be screening more sketches tonight at Powell's where he will be joined by Don Novello (creator of Father Guido Sarducci and the "Olympia Restraunt" sketches).

After the jump, check out our conversation as Davis talks about establishing himself on the show; Lorne Michael's genius; jamming with Keith Richards; and more.

Powell's City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside, 7pm


Mercury: I have to say, I really appreciate the relatively unvarnished take on Lorne Michaels you give in the book. A lot of his colleagues haven't really wanted to go there. I mean, even right now I feel I should be referring to him as Mr. Michaels or "sir" and I don't even know the man.


Tom Davis: We used to tell Lorne he was full of shit all the time. But there's nobody left to do that. But I'll tell you something cool. We had a book party last week and a lot of my friends showed up. And at the party I had an ice sculpture, a life-sized bust of Lorne Michaels. Just as the party was winding down, Lorne showed up and gave me a big hug and he saw his sculpture. And he was so delighted that he went and stood in front of the sculpture and let everyone take his picture. It was so sweet of him to show up and I just want to mention that. That it is my extended dysfunctional family and I do love them. And I love Lorne, too.


That is the sense that I got from the book.


He knows in my book he's going to take a little beating (laughs). He's learned to expect that from me.


Well, pulling back a bit to the first summer of Saturday Night Live. I've often heard that when the show began no one really knew what it was going to be. Is that more myth than fact?


They didn't even know what the name of the show was. When we started at the very end of July, the very first meeting—which I do describe in the book with some detail—we all had the sense, though, that something very good was going to happen and that it was going to take off. Everybody had that feeling. The only question was: were you going to be a part of it? Am I going to make the cut? And fortunately we all did make it.


Your book provides very good snapshots of the early SNL years. But something I've always wanted to know was SNL's production from the writer's perspective. Can you, maybe, walk me through that?

The pitch meeting is on Monday. It's a six day workweek. Monday is the day you should get work done if you're smart. But usually you fritter it away. But you go into the pitch meeting and you may not know what you're going to do. But you've got some ideas that sound funny even though they won't pan out. So you fake your way—trying to make the host feel like you've got an idea even though you have no inkling what you're going to write. But you have a couple of ideas that just sound funny when you pitch them, but they're only an inch deep.


(laughs) Did that ever work?


Well, sometimes you have an idea that will go through. But typically, Monday is just a wasted day. And then you get up and you waste most of the day on Tuesday. And then you panic. As the fun starts to go down you get that anxiety, that gnawing feeling in your stomach. That (realization that) you're going to have to cut the mustard and you're going to have to stay up all night to do it.


Which brings us to the legendary SNL Tuesday all-nighters.


Exactly. And I'm sure it's just as arduous today as it was when I was working there. By the way, I am a big fan of the show. I just watched it last week and I was delighted with it.


I missed that one. Who hosted? Dwayne—


The Rock. Whatever The Rock's real name is.


Yeah, I'm not used to that. And I doubt that I ever will be.


(laughs) You will. You know, he was a good host, by the way. He has a good sense of humor about himself and he's fearless—which is what you want in a host. I think, like, Robert DiNiro is the worst host because he tries to be funny when he's on the show. And all that you want is for him to act like he does in his movies.


Which hosts did you like when you were on the show?


My favorite hosts from the old days were like Broderick Crawford or Ruth Gordon or Desi Arnaz—that was a terrific host. The old people brought with them their gravitas and their fearlessness, and they also didn't want to be in every sketch. So the cast was able to be the stars.


I'd like to pull back a bit further, and ask about how you got into comedy.


I didn't start out wanting to be a comedian. It's just that people were laughing at me all the time and I just decided to go with it. And Franken and I became partners in it and it sure beat flipping burgers or pumping gas. And we had a lot of fun. But we were never very successful. And when Lorne Michaels read some of our stuff and hired us sight unseen, we were cautious about it. We were suspicious. We had a six-week contract when we went out there. The (National) Lampoon people were the go-to people—Mr. Michael O'Donahue was the one who set the standard there. And we had to compete with him when we got out there and it took us several months before we hit stride and found our voices. Because one of the first things that Lorne did was make us write reams of material and then he'd just throw it out the window. Didn't even read it. Because he wanted us to use up all of our old ideas and have nothing left but to invent new stuff. And that was genius when you think about it. Because we did. We had all sorts of old trunk pieces that we tried to foist on the show and he was too clever for that. So once again Lorne got us to do our best despite ourselves. (laughs)


Was there a moment where you thought "well, we made it?" Like a definitive moment when you knew—


There was a definitive moment. It was when we did the Ford-Carter debates. And Franken and I were very good at doing political satire. Franken has always had that political consciousness. Even in high school he was fascinated with politics. And we were doing lots of Chevy-Chase-falling-down, and that was most of our political satire before we did the debates. And we wrote with Danny and Chevy. And the debates went over really well. And we started to see that, okay, we have our place now.


You play guitar and in the book you talk a lot about your brush with musicians like The Rolling Stones and The Grateful Dead. Did you ever have musical ambitions that competed with you comedy ambitions?


Well, if I had had the musical talent it might have been a conflict. But the fact is I'm an amateur musician. There's the old joke: how do you get a guitar player to turn down? You give him charts. But I have a lot of friends who are musicians and they will let me jam with them. And here's what I do: I turn the volume down really low; I play rhythm for the longest time; and I don't play constantly—I'll stop and listen; and then I'll do a short solo and turn it down again. And they'll always come back if you pick up the bar tab.


(laughs) Well, there are some scenes in the book—you jamming on guitar with Keith Richards, who's playing bass, for example—


Well, Keith was leaning over to tune my guitar as I was playing it, which is a little humbling.


Even so, if it were me I might be fool enough to think, "oh, my music career begins here" regardless of my talent. So I'm impressed you were able to keep it in perspective.


Well, The Blues Brothers happened. And that was it for me having a band with John. He was in The Blues Brothers and those guys are consummate musicians. So I still play. I have my guitar here in the kitchen hooked into a pig-nose on my kitchen counter. And I'm right across from the speakers and I can jam along with whomever I like. And in the basement I have a drumset and PA system. Once a year I throw a party, invite some musicians, and get the barbecue going.


In your book, you write with extreme humility—almost to the point of tearing yourself down—while at the same time all of this amazing stuff is happening around you and coming out of you. So as certain as you are about your lack of musical talent, I have to say I'm somewhat skeptical.


Well, I have a huge ego you don't notice because I use understatement. And you're right, there are all these amazing things going on and I prefer understatement. And if people like me at the end of the book it's because they put it all together.

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