7.28.2012

tom davis deanimated at age 59

I've just learned of the untimely passing of a very funny man.

Those of us old enough to remember the brilliant and subversive "The Franken and Davis Show" bits on the old Saturday Night Live may have sometimes wondered what happened to Al Franken's less famous partner. Tom Davis died last week at the too-young age of 59.
In 2004, contestants on “Jeopardy!” were stumped by the clue “He was the comedy partner of Al Franken.”

Tom Davis, that comedy partner, sighed as he watched. He was so inured to playing second fiddle to Mr. Franken, now a Democratic senator from Minnesota, that he called himself Sonny to Mr. Franken’s Cher.

But the fact is that Mr. Davis helped shape Mr. Franken’s comedy, and vice versa, from the time they entertained students with rebellious, razor-edged humor at high school assemblies in Minnesota.

In 1975, Mr. Davis, brilliant at improvisational comedy, and Mr. Franken, a whiz at plotting funny sequences, became two of the first writers on a new show called “Saturday Night Live,” which has lasted 37 years. (The two should actually be called one of the show’s first writers: they accepted a single salary of $350 a week. Each, singly, was called “the guys.”)

Mr. Davis never lost the quirky, original tone that helped shape the show, and in his last months he referred to death as “deanimation.” He deanimated on Thursday at his home in Hudson, N.Y., at age 59. The cause was throat and neck cancer, his wife, Mimi Raleigh, said.

With Dan Akroyd and others, Mr. Davis helped create the clan of extraterrestrials known as the Coneheads, who attributed their peculiarities to having come from France. He and Mr. Franken collaborated on Mr. Aykroyd’s impersonation of Julia Child, in which the television chef cuts herself and bleeds to death after grabbing a phone to dial 911, only to find it’s a prop. As she collapses she bids her audience “Bon app├ętit!”

In an interview on Thursday, Mr. Aykroyd spoke of Mr. Davis’s “massive contribution” to the show, characterizing him as “very disciplined” and able to herd less focused writers toward something concrete. “There was no frivolous waste of time,” he said.

Mr. Davis was present at the creation of Irwin Mainway (played by Mr. Aykroyd), head of a company that made “Bag o’ Glass” and other dangerous toys. He midwifed Theodoric of York, a medieval barber-surgeon, played by the guest host Steve Martin, who believed bloodletting cured everything. A famous sketch about a drunken President Richard M. Nixon stumbling around the White House conversing with past presidents’ portraits and spouting anti-Semitism? Mr. Davis and Mr. Franken wrote it.

They flirted with the margins of taste: a sketch about the Holocaust was rejected, but others about child abuse and the murder of lesbians made it onto the air.

In the early years of “Saturday Night Live,” Mr. Davis and Mr. Franken also appeared as a comic duo. One Franken and Davis routine was “The Brain Tumor Comedian,” in which Mr. Franken, his head bandaged, tried to tell jokes but kept forgetting the punch line. Mr. Davis fought tears as he implored the audience to applaud.
Amazingly, very few Franken and Davis SNL moments are online, and what I found is not representative. This HuffPo obituary has some material, along with some interviews.

Tom Davis' comedy was a highlight of my late-night TV teen years. I'm sorry he died so young.

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