Exclusive: SNL Scribe Tom Davis on Writing Under the Influence


To paraphrase an old saying, if you remember early Saturday Night Live episodes, then you obviously weren’t there. A handful of behind-the-scenes books revealing the show’s secrets have come out over the years (not that anyone ever bothered hiding the backstage debauchery in the first place). Even so, 39 Years of Short-Term Memory Loss, the new tome from original SNL writer Tom Davis — former comedy partner of Al Franken — combines the unapologetic frankness of a racy memoir with the deadpan reportage of a checklist, recounting to the best of the author’s ability a life of award-winning comedy, drug-induced genius, globe-spanning adventurism, and sweet-and-sour celebrity friendships.

Flavorwire’s Shana Nys Dambrot (and her Dad, who thankfully saw fit to warp his then-eight year old daughter’s mind with “don’t-tell-your-mother” SNL sessions) caught up with him around the time of his Page Six-worthy book launch party in New York City; it featured both an ice sculpture of Lorne Michaels and the actual Lorne Michaels, plus comedy writing legends and cocktails galore. After the jump, Shana speaks to the altered-state master of satire about the people, places, and drugs that have helped shape his life and career.

Flavorwire: Thanks for answering the phone, Tom. Let’s just start with what everyone always wants to know. How much of those first years of SNL were written on loads of mind-shattering drugs?

Tom Davis: My heroes are Laurel & Hardy and Bob & Ray, so obviously those guys weren’t high when they wrote their best stuff. But then again Ken Kesey and Jack Kerouac were on speed, Bill Burroughs was on heroin, and I thought, maybe I should try that! And the Grateful Dead — which as you know is a huge influence on me and my work — they’d be blazing, the audience would be turned on, and there would be this amazing exchange with the band and their fans.

FW: I think the same thing happened with SNL, except through the TV screen.

TD: Yes! One day I took LSD and tried to do one of my hand-written drafts, political satire. My hand-writing was illegible. That was the biggest problem. The material was usable, but the process was less productive. Now, I do my best writing in the morning, really around 1 to 2 p.m., by 3 p.m. I’ve started cooking and drinking and then the day is shot.

FW: It’s hard to write drunk, I agree, or even hungover.

Tom Davis, Shana, and Dad at the launch of Tom’s book, 39 Years of Short-Term Memory Loss at Comix. Photo credit: Lindsay Brice

TD: Hungover people are people, too. They’ve fought in every war and served in the Congress of the United States, in both Houses. As for what I call WUI (Writing Under the Influence), good writing whenever, however it happens is a blessing, whether you’re on drugs, straight, or hung-over, good is still good. I remember one time, it was during Watergate and Nixon’s final days in office, and we were desperate to find the material, but we just couldn’t get through this writer’s block. We had one last chance, so we took LSD and as the sun was coming up, it just kind of wrote itself. Of course, I never got a thank you. The main thing if you’re going to write a television show and be on drugs, is to have at least three dealers, because, you know, drug dealers are flaky and you can’t keep your colleagues waiting when there’s work to do — that’d be irresponsible. So you have back-ups.

FW: Speaking of which, a great deal has been made out of the trend for sobriety in show business. How has that affected your experience in the industry?

TD: I hate the way the AA vernacular has crept into every aspect of society. How about instead of asking, are you high, ask, are you happy? I hear “rehab” and I’m like, “Fuck you, see you tomorrow.” There’s no reasoning with those people; there’s no philosophical exchange. Sure they’ve saved lives, and yes, there are people who can’t handle drugs, but in a free society who decides? I mean, look at the thing with Michael Phelps. He won 13 gold medals and now everyone acts all disappointed in him! What about Rush Limbaugh? He’s not on my team, but his use of Oxycontin is in the plus column, as far as I’m concerned. You’ve got to hand it to the guy.

FW: Do you think that Al [Franken] becoming a parent is what ruined your friendship?

TD: Yes, it’s possible. People decide they’re going to have kids, they can’t get high anymore. And I respect their choice. I know a lot of Grateful Dead kids who turned out to be wonderful people. There are no rules, but generally speaking it’s probably not a good idea to raise kids all high. I respect the decision to get sober to become a parent, and they get points for the conscious choice. But I made one, too. I decided I’d rather be high. I aspire to be non-judgmental in my personal life and other people’s lives.

Tom Davis doing research at Burning Man, 2007. Photo credit: Lindsay Brice

FW: I know you worked a lot on Al’s Senate campaign, and of course he wrote the foreword for the book. How did you and Al get back together?

TD: He called me a few years ago. He was doing this brilliant show on Air America Radio. I listened every day, and he called me up and said that Robert Smigel and Bob Elliott and Billy Kimball had all come in and would I, and of course I said yes right away. It was just like riding a bike, we were right back there. Ten years had passed the dust had settled. I love him like my own brother. As for his Senate bid, Minnesota state law is interesting. It’s not Florida, but it is arcane, and Coleman is within his rights to challenge. But he won’t get anywhere, he’s just delaying the inevitable.

FW: How is Al feeling about it right now?

TD: Supremely confident, optimistic, ready to hit the ground running. He’s a happy warrior. His mom Phoebe was an active Democrat. I learned everything I know about politics from Al.

FW: A lot of people have. Tell me a bit about the tone of the book. It’s really funny, but yet very matter-of-fact in its tone, almost like you’re getting out of the way of the story, letting events speak for themselves.

TD: There’s a lot of Tom Davis comedy in there, but it’s not the “act”. The most common question I get asked is, “Where do you get your ideas from?” Well, this book is the answer.

Attention New York readers: Tom will be discussing the book at the 92YTribeca on Thursday, March 26. Click here for more deets.