Tom Davis—a veteran comedy writer best known for his long partnership with Al Franken, and his role as a writer and sometimes performer on the early seasons of Saturday Night Live—died today after a long battle with neck and throat cancer. He was 59.
Davis was very much a product of his times, an inveterate hippie who followed the Grateful Dead as a young man before gaining entry into their inner circle through his friendship with Jerry Garcia. Garcia and Davis were so close that at one point they collaborated on an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens Of Titans, which they hoped to make with Bill Murray in the lead role.
But Davis will be remembered for another, more fruitful partnership. Franken & Davis were hired on Saturday Night Live as writers, but they also frequently appeared throughout the show’s first few seasons as a smartass, stoner variation on classic comedy duos.
With and without Franken, Davis worked on a number of classic sketches and routines, from the Coneheads to the justly revered sketch where Steve Martin played Theodoric Of York, a brutal medieval barber.
In the mid 1980s, Franken and Davis took their act to the big screen as the stars and writers of One More Saturday Night, a comedy that bombed with critics and audiences alike. Davis had a similarly painful experience working on the screenplay for the ill-fated 1992 Coneheads movie: Though credited as a co-writer alongside Dan Aykroyd, Davis was not happy with the script or the finished product. The experience left him with a lingering, justified distrust of the film business—though he reportedly worked with Aykroyd on a Ghostbusters 3 draft.
As chronicled in his rambling, drug-and-sex-intensive memoir 39 Years Of Short Term Memory Loss: The Early Days Of Saturday Night Live From Someone Who Was There, Davis’ later years were filled with disappointments and projects that didn’t quite pan out. Meanwhile, Franken’s enormous success as a pundit, best-selling author, and eventually Senator threw his old partner’s professional flailing into sharper relief.
Franken and Davis had a falling out in 1990, prompted in part by Davis’ heavy drug use, but they reconciled later in life. Davis may have peaked early, but he leaves behind a formidable legacy as one of the architects of a comedy institution that continues to spawn generations of comic superstars.