Comedy writer Tom Davis, Al Franken's longtime partner, dies of cancer

  • Article by: JON BREAM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 19, 2012 - 11:02 PM

Minneapolis-bred Davis was a pivotal member of the writing team for "Saturday Night Live."

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March 12, 2009: Comedian Tom Davis reminisces with old friend and fan Mary Duffy while signing books in Minneapolis.

Photo: Dawn Villella, Associated Press

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The Coneheads. They were a Tom Davis creation. So were such other "Saturday Night Live" characters as the lounge singer for Bill Murray and the medieval barber for Steve Martin.

Davis, the Twin Cities-bred comedian and writer, didn't quite help Al Franken become U.S. senator from Minnesota, but he did help make his longtime comedy partner semi-famous before he got into politics.

The Emmy-winning Davis died Thursday in Hudson, N.Y., of throat and neck cancer, his wife, Mimi Raleigh, said. He was 59.

"Today is a sad day for all of us who loved Tom," Franken said in a statement. "I spoke with his mom this afternoon and she recalled fondly all the laughter that would come from the basement when Tom and I first got started in comedy. I visited Tom two weeks ago, and though he was deathly ill, we did a lot of laughing. He was a great friend, a good man, and so funny."

Everyone agrees that Davis was funny.

"He wasn't the real clown," said Lamont Cranston singer Pat Hayes, a roommate of Davis' in the 1970s in Minneapolis and a close friend for 40 years. "He was kind of an intellectual guy, pretty smart and up on political things."

Dan Aykroyd said Davis made a "massive contribution" to "SNL." He was very disciplined, Aykroyd told the New York Times. "There was no frivolous waste of time."

Davis was born Aug. 13, 1952, in Minneapolis, where his mom had been Aquatennial queen of the lakes two years earlier.

Davis met Franken at the Blake School, where they bonded over their love of comedians like Bob and Ray. Franken & Davis' first gig was making school announcements at morning assembly and, of course, they did it with sarcasm. They graduated to doing sketch comedy at Dudley Riggs Brave New Workshop while Franken attended Harvard University and Davis dropped out of University of the Pacific.

Franken & Davis became part of the original writing staff for "Saturday Night Live" -- but, as a team, they received the pay of only one writer, $350 a week. Davis was with the show from 1975 to 1980 and then again from 1986 to '94. The first time around he helped Aykroyd develop the Julia Child character and during the second "SNL" stint, they created the Coneheads.

Davis liked to say that he played Sonny to Franken's Cher. The stoic Davis was the tall, quieter one, the ever-smirking Franken the short, more outgoing one. They complemented each other. Davis' humor was sardonic but seasoned with "sweetness and a Minnesota outlook," Franken said in a recent interview.

Davis won four Emmys -- three for writing on "SNL" and another for "The Paul Simon Special" in 1977. He and Franken performed at the Guthrie Theater and on late-night talk shows. They had a falling out about 1990 but reconciled 10 years later.

In 2009, Davis published his predictably off-the-wall memoir, "Thirty-Nine Years of Short-Term Memory Loss: The Early Days of SNL From Someone Who Was There." While the book makes it sound as if Davis could rival Hunter S. Thompson for consumption of alcohol and drugs, he shared free-wheeling tales about Jerry Garcia, Timothy Leary, Mick Jagger, John Belushi and Aykroyd, his best friend.

In the last two years, Davis worked with Aykroyd on a potential script for "Ghostbusters III" and helped a friend write a book about Owsley Stanley, the late LSD guru and Grateful Dead sound engineer.

Davis came to the Twin Cities probably twice annually to visit his mother, Jean, and to watch the Lamont Cranston Band. He last saw the blues-rock group on Dec. 31, 2010 at a Bloomington hotel.

"He always loved music," Hayes said. "He was a pretty good guitar player. Whenever we came to New York, Tom would always take the whole band out to dinner -- where Joey Gallo got shot in that clam bar -- and pay everybody's bill."

Last summer, Hayes took Davis on a boat ride on Lake Minnetonka. "He knew he didn't have too much longer," Hayes said. "But he kept pretty good humor about it."

Indeed, Davis recently wrote an essay about his impending death. It read, in part:

"I wake up in the morning, delighted to be waking up, read, write, feed the birds, watch sports on TV, accepting the fact that in the foreseeable future I will be a dead person. I want to remind you that dead people are people too.... We're all going to try it sometime. Fortunately for me, I have always enjoyed mystery and solitude."

Davis is survived by his wife, mother and a brother.

Twitter: @jonbream • 612-673-1719

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