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Arts & Entertainment

Al Franken says goodbye to comedy writing partner Tom Davis on Senate floor

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) questions Steve Flynn, Vice President of Health, Safety, Security and Environment at BP during his testimony before the  Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee July 22, 2010 in Washington, DC.
Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) questions Steve Flynn, Vice President of Health, Safety, Security and Environment at BP during his testimony before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee July 22, 2010 in Washington, DC.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

I was glued to C-Span late last night as Minnesota Democrat Al Franken spoke on the Senate floor.  It wasn't a policy speech.  It was a tribute to his writing partner Tom Davis. 

It's not often that you see a US Senator in tears,  much less waxing nostalgic about near death canoe trips.  I've never heard anyone explain to a C-Span audience how the famous Julia Child sketch  on "Saturday Night Live" was staged.  It's  must-see TV.

If you missed it, here's the link:

And here's a copy of his remarks:

Remarks offered by Senator Al Franken of Minnesota on the Senate floor.

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012:


Today I come to the floor to talk about a personal loss to me and to so many of his friends and family and fans--a Minnesotan who brought so much laughter and so much joy to his fellow Minnesotans and to millions and millions of Americans. My friend Tom Davis died last Thursday after he was diagnosed 3 years ago with cancer.

I had the privilege to be Tom's comedy partner and best friend for over 20 years. We started working together in high school in Minnesota and did standup together for years, and were among two of the original writers for ``Saturday Night Live.''

I spoke with Tom's mom Jean last Thursday, not long after Tom died. She told me how fondly she remembered the laughter that came from the basement when Tom and I started writing together in high school over 40 years ago. That is what I remember about Tom, his laughter.

I last saw Tom about 2 weeks ago at his home in Hudson, NY. Dan Aykroyd, who collaborated so often with Tom, was there too with his wife Donna and Tom's wife Mimi. We laughed and laughed.

Tom's humor was always sardonic, and as you might expect, it was a little more sardonic that day than usual. But his humor also had a sweetness about it. We laughed. But Tom told us that he was ready to go. He faced death with great humor and courage.

Tom created laughter. The obituary cited Tom's body of work--some of it. He and Dan Aykroyd created the Coneheads. Tom was the key collaborator with Bill Murray on Nick the Lounge Singer, and on and on and on. This started an outpouring of blogging on the Internet--people writing about Tom and the laughs he brought them. I was happy to see him get his due. People called him an original. He was. They called him a brilliant comedian. He was.

Since last Thursday, I have been hearing from our friends and colleagues, how Tom's voice was unique, how so often his stuff came seemingly from out of nowhere, how Tom had come up with the biggest laugh of the season in the rewrite of this sketch or that one or how Tom had been the first to nail Ed McMahon's attitude when he and I did Khomeini the Magnificent, and how Tom was such a loyal and generous friend.

People would always ask me and Tom what our favorite moment was from ``Saturday Night Live.'' We worked on so many sketches that it was impossible to single anything out. Both of us would always say our favorite memory was rolling on the floor--the 17th floor at 30 Rock--rolling on the floor, laughing at 2:00 in the morning or 3:00 in the morning at something that someone wrote or at a character someone had just invented. This was that moment of creation. There was the laugh at whatever it was that one of us had come up with, combined with the joy that you knew you had something.

This is your job. Woody Allen once said that writing comedy is either easy or impossible. When it is impossible, it can be agony. When it is easy, when you are laughing and rolling on the floor--literally, when Danny, Billy, Belushi, Gilda, Dana Carvey, Jim Downey, Conan O'Brien, or Steve Martin or any of the many hilarious people whom we had the privilege to work with would come up with something that made us explode with laughter and roll there on the 17th floor, that was just pure joy.

Tom was an improvisational genius. The first public stage we performed at was Dudley Riggs' Brave New Workshop in Minneapolis. Dudley's was essentially the Minneapolis version of Second City, based on the same improvisational techniques. When Tom and I were in high school, we did standup there. But while I went off to college, Tom joined the company at Dudley's, and when I came back, I saw that he had mastered improv and mastered it hilariously.

Now, as a writing team, Tom and I brought different strengths to our craft. Sometimes we would get stuck, and Tom would find an object. The third year of SNL, Tom and I were watching TV, and we saw Julia Child cut herself while doing a cooking segment on, I believe, the ``Today Show.'' So we wrote a sketch that Danny performed brilliantly that is now known as ``Julia Child Bleeding to Death.'' The sketch worked so well that when they installed the Julia Child exhibit at the National Museum of American History, in addition to her TV kitchen set--I believe this was at her insistence because she loved it so much--they included a monitor with the sketch of her bleeding to death on ``Saturday Night Live.''

When Tom and I were writing the sketch, we could not find an ending, and Tom found an object--the phone. The phone hanging on the wall of Julia Child's cooking set. I don't actually think there was one; Tom just found it. That is something improv artists do when they are on the stage, they find objects to work with. So Danny, as Julia Child in the sketch, is spurting blood, and Julia is trying everything to explain how to make a tourniquet out of a chicken bone and a dish towel or how to use chicken liver as a natural coagulant, and nothing is working. She is losing blood. So, in desperation, she sees the phone on the wall, and turning to it, she says, ``Always have the emergency number written down on the phone. Oh, it isn't. Well, I know it. It's 911.'' She dials 9-1-1 and realizes it is a prop phone and throws it down sort of in disgust and starts to get woozy and rambles on about eating chopped chicken liver on Ritz crackers as a child. Finally she collapses, and as she is about to die, she says, ``Save the liver.''

It was a tour de force by Danny. When I was with Danny and Tom a couple of weeks ago, we started talking about this somehow, and Danny says he remembers me there under the counter pumping the blood. Only I wasn't the one pumping the blood; it was Tom. I remember that was something of a union issue because that is a special effect, pumping blood, pumping the blood to get exactly the right pressure so that Danny could release the spurts at precisely the right time.

Now, every once in a while, the special effects guy or the sound effects guy would let a writer do the effects because it was all about the comedic timing. Also, they liked Tom. Everybody liked Tom. The special effects guy knew that Tom knew exactly what to do, and it was all about teamwork with Danny, who was also controlling the spurting when Tom was controlling the pressure. Man, it was hilarious.

Now, this is live TV. We did hundreds and hundreds of sketches together, a lot of stuff that was just so stupid that it was funny. We just had so much fun. Tom and I toured together all over the country. I told Senator Mike Johanns, my colleague and friend from Nebraska, that Tom and I played Chadron State twice. And last week we had a witness in Judiciary whom Senator Sessions introduced from Anniston, AL, where Tom and I played. We did a gig to six students in Huron, SD, because they booked us by mistake during spring break and there were just six students there. There were five members of the basketball team who couldn't afford to go back east for the break. The sixth guy had been grounded because he had gotten caught smoking pot freshman year and they wouldn't let him leave campus except during summer vacation. I think this was his junior year. I think Tom and I played 45 States.

When we flew, we always booked ourselves in aisle seats across from each other, C and D seats, so we could talk to each other. Tom would always get on first and find our row, and if there was a pretty girl in the middle seat of one side, he would sit next to her, and I would sit next to the fat, sweaty guy in the mesh shirt, which, by the way, I think should not be allowed on planes. I plan to introduce legislation on that.

This went on for years. Tom would board first, get to a row, and take the aisle seat next to an attractive woman or quiet-looking, slender man, and I would sit next to the large loud guy who looked like he wanted to talk through the entire flight. I thought, what a coincidence, Tom's aisle seat is always next to the more desirable seatmate. Finally I checked my ticket stub, and I saw that Tom had taken my seat. That is when I realized he had been doing this for years. He said: Yeah, I was just waiting for you to figure it out. Now, I really had to blame myself. Tom had played me, and it was my fault for being a kind of trusting idiot.

Tom saved my butt on occasion. We used to go camping and fishing up in the Boundary Waters of the wilderness area between northern Minnesota and Canada. Tom was expert with a canoe, and I wasn't. I really wasn't. Once, we went up there in October. It was kind of cold, but we were catching a lot of walleye and having a great time. There were three of us--me, Tom, and our friend Jeff Frederick. We had put in for just one canoe.

On the third evening I decided to fish from this point near our campsite on this island. I cast out and got my line caught in something, so I decided to go out alone in the canoe and untangle the line. So I am paddling out, and I get caught in this current and start getting carried away from the island we were camped on, and I start calling for help. Now, we are in the Quetico wilderness in Canada in October. We had not seen another human being in the 3 days we had been there. So Tom and Jeff come running and yelling and cursing at me because if I didn't make it back with the canoe, they were pretty much stuck on this island for the winter, and I am probably dead because I have no gear, nothing, just the paddle, which isn't doing me any good at this point. This is where Tom's improvisational skills came in really handy because he talked me back. He was screaming and cursing, but he talked me out of the current that was carrying me away to my certain death, and I was able to circle back and get to the point--exhausted but so relieved. Maybe that is why I cut him some slack when he played me on the aisle seats years later.

Now, speaking of cold, Tom and I were huge Vikings fans. We would go to the old Metropolitan Stadium during the Bud Grant years when Grant would not allow heaters on the side lines even when it was below zero. I once asked Bud Grant why he did that, and he said: There are certain things people can do when they are cold.

Tom and I were there on a very cold winter afternoon at the Vikings-Cowboys playoff game, the one where Roger Staubach threw the Hail Mary that Drew Pearson pushed off on and caught for a touchdown--and he did push off. Senator Hutchison and Senator Cornyn need to go back to the videotape. Drew Pearson pushed off. It was offensive pass interference, and the Vikings should have won that game and gone to the Super Bowl. That is how I saw it, that is how Tom saw it, and that is how the fan who threw the whiskey bottle from the bleachers and knocked the ref out saw it. Tom and I both saw the bottle glinting in the cold winter Sun as it arced from the bleachers. We were stunned when it hit the ref right in the forehead. That was not Minnesota nice.

Tom and I suffered through four Super Bowl losses and through last season. As sick as he was, Tom watched our Vikings and complained bitterly to me on the phone later on Sunday.

Tom and I went to a lot of Grateful Dead shows together--more than even Senator Leahy. Tom and I went to a lot of New Year's Eve Dead shows. This year I went up to New York to celebrate New Year's with Tom and Mimi at their home. We knew this would probably be his last, and at midnight we turned on the Dead and we danced.

Now, unlike me, Tom became an accomplished guitarist, and he could sit in with rock or blues bands. Tom was a terrible student in high school, but the fact is he was a renaissance man. He loved to read history, philosophy, and fiction. He devoted a lot of his last years to his art, sculpting solely from found objects from the creek that ran by his house in upstate New York.

Tom was an original. Some time ago, Tom and I talked about writing something for this occasion, but about a year or so ago he wrote a piece for a literary magazine that, to me, said what needed to be said. It was Tom and his take on what he was facing. It is called ``The Dark Side of Death.'' I decided to read from it, with a few edits for the Senate floor, and I ask that the piece in its entirety, with some other edits, be printed in the Record at the conclusion of my remarks.


``The Dark Side of Death'' by Tom Davis.

The good news: my chemotherapy is working and I'm still buying green bananas. I've lost about 50 pounds. (I need to lose 49.) ..... False hope is my enemy, also self pity, which went out the window when I saw children with cancer. I try to embrace the inevitable with whatever grace I can muster, and find the joy in each day. I've always been good at that, but now I'm getting really good at that.

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. There are good dead people and bad dead people. Some of my best friends are dead people. Dead people have fought in every war. We are all going to try it sometime.

Fortunately for me, I have always enjoyed mystery and solitude.

Many people in my situation say, ``It's been my worst and best year.'' If that sounds like a cliche, you don't have cancer. On the plus side, I am grateful to have gained real, not just intellectual empathy. I was prepared to go through life without having suffered, and I was doing a good job of it. Now I know what it's like to starve. And to accept ``that over which I have no control,'' I had to turn inward. People from all over my life are reconnecting with me, and I've tried to take responsibility for my deeds, good and bad.

I think I've finally grown up.

It is odd to have so much time to orchestrate the process of my own death. I'm improvising. I've never done this before, so far as I know. Ironically, I will probably outlive one or two people to whom I've already said goodbye. My life has been rife with irony; why stop now?

As an old-school Malthusian liberal, I've always believed that the source of all mankind's problems is overpopulation. I'm finally going to do something about it.”

Tom faced death with humor and courage.


Rest in peace.