Remembering Al Franken and Tom Davis

Continuing what amounts to a random little mini-series on original Saturday Night Live staff that has included Gary Weiss and Alan Zweibel in recent days, today a nod to the unique comedy team of Al Franken (b. 1951) and Tom Davis (1952-2012).

The word “unique” was carefully chosen. Franken and Davis were a comedy team in an era when such a thing was pretty rare, being not only post vaudeville but post Rowan and Martin and the Smothers Brothers. Interestingly, they looked and sounded alike enough to BE brothers, with those matching eyeglass frames and Minnesota accents. They both had the same bone-dry midwestern humor, and read like a sort of hippie Bob and Ray, with a height differential that evoked Mutt and Jeff (Franken was the short one, Davis the tall one). Though the pair were not yet 25 years old when SNL premiered, they had already been working together for over a decade, having met as students at a posh private high school. Some of their earliest work was at Dudley Riggs’ Brave New Workshop, the same improv comedy factory that produced Pat Proft.

In 1969, Franken (a second cousin of character actor Steve Franken) broke off to get his B.A. in political science at Harvard. Poli sci of course was THE major at the time, though time would tell that Franken was deeply devoted to politics, with an interest that transcended satire into actual commitment. Unthinkably, given his eventual associations with many of its alum, Franken did not write for the Harvard Lampoon; they did not accept him!

After graduating cum laude in ’73, Franken reunited with Davis. They struggled in L.A. for a short time, but then were hired for the original staff of SNL as writers and occasional performers. They were perfect for the new show, both because of their stridently satirical senses of humor, but because, as we have mentioned here a few times, their dry midwestern tone resonated so well with Lorne Michaels’ Canadian one. As with many of their fellow SNL writers Franken and Davis were often supernumeraries and walk-ons in the sketches, but almost from the beginning they also got their own starring short bits on the air. Their initial bits were off camera, playing a couple of high school kids gabbing while they played Pong, with the Pong game as the only visual. (I’d forgotten that Pong was that old! For those too young to have been around then, Pong was essentially the first computer game, a very simple electronic tennis simulation. If you’d pressed me for a date when it debuted, I’d have guessed 1977, but no indeed it hit the market in 1975, and had been prototyped as early as 1972). Anyway these segments seem like a sort of precursor to Beavis and Butthead.

By the second season, they began to do their own on-camera bits often appearing as scientists or inspectors or other “egghead” characters (I picture them as often being dressed in lab coats, with hard hats, holding clipboards — those kind of bits). They also contributed to sketches for the main cast members. Davis co-wrote the “Coneheads” sketches for example, as well as “Theodoric of York Medieval Barber” (starring Steve Martin) and wrote for Bill Murray’s lounge singer bits. Franken and Davis also appeared in movies with SNL cast members during the period, like Tunnel Vision (1976) and The Rutles: All You Need is Cash (1978).

When the original SNL cast and staff dissolved after the show’s fifth season in 1980, Michaels nominated Franken to succeed him as producer, but unfortunately Franken had recently insulted NBC president Fred Silverman in a comedy sketch, so that was off the table. Franken and Davis continued to write and appear together in such things as Steve Martin’s Best Show Ever (1981), the John Landis movie Trading Places (1983) with Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy, The New Show (1984) and Late Night with David Letterman. In 1983, Davis cowrote an animated Rankin-Bass tv special starring the Coneheads, with Aykroyd and Michaels.

Then in 1985 the team resumed work on SNL as writers, with Franken also appearing on camera in sketches, most notably as his simpering rehab character Stuart Smalley, whom he revealed was actually a bit of self-parody, having undergone the cleaning-up process to detox from his SNL era drug use in the wake of John Belushi’s death-by-speedball. His mocking catchphrase “I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me” became the title of a 1992 book. Many first discovered Franken during this era, despite the fact that he had already been on the show a decade earlier. In 1986, Franken and Davis also co-wrote and co-starred in the film One More Saturday Night, which made nary a ripple. Davis also co-wrote the popular “Continental” sketches for Christopher Walken during this time, as well as the 1993 Coneheads movie. Franken left SNL in 1995 after being passed over for Weekend Update anchor in favor of Norm MacDonald (as well he should have. It would have been much better with Franken, and without a doubt more political. Is that what prevented Michaels from assigning him that post? It would be another decade before it got more political again, with the elevation of Seth Meyers). After leaving the show, Franken did the movie Stuart Saves His Family (1995) directed by Harold Ramis.

The Stuart Smalley film was not a smash success and it seems to have prompted a major change in direction for Franken, causing him to lean more heavily into politics. In 1996 he wrote the political humor book Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations. In 1998 he starred in a short-lived NBC sitcom called Lateline, a satire about television news. In 1999 came his second book Why Not Me? The Inside Story of the Making and Unmaking of the Franken Presidency (a bit of foreshadowing, wot?) In 2003 came the book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. Fox News sued him for the use of the phrase “Fair and Balanced”, a gambit that was tossed out for being meritless. From 2004 through 2007 he hosted the talk radio program The Al Franken Show (originally called The O’Franken Factor) on Air America. In 2006 he was the subject of a documentary called Al Franken: God Spoke, by the same people who made the Bill Clinton doc The War Room. Then, in 2008, like something out of one of his own comedy sketches, Al Franken surprised the nation by being elected to the U.S. Senate, carrying on the tradition of his mentor Paul Wellstone. He remained there for a decade, well into the Trump years, before finally being forced to resign in disgrace after allegations of inappropriate workplace sexual horseplay came to light — also like something out of one of his comedy sketches. Since 2020 he has hosted a political podcast.

Meanwhile, Davis played some bit roles in movies and returned to SNL as a writer from 2001-2003. In 2009, shortly after his old partner went into the Senate, Davis was diagnosed with throat and neck cancer. It finally killed him in 2012. He’s not to be confused with the contemporary British comedian and actor, who was born at the time of our Tom Davis’s original stint on SNL.

For more on show biz history, including TV variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,