Saying Goodbye to Tom Davis and Letting Go of ‘SNL’

Studio 8H is a time warp.

I hadn’t been there in 16 years, when I interviewed Lorne Michaels for Mr. Mike. Before that, I’d been in 8H many times, starting in 1983. It’s the most famous studio on American TV, the recurring cast member of SNL.

When I first walked through those narrow hallways, the original shows came alive in me. I recognized the main doors, dressing rooms, and photo-lined walls. I stood where the first cast performed their backstage bits.

I strolled the studio as sets were built, lighting adjusted, sketches camera blocked. Once I went up on home base, took in the view, then got on all fours and kissed the stage. Such was the measure of my reverence.

Naturally, I wanted to work there. I was twice submitted as a writer, but not to be. Yet my connection to SNL remained. I was allowed to see it up close but never intimately.

A few days ago I was there again, this time for a memorial for Tom Davis. It was by pure chance that I was invited. Or was it?

I attended Tom’s memorial with Brian McConnachie, who knows 8H as well as anyone. It didn’t faze him. I was the one with clouds in his eyes, the studio dreamlike, familiar, weirdly comforting.

The SNL band played as guests milled and drank. The sightings began. Buck Henry in trademark ball cap. Jane Curtin talking to Rosie Shuster. Bill Murray in all black. Jim Downey. Robert Smigel. Jimmy Fallon.

Dan Aykroyd raced about, precision voice happy and accommodating. Senator Al Franken shook hands and kissed cheeks. And in the corner stood Lorne, sipping something pink.

Lorne looks the same. Cool demeanor. Smart attire. Distant stare. Approached by those allowed to approach him. He’s older, obviously, but not noticeably. His persona outpacing mortality.

After a decade living off the grid in Michigan, it felt odd to be back in this company. But after chatting with Rosie, Smigel, Christine Zander, and the great Marilyn Suzanne Miller, I settled into place. After all, Tom Davis was my friend, too, just not in a collaborative sense.

That honor belonged to the speakers. Lorne was brief, introducing a collage of Tom’s SNL work. Aykroyd shared personal stories, convinced that Tom’s consciousness survived death. Curtin read a letter from Anne Beatts, detailing her relationship with Tom, including pissing him off for bashing the Grateful Dead. Downey praised Tom’s talent for finding the exact joke that made a sketch fly.

But it was Bill Murray and Al Franken who set the emotional tone.

Murray recalled how Tom saved him in a meeting, when Murray was new to the cast and dying slowly each week. Murray pitched Nick the Lounge Singer, but had no ending for it. Tom said, “I’ll help Billy finish the sketch,” which Murray confessed reversed his fortunes on the show. Murray choked up a bit remembering Tom, and spoke of the love he had for many in the room.

Franken verged on tears through much of his eulogy. He painted an impressionistic picture of Franken and Davis, starting as teens cracking each other up in a Minneapolis basement, learning their craft in LA clubs before moving east to work on SNL. Success, shared joy, disappointment, eventual break up — Franken and Davis experienced it all. You saw this history in Franken’s expressions, something he did little to hide.

The concluding point, shared by all the speakers, was that Tom was a model for how to die. No self-pity. No anger. Acceptance of fate. Embracement of life. The last time I saw Tom he was clearly wasting away, yet he mocked his cancer while remaining upbeat. According to his wife, Mimi Raleigh, Tom left this world with a smile on his face. I definitely believe that.

After the speakers, people mixed, laughed, hugged. I noticed most of SNL’s current cast standing together near the bar. What did they think about the old guard remembering and celebrating itself? Hard to say, though Taran Killam had a nice talk with Brian McConnachie, who shared his experiences in dealing with the chaos of the show.

Moments like that remind you of SNL’s multi-generational reach. The concept of the show as a “family” was really reinforced that night. And while I’ve been fortunate enough to enter this world and get to know some of the players, I’m not part of it, nor am I one of them.

At the after-party hosted by Aykroyd in a nearby restaurant, I talked to several SNL vets, including Tom Gammill, who was an absolute delight. As heady as it was, it felt like this part of my life was fading away, if not nearly gone already. I was in high school when SNL premiered, so it’s been a long time coming. I’m not complaining — again, I’ve been fortunate. But I do feel wistful.

At a large table in the back sat Lorne, watching the proceedings, smiling, assessing. He has it all, I thought. This was more resignation than envy, another step away from a creative influence on my life.

Do younger people attach themselves to shows like this? Or is it crazy old me?

Dennis Perrin is the author of Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O’Donoghue, The Man Who Made Comedy Dangerous.

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