Tune into the latest episode of Heart of the Matter as Tommy, now over two decades into recovery, speaks to Elizabeth Vargas about finding a sense of belonging in his unique upbringing, getting to “live two lives” with recovery and why he thinks substance use seems so prominent in the entertainment industry.
Tommy Davidson, welcome to Heart of the Matter. It’s great to have you.
Congratulations on your book, Living in Color.
Thank you so much. I’m so glad that you read it. I don’t get a lot of feedback from the book.
It’s a fun read.
But I love it because I get to re-experience it and reflect on what has taken place.
Well, in your life, a lot has taken place. I am not exaggerating when I say your life is really cinematic, starting with, my gosh, the way your mother found you when you were just two years old, through an incredible career in an incredibly difficult profession, standup comedy and show business, and through your recovery. Tell me why you decided to write it. Why did you decide to tell the world this very personal story?
It wasn’t me. My sister called me, pissed off, like usual. Something’s wrong again. “Tommy, I need to talk to you,” and so she says, “Why don’t you ever mention mom in interviews? I see you doing all these interviews, radio, TV and all this stuff, but you never really mention her. Why don’t you talk about her?” I dismissed it like, would you get off my nerves finally? Then I thought about it, and the reason is I was ashamed of her. It’s a habit. It’s a habit from being ashamed of her growing up.
Why? Why were you ashamed of her?
Well, one, a very glaring reason, is that when black people found out that my family was white, they started treating me like shit and would judge me. You know what I mean? I wasn’t black enough. I wasn’t black, or I was soft. I was a punk, or being attacked. “We’re going to beat your ass.” I’ve come to grips with that now, but back then it was like I constantly, constantly had to deal with that. Me coming into this world was really cool because I grew up in farms and communes out west in Wyoming and Colorado, mountains, streams, animals. But when I got five, we moved to Washington, D.C., so color never came into the picture until that happened.
Then it happened in a very traumatic way.
From the start. I mean, we hit Washington, D.C., and there were riots like you just saw, stuff on fire, tanks. For a five year old … Me and my sister are twins, really, a month apart. But she looks like Cindy Brady. My brother looks like David Cassidy. I used to dig that anyway. But when we got to D.C., the first thing the black kids did was beat our ass, repeatedly, and were saying ‘white cracker,’ and then calling me a ‘white cracker lover.’
So let’s explain to our audience. You’re black, and you were adopted by your mother when you were two years old who was white. She adopted you after finding you literally buried under a pile of garbage. You were unconscious. You had head trauma. Tell me the story of how you got to be there.
Well, I’d have to tell it in retro, because I didn’t know all my life until I met my mom and got the real story. I had to actually confront my mother who raised me to tell me the truth about what really happened, because I was getting into some self-destructive behaviors that wouldn’t stop. Something was wrong. Finally, that was revealed. But looking at it, just the linear objective, look at it, is quite simply my mom and dad … He just passed away apparently-
… were teachers at Colorado State over there. They heard a Kennedy speech because there was all this race stuff going on in the ’60s. He said, “When you look back on this period of American history, will you be able to say” … He was addressing white America … “that you did something about the race problem?” And off of that, they said, let’s do something, so they came to Greenville, Mississippi and did some voting drives and immunized children. In the meantime, they met my mom, my natural mom, who was helping them with that. So they ended up coming back down there, passing through there to go somewhere else, and asked about her. They said, well, she’s not here anymore. She moved. She took the rest of her kids with her, but she left her baby at such and such’s house, or whatever.
So my mom, being from Wyoming and always saving animals and loving horses and whatever, she gets curious, goes over to this house, which is abandoned, kids that are using drugs. It’s crazy in the house. She got out of there fast, and when she was leaving the house, she said something told her to look under this tire. There was a pile of trash, and when she moved the tire, she saw my foot. Then she moved the trash out of the way, and there I was. She said I had on a red t-shirt that was torn. It said I will be president in 20, and the rest was torn off. Rushed me to the hospital, recovered from that, then was taken with her and her family to Fort Collins, Colorado. She did all the legal stuff from there, and she pulled it off. From there, I became Barbara Davidson’s youngest son, Tommy Davidson. That was the ground zero.
The black thing came in because of what I was called, because I went to my mom. I said, “Why are they calling me a ‘white cracker lover?’ I like graham crackers.” I’m five. You know what I mean? White crackers are kind of dry. You’ve got to drink water with them or whatever. Graham crackers go right the hell on down, you know? She said, “That’s what people your color call people our color when they don’t like them.” She’s explaining this, and I’m going, “Well, what color am I?” She says, “You’re black.” You see, I’m hearing this for the first time, and I’m going, “No, I’m brown,” because I learned my colors from the crayons. She said, “No, but that’s what they call you, what they call us.” So I was like, “That’s stupid. That’s dumb.”
So it got so bad in D.C. that we moved out to the suburbs in Wheaton, Maryland. We moved to an integrated neighborhood to try to get some balance. It was very confusing for me and very traumatic because I had a lot of fights. Because it was confusing. It was hugely associated with violence, man. I was being attacked by both, physically.
You write in the book that growing up in this really rough neighborhood, you were not an easy teenage son for your mom.
She was very strict and did her best to keep you on the straight and narrow. You write that you tried some drugs and alcohol as a teenager. I was very struck by how you actually broke into comedy, because you did that with the help of your brother. I want to read part of this, and with a friend, a friend named Howard.
You wrote, “I told Howard” … because Howard is saying to you, “Dude, you’ve got to get on stage and do comedy.” You were thinking, I’ll become a chef. I’ll do something else. But you had spent all your childhood in this difficult, racially fraught time and in a family confronting a lot of unbelievably unusual challenges. You were always the cut up, making people laugh. So your friend Howard says, “You’ve got to try stand-up comedy.” You say, in the book, “I told Howard, ‘I didn’t know what to do on stage.’ Howard said, ‘I don’t care what you do. Just open your mouth.’ I went on stage and started talking and doing some of my impressions. I told stories about the roaches in our apartment. I told stories about my sister and me. I imitated singers. I made fun of commercials. They laughed from the first thing I said, and I haven’t stopped since.”
I can’t believe you got up on stage and just you really winged it. You were just like, okay, here’s my life, and they laughed.
It was already there. It was already there. I credit that to being a child of the ’70s, really, because of all the influences that we had. We had Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. We had Flip Wilson. We had Shields and Yarnell. We had Sonny and Cher. Shoot, we had Lucy and Ricky. We had Scooby-Doo. We had Kris Kringle and the Christmas special. We had the Peanuts, Charlie Brown, the Great Pumpkin. We had it, man. As a kid, it was hip to love. That was the thing. Loving other people that were different was in. Ecology was in. It was hip to take care of ecology. It was hip to understand other cultures. It was the thing to do. It reflected itself in cartoons. It reflected itself in commercials.
But how did that play into your comedy?
Well, because the TV and the record player were my babysitters, so during that time, I believe that the creators in Hollywood were creating a balance with race, sort of like the renaissance that went on in the ’80s … I mean, in the ’90s with In Living Color. So this creativity, The Jackson Five, The Osmond’s, serving America a brand-new look at themselves, Room 222 was another one about a high school where finally kids were going to school together, of different colors.
Is it because you spent … You said the radio and the TV were your babysitters. Is that how you developed your impressions?
Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, just watching and listening. I was always really talented just naturally. I was singing at four. I was singing at five years old. My mom would put me on the … She’d impress black people, because she’d put me on the dinner table and give me a spoon and put some tin foil on it, and, boy, I’d sing Aretha Franklin, James Brown. Say it loud, I’m black, and I’m proud, and I did it good. I was really good. Then I could mimic commercials and cartoons. So it was all kind of being downloaded into this kid. I didn’t even know they were called impressions until I was out here.
I really didn’t. Somebody just said in an interview, “You do great impressions.” I was like, “That’s what they are?” Because I just did them. My mom used to just go crazy. She’d go, “Would you stop that?” Until she saw I believe, I was doing Al Jarreau, and then she saw him on TV. She said, “Do that again.”
Yeah, because you were good.
Yeah. She said, “You may have something there.”
I heard you recently do an impression of Obama making … I don’t know. Was it doing an order at McDonald’s or something? Because-
That one’s easy. Obama talks about something as simple as Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes. He’ll take that and make it sound politically important. Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes is part of an essential breakfast, and that means it’s a part of … You’ve got a carafe of orange juice and a carafe of milk, along with bananas, and that’s a part of that breakfast, you see.
Oh, my God. I don’t even want to ask about how long it takes to practice something like that.
I just listen. I’m like a computer. I wanted to do the Obama impression. It took about a year, because I don’t just try to do it. I just keep listening and keep listening. It just comes out one day.
You launched a career in comedy after that first very successful winging it stand-up routine that you did as a teenager. You go on to have an amazing career. You write in the book that, from the time you were 18 years old until you were 27, you worked hard. You didn’t drink, and you didn’t do drugs. You set all that aside. You were the model of self-discipline while you went on to achieve amazing success. That period of time is really … First of all, I’m always struck by people who think that people who suffer from addiction lack self-discipline. You showed incredible self-discipline to break into and succeed in a business that, what is it, 99.8% of people don’t succeed in. It’s a very rare thing to succeed.
But the lacking was a program and [inaudible 00:17:00] or whatever, but just going off of your own resources. You know what I mean?
It was an outgrowth of me using early, like teenagers do. That’s pretty much a new normal, the experimentation and all that stuff, and especially if you’re from a neighborhood where the drugs are sold. You know what I mean? It’s just like that’s the thing. It was what I call a spiritual experience that really prompted me to stop. It’s autobiographical, but it’s part of the trajectory that made me become me. Here it is.
I had an apartment. What we would do, if we didn’t have any light bulbs when I was growing up, you just go over to the apartment building, down the hallway, and take some light bulbs from there and put them in your house. So on this particular night, I went and got me some light bulbs, because I was down to my last one. I wasn’t making a lot of money. As I come out of the elevator with this bag of light bulbs, there was a painting of Jesus in this freaking building. I stopped for a second. I think I had a mild moral dilemma there, but I said, I need to do this. This is what I need to do for me. You’ve got to survive in this world, liken it to self-will.
So I got home. There’s an explanation for this. I opened the door, and all the light bulbs are in and on, and I was like, whoa. What’s going on? Then my phone rang. It was a house phone back then, right? My friend, Jeff, he said, “Can you see the light, boy?” I forgot that he had a key to my apartment. He was a really good friend of mine, would change the litter for my cat and do stuff like that. At that moment, I realized, wow, I don’t need to take anything. It would always be provided. That’s what led to me starting to just really take that out of my life. What I did for two summers or for two years was, for some reason, I saved all my high school work, all my tests and the books and everything. So I went over that stuff and studied that stuff over. I also had a stereo, a really good one and a lot of albums. So I would do music, and I had a lot of books, and I would do a lot of reading. So I did that for a two-year period. That’s the mind state I was in when the dominoes started falling towards Hollywood. That’s the mindset that I was in.
So you didn’t do any drugs or alcohol. You were in this incredibly self-disciplined mindset. You go out to Hollywood, and you begin to achieve amazing success. You write in the book that, at some point, you begin to use drugs and alcohol again. Here’s what you write. “Here’s the thing about drugs and alcohol. At first, they help to quiet your social anxiety. For a moment there, everything is funny, and you feel like you’re the life of the party. However, if you’re already feeling alienated and paranoid at work and people are making fun of you, then addiction will make you exponentially more withdrawn and disconnected. Increasingly, I had a hard time showing up. I became very uninspired, and no one seemed to miss me.” That last line, “and no one seemed to miss me.”
In my mind, in my mind. That’s what isolation can cause. Now reflecting on it, I don’t look at it as anything that’s different from a human experience. You know what I mean? Everybody’s got something, some vice or some escape to just feel good. It didn’t work for me when I was a young teen. You know what I mean? That connection to that was just … It was just not there. So I just was being casual about it, like it’s normal. You partied. That’s what it’s called. Everybody has a drink or whatever or smokes weed or does whatever they do. But this is when it attached itself. That’s when it became a problem, so it caused me a lot of problems, not showing up, and all the stuff that goes with it, all the things that goes with it. That’s what led me, thank God, to the recovery path.
You were, at this point, on the show, In Living Color, which was really a groundbreaking show in the 1990s. It was on for five or six years on Fox Television. In reading the book, first of all, I have to just say, I had forgotten all the amazing, huge stars that were on that show. Name some of the people you worked with on that show.
Oh, man, Jennifer Lopez, Jamie Foxx, Jim Carey, David Alan Grier, Rosie Perez. All the writers went on to write and produce shows like Friends, Martin. They went out and just did amazing stuff in that arena too. I was so lucky I was able to absorb all of that. I was able to absorb the literary part and the performing part. As a talent, my versatility was built there because I was exposed to so much so early.
Even as you were working with these people who are titans in your industry … If they weren’t then, they’ve become so. But it was sort of like everybody you just listed was on the cusp of super stardom-
… where they now live now. Yet even while you were working with them, that’s when you started to slide. You liken it … I like the way you describe it. You say that, when you started to relapse, you were like, “Those aliens are kidnapping me again.” You talk about, “My time among the aliens,” is the time that you were using. Why do you describe it that way?
Well, because it’s alien to my natural self. I didn’t wake up one morning and say, “Let me destroy my whole career and my life.” You know what I mean? It wasn’t a conscious decision, really. I was being thrust into behaviors that weren’t natural for me. What I lacked was tools. Whatever you have that you’re dealing with, that excess or whatever, thank God there is programs and tools for you to not only understand it, but have a positive and happy life in spite of the fact that that happened. That’s a part of you. I was thinking, oh, this is the worst thing that ever happened to me, and it was. But looking at it now, it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.
T’Keyah, the actress on In Living Color, when I came back from being away and working on my stuff, she said, “The best part about your experience that you’re having is that, at your age, you actually know your limits. Some people have to go a whole lifetime to find that out.” Mitzi, the owner of The Comedy Store, she said, “I’m glad it happened early, that you don’t have to go through what Sam Kinison and what Richard Pryor and all those had to go through. It happened early, so you had a chance to deal with it.”
It happened early, but it wasn’t- Your path to recovery was not linear. You write in the book … It wasn’t quick, in other words. A lot of people have this impression. You go to rehab for 30 days. You get [crosstalk 00:25:56]
Then you’re done. You write, “I went from treatment place to treatment place, 28 days at a time, in Arizona, in Indiana, in California. I was moving imperfectly and with great difficulty to recovery. It was a hard lesson to learn that I was not in control. I kept trying to take my recovery into my hands. I believed that only I could make myself stop. The exact opposite was true. I could only change when I took the advice of people around me and followed a path laid out for me, and just concentrated totally on what the people around me were telling me.” I mean, how many rehabs did you go? This is while you were on In Living Color. It was in the ’90s.
Enough, enough. It was multiple times. I can sum that up by just saying my cousin David said, “So they didn’t work, right? All this rehab I went to didn’t work, because you went there, and you still kept having a hard time, so I guess they didn’t work.” I said, “No, they did work, because if I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t be here.”
So it’s an important point. What would you say to people out there who think, what? You go to rehab. You get once. You get better. You’re done.
Well, I mean, it’s just like any other disease. You are at the mercy of the care, of the medical industry, if you have cancer, and the treatments are the treatments. So it’s-
And the cancer can come back.
Yeah. There’s a tremendous amount of ambiguity to that process. You know what I mean?
Imagine having to redo yourself, having to live over again. One of the amazing benefits of recovery for me is I’ve got to live two lives in one lifetime. I’m like Scrooge. He basically was an asshole. You know what I mean? If it wasn’t for the dream he had, he would have just woke up and told Tiny Tim to get the hell out of here. You know what I mean? But he was able to go back and reflect on his past, go look at what the future was bringing, and then wake up with the present, which you know we call the gift, and wake up in the present. So, really, that journey for me and others is what is prescribed, is that journey. Like I said, it really is, to me, a natural human trajectory because this is about self-discovery, life. Who doesn’t need help in all areas? You know what I mean?
So after that year … You spent the year in and out of several rehabs. Did you get sober for a while and stay sober for a while? Or how-
Oh, yeah, it was back and forth. But when it finally took ahold, that’s when I got consistency over the years, but it was a process. It was a process. For me, that’s what it is.
But that still didn’t last. You still had another difficult time how many years later?
I think it was about three.
Three years. So it really actually was still part of an ongoing evolution.
Oh, if I don’t do what I need to do, it’ll be now.
I’ve heard other people in recovery who are famous, best-selling writers, other people in recovery who are performers who have said, “I wondered, after I got sober, if I could still write. I wondered, if I got sober, if I could still act.” Did you wonder, if I get sober, will I still be funny?
I wondered if I was ever going to work again or if I was going to be alive. It was more extreme than that.
Much more existential.
Yeah. But in that sense, the strength and the purpose began to solidify, and it began to reverberate. Like I said, it’s experiential, is what it is, and it’s about application.
You write in the book that, after that year, you went back to work, but you were still … At a certain point, you began to struggle again, and you write it got really bad. On page 195 of your book, you write, “Addiction eventually undid all the good things I had done, all I had accomplished. It was getting to the point where it was dangerous to my health, where I was going to die. One night, at a girlfriend’s house, after ingesting who knows how much cocaine, I ODed. They took me to the hospital with no clothes on, strapped to a gurney. My aunt came-“
I forgot I wrote all this, man. I’m like, oh, no.
“My aunt came out and got me and walked me out of the hospital. One of the nurses, an Indian woman, walked right up to me and said, ‘God saved you this time. Next time he might not.'”
That’s what you’re dealing with. You’re dealing with a mind state that has no defense over the next drink or whatever.
People don’t understand that even after hearing that … And you obviously remembered that because you wrote about it.
Of course, of course.
Even after that, you got high. You went on stage. You got booed off stage because you were unable to perform and do the thing that you loved and were so brilliant at. Do you remember those nights?
Yeah, of course. But that’s really not the reason why … Telling the story and telling the events, it’s not for the events itself. I didn’t write that to have those experiences exploited in that way. I wrote that so that the reader knows, for sure, 100% that you can go that far and still be okay. You see what I’m saying? I wouldn’t say stigma would be the word, but what I would say is it’s not the most popular thing to be dealing with. It’s not looked up at. It’s not understood. It’s not understood. People ain’t going, “Yay, that happened to you.” They’re going, “What’s wrong with that dude?” You know what I mean?
Even in show business, where there’s so many people in recovery? I mean, there are huge stars. Robert Downey Jr., for example, was considered unhirable. He went as far as you went, and he’s now one of the biggest earners in Hollywood.
He’s Iron Man, yeah. It’s not just that. It’s not really a personal thing. It is a thing that exists, like suicide. It exists. It’s a behavior. It’s an ailment.
But did you have a hard time having people hire you? I know Robert Downey Jr. did initially.
Yeah, of course, of course. I mean, not really in that sense, because, fortunately, I went to deal with it. I went to deal with it, and everybody around me who was around me encouraged me to go ahead. I had a great team. I had a team that … my representatives, everybody, from agents to lawyers. They all were on the same page, that the main message was, you don’t have to go through what Elvis went through or Jackie Wilson went through. You don’t have to do that. Leave that stuff behind. Stop trying to keep up with this career of yours. Make this a priority. Make this the priority. That’s one of the things about recovery that’s important for me is that half of it is … There’s so many different facets of it, but one of the most important facets of it is what your purpose is out here. And what’s important? What are your value systems? Reexamining all that stuff.
There have been so many very famous comedians who have struggled with substance use disorder. Why do you think that is?
I don’t think it’s them. I don’t think it’s just them.
You think it’s in every industry.
Yeah. I know it’s not them. It’s just that we’re more out front. It’s the trucker. It’s the teacher. It’s the janitor. It’s people.
So it’s not like it’s more in any one profession. We just know about these people because they’re famous, and when they died or struggled.
Yeah. Because you’re on the front page. I mean, it’s a privilege, but under those circumstances, it can be immensely tragic, because as you’re admired across the board, you can also be rejected and judged across the board. The strength that comes out of that, comes out of the process and comes out of recovery is the fact that it’s a little tiny thing. It’s a little tiny thing, and it is, for me … What is the problem with being imperfect? What’s the big deal? People in recovery or if you’re a priest in Tibet or whatever you are, what’s this human need to be perfect and to aim for that? So that’s another component. It’s not something that someone’s going to understand that’s not dealing with it. It’s the cure.
You write in the book that … And I don’t know if it came off as sounding slightly … Resentful is much too strong a word, but you did note in the book that other people who were in recovery after having pretty low bottoms and pretty public meltdowns, like Robert Downey Jr., like Mel Gibson, went on to do great work and to much acclaim, Academy Award nominations, blockbuster hits. You seem to say in the book that you did not encounter the same kind of, “Welcome back. You’re done and recovered, and let’s put you back to work,” that they did.
Well, that’s the good thing about the book is that I can actually write that down and still have another take on it, because it’s a living book because I’m a living being. Looking at that now, true, but not. It’s 50-50. It’s 50-50. I would like to lean on that and say, “Oh, man, it ain’t happened to this person, but it happened to me,” or that kind of thing. That’s something that has to exist in the now, the perspective.
In the course of your career, you’ve worked with some amazing people … You’ve worked with amazing people, and some of them have written lovely blurbs, in one case, a hilarious blurb from Jim Carrey, who writes on the back, “The massive challenges that Tommy has faced in life have been no match for his soaring talent and indomitable spirit. If he had lady parts, my search would be over.”
This dude, man.
He’s one of the favorite people you’ve worked with, it appears. I mean [crosstalk 00:39:27]
… best friends too, man.
Why did you guys hit it off so well?
We’re each other’s equals, I think. I think we’re actually pragmatically equal. The denominator is love. We love each other evenly. It’s the thing that makes the world go around.
Thank you so much for being with us on Heart of the Matter. I appreciate it.
Oh, man, thank you. Thank you. Being able to talk a little bit more about it, being able to be in an atmosphere where I can talk about it and not feel judged-
No, not here.
… not feel judged, and that feels good.
Well, thank you so much for being with us. And good luck with that 11 month old and everything else you have going on.
You too. You too.