In a world of talk radio in which Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly are kings, it’s slightly surprising to see the welcome Al Franken gets at the National Association of Broadcasters radio convention in Philadelphia. As he makes his way through the hotel lobby he’s stopped by a small mob of radio station executives who call his name and reach to shake his hand. Soon members of the hotel’s staff join the crowd. A relative newcomer to radio, Franken is one of the rare liberals on the air, and he’s become the public face of Air America Radio, a left-leaning network that broadcasts his show every afternoon. Conservatives may still dominate talk radio, but it’s clear that Franken has become a force to be taken seriously.
Of course, Franken arrives with some solid credentials: several humorous political bestsellers and 15 years at Saturday Night Live. Air America has leveraged Franken’s popularity to overcome a bumpy financial start and grow from a handful of stations in spring 2004 to a network of more than 70 affiliates today. He says he was initially reluctant to host a show but now feels quite comfortable during his daily three hours behind the microphone.
Franken may have been hesitant to enter political talk radio, but the Minneapolis native makes no bones about describing himself as a political junkie. He traces his liberal politics to his father, a Republican who switched parties over what he saw as the GOP’s resistance to the civil rights movement.
The hours Franken and his father spent watching comedians on television also influenced his career choice. After four years at Harvard and a dues-paying stint as a starving comic, Franken and his longtime partner Tom Davis were hired by Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels before the show even premiered. Franken would later create and perform the character Stuart Smalley, a self-help guru. A Stuart Smalley book and movie followed. Franken is careful to note that he was never an SNL cast member, only a writer and occasional “featured player.” Modesty may not be his strongest suit, though. On Saturday Night Live he proclaimed the 1980s the Al Franken Decade and returned in late 1999 to announce the beginning of the Al Franken Millennium.
Early in his SNL days, his extracurricular activities included cadging a ride on the press bus following Ronald Reagan in 1976 and heckling the Gipper at a campaign rally. But Franken’s career as a political force really began with his books Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, both of which made the bestseller lists. Franken credits a lawsuit, Fox v. Franken, reportedly inspired by Bill O'Reilly himself, with generating an enormous amount of publicity for the second book.
His current book, The Truth (With Jokes), dissects the Republican agenda, prescribes a Democratic one and offers a view of America from the perspective of Al Franken, grandfather and U.S. senator. (Yes, it’s told from the future.)
Franken recently moved his family to Minnesota amid reports that he’s seriously considering the political junkie’s ultimate transformation by running for a Senate seat. Will he or won’t he? Franken, 54, will acknowledge only this: “I’m thinking. I’m thinking.”
Contributing Editor Warren Kalbacker squared off with Franken for hours across the comic’s dining room table while Franken’s Labrador relaxed underneath. “He is a thoughtful host,” Kalbacker reports. “He’s intense and obviously opinionated. He’s also physical. He interrupted our sessions a couple of times to wrestle his huge retriever into a headlock.”
On Saturday Night Live at the turn of the century you announced the beginning of the Al Franken Millennium. How’s it going so far?
Wait a minute. I’ve read the Playboy Interview for years, and I never realized that the interviewee got to sleep with that month’s Playmate. I don’t know why you haven’t told your readers, but it’s great. After some hesitation, my wife, Franni, thought it would be good publicity for my latest book. This month’s Playmate is young, but that bothered me for just a minute. Now fire away.
Your jokes are occasionally misunderstood, aren’t they?
Now that I’ve gotten as political as I have, my jokes are deliberately misunderstood. I’ve become a lightning rod for the right. “‘Al Franken claims he slept with that month’s Playmate,’ says National Review Online writer Byron York.” For the record, I didn’t sleep with this month’s Playmate.
How about the Al Franken Millennium?
It’s going well. My kids are great. My wife and I still tolerate each other. But I can’t believe what has happened to our country. We have a Republican administration that in five years has taken us from huge budget surpluses to record-setting debt. We have gone to war. The profiteering going on in Iraq is tragic. That country is a free-fraud zone. Harry Truman called war profiteering treason. It’s causing the deaths of our troops. Our government is rife with corruption. Cronyism marked our tragically slow response to Hurricane Katrina.
Would you say that Katrina marked some sort of turning point in the Bush administration?
It was a turning point in Bush’s presidency because it popped the myth that his administration is competent. We lost Chicago in a fire and San Francisco in an earthquake, but Bush is the first guy who lost a city in the age of AccuWeather. He bears responsibility for downgrading FEMA and using it as a dumping ground for cronies, placing Michael Brown as director. I’ve been railing about this administration’s incompetence for a long time.
The media is biased toward making a profit, which means spending less money, which in turn means more celebrity reporting.
You’ve certainly railed against Karl Rove, calling him a treasonous snake.
And I’ve used the term turd blossom to report what the president calls Rove. That’s his nickname. Google turd blossom and you’ll see. Part of the reason the administration did such a bad job last summer was that Rove’s guiding hand was not there. Once Rove was identified as outing a CIA agent and lying about it, I think he knew he was in trouble and became distracted. And I know he had a kidney stone during a key period. Maybe Rove has lost it. Or maybe he just made a couple of bad calls. But whether Rove is a genius or a fool, he’s a very bad guy.
You’ve committed almost two years to talk radio and recently moved the show to your hometown of Minneapolis. Do you find your daily three hours in front of the microphone more congenial now than when you started out?
I look forward to being on the air every day. At first I signed up for one year because I didn’t know if I’d like it. I wanted to get back to the Al Franken All-Girl Orchestra. But having written Lies and the Lying Liars, I felt there was this huge need. There was no liberal talk radio. Talk radio was right-wing.
Was Rush Limbaugh responsible for the growth of talk radio?
Absolutely. He deserves his props for that and nothing else. After the Fairness Doctrine fell, he spawned a number of conservative imitators such as Oliver North and G. Gordon Liddy. Lots of right-wing talk-radio stations popped up all over the country. That’s why Air America had to create a day of programming and become a network with affiliates.
Political talk radio tends to fill the airwaves with indignation.
Right-wing radio, especially during the Clinton years, was totally outraged. Now it gets outraged at our being angry. I get angry once in a while, but I don’t apologize for getting angry at things like war profiteering. The right has this caricature of my being palsied by my anger at Bush. Bill O'Reilly accused me of being like Goebbels and then denied it. O'Reilly will say Air America hates America, but it’s especially irritating when the mainstream media writes about Limbaugh conservatives and Franken liberals as if there’s an equivalence. I do the opposite of what he does. We tell the truth on the show. Months ago Limbaugh talked about the minimum wage, and he said 75 percent of all Americans earning minimum wage are teenagers in their first job. My researcher called the Bureau of Labor Statistics and found that 60 percent of Americans earning minimum wage are the age of 20 and older. Limbaugh gets his labor statistics from the Bureau of Limbaugh’s Ass. He pulled that stat out of his ass. It went out his ass and into his mouth, then into the microphone, over the airwaves and into the brains of dittoheads, and they believed it.
The media gave the Bush administration a tough time in Katrina’s aftermath. Did you detect any permanent change in journalists’ attitudes toward the president?
No, not at all. There was no enemy in the Katrina coverage. In covering Iraq, journalists’ attitudes were governed by the fear of being labeled unpatriotic. If you are an American correspondent embedded with our troops, you can’t help but love them. The mainstream press did a disgraceful job reporting the lead-up to the war on weapons of mass destruction and Iraq’s links to Al Qaeda. The sources for The New York Times and The Washington Post were the highest-level administration officials, and those papers’ reporting was terrible because they believed those sources. They don’t want to be critical, because they don’t want to lose access. I told a joke at a journalists’ dinner where Floyd Abrams, who defended me in Fox v. Franken, was presented with an award. Matt Cooper from Time and Judith Miller of The New York Times, who were both his clients, were there. This was just before Miller went to prison. I said how humbling it was to be there in front of two such courageous journalists, and don’t worry, Judith, maybe you’ll find some WMDs in your cell. Boy, that did not go over well. Did I tell that joke to the wrong group. The Knight Ridder papers, which don’t have access to the top, were talking to midlevel people about the debates within the intelligence community. Knight Ridder wrote much more penetratingly about the aluminum tubes that couldn’t be used for centrifuging uranium and about the reliability of sources, many of whom were Iraqi exiles who had a vested interest in our invading.
Yet you don’t advocate a quick withdrawal from Iraq.
I’m not for pulling out of Iraq right now. I don’t know if I’m right on that. The stakes are so high because of the tremendous carnage, not just to our soldiers and Marines but also to the people of Iraq. I believed Colin Powell’s UN speech. Bush told us that Saddam Hussein had nuclear holy warriors who would pass a bomb to Al Qaeda, and you’d think Al Qaeda would have no qualms about using a nuclear weapon. What did it for me was when Powell said the anodized coating on aluminum tubes could be used to centrifuge weapons-grade uranium. Aha! That had to be it! If anodized coating has nothing to do with centrifuging uranium, somebody would speak up and say that’s bullshit. No one did. Finally, The Washington Post talked to the grandfather of centrifuging uranium, in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and he said you couldn’t centrifuge uranium with those small tubes. And even if you could, he said, the first thing you’d have to do is mill off all the anodized coating. I was fooled. But we were in Baghdad by that time.
Has the media gone soft?
The media is biased toward making a profit, which means spending less money, which means less investigative reporting, which in turn means more celebrity reporting. On cable TV it means putting on two talking heads who are given a couple of articles in the green room. They read them and then go out and talk about school vouchers. They don’t know anything.
Do Washington reporters socialize too much with their sources?
I’ve done the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner twice. Plenty of people in the room dislike each other, and that’s nothing new in Washington. The first time I worked the dinner was in 1994. Al Gore was vice president, and I was sitting next to Tipper. I said to her, “I have a joke about your husband that my instinct tells me is over the line.” “What’s the joke?” she asked. I told her, “Vice President Gore reaffirmed his commitment to the environment today when he announced a new policy regarding the stick up his butt. Instead of replacing the stick every day as he does now, he will keep the same stick up there throughout the rest of the administration. This will save an entire rain forest.” She told me to go with my instinct, so I didn’t do the joke. But I love doing these dinners. The terrible part about it is people’s desire to be offended in order to have an excuse to attack someone, especially someone like me, who has a known political bias. Irony is a dangerous tool if you’re a comedian interested in politics, because what you say is taken totally out of context. I refuse to stop using irony. It doesn’t matter where I do it anymore, because they’re watching me. A while ago I told this joke: “John McCain is a courageous guy taking on the tobacco lobby, taking on campaign finance reform. But I don’t get this war hero thing. He just sat out the war. Anybody can get captured. Isn’t the idea to capture the other guy?” It got big laughs. The next day’s Washington Times quoted it as if it weren’t ironic. It said I was attacking McCain and didn’t realize that he had been a prisoner for five and a half years and had been tortured in the Hanoi Hilton.
When you make jokes like that, your critics start talking about the so-called culture war.
A lot of this culture war is absolute myth. Bill O'Reilly talks about his traditional values versus what he calls left-wing secular values. He has traditional values? He’s a married man engaging in phone sex with a female employee who doesn’t want it and has asked him to stop. Ann Coulter, in her book Slander, talked about the left’s Marquis de Sade lifestyle. I’ve been married for 30 years, and Coulter is in her mid-40s, hasn’t been married, dresses in miniskirts and looks slightly like a dominatrix. Who’s she kidding? At my 25-year Harvard reunion there was a survey, and one of the questions was “Are you still married to your first spouse?” About 77 percent of my class said yes. It was well above the national average for 47-year-olds. We’re a socially conservative group.
You frequently clash with Laura Ingraham as well as with Coulter. What do you think of them?
Coulter writes books and an online column that she can’t get syndicated in newspapers. She’s made a career out of being outrageous. She’s hideous. Last year’s Time magazine cover story on her was ridiculous because it was unbelievably nice to her. The cover photo was unfair; there are ways to make her goodlooking. I called the managing editor of Time and told him it should have been the exact opposite–put somebody pretty on the cover and then write the real article on her. It should be absolutely scathing. Ingraham is pretty hideous too. I’ve debated both of them and haven’t been impressed with either. One debate was on C-SPAN. It was Eric Alterman and I against Tucker Carlson and Ingraham, who said almost nothing. Carlson picked up the slack.
How is your relationship with Tucker Carlson? He claimed, “Liberals deride talk radio as the choice of morons, racists and tobacco chewers.”
They’ll take any opportunity they can to portray liberals as elitist. Carlson was a good writer at The Weekly Standard. He was funny and smart when we did Washington Journal on C-SPAN. We’ve become estranged. He has a way of attacking people by saying they’re not good to their staff. When he was on a book tour and was asked about me, he said, “I can tell you one thing. He doesn’t treat his staff well.” I passed that on to Andy Barr, my assistant. We both laughed. Andy wrote him a note. Carlson has said it about a lot of people. Politicians never treat their staff well. Barney Frank doesn’t treat his staff well.
You’ve accused Limbaugh of taking a crap on the ground and then raising dust to obscure the turd. Is he still the guy who pisses you off the most?
Sean Hannity is the worst. He’s completely humorless, a total hack. Hannity has no compunction at all about lying. O'Reilly and Limbaugh are sly. They have no interest in the truth. What Limbaugh will do is change something he said. That’s kicking up the dust. It’s about deliberately misleading people. O'Reilly does it on his TV show: Oh, is Bush’s record on poverty not as good as Clinton’s? Well, when Clinton was in midterm, the poverty level was 13 percent, whereas the level under Bush is only 12.7 percent. But the reason it is lower under Bush is that when Bush became president, the poverty level was at its lowest point in years because of Clinton. O'Reilly delivers information that is technically true but deliberately misleading. Coulter does the same.
Conversion–almost in the religious sense–is a term we’ve occasionally heard on your broadcasts. You’ve teased Christy, a regular caller to the show, about converting her Republican boyfriend. You’ve noted that Blinded by the Right author David Brock crossed over as well.
Christy dropped the boyfriend. I don’t think that was my fault. As for Brock, he made an amazing conversion. He had been a right-wing hit man writing for The American Spectator. He was the author of the Troopergate piece that ultimately led to the president’s impeachment; Brock named Paula Jones, and she instigated the sexual harassment suit that led to the Clinton deposition that was the basis for the impeachment. The right loved Brock. He then wrote a book on Hillary Clinton. Everyone was expecting a hatchet job, but he approached it as a journalist and came back with a look at her that was pretty favorable. That incensed the right. Brock is gay, and that was fine with the right as long as he was doing its work. But soon he was on the outs. He went through a crisis of conscience. I don’t know if it was about atoning, but he wrote Blinded by the Right, which exposes the right-wing smear media. We have him on the show to talk about the right’s lying and smearing. Here’s the irony: His American Spectator article led to Clinton’s impeachment, yet I know that when Brock was starting his research center, he met with the Clintons to get help from their network of people. Talk about a guy who can forgive–that’s Bill Clinton.
Israel has to recognize that in having been given a Jewish homeland, it has taken land from people.
What do you think is Bill Clinton’s biggest regret?
I think Rwanda haunts him the most. We just let that slaughter happen. And I don’t know how he can’t regret Monica Lewinsky, because that changed history in such a way.
What’s your take on former presidents Clinton and Bush getting together to raise funds for tsunami and hurricane relief?
Smart. Good causes. My take is that it helps Clinton rehabilitate his image by appearing with George H.W., an ex-president who gained stature after the Clinton blow job as a president who didn’t get a blow job.
You were a strong supporter of Clinton’s, but he was hardly the most liberal Democrat.
Liberal Democrats complained about his triangulating between the liberals and conservatives in Congress. He went down the middle. With the 1993 Deficit Reduction Act, Clinton did a good job of getting our deficit under control by changing our tax structure enough to give the markets confidence that we were actually going to address the deficit. He increased taxes on people at the top while beefing up the tax credit for those at the bottom. That set the stage for welfare reform. He passed the Brady Bill. He tried universal health care.
And universal health care never got off the ground.
They made it more complicated than it had to be, which made it vulnerable to criticism. Hillary is brilliant, but she made mistakes there. That combined with the special interests that wanted to kill it. Talk about obstructionism. Bill Kristol basically sent out a memo to Republicans saying their job was to stop universal health care from happening. He didn’t want Clinton to have this historic achievement. The thing I hate most about Washington is that people want to stop you from doing things just so you don’t have the achievement.
What about George W. Bush’s achievements?
The Bush administration started off by saying that anything Clinton did, it would do the opposite. Bush felt Clinton was too involved in the Middle East. He felt Clinton paid far too much attention to Al Qaeda. Even things that were unquestionably successful, such as vesting FEMA with more money and authority, the Bush administration wouldn’t do simply because Clinton had done them.
Bush certainly altered Clinton’s policy of close engagement in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
But now we’re more hands-on there than we were when Bush took office. Arafat’s death was a huge development. Let’s just hope, because anytime something encouraging in that region happens, it blows up in our face. It’s great that Ariel Sharon pulled out of Gaza. That pullout was ultimately pretty peaceful–emotional but not violent. I’m pro-Israel, but I believe it has definitely had a hand in exacerbating the situation over the years. It has to recognize that in having been given a Jewish homeland, it has taken land from people, and I think it has contributed to the cycle of violence.
In The Truth (With Jokes) you predict that in 2008 Al Franken will win a Senate seat, the Democrats will win a huge congressional majority and a “unity Congress” will be formed with a few good Republican members. What in the world are you thinking?
It’s a grand new design. We Democrats will control both the House and Senate, but we’ll have some Republicans who are not jerks chairing committees. Jim Leach would be banking chair. He’s a professorial type I’ve gotten to know because I have an interest in the Community Reinvestment Act, which makes sure that banks lend money to people who have been historically denied capital–minorities, women and the poor–so they can buy homes and start businesses. Leach has also been one of the few Republicans who has wanted to investigate war profiteering. I’d keep McCain. He’d be commerce committee chairman. Lindsey Graham is the only Republican talking about raising the amount of income subject to Social Security taxes. According to my scenario the Republicans who remain will come from very red districts or will have made their peace with the fact that Bush has been a disaster. I’m not saying we’d give them a lot of chairmanships. This is ridiculous fantasizing, by the way.
Care to dream on about your version of a “morning in America” for liberals?
We will start to prevail. Nothing changes Washington like one good presidential election. We have some great leaders. Hillary will be a great leader. Barack Obama is a great leader. Eliot Spitzer is a great leader.
Your account of the 2008 presidential race pointedly excludes mention of the gender of the Democratic winner. Is that a not so coy reference to Hillary?
I think she will make a run for it and get the nomination. The joke is that I avoid the issue. I just say we have this incredibly talented and visionary nominee. But a lot of good candidates may run against Hillary. Kerry might run again. Bill Richardson, governor of New Mexico and a former UN ambassador, energy secretary and member of Congress, might run. He has a wealth of experience. John Edwards will run again.
Republicans will certainly do their best to derail the Franken scenario.
But who do the Republicans have? They can’t nominate McCain, because the conservative wing of the party doesn’t like him. And unless they nominate McCain, they lose.
Why did you write Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot? Were you thinking of getting into politics then?
I got mad. After I did the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in 1994, the publisher of the Stuart Smalley book said I should write a political book. I agreed to do it before the Republicans won Congress in 1994. That started the Gingrich revolution, which was really about dismantling large parts of the government and the safety net. I saw the book as a serious venture. I was the first to capture the frustration and hatred toward the Gingrich revolution and Limbaugh specifically, because he was Gingrich’s spokesperson. I wrote an attack in a way no one else had, which was to write nutritional candy. It’s fun to read, and it’s good for you. I put out information other people don’t put out, because I have researchers. My work, dare I say, is provocative, touching and funny. It sounds immodest, but I now have a brand name in political satire.
The troops in Iraq enjoy widespread support at home even though many oppose the war. That certainly distinguishes the Iraq war from the Vietnam war, during which esteem for the military was quite low. Can you account for the change?
People have learned a lot. The Vietnam war wasn’t the soldiers’ fault. During that war, I never called soldiers baby killers. Kissinger and Nixon were the targets. I think virtually everyone in this country supports our troops.
The labeling of wild rice is a political issue. That’s one of the reasons I’m looking at running for the Senate
You have a way to go to catch up with Bob Hope as a USO entertainer, but you’re a regular on the overseas circuit.
I’ve completed six trips, three of them to Iraq. I go where the USO tells me to go. We were told we were going to do a show at Abu Ghraib. This was well after the prisoner abuse scandal, and the men and women there deserve recognition that they are not the ones who did that. The sergeant major of the Army, its highest-ranking noncommissioned officer, was with us. So the commander of the base said, “Let’s give a warm Abu Ghraib welcome to the sergeant major of the Army.” He said it with no irony, which struck me as just hilarious. And I got a nice warm Abu Ghraib welcome too. I had an older guy come up to me and say, “I’m totally against your politics, but thanks for coming.” I did a bit in the show when I said, “Let’s face it, we have gay soldiers serving honorably. Let’s get rid of that ridiculous don’t-ask-don’t-tell thing right now.” And I pointed to one guy. “You, you’re gay. We all know it.” Everyone laughed. Of course, he committed suicide after the show.
We know you’re joking, but that leads us to wonder how someone with your political bias and edgy sense of humor gets tapped for stand-up at Abu Ghraib.
During the Clinton administration, Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen asked me to go to Kosovo, Bosnia, Germany and various bases in Italy. The USO is totally nonpartisan. Part of its purpose is to show these soldiers that, unlike during the Vietnam war, Americans of all stripes support them. It’s very gratifying, and it’s sometimes very sad for me. You go to the hospitals and talk to kids. I talked to a guy who wasn’t going to make it, but they didn’t tell him that. I think he may have known it. He had been shot in the throat. He couldn’t talk. I just talked to him. Tears were in his eyes. His buddies were behind him. What makes me angry is that none of the guys who got us into this war served in combat. People will say it’s a better world because Saddam Hussein is gone, and it probably is. But is it worth the treasure we’ve spent and the blood we’ve spilled?
Harvard graduates appear to be overrepresented in the comedy business. As an alumnus, can you account for the phenomenon?
A lot of the best and the brightest decided to write for The Simpsons instead of managing our Southeast Asia policy. It’s partly because of The Harvard Lampoon. I wasn’t part of the Lampoon; I was a math nerd, but I was in the so-called theater house at Harvard. I was able to do shows there, and I opened a cabaret or nightclub at Harvard where I did stand-up. Nixon was funny. Campus unrest was funny. Tom Davis stayed in my room at Harvard for a term. We started working together in high school, doing funny announcements in chapel assemblies at Blake, a private school in Minnesota. All the campus groups wanted us to do their announcements. Then we worked together for years and years.
Harvard to Saturday Night Live–good career move?
Tom and I were performing at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles. We were approached by an agent who asked if we were interested in writing for TV. We were broke, so we said sure. We put together a portfolio for a show that we would have liked to see on TV but that didn’t exist at the time. Our being hired from the portfolio made me think this was going to be a very different show. It was the big time. I felt faint. First of all, they picked Tom and me. Maybe because of youthful arrogance or some understanding of what was going on, I thought the show would be a big hit. Then I started meeting people: Michael O'Donoghue, Chevy Chase and Gilda Radner. I had met John Belushi before. I was afraid of Lorne Michaels, who had given us this great opportunity. There was nothing fearsome about him; it was his position. He had hired us for only six weeks. Tom and I worked our butts off.
Did the charged atmosphere of the SNL writers’ room hone your appetite for debate?
It made me appreciate the benefits of a room where no one held back, where people could be extremely, bitingly, cruelly critical of each other but in a way that was also good-natured. The more you could savage someone else’s piece in a constructive way, the funnier it was. Everybody had to have a thick skin.
The mainstream media regularly reports the political jokes of Letterman, Leno and Stewart. Are too many people getting their news from latenight television?
Those who are likely to vote are getting their news from Jon Stewart. The Daily Show is different from traditional late-night talk shows. The others have a superficial quality. Still, if Leno or Letterman makes fun of you, you’re in trouble. With Clinton, it was first that he ate a lot and then that he was getting blow jobs. But The Daily Show is very sharp about the way political news is presented. Stewart has picked good people. Their politics are liberal, but they’re careful not to have a dog in the race. In the 15 years I was at SNL we were very careful not to have a dog in the race. When I left the show in 1995, I felt free to express my own political viewpoint.
Do you feel Saturday Night Live maintains your legacy of political humor?
I like “Weekend Update,” and I like Tina Fey. I’m disappointed in some of their political stuff. It’s more superficial. The cast and writers are not political junkies in the same way we were.
What was your involvement with “Weekend Update”?
I helped pick Dennis Miller. I wanted to do “Weekend Update” after he left. Kevin Nealon was chosen and did a good job. Finally Kevin left, and the Norm guy got it. I felt I’d earned it just by virtue of years of service to the show. I think the decision wasn’t fully Lorne’s. I’m not in a position to say what the case was. I was disappointed, and I left the show after that, in 1995. Norm Macdonald did a great job. I thought I’d be at SNL doing “Update” for several years, which ended up not happening, so I tried to develop a career in something else. The movie When a Man Loves a Woman helped my screenwriting career. The utter commercial failure of the Stuart Smalley movie hurt it. It gave me the strong feeling I’d never star in a movie again.
When a Man Loves a Woman was a serious film about addiction and recovery that you co-wrote. Was that a change of pace after years of writing for laughs?
It started out as a dramedy. What I thought was funniest about codependency was that a codependent acts out as much as a drug addict or an alcoholic. I figured the journey of the codependent realizing that he’s as sick as the alcoholic would be a great movie. It went through the dehumorizer.
Were you disappointed with that?
Yes and no. It was successful. I’m proud of the movie, and I’m told it’s shown as an instructive film by rehab counselors and therapists. They also show Stuart Saves His Family. Stuart Smalley was born as this character who at first blush seems like an idiot but who has a lot to teach through his vulnerability. It was a way for me to talk about recovery and 12-step programs. I started doing it on SNL. I’d gone into Al-Anon, which is for friends and family members of alcoholics. Tom will say that I thought he had a problem. We broke up over that. We’re good friends, and every once in a while he performs on my show. Again it was nutritional candy. My wet dream is that when Limbaugh was in rehab, he was made to watch Stuart Saves His Family with his wife.
We take it you have a great deal of affection for the Stuart character.
I love Stuart Smalley, and I love doing him. Occasionally he appears on the radio show. He is a caring nurturer but not a licensed therapist, which he is very careful to explain because it’s powerful stuff. Stuart is the one character I’ve wanted to do commercials with. He’s a perfect character to do commercials for frozen waffles.
Not long ago Tom Davis remarked that Al Franken wants to be president of the United States.
I don’t want to be president. He might have said the same about my wanting to play center field for the Yankees.
How serious are you about running for the Senate?
I won’t make a decision about that until 2007. After the Limbaugh book a lot of people told me I should run for office because I know a lot about politics, am fairly articulate, have been married once and am very goodlooking. I thought it would be funnier to write a book about my thinking that I should run for office. Why Not Me?, in which I run for president, is my funniest book. It’s fictional. It didn’t do particularly well, but every one of my failures has a cult following.
Assuming you do run for office, where will Republicans hit you hardest?
They’ll print my interruption from the beginning of this interview. “He slept with a Playmate.” Then it’ll be “Franken has no government experience. Franken was raised in Minnesota, but he spent most of his adulthood outside the state.” When I lived in New York I considered myself a Minnesotan and a New Yorker. Now I consider myself a Minnesotan.
You admit to having used cocaine during your SNL years.
Yes. When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible. But we know the president used cocaine, because he basically admitted it. If people were okay with Bush doing it, I’m not sure why what I did in my youth would matter. Also I’ve written two movies about addiction disease–more about alcoholism than chemical dependency–both of which are shown in rehab programs. I know a lot more about this area and have better ideas for what we should do about drugs than most political figures in this country. The way the drug war is being waged is ridiculous. There are people who have been in prison for way too long. We don’t prepare people to make a transition into society after prison so they can lead productive lives without going back to crime.
That sounds like a bite from a forthcoming stump speech.
It’s not. It’s simply talking. We talk about a lot of stuff on the show. We’ve talked about education and getting more pay for teachers who work in high-risk school districts. Often we have people on, and I have no idea what their political bent is. Anyone who listens to my show knows that’s what I do. I find it ironic that people who don’t listen to the show criticize it for being all Bush bashing.
Even before you established residence in Minnesota, you visited there often. Have you attempted to replicate Hillary Clinton’s New York State listening tour?
I would like to talk to her about it. I’ve traveled from Duluth to Moorhead and from Moorhead down to Rochester and over to Mankato and up to St. Cloud.
And no doubt you’ve versed yourself in local issues.
I would push for wild-rice labeling. That’s important, because the wild rice that’s marketed as wild rice isn’t real wild rice. Minnesota Indians had that right in a way, and they lost it. The labeling of wild rice is a political issue. That’s one of the reasons I’m looking at running for the Senate–because you can do lots of things like that. Franni and I have been sent wild rice. We haven’t cooked it yet.
If elected to the Senate, you know constituents will call Al Franken to help them solve problems.
It’s important. You make sure your office knows that veterans’ benefits and Social Security checks are priorities. Then there’s facilitating some problem someone may have with the government . My cousin Adlai–he’s named for Adlai Stevenson–runs a fabric company in Kansas City. He had all these raw goods from China sitting in a Brooklyn warehouse, and Customs wouldn’t release them. He didn’t know where to get help. He called me, and I called the office of a senator friend of mine.
Will fellow Democrats hit the campaign trail with you? We’re sure you have some IOUs to collect from your own political appearances.
I do. I’ve been there for Democratic candidates around the country–for the Wisconsin party and for Senator Russ Feingold, for Senator Kent Conrad in North Dakota. I’ve appeared for a lot of progressive groups in the Midwest.
Has Senator Clinton given you any advice about your future plans?
She promised me we’d sit down sometime.
Do you suppose we might ever see Senator Clinton appear on the campaign trail alongside a comic turned political candidate?
Yeah, she’ll come out to Minnesota for me. She totally gets it. She’s got a great, goofy sense of humor.