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."
Playboy: 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?
Franken: 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.
Playboy: Your jokes are occasionally misunderstood, aren't they?
Franken: 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.
Playboy: How about the Al Franken Millennium?
Franken: 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.
Playboy: Would you say that Katrina marked some sort of turning point in the Bush administration?
Franken: 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.
Playboy: You've certainly railed against Karl Rove, calling him a treasonous snake.
Franken: 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.
Playboy: 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?
Franken: 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.
Playboy: Was Rush Limbaugh responsible for the growth of talk radio?
Franken: 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.
Playboy: Political talk radio tends to fill the airwaves with indignation.
Franken: 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.
Playboy: 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?
Franken: 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.
Playboy: Yet you don't advocate a quick withdrawal from Iraq.
Franken: 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.