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Playboy Interview - Al Franken
  • February 20, 2006 : 02:02
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Playboy: 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?

Franken: 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.

Playboy: Care to dream on about your version of a "morning in America" for liberals?

Franken: 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.

Playboy: 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?

Franken: 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.

Playboy: Republicans will certainly do their best to derail the Franken scenario.

Franken: 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.

Playboy: Why did you write Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot? Were you thinking of getting into politics then?

Franken: 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.

Playboy: 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?

Franken: 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.

Playboy: 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.

Franken: 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.

Playboy: 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.

Franken: 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?

Playboy: Harvard graduates appear to be overrepresented in the comedy business. As an alumnus, can you account for the phenomenon?

Franken: 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.

Playboy: Harvard to Saturday Night Live--good career move?

Franken: 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.

Playboy: Did the charged atmosphere of the SNL writers' room hone your appetite for debate?

Franken: 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.

Playboy: The mainstream media regularly reports the political jokes of Letterman, Leno and Stewart. Are too many people getting their news from latenight television?

Franken: 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.

Playboy: Do you feel Saturday Night Live maintains your legacy of political humor?

Franken: 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.

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