Al Franken has reason to smile these days. His second book, Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot (New York: Delacorte Press, 1996), shocked both Limbaugh and Franken by soaring to the top of bestseller lists. The book, a series of essays poking fun at Limbaugh and other like-minded conservatives, elegantly demonstrates just how effectively political satire can take the wind out of windbags.
Born in 1951, Franken grew up in Minnesota and performed stand-up in high school and college. In 1975, he landed a job at a fledgling comedy show called “Saturday Night Live.” Twenty years later, he left, having written some of the show’s most enduring material. (Who could forget the satellite dish-toting reporter on “Weekend Update,” or Stuart Smalley, the 12-step addict?) Then came the Comedy Central show “InDecision ’96,” in which he and conservative Arianna Huffington teamed up to provide an ironic take on politics. Franken’s newest venture is NBC’s “Lateline,” a wicked send-up of the TV news business. Franken co-writes the show — scheduled for midseason release — and stars as Al Freundlich, a well-meaning but slightly clueless reporter. It’s a role that helps explain Franken’s longevity: No matter how much he makes fun of others, he hasn’t forgotten how to laugh at himself.
Q: I hear you had an interesting time at the Christian Coalition’s “Road to Victory” conference.
A: I just returned from my second annual visit. Last year, Ralph Reed came up to me and said, “Hi, Al, I’m a big fan.” And I said, “Well, can I talk to you for five minutes sometime?” He said, “Sure, talk to Mike Russell, my press guy.”
Of course, the next week I called, and they didn’t return my call. I called like four times and then gave up. I didn’t think it was very Christian of them, not to call back. Just downright un-Christian.
You know, Reed always talks about how Joycelyn Elders wanted to legalize drugs. And Elders didn’t call for the legalization of drugs; she said that legalizing drugs would probably reduce crime, but it might lead to more use, so it has to be studied.
But Ralph did it again this year, right before he introduced Bill Bennett. Bennett’s whole speech was on character and how the most important part of character is telling the truth [laughs].
So after the speech, I go up to Bennett, and I say, “Bill!” — because I know him — “You were drug czar. You know darn well that Joycelyn Elders never called for the legalization of drugs. Reed keeps saying it, and he’s lying, and he knows he’s lying. Why do you hold him to a lower standard?” And he says, “I’m holding him to the same standard,” and he turns away.
So then I’m walking along with the group, because somebody’s interviewing me, and I get shoved really hard by some Christian who’s angry at me. That had never happened to me at any political event — ever. The first time for any kind of violence was at the Christian Coalition conference. A number of people apologized — 95 percent of the people there were very nice.
Q: I’m surprised you don’t get harassed more, especially by dittoheads.
A: I think both sides tend to demonize each other and get this idea in their heads about what the other side is like. There was a protest across the street — gay and lesbian and pro-choice groups. So we break for lunch — us Christians break for lunch — and I go across the street, and someone says, “Al, will you speak at the protest?” And I say, “Sure.”
One guy is yelling “Nazis!” at the Christians across the street. And I go up to this guy, and I say, “Don’t do that — Nazis are, like, really bad. That’s, like, really trivializing them.”
Then I get introduced to the protesters. I get up on a ladder, and I say, “OK, this is going to be a little ironic, but I’m going to ask you to be more tolerant. I’ve been with the people across the street for the last day and a half, and most of them are very nice. Now, if you’re gay, you have a real beef with them. I’m totally with you. But you can’t answer intolerance with intolerance.”
Q: Given your book, it’s a little strange to hear you say that.
A: Well, there was a bit of irony in my book.
Q: I know you hate questions that take comedy too seriously. But am I right to read a moral agenda into the book?
A: Oh, yeah. Rush does a disservice to everybody. Anybody who deliberately propagandizes with lies should be held up to scorn and ridicule. That’s different than calling them Nazis.
Q: You’ve had a good year. The book’s sold 500,000 copies. What happened?
A: At first it was the title. It just flew off the shelves. They printed 100,000 copies, and they were out within weeks.
Q: It seems to work better than criticizing Rush Limbaugh in an outraged tone.
A: Well, it has to be entertaining. But a lot of people are just happy that it became cool to criticize the nutcase right [laughs]. Here I start the interview by saying we have to be civil to each other, and now look what I’m saying.
But I think if you read the book carefully, there’s sort of a moral center. It’s incredibly mean to these guys — but it’s totally fair.
Q: Sometimes it’s hard for liberals to be funny, because they’re so earnest.
A: I hadn’t really thought of that until this book. I thought of most comedians as liberal, most people in show business as liberal. But when the book came out, people said to me, “Thank God, finally, a funny liberal.” And I’m going, “Liberals aren’t funny? I thought we were. Oh, I guess we aren’t.”
Q: There’s a response book, Al Franken is a Bucktoothed Moron. Is it funny?
A: Yeah. [Smiles] I’m tempted to say no.
Q: Is it true that you have buckteeth?
A: My official response to the book is that my orthodontist is suing [laughs].
Q: Did you ever hear from Rush?
A: About a month before the book came out, I had the publisher send Rush a copy with a cover letter that said, “Dear Rush, Al thinks it would help sales if you mentioned the book on your show.” But neither he nor any of his pre-screened callers ever mentioned the book on the show, as far as I know.
Q: The book is pretty easy on Clinton.
A: [Laughs] Well, my comic conceit has been that I’m the chauffeur — that what I really want is to be invited to the White House for dinner.
Q: There are enough people going after the Clintons?
A: Yeah. I felt that my task in the book was really to go after the right the way the right goes after the Clintons. I have this chapter making fun of the various conspiracy theories about Vince Foster. Like the time Rush said that Foster was murdered in an apartment owned by Hillary Clinton [laughs, shakes head]. What a dick.
Q: Were you nervous about leaving “Saturday Night Live”?
A: Yeah. Because the show was very comfortable — financially.
Q: And it was an outlet for your writing.
A: The outlet wasn’t what it used to be. I felt a little less in sync with the show — which could have been as much my fault as the show’s fault. But I was still very happy if I wrote something good, and it went on, and it was really funny. So losing that forum was scary.
Q: You wrote some of Chevy Chase’s old Gerald Ford skits. It’s remarkable how people remember Ford through Chase’s portrayal.
A: I was one of the writers who worked on Chevy’s Ford skits. Chevy portrayed him as this sort of fatuous stumblebum. And arguably Gerald Ford was the best athlete who was ever in the White House.
Q: So how come the portrayal?
A: He tripped once coming off Air Force One. He fell once, and that was it. [laughs] And, you know, he was a center on the University of Michigan football team — an All-American center.
Q: Do you ever do any stand-up now?
A: Well, I do the lecture circuit. It’s essentially doing stand-up, but it’s a little bit more interesting. Plus, the audience isn’t drunk.
What’s really strange about it is a lot of these groups are business organizations that are predominantly Republican. And they pay me a lot of money. So I speak free to the Democrats and charge the Republicans. I’ve been hired by groups that say, “We’re 95 percent Republican, so we want Al Franken, and we want him to shit all over the Republicans.” And I basically do, and they think it’s hilarious. It’s sort of the way it should be.
Q: Tell me about “Lateline.”
A: Paramount asked me to do a backstage-at-“Nightline”-type of show. And I said, Gee, that’s a good idea. We talked about it, and I started going down to “Nightline,” and I spent quite a bit of time backstage there.
Q: After reading the pilot, I can’t believe “Nightline” let you hang out there.
A: Well, it isn’t “Nightline.” It’s really just any network news show.
Q: Are any politicians funny?
A: Bob Dole used to be really funny. Barney Frank can be kind of funny. Bob Kerrey has a good sense of humor.
Q: Is Bill Clinton funny?
A: He’s got a good sense of humor. I wouldn’t say that he is funny — I’ve seen him be funny. I think he delivers his jokes well.
Q: Any other funny presidents?
A: You know, Lincoln was funny. I don’t think FDR was very funny. But Lincoln was funny. Lincoln was really funny. But I think you should get elected first, and then show that you’re funny.