Al Franken is finally getting serious. That's not exactly breaking news to the legions of fans who listen to his three-hour show each weekday on the liberal talk radio network Air America. But now more than ever, the 54-year-old comedian, author, screenwriter and political satirist is blurring the lines between observer and activist.
For the benefit of those who may have been living among the Amish since the Nixon administration, Franken first gained national prominence for his writing and comedy sketches on NBC's "Saturday Night Live." He was associated with SNL for 15 years, often appearing with his comedic partner, Tom Davis, or in character as the nebbishy, self-help guru Stuart Smalley.
Over the years, Franken has appeared on numerous news programs and talk shows, from "The O'Reilly Factor" to "Politically Incorrect." He's also written or co-written several movies, including The Coneheads (1983) and Stuart Saves His Family (1995). In 1998, he starred as the narcissistic news anchor, Al Freundlich, in the short-lived NBC sitcom, "LateLine" -- a spoof of the ABC news program, "Nightline."
More recently, Franken has written five books, including the number one New York Times bestsellers Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, and Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations. He's not only the sole syndicated talk-show host to have visited Iraq; Franken claims he's the only comedian to ever perform at the Abu Ghraib prison. Talk about a tough crowd.
Celebrated on the Left for his skewering assaults on such pundits as Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly, Franken recently cranked up his political activism a notch by launching Midwest Values PAC, a 527 advocacy group. Its goal, he says, is to provide financial support to candidates at the federal, state and local levels who reflect his progressive values and those of his political mentor and fellow Minnesotan, the late Senator Paul Wellstone.
Franken is now touring the country promoting his PAC, while also working on the soon-to-be-released paperback edition of The Truth (With Jokes), which came out in hardcover last year. This week, he's in Vermont to raise money for U.S. Rep. Bernie Sanders. Proceeds from his Flynn Center performance will help fund Sanders' campaign for a U.S. Senate seat.
Franken is also the subject of the newly released documentary, titled Al Franken: God Spoke, now making the rounds at film festivals across the country. The movie follows Franken from his court victory over Fox News -- the network sued him over use of the words "fair and balanced" in his book title -- through the 2004 Republican National Convention, where Franken broadcast his Air America show. As Franken says in the film regarding right-wing pundits, "What I do is jujitsu. They say something ridiculous, and I subject them to scorn and ridicule. That's my job."
Seven Days spoke with Franken last week by phone from his office in Minneapolis.
SEVEN DAYS: So, is this the greatest time ever to be a political commentator and satirist?
AL FRANKEN: It's pretty good. But it's sad. Every day, you're focused on awfulness. A big focus of all this is the war, whether it's the leaks or the phone taps, the calls for Rumsfeld's resignation, this lie or that lie. It all comes back to the rationale for war.
SD: You've been to Iraq several times to perform USO shows. What was the most surprising thing you encountered there?
AF: I've been to Iraq three times on USO tours. The first time I went over was two-and-a-half years ago. The most shocking thing you see is how young our troops are. These kids are my kids' age, and that's maybe one of the most disconcerting things. The other is that Iraq is kind of a beautiful country. Much of the southern part is just desert, but there are some other beautiful, beautiful areas, and you can see where this could be a prosperous country. Compared to Afghanistan, it is a prosperous country.
SD: Do you alter your show for the troops?
AF: Oh, yeah. I've done six USO tours. I started back in '99 going to Bosnia and Kosovo and stuff. The purpose of the USO tour is to raise morale, so you don't do "Your-president-is-lying-to-you-and-you're-dying-for-no-reason" kind of jokes. It really is a very, very different thing I do there. I do a little satire, but it's Bob Hope kind of stuff. Like, "So far, I've had five MREs [meals ready-to-eat] and none of them seem to have an exit strategy." Your job is to cheer them up. It isn't to bum them out.
SD: What kind of feedback do you get from the soldiers?
AF: I get only good feedback. People ask me this a lot because I'm pretty anti-Bush. When you're over there, they know that you're over there because you care. And they're very appreciative, no matter what their politics are. I've had guys come up to me and go, "I don't agree with anything you say politically, but I want to thank you for coming over."
SD: What advice would Stuart Smalley give to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld? I don't think his people like him much anymore.
AF: Um, yeah, well. [laughs] Ooh, boy! [In character] Just, sometimes it's time to let go and let God. And maybe this is that time.
SD: Have you met any members of the Bush administration?
AF: No. Well, wait. Have I? Who have I met? I met Bush once, but only briefly, in Iowa.
SD: Did he know who you were?
AF: Yeah. This was before he was president, but it was when he was running. I also met [former Commerce Secretary] Don Evans. He was very nice. [laughs] I met [Defense Policy Board Chairman] Richard Perle, too. He's coming on our show May 11. I'm very excited about that. I think he's doing a TV show where he only interviews people who disagree with him.
SD: When you meet people like Perle or Evans, whose views are diametrically opposed to your own, are you able to chit-chat with them off-camera, or are they still hard-asses?
AF: It depends who they are. For example, if I've written about somebody and done a good job on them, sometimes they don't like me. But, I can see someone like Wolfowitz and have a conversation with him, even though I've been kind of mean to him. Who else? If I saw Rush [Limbaugh], you know what? He doesn't seem like he's as big a dick as [Bill] O'Reilly. I can even talk to [Sean] Hannity if I have to. I bump into him every once in a while because one of the guys who I've been on the USO tour with is [singer] Darryl Worley, who Hannity glommed onto. He's the one who wrote "Have You Forgotten." I don't like Hannity at all, but he shows up at these Worley events and pretends he's a good guy.
SD: I understand you used to wrestle in high school. If you could wrestle anyone in Washington, D.C., right now -- Democrat or Republican -- who would it be?
AF: Does Sharon Stone live there? No, Halle Berry! She lives in Washington. I'd wrestle her.
SD: You're coming to Vermont for a fundraiser for Bernie Sanders. You know he's not in favor of impeaching Bush. He doesn't think Cheney would be much of an improvement.
AF: I don't either.
SD: What are your thoughts on impeachment? You've come out in favor of it.
AF: No, I haven't. Have I? Well, in my book I talk about it, but only after having done the proper investigations. That's in the book, The Truth (With Jokes). But that's under those specific circumstances.
SD: Are you a fan of Howard Dean and the job he's done as head of the Democratic National Committee?
AF: I think he's doing good. I think he's trying to go to a 50-state strategy, which I like.
SD: Do you think he's been aggressive enough and brought the party together enough to take back one of the two houses of Congress?
AF: Yeah. I think we're getting a lot of help from Bush, but I think we're in a position to do that.
SD: You've been asked a lot about your political aspirations. Any chance you'll announce your intentions for office right here and now, in Vermont's only alternative newsweekly?
SD: Let's say you do decide to run for U.S. Senate. What would be your first priorities?
AF: I think I'd try to get universal health care for kids, from day one.
SD: Are you doing anything else as far as political exploration?
AF: Well, I started a PAC, the Midwest Values PAC. And we've been raising money to help other candidates, progressive organizations, [and set up] this website, www.midwestvaluespac.org, where we're signing people up so they can communicate with one another and get trained. And then, I'm raising money to prove I can raise money.
SD: I've read that many young people say they get much of their daily news from people like you, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher. Is it rewarding for you that humor now plays such a prominent role in American politics, or is there something disturbing about it?
AF: No, I think it's good. All the people you talked about are contributing to understanding. I think that people often feel that humor crystallizes things in a way that other things don't. So, that's why I've always done satire. What I really am is a satirist and a comedian. I think satire can be a great way of shining light on something and making people understand what's going on.
SD: Do you think humor and satire are the most effective ways of getting people to change their political point of view, or does ridiculing the opposition just alienate them to your positions?
AF: It depends how you do it. There are some people that you're never going to reach anyway, so you might as well forget them.
SD: Do you ever miss doing nonpolitical comedy? Or is this your calling right now?
AF: I do sometimes, but actually, that's one of the things I like about doing the USO tour. We really do try to take the politics out of it.
SD: Does it ever get frustrating for you that, regardless of all the books and articles that come out about the Bush administration, it doesn't seem to make much a difference?
AF: I think that it is making a difference. It's like the air seeping out of a tire. I don't know how much lower they can go before their base absolutely abandons them. I think that mainly, that's beginning to happen. Certainly, Democrats and Independents don't trust this administration anymore, and a certain percentage of Republicans are very dubious now. So, I think it is actually taking a toll on them. I think they've hit a certain floor.
The best thing that can happen for the Bush administration is the best thing that can happen for America, which is for stuff to start working out better in Iraq. I don't like Bush, and I blame him for so many things. But you just want something good to happen over there. A unity government to get together, the Iraqi military to show that they can accomplish things and that the security forces aren't just full of militias who are killing people left and right. But unless that happens, I don't see him going anywhere.
It was interesting with Gary Hart [on the show] today. Where basically, in his book, he says, if you tell people the truth and they buy into your policy, they'll support you. But if you don't and things start going badly, they won't. And I think that's what's really happened here. People know that they were not told the truth going into this war, about weapons of mass destruction, about how easy the war would be, about how much it would cost. The Bush people took a huge gamble and lost.
SD: Do you see the Democrats coming forward with positive alternatives?
AF: Well, I react a couple ways to that. One of which is, we haven't been left with very many alternatives. It's like Bush is saying, "Hey! I lied us in, I didn't send enough troops, I allowed looting, I disbanded the Iraqi military with their weapons, I tortured people, I didn't do the reconstruction, I gave corrupt contracts to people. I've taken us this far. Now it's your turn." Wait a minute! You've put us in this situation and now you're criticizing us for not having a plan? What plan? There is no plan!
From Al Franken's Midwest Values PAC Website, http://www.midwestvaluesPAC.org: An Evening with Ann Coulter at the University of Judaism, April 4, 2006:
Thank you. First of all, I know I join Ann [Coulter] in thanking the University of Judaism for hosting this event . . . And, I'd like to answer the question that I actually get asked the most when I do an event for a Jewish organization. Yes, I had enough to eat.
You know, in these kinds of debate forums, someone has to go first. It's always preferable to go second, because you can react to what's been said, giving you something of a tactical advantage. More importantly, it pretty much spares you the chore of writing out pre-prepared remarks.
Both Ann and I said we preferred going second, but I didn't insist on it, because I understood somebody had to go first. And being a liberal, I just wasn't tough-minded enough to insist on a coin toss.
So, I'll try to use my time to define the terms of the debate -- if you will. "Whence Judaism?"
No. I think we should talk about the Bush administration and the Republican Congress and what it has accomplished over the past five years. I'm talking, of course, about well over $2 trillion added to the national debt, the increase in poverty in our country and the added millions of Americans, including children, without health insurance. I'm talking about the sale of our democracy to corporate interests that pollute our water and our air. I'm talking about the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots in this country. And, I'm talking about the war in Iraq.
I'm talking about an increasingly corrupt, secretive, and incompetent federal government that rewards cronies, a Republican majority in Congress that's acted as a rubber stamp, that has performed virtually no oversight and which excludes the minority party from the legislative process in a way unprecedented in our recent history.
I also want to discuss with Ann the coarsening of dialogue in this country. I want to discuss values with Ann. Values like love, of family, of your fellow man, of country. Ann has said repeatedly that liberals hate America. I disagree . . .
George W. Bush famously said that Jesus was his favorite political philosopher. Frankly, I don't get it.
I'm Jewish. Thank you. I'm not an expert on the New Testament. But I know that if you cut out all the passages where Jesus talks about helping the poor, helping the least among us, if you literally took a pair of scissors and cut out all those passages, you'd have the perfect box to smuggle Rush Limbaugh's drugs in.
I don't understand when the Christian Right says that equal rights in marriage threatens marriage. I've been married 30 years, many of them happy. I don't think that if my wife and I were walking around in Boston, where we met, if we saw two men holding hands with wedding bands, I don't think I'd say, "Hey, that looks good. Y'know, honey, you don't like watching football on Sundays. Maybe I could marry a guy, watch football with him, and then if I wanted to have sex, I could come over and have sex with you."
I was just talking to Newt Gingrich the other day. And I said to him, "Don't you want for a gay couple what you had with your first wife? Don't you want that bond that comes with the pledge of fidelity that you had with your second wife? Don't you want what comes with that lifelong bond that you may or may not have with your third wife" -- I have no idea what's going on there.
You know, Bill O'Reilly always talks about his "traditional values" -- as opposed to "the far Left's secular humanist values." I didn't realize phone sex was a traditional value. I didn't think the phone had been around long enough. Maybe telegraph sex.