The Gospel According to Reverend Al
Satirist Al Franken sharpens his political ax.
January 27, 2005
With the possible exceptions of Michael Moore and Hillary Clinton, no liberal is more despised by conservatives than Al Franken. His volatile public spat with Bill O’Reilly after Franken called him a liar for claiming that “Inside Edition,” where O’Reilly had been an anchor, had won a Peabody Award, led to a hilarious battle of insults between the two on C-SPAN in 2003. O’Reilly had actually won a Polk award but claims merely to have mixed up the names. Franken refused to let him off the hook, however. To this day, O’Reilly refuses to so much as utter Franken’s name, much less have him as a guest either on his radio or Fox television program. Franken was also sued by Fox News for using the phrase “fair and balanced” in the title of his book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. The suit was eventually thrown out.
Franken’s publicist suggested a five-minute interview, but Franken, who had just finished his Air America political radio program minutes earlier, said he had nothing urgent that afternoon. He graciously and enthusiastically chatted for half an hour. When he laughs, he often sounds like one of the Tappet Brothers (Tom and Ray Magliozzi), who host “Car Talk” on NPR. Franken will appear at the Alys Stephens Center’s Jemison Concert Hall on Saturday, February 12, at 8 p.m.
B&W: I read a quote from Mort Sahl where he said “Comedy has changed. It isn’t funny anymore.” Do you agree?
Franken: No (laughs). Some comedy isn’t funny. But some comedy is. That’s something that will never change (laughs).
B&W: We have to go to our computers to listen to Air America in Birmingham.
Franken: Or you can get it on Sirius or XM. But I understand; I’d love to have it down in Birmingham.
B&W: Is that an example of perhaps how culturally backwards the South is?
Franken: (Laughing) No, we’re not in places in the North (laughs). We have 45 stations; I mean, we’re adding stations all the time. We’re just adding Detroit, which is pretty far north, as our scientists tell us . . . I’d love to be in Birmingham. Birmingham is a town I’ve been talking about to people at Air America for a while. Obviously they go after the largest markets first, and so that’s the priority. But I kind of like the idea of being in Birmingham.
B&W: Anything in particular about Birmingham that attracts you?
Franken: Well, I don’t know. It seems like the most progressive town in Alabama . . .
B&W: That’s not saying a whole lot.
Franken: Well, maybe Huntsville, too. I’d rather be in Birmingham than Anniston. It’s bigger. But I’d love to be in Anniston!
B&W: I’m curious about Clear Channel’s addition of Air America in the San Diego market. When they did that, they changed the call letters of the station there to KLSD.
Franken: Yeah, and it was like “Liberal San Diego” is what they tell us. It wasn’t like (does a stoner Tommy Chong-like voice), “Hey man, we want LSD (laughs).” So I heard that, and my heart sank. I don’t why they did that. I guess it’s memorable. I think in Austin we may be on KOKE, which I’m not thrilled with either.
B&W: Tell me about the recent USO tour.
Franken: It was the second year in a row that I did a USO tour to Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan. And, basically, I spent most of my time with rednecks. You know, Mark Wills, the country star, and Darryl Worley, and Bradshaw, the wrestler. And I liked them enormously. . . . All of us on that tour, we deliberately did the same tour [together] the next year.
B&W: Were the soldiers fairly receptive to your USO performances?
Franken: People ask me that all the time, and I’ve done five USO tours—and, of course, I think more and more recently I’ve been known more for my politics—never once have I had a soldier say anything other than, “Our politics are totally different, but thanks for coming over.” And that makes a lot of sense. If you’ve done these tours, you know that they so appreciate not just the entertainers but anybody coming over.
B&W: Do you still respect Colin Powell even though he supported the Iraq invasion?
Franken: Yeah, I still have respect for Colin Powell, I do. I believe that the day he testified before the U.N. was the low point of his career . . . I don’t think it’s just having been to Iraq [on a USO tour], but I did come back kind of angry, because we do have magnificent soldiers. I went to some hospitals in Iraq and talked to guys who were grievously wounded. Very, very, very young—my kid’s age. And it tears me up, because I think that we went to war under false pretenses. And then not only that, we prosecuted the war in an incredibly incompetent way that was due to hubris and, worse than that, laziness. I think that Powell does the right thing, famously quoted in the Woodward book, which is, “If you break it, you own it.” You know, the Pottery Barn rule. Which, by the way, isn’t the Pottery Barn rule. We immediately at Air America were the first ones to break this story: It’s not the Pottery Barn rule because you can accidently break something in a Pottery Barn, and you don’t pay for it. To me that meant that if you’re the president and your secretary of state says, “If you break it, you own it,” you should know that already, but your job is to understand what that means. And there was planning done by the state department called The Future of Iraq Project, and all this is very, very well detailed in James Fallows’ article “Blind Into Baghdad” in the January/February 2004 Atlantic Monthly. And there was planning done by the CIA and planning done by the Army War College, which is a 1,500-page document which has been amazingly prescient. And among the things they said were don’t allow looting, for example; get the electricity up as fast as possible; get the water up as fast as possible; don’t let the military disband; send in a couple of hundred thousand troops. All these things that we didn’t do that we should have done that we should have known about that was there. The planning that was done. When people say this war was badly planned, it wasn’t badly planned, it’s just that the planning was ignored. And it was ignored by people having ideological reasons to ignore it . . . I think that intellectual sloth is a vice, I really do. It’s a vice if you’re the president of the United States. It’s not a vice if you’re Randy Moss [Minnesota Vikings wide receiver]. I mean, Randy should study the plays, and watch the film, and know his routes. But after that he can kick back and play video games, I don’t care. But if you’re the president of the United States, intellectual sloth is a vice. And I believe that the man has a history of that. I think that he’s a smart man in many ways, but he didn’t do the job he was supposed to do. And because of that we have young men who wouldn’t have been dying.
B&W: What prompted you to focus more on politics than satire?
Franken: I did “Saturday Night Live” for 15 seasons, and during those years I wrote a lot of the political material on the show with other people, including Jim Downey, who is pretty conservative. He and I wrote a lot of stuff together. And neither of us ever felt that it was the job of the show to have a political ax to grind. First of all, we kept each other honest, in a way. And really just didn’t see it as appropriate to have, you know, like he didn’t write a piece that was real conservative and I’d write a piece that was real liberal. We didn’t feel like that was what the show was about. We felt that there were so many other creative people on the show that “Saturday Night Live” had a certain role to play. And the role was to be politically neutral and make fun of everybody, which is what we did. So when I finally left the show in 1995 I had a deal to write a political book, and I felt like that was the first time I really had the opportunity to express my own political views, and that was Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations. Now, before I did “Saturday Night Live,” Tom Davis and I worked as a team since, like, the ’60s when we were in high school together. We did political stuff that did express our politics, but when we went to “Saturday Night Live” we didn’t feel that was our job.
B&W: Whatever happened to Tom Davis?
Franken: Well, Tom has actually been doing our radio show quite frequently. We write these bits. He and I are huge Bob and Ray fans, so we do a lot of Bob and Ray-esque pieces.
B&W: I love that story you told David Letterman about taking your son to see Bambi.
Franken: Yeah, I had gone through this long, elaborate thing to cushion that moment [when it's learned that Bambi's mother gets killed]. And Joe [Franken's son] was five, and so that moment happens, and you know, she gets killed off-camera, off-screen. And he says, “What happened to Bambi’s mom?” And I said, “Well, Bambi’s mom has been shot by the hunters, and she’s gone, she’s dead. But don’t worry, it’s just a movie, and it’s not going to happen to your mom, and Bambi’s going to be OK because Bambi’s daddy’s going to take care of him.” And he liked the movie so much that we came back the next week. And there was a little girl in front of us, like about a five-year-old girl, who at the same point in the movie asked her mom, “Where’s Bambi’s mommy?” And Joe said to her, “She’s dead. (laughs).”
B&W: Are there any conservative pundits that you respect or like?
Franken: Yeah, I’m interested in what Bill Kristol has to say. With all these people, I obviously have differences with, but he’s very smart and has interesting things to say. And George Will—less and less—but I used to really be a big fan of his. Sorta growing out of that, for some reason (laughs). David Brooks is someone, I like his stuff every once in a while, and hate it. There are guys that I don’t ever like what they write. Andrew Ferguson I find good.
B&W: Do you give better phone sex than Bill O’Reilly?
Franken: No! He beats me . . . hands down.
B&W: If you had your wife’s approval, would you rather have phone sex with Ann Coulter, Peggy Noonan, or Katherine Harris?
Franken: Wow . . . wow . . . wow (laughs). You know, that’s almost unanswerable. Hmmm . . . Ann Coulter, Peggy Noonan, or Katherine Harris. It’s a real toss-up. Any one of them would be great (laughs). An embarrassment of riches (laughs).
B&W: Have you got any good Andy Kaufman stories?
Franken: You know what? Andy was hilarious. And what he did was groundbreaking and strange and great. But he was, uhh, what you saw was what you got. He wasn’t that different off camera, at least to me. He was just sorta strange. And when I heard they were doing Man on the Moon, I went like, boy, is there something about Andy that I don’t know to make a movie about this? And I went to the movie and I said, “No there wasn’t.” I didn’t think that was Milos Forman’s best movie, and I thought that Jim Carrey did a great job in the movie, but I don’t think that was a particularly compelling movie. But Andy was brilliant. There’s a documentary on the wrestling thing. I thought that was hilarious. You know the thing about him reading The Great Gatsby [Kaufman claimed to have read the book to an audience one night]? He didn’t (laughs). Maybe he [really] did after he told me he did. Once he sat down and told me he had read The Great Gatsby to an audience and then I found out that he hadn’t from his manager. And I was going like, why did he tell me that? And usually with comedians you get some kind of balance. But with Andy, you didn’t. I never got close to Andy.
B&W: Are there any sacred cows that you refuse to touch satirically?
Franken: You know what, there are no sacred cows, it’s just how you do it. I can easily be offended by a comedian who doesn’t handle something in the right way. And then someone can do an AIDS joke that’s handled in the right way.
B&W: Any examples of comedians that have offended you?
Franken: Uummm. No, usually they are just lousy comedians who don’t understand . . . I wasn’t offended by Andrew Dice Clay. I’m not offended by Howard Stern. They do different things than I do. I got a little offended by [Don] Imus at the radio and TV correspondents dinner on the behalf of other people. And then again, it’s because I just thought he wasn’t doing it right. But there are other times that I like Imus. But sure, I get offended a lot of times by banality, and a very, very lame sitcom will offend me to my core (laughs) . . . You see, I have a theory in my comedy that Downey and I always had in the political stuff we wrote, which I think was somewhat sophisticated. We always had the sorta credo to reward people . . . to write a piece so that people who knew a lot about what we were doing would really like it—would feel especially rewarded for knowing extra stuff. But people who didn’t know that much about it wouldn’t be punished for not knowing. Whereas a lot of comedy that I see does the opposite—it punishes you for knowing things, like humans don’t behave this way. Very often the comedy that offends me is like a sitcom that has people behaving in a way that they don’t behave. Then rewarding you for being an idiot. The jokes about politics that are just so base and stupid and have nothing to do with anything. They’ll offend me. And I’ll be offended by comedy that’s overly precious. It’s like asking a musician what music does he like . . . There’s more aesthetic things that are offensive to me than probably to the normal consumer of comedy.
B&W: What can we expect from your lecture on February 12?
Franken: I don’t know. Is it a lecture (laughs)? It’ll probably be a combination of comedy, politics . . . I like to do a funny show; it’s like what I’ve been doing lately. It goes in and out of being funny and being serious . . . And then we’ll be doing that phone sex thing with Peggy Noonan, Ann Coulter, or Katherine Harris (laughs). And hopefully, hopefully, all three (laughs). &