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All in the family — An interview with Tom Smothers

All in the family

An interview with Tom Smothers

February 24, 2005

In 1959 Tom and Dick Smothers began as a singing duo before evolving into one of the most enduring comedic teams of all time. “Mom always liked you best” was Tom’s most often repeated charge in the long-running, put-on feud with brother Dick. Their first national television appearance was on Jack Paar’s show in 1961. In 1967, CBS decided to give the Smothers Brothers a shot at the “kamikaze hour,” the 9 p.m. time slot opposite NBC’s “Bonanza.” Nine shows had gone down in flames attempting to break “Bonanza’s” seemingly insurmountable hold on television ratings. CBS hoped that “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” would appeal to a younger audience, but Tom and Dick assumed that they would fail as others had. According to Maureen Muldaur’s documentary Smothered: The Censorship Struggles of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, the team had nothing to lose, but the brothers hoped to get at least half a season out of the deal and then “go fishing in Mexico” the rest of the year.

If Tom Smothers was going down, he was going down throwing his best punches. He demanded that the network give him complete creative control. The result was an hour of political satire that caught network executives and the nation off-guard. The reactionary youth movement of the 1960s had been defined by hippies, Black Panthers, and other insurgent characters, so no one expected a pair of short-haired, clean-shaven brothers to take on the Vietnam War, racial integration, and other social issues of the day. The show reached number one in the ratings as CBS observed with horror the subversive monster it had unleashed. Frank Stanton, the president of the network, often watched the program with President Lyndon Johnson at the White House, which resulted in Monday morning messages to Tom and Dick to tone down the controversy. By the second season, CBS was censoring the show and eventually canceled it halfway through the third year because a script was supposedly turned in too late to be reviewed. The brothers later won a $30-million lawsuit against CBS for breach of contract.

The Smothers Brothers: Tom and Dick. (click for larger version)

In 1988, CBS invited the brothers to do a “Comedy Hour” reunion. The network requested that the pair be as cutting edge and controversial as they had been two decades earlier, but Tom and Dick refused to comply. They decided to stick to just being funny. The Smothers Brothers will appear with the Alabama Symphony on Thursday, March 3 at the BJCC Concert Hall. Tom Smothers even promised to perform his astonishing yo-yo tricks.

No one expected a pair of short-haired, clean-shaven brothers to take on the Vietnam War, racial integration, and other social issues of the day. When “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” reached number one in the ratings as CBS observed with horror the subversive monster it had unleashed.

B&W: I’m having trouble picturing the Smothers Brothers performing with a symphony.

Tom Smothers:
We do about eight or 10 symphonies a year, and we think they are the most fun of all the jobs we do. We do about 75 to 100 dates a year.

B&W: What makes the symphony dates so much fun?

Smothers: There’s something about the formality of a symphony. For a comedian, the easiest place to get a laugh without any effort is a schoolroom, courtroom, or a symphony hall (laughs). There’s something formal about it, and comedy kind of breaks that little formality. We always put monitors in back so that they [symphony members] can hear the dialogue and stuff—and I always turn around and look, and they are always laughing. They have the best time. It’s like having an audience behind us and an audience in front of us.

Are you and Dick the longest-running comedy team?

Smothers: We are the longest-lived comedy team in history. That form is very difficult to do. The kids today all do stand-up, you know . . . Being in a comedy team is like a marriage. It’s very complicated, and that’s why they don’t last very long, ’cause you get in each other’s face (laughs). Dicky and I had couples’ counseling about six years ago. Eighteen hours of these people. It cleared up a lot of stuff. [The therapist] said, “Stop treating each other like brothers and grow up, and treat each other like professionals.” Someone asked, “How do you guys get along?” Dicky said, “Well. It’s like an old marriage. A lot of fighting and no sex.”

B&W: I used to feel sorry for Dick because you were the one getting all the laughs. Did he ever want to be the funny guy?

Smothers: We’ve tried it before, but he’s very comfortable with being the straight man. In the early days, I got more attention than he did. The comic always did. It was 1978 or ’79, and we were watching Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and Martin and Lewis, and I realized the straight man does most of the talking. Bud Abbott is doing all the talking, and that’s where the balance came in. If the audience believes the straight man, they’ll believe the comic. In the early days of vaudeville, the straight man was paid more money because it was a skilled position. It was the most difficult one, because a good straight man can bring people out of the audience and up on the stage and get laughs off of them. So Dicky and I understand that now, so there’s no problem with who recognizes his place. He’s basically keeps the tempo; he’s the rhythm section for the comedy. And he’s really good. Dicky ranks up there with Bud Abbott and Dean Martin and Dan Rowan and George Burns. He’s really that good.

Were you two ever tempted to work as a more raunchy act?

Smothers: Never. We started in the era of working clean, so it was very easy to keep it going. And now it’s darn near a point of difference—there’s not that many comedians that work clean. We get the same laughs but even better, and don’t have to use the F-word. Offstage, when I’m not working, sometimes I say, “What the f**k’s going on here? Give me the f**king hammer. Who f**ked this up?” Because that’s the way I talk when I’ve had a couple of drinks. My wife goes, “Ooohhh.” I’ve got a nine-year old and an 11-year old. Occasionally I’ll let out a word. I’ve got a swear jar. It’s got about 150 bucks in it now.

We started in 1959, we were fired in 1969, so we had 10 years of unparalleled success. Everything we did was ripe. And then in the ’70s, we could hardly get a job after that. We were untouchable.

“The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” had an impressive list of writers (Mason Williams, Steve Martin, Rob Reiner, Bob Einstein, among others). I only knew Mason Williams for writing and performing the song “Classical Gas.”

Smothers: We [introduced] that song on the air. He’s also the one who wrote the Smothers Brothers theme. He was a major moral compass for me. We were roommates at the time we started the show. We were both single and we’ve got a television show, and Mason would read the script and he’d say, “That’s bullshit.” Then I’d go to the meeting and pretend it was all my idea. I’d go, “This doesn’t seem to work.” The whole thing was that we were trying to make some comedy that was at least relevant or had some factual background or something of interest or educational or something, so we tried to insert that kind of stuff into the “Comedy Hour.” Bob Einstein [comedian Albert Brooks' older brother, who is better known as comedic stuntman of sorts, Super Dave] was 21, Rob Reiner was 21. We had all these young writers. Dicky was 29, I was 30 during that time. It was a fun time; it made an impression. We started in 1959, we were fired in 1969, so we had 10 years of unparalleled success. Everything we did was ripe. And then in the ’70s, we called [those years] the dark ages (laughs). We could hardly get a job after that. We were untouchable. Very little eye contact in Hollywood. So we all moved away, and Dicky started a winery up in Sonoma, in northern California. He started racing cars and I did some theater. Then we started doing dinner theater, and then we ended up doing a Broadway show for about two years. And then we started working again in 1980 as The Smothers Brothers. It was like starting from scratch, but there was a residual respect that we got from that firing. We never wore out our welcome because we were on for so short a time. Then the winery started happening, so we’re in the food section (laughs). Then when we went to court with CBS, we were in the legal section. Then we would occasionally get another television show, so it was a pretty good career.

The show had an unusual mix of music. You’d have the Jefferson Airplane one week and Kate Smith the next.

Smothers: (Laughs) We had a rare opportunity to have one foot in the past. So we got the Jimmy Durantes and the Kate Smiths and Betty Davis. So we always had those rock groups and contemporary groups and classic old traditional stars, which was a great combination. We loved that. Music was our first thing. Dicky and I started off as musicians first, and the comedy just slowly edged its way in. And then when the Kingston Trio started working, folk music started happening. And I said, “Oh boy, this is really good stuff. Good stories.” So that’s when the comedy started happening, and Dicky started talking a little more and a little more, and pretty soon there was the comedy team.

Were you as shocked as everyone else when The Who played the “Comedy Hour” and Keith Moon got blown off his drum kit at the end of “My Generation”?

Smothers: (Laughing) It was a surprise to everybody. The union guy put the charge in, then Keith Moon went and put another charge in, and the first charge hadn’t gone off. There were three charges in that thing. So when that went off, man . . . Peter Townshend still can’t hear (laughs).

B&W: Was it prearranged when Townshend smashed your acoustic guitar?

Yeah, I knew he was going to do that. We bought a much less expensive guitar that looked like mine. His ears were ringing, and I was looking around to see if anybody was injured. He staggered over to me because he knew he was supposed to take my guitar (laughs). And it looks so real because I was distracted, I was so concerned. When it first happened, I thought Moon’s drum had exploded, but now I look back and it didn’t. There were limiters on the microphones or else it would have blown out all the mics and everything.”

The current FCC crackdown is focused on profanity, exposed breasts, and other things of a suggestive nature more so than the political comedy that got you and Dick fired by CBS. Do you see any parallels at all?

Smothers: During the time that we were on in 1968 and ’69, there was a Senator Pastori, who was a raving, crazy man about the terrible stuff that was going on in television back then (laughs). So when we were on, we couldn’t say the words “sex education,” we couldn’t use the word “pregnant.” All the censorship was set up, basically, to protect the people from bad words and sexual innuendos. We didn’t do that. We were talking politics. So on April 4, 1969, we were fired from our show. We were fired for our viewpoints on Vietnam. People would come up to us before this last FCC and Janet Jackson stuff happened, and ask, ‘Don’t you wish you were on television, because now you can say anything you want?’ There’s that illusion that sexual content and violence and scatological talk is freedom. But there was nothing being said except sophomoric focus on the crotch. People would say, ‘We’re free, we’re free!’ and I would say, ‘No, no. Political criticism and satire since that time has been relegated to the fringes of television, which is cable, “Saturday Night Live,” at 11 o’clock where the viewing audience is way, way down and [the show] doesn’t create a big issue.’ So things have gone backwards, I think . . . The thing that offends me the most is that Howard Stern has become the poster boy for First Amendment rights. What a crock. Of all the people to pick, a guy that just talks about lesbians and tits and ass and stuff, and that’s the free speech thing? What a contradiction of values (laughs). I was at one time a poster boy for First Amendment rights. I was chosen. I didn’t volunteer.

B&W: Were you and Dick constantly getting pressure from CBS to tone down the controversy on the show?

Smothers: Oh, yeah. It was constant. I didn’t even know I was saying anything important until they said, “You better stop.” It’s amazing. It’s been over 35 years since that show was on the air. It was only on for two and a half seasons, but it made a pretty big impression. Because it’s still a point of conversation. I look back on these old shows and I kind of cringe a little bit. We did some shows in ’88 and ’89 for CBS where we introduced the Yo-Yo Man and stuff, and that was some of the best work that Dicky and I have ever done, next to our albums. The performances on the original show were not up to snuff, because I was so busy producing and worrying about other stuff. Everything except Dicky and I.

B&W: What was the final straw that made CBS cancel the show?

Smothers: David Steinberg did a sermonette . . . But it would have been something else. Nixon had just gotten elected and wasn’t going to listen to The Smothers Brothers criticize Vietnam policy (laughs). We became a threat (laughs) . . . The truth is what you persuade other people to believe. I’m so depressed. (Speaking in a weary voice). People aren’t thinking clear. But I’m kind of a liberal progressive, so I’m always on the other point of view, and I haven’t changed. I just turned 68 two days ago on Groundhog Day. There’s a Chinese proverb that says, “Old age is anyone 20 years older than you.”

B&W: I’ve seen photographs of Richard Nixon at the Grand Ole Opry playing with a yo-yo, and he looked like he was pretty good. Would the Yo-Yo Man philosophy apply to Nixon?

Smothers: (laughs) Well, yeah . . . The philosophy is basically a perserverence. And the yo-yo, if you miss it, you just get right back on and you keep practicing. Your failures are what head you toward success. Around the World [a yo-yo trick] is like you go out every day and do stuff, and sometimes we fail and we have to try it again and never quit. It’s got a nice philosophy to it. The Yo-Yo Man does not talk, and Dick is kind of the play-by-play announcer. So with the yo yo, I don’t make every trick every time the first time sometimes. Dicky will say, “Oh, the Yo-Yo Man is out of his groove. Come on, Yo-Yo Man, concentrate. Don’t give up. Tom has made a lot of mistakes; he’s learning a lot. He’s working on his doctorate (laughs).”

B&W: Did you and Dick make Nixon’s enemies list?

Smothers: No, we were his first success. It was after that he said, “Hey, let’s make a list.” The plumbers were setting us up with drug busts and all kinds of stuff. It was dirty. I didn’t know what hardball was. It was right after we were fired. We were also doing a movie; it was called Another Nice Mess. This was 1970, and it was a movie with Rich Little and a guy named Herb Bolen, and we dressed them up to look exactly like Nixon and Agnew. But they talked and acted like Laurel and Hardy, and Nixon was always looking at Agnew and going (imitates Oliver Hardy), “That’s another nice mess you’ve gotten us into.” So out of the midst of that, I had a friend who was a former Marine and later worked at the CIA who called me and said, “Tom, I met a guy down at the federal building who asked me, ‘Do you know Tommy Smothers?’” And my friend said, “Yeah.” The guy then said, “I thought I’d tell you that if he’s a friend of yours, there’s a drug bust being set up for him. Tell him to have someone with him at all times, have his car sent to the car wash everyday.” So I got the word, and I started looking up all my friends and let them know that they better clean up their act. So I’m supposed to be on a plane coming up to San Francisco where I was living with my grandfather at the time. I missed the flight. I was busy doing some editing. At about nine o’clock, he called and said, “There’s a bunch of guys here, federal and state narcotics people going through the house.” That was an exciting time of my life. I hid out for a week. I had smoked some grass, but my house was clean as a whistle because I was warned in advance.

B&W: Would you like to have another TV show to take on the conservative establishment these days?

Smothers: It’s not the conservative establishment; it’s a question of fairness and common sense. When you look at stuff and kind of criticize things that don’t make sense, it doesn’t matter what side it comes from—left or right. The problem is that we’re at the age now where we’re age-discriminated against. We’re a little too old. They have MTV for the kids. When are they going to get a network for the adults so we can have some interesting and smart stuff? Then we’d be on!

B&W: I read that you have a lot of respect for Ralph Nader. Did you take issue with him when liberals complained that he drew electoral votes away from Gore?

Smothers: No. I happen to have more than respect for him. He’s one of the rarest people in the world. He never compromised standing up for the little people. His whole thing is standing up for the consumer. Where everybody jumped on him for supposedly throwing the election to Bush, that’s all bullshit. People ask, “Why would you vote for Nader? He’s not going to win.” I say, “Well, when you vote for a Republican or a Democrat, one of them’s not going to win either.” You vote for what you believe in. You never hear him yell, you never hear him talk dirty, you never hear him get angry with people. He keeps this real calm demeanor, and he makes absolute sense. I haven’t voted for a Republican or Democrat in 18 years. Both those parties are so corrupt now. It’s a joke. I mean, they’re all bought and paid for by corporations.

B&W: What’s it going to take to break the stronghold the two parties have on American politics?

Smothers: It’s going to take a revolution (laughs). I think the biggest problem is that since the media has become so consolidated . . . I think we should make an amendment to the Constitution, the First Amendment—freedom of speech—we should add “freedom of hearing.” Some smart things are being said, but we don’t get to hear them. They don’t come out through the microphone. So this country remains ignorant. You have to really get out there and dig to find the truth. I’m still pissed off. But it’s not in our show. Our show’s pretty darned middle-of-the-road. It’s a family show, and we make a few social comments in there that aren’t pointed enough, but people get it.

B&W: Lots of people are referring to the war in Iraq as another Vietnam.

Smothers: Well, it is! It is. What was the Vietnam war about? Well, we’re going to stop the domino thing. And over in someone else’s country, fighting for the hearts and minds. And we’re going the same way. There’s no exit strategy. Rumsfeld and McNamara are the same people. And they look alike, too! It’s amazing how collective memory just went away. You saw it coming from a mile away . . . God, you know when the Dixie Chicks said that thing about Bush? They disappeared. No stations would play them. People are scared to death. You can see this totalitarian thing, militarism. If anybody questions anything, it’s treason. We’ve gotta keep our sense of humor, because last time I lost it for about two years. I was just a dreadfully dull dude (laughs). Finally, I saw Jane Fonda on television one time and she was just . . . eyes all crossed and angry. I was watching her and I said, “Oh man, I’m starting to look like that. I better stop that. Find the joke again (laughs).” &

The Gospel According to Reverend Al

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.


Satirist Al Franken performs at the Alys Stephens Center on Saturday, February 12. (click for larger version)



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.

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.

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?

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). &