He’s Al That
The Veteran Television Writer Turned Political Commentator And Radio Host May Make a Run For Office
When Al Franken talks about the upcoming election season, he says he believes “we” have a chance of doing well. Asked about that “we,” he says, “The Democratic Party. I’m a Democrat,” with the kind of matter-of-factness that he might use to tell you his blood type. After a long career as a writer and performer on Saturday Night Live, Franken has added author (most recently 2005’s The Truth [With Jokes] ), radio host (Air America’s The O’Franken Factor), and possible political candidate to his expanding list of hyphenates. Now he is the subject of Al Franken: God Spoke, a new movie by esteemed documentarians Chris Hegedus and Nick Doob, which follows Franken as he promotes his books, spars with conservative pundits Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, and helps get the liberal Air America radio network off the ground. In addition, the movie watches unblinking as he rallies the troops prior to the 2004 election and then faces the morning-after reality of a second Bush term, which eventually leads to a galvanizing personal decision. Franken took time out of his busy schedule to call from the road in Vermont and chat about Ann Coulter, funny Republicans, and Stuart Smalley Saves His Family.
City Paper: I was told that you had recently seen the film yourself for the first time. How was that?
Al Franken: I liked it. I liked it a lot. I had seen a rough cut, and I thought what they had done since the rough cut, I liked. I had actually nothing to do with it other than letting them follow me. I didn’t get in front of the Avid [editing machine] and say, “No, cut to there.” I had no time, and I just figured that they’re real good filmmakers, so let them do it.
CP: What was their pitch to you about doing this in the first place?
AF: Basically that they were trying to look at the 2004 election in a certain way. They had actually been starting to follow Al Sharpton, and I guess that hit a dead end because, I don’t know, some of Sharpton’s people got territorial about it, something like that. I learned that part of the process really is to go in not knowing at all what a film’s going to be, and just sort of starting to follow someone and see what it grows into.
CP: And so once the Al Sharpton film grew into nothing, they looked around for another guy named Al and decided on you?
AF: That’s it, yeah.
CP: How long did they follow you around?
AF: It was probably a little over a year and a half. It wasn’t constant—it was sporadic. They would ask me what’s going on, and I’d tell them what was going on. And they missed a couple of things because they also had to do a couple of other things.
CP: Did they miss anything good?
AF: I wish they’d gotten our radio show on the road, because we did a lot of touring during the lead-up to the 2004 election. But they had too much stuff as it was. And again, I had nothing to do with picking what was in and what was out. I felt very comfortable in their hands, and didn’t feel like I had to spend a lot of time worrying about when they were covering me and when they weren’t. I’ve got plenty of things to worry about, let’s not worry about this (laughs).
CP: Is Ann Coulter as relentlessly unpleasant in person as she comes off in the film?
AF: Yes. (laughs bitterly) I just debated her again about three weeks ago, and she’s worse. She’s far worse. After this [debate] you see in the movie, my wife came up to me after I got off the stage and said, “The poor thing.” And then after this last one, she said, “OK, that’s it”—you know, don’t debate her again. I had an offer to do one [next] October, and I just said, “Nah, I don’t want to do this.” I don’t want to be identified with her in any way.
CP: A lot of the Republicans you encounter in the film seem very wary of you. Do you have Republican politicians ever come up and tell you they’re big fans of Saturday Night Live and seem to mean it?
AF: Oh yeah. I think even in that scene I talk about how sometimes celebrity trumps political differences. Like Rick Santorum has come up to me and told me he’s a big fan, or Ralph Reed. Ralph Reed was a big Stuart Smalley fan, or at least he says he was—you can’t trust a word the man says.
CP: Do you run into a lot of funny Republicans?
AF: Alan Simpson—I like Alan Simpson, and he can be funny. Who else? McCain can be funny. Bush is like the third-funniest guy in a fraternity. He’s like a guy who enjoys humor, I think, which I give some credit for. He was asked what his favorite movie was when he was running in 2000, and he said Austin Powers, which is ridiculous to have as your favorite movie, but at least it says to me that he values comedy. I like that in a person. But I saw Journeys With George, and that’s what I got from him—he’s kind of the third-funniest guy in the fraternity.
CP: I wrote about that documentary and was struck by how likable and personable he seemed.
AF: I actually think [director Alexandra Pelosi] used a lot of restraint in the editing of that. You know that thing he does [in the movie] where he sticks his face into the camera, kind of a one-trick pony joke? I asked Alexandra, “How many times did he do that?” And she said, “You wouldn’t believe how many times he did that.”
CP: So why is it that Democrats get all the good celebrities—comedians, actors, great musicians—and the Republicans get, like, Lee Greenwood and Ron Silver?
AF: I think it’s because people in entertainment tend to see the world in a broader perspective than people who do other kinds of jobs. When you’re a songwriter, when you’re a satirist or a movie director or writer or movie star, I think you really have to try to see the world from other people’s point of view. And I think when you do that it tends to make you understand a little bit more the complexities of life, and the human side of life. You can see how there are times in people’s lives when they might need help, or when civil liberties are important.
CP: You seem to have wound up in a unique spot, careerwise—as you sing in the film, you’re a little bit show-biz, a little bit journalism, and then also maybe a little bit politician as well. Is this something you envisioned for yourself?
AF: Not really. I wrote on Saturday Night Live for 15 seasons, and I did write a lot of political stuff on the show, along with all the other stupid, silly things. And when we did the political stuff, we never felt it was the job of the show to take a side. I wrote with guys who were conservative—Jim Downie, in particular—and we enjoyed writing with each other and kept each other honest. But when I left the show, I felt like, OK, I can now write my own political point of view.
I left in ’95, and that’s when the Gingrich revolution was ascendant, so I wrote Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot. And the reaction was different than any of the other kind of stuff I had done, because people were going, “Thank you. Thank you for finally sticking up for us. Somebody had to say it, and thank you for doing it.” And that was the beginning of this.
CP: And now you’re considering a run for U.S. Senate in Minnesota. Where is that at this point?
AF: I’m still part of this process of deciding and figuring out what is more important for me to do and how viable I am and all that kind of stuff. I’m sort of in the middle of that and won’t decide until after the election.
CP: A lot of political candidates have succeeded in recent years by being pleasant and sort of unknowable, or hard to pin down. You, on the other hand, have all of these hours of TV programming and books and radio time and now this film that lets people see you being silly and mad and upset and arguing your positions. Do you think that could actually be a disadvantage as a candidate?
AF: Nah. I think it has advantages. I think people want [candidates] who care and are passionate, and I think they want people who they feel that when they say something they mean it, and when they mean something they say it. So I feel there are advantages to it. (pauses) I think there advantages and disadvantages, but I just want to take advantage of the advantages. (laughs)
CP: Do you ever think about going back to regular TV and movie stuff like you’ve done in the past?
AF: I really don’t have time for it.
CP: I ask that as a fan of Stuart Smalley Saves His Family, although I don’t know if there are a lot of us out there.
AF: Well, thank you. A lot of people come up to me when I do things . . . it has a certain following. I’m proud of the movie, and, you know, they show it in rehabs.
AF: Yeah, they show it in the family program often. There’s a day or two when the family comes to the rehab and they discuss the family dynamic of dependency, and often they show the movie to the family and the alcoholic or drug addict and then discuss it—what’s the family dynamic? ’Cause that’s what the subtext of the movie is. Actually, my fantasy is that Rush Limbaugh had to watch that movie in rehab with his wife.
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