Al Franken's career is sprinkled with success and failure in many different media: As a performer and writer on Saturday Night Live, he was there for both its '70s peak and its mid-'90s nadir. Lateline was canceled after two brief runs on NBC, with the network and audiences never getting behind Franken's work as buffoonish TV news reporter Al Freundlich. The Harold Ramis-directed 1995 film Stuart Saves His Family, based on Franken's SNL character Stuart Smalley, was a commercial bomb. As an author, however, Franken enjoyed remarkable success with the best-selling Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot And Other Observations and Why Not Me? The Inside Story Of The Making And Unmaking Of The Franken Presidency. The latter details the strategy—and laments the horrific consequences—of his run for president, though he's ironically spent recent weeks stumping for Al Gore. Franken recently took time out from a campaign stop to talk to The Onion A.V. Club about the presidential candidates, his TV and movie career, and the perils of political satire.
The Onion: Are you going non-stop from here until the end of the election, just traveling?
Al Franken: Yeah, pretty much. But it's not what you might think. It's not mainly campaigning; it's mainly doing speeches on the corporate lecture circuit.
O: Just paid hackery?
AF: Oh, I don't look at it as hackery. I look at it as bringing a little humor and light to people who pay me a lot of money.
O: Why should people vote for Al Gore?
AF: Because if they don't, we'll have George W. Bush as president. And if we have George W. Bush as president, we're going to go back to the kind of policies we had when his father and Ronald Reagan were president. And Gore, I believe, is the most experienced and qualified candidate. He's ready to be president. I think there's something to be said for having eight years there, I think Clinton has been a good president, and I think Gore's priorities are in the right place.
O: In Why Not Me?, you detail a Franken campaign for the presidency. Have you pondered a real-life, Pat Paulsen-style run?
AF: I didn't want to do that. I wanted to let the book stand on its own. I deliberately did not… First of all, it would have been a lot of work, but beyond that, I actually take the electoral process seriously, and I didn't want to be a turd in the punchbowl and go up to New Hampshire and make stupid speeches and try to do exactly what Paulsen did. Besides, he's done it. I actually went up to New Hampshire for Gore. A lot of people thought I'd be a Bradley supporter, and I like Bradley in some respects, but I think what got me was the heart fibrillation: He had four the month before the Iowa caucuses, and he said it was that he'd been drinking cream soda and didn't realize cream soda had caffeine. I took him at his word that it wasn't the stress of the campaign, but I want a president who can handle a cream soda.
O: Do you find a contradiction between being relatively politically mainstream and being a cutting-edge satirist?
AF: It's an interesting question. [Pauses.] Not really. For example, when I did Saturday Night Live, I used to write a lot of the political stuff, and [writer-performer] Jim Downey and I did stuff that I thought was cutting-edge in a certain kind of way. Jim and I are very different politically, and we balanced each other out when we were at the show. But I thought we did sort of cutting-edge satire without it having a political point of view. That, I thought, was the responsibility of the show. You're representing 75 creative people, if you talk about everybody who works on that show, and the job of the show was not to have a political stance. When I wrote the Rush book, I felt I could give my own point of view. I thought the book was fairly cutting-edge in certain ways. But I don't have to be a Trotsky type to do cutting-edge satire.
O: There's also a school of thought that comedy needs to not take sides, that it needs to be a grenade exploding in every direction. Do you think satire loses any of its edge when it takes sides? You've done it both ways.
AF: No. It depends on what you mean by taking sides. Michael Moore, for example, isn't even-handed. When the Rush book came out, I'd be on the radio and someone would call up and complain because the book wasn't evenhanded. "You're a satirist; you're supposed to be evenhanded." And I'd say, "Really? I didn't know that. I'm sorry."
O: You're not a licensed satirist.
AF: I don't know. I guess some people believe that, but I don't know who they are. The ones that called in who believed it weren't very bright, I can tell you that. Which leads me to believe that… No. That would be a no, you don't have to be evenhanded.
O: Why Not Me? detailed your can't-miss strategy for bringing down Al Gore. Do you find it ironic that you're campaigning for him?
AF: Um, no.
O: The book was sort of built around how you were going to beat him.
AF: I figured the only way, if I did this fictitious run… For those of you reading this who didn't read my book, in my book, I run for president in the year 2000 on the platform of getting rid of ATM fees. The only way to win as a Democrat would be to get past Al Gore, so the whole point of the book was… After the Rush book, people asked, "Who's going to be the asshole in your next book?" I decided it should be me. Also, after the Rush book, a lot of people said, "Al, you should run for office. You're fairly knowledgeable about politics. You're fairly articulate, you've been married only once, you're very, very good-looking, and you should run for office." That sort of gave me the idea, because I think I'd be a terrible… You notice that, in the book, I become depressed immediately upon taking office. That really is, I think, what would happen to me. I'd get depressed right away, just from the pressure. I'd be crushed by the pressure.
O: Do you feel like a pioneer in that you chose Joe Lieberman as your running mate a year and a half before Al Gore did?
AF: Some people credit me with a tremendous amount of prescience. If you think about it, part of the premise of the book is that I have an entirely Jewish cabinet, so if you're going to pick a Jew to be your running mate, Lieberman was sort of the only choice. I guess [California senator] Dianne Feinstein, but I picked Lieberman to balance the ticket, because I'm a Reform Jew.
O: And he's Orthodox.
AF: That was the thinking.
O: How do you feel about Ralph Nader?
AF: Ralph Nader is a hero. I know Ralph, and I call him up occasionally. He's helped me out on a couple of occasions when I've given speeches to corporations where he'd have a good… He'd give me some good information. He has a very good sense of humor, and I think a vote for him is a vote for Bush.
O: When Ralph Nader gives you material for your speeches at corporate functions, is it like, "Indonesian children make…"
AF: No, it's more like… For example, the last time Ralph helped me on something, I was speaking to an association of corporate secretaries. Corporate secretaries are not the secretaries that executives chase around the desk: They're responsible for the governance of corporations, and one of their responsibilities is the minutes. So I thought of an idea for "ill-advised minutes." Just a history of ill-advised minutes, things like, "Philip Morris, 1973: Motion to target children passed unanimously. Good discussion followed on hiding medical data." Ralph said, "Remember the Dalcon Shield." And I went, "Okay, Dalcon Shield, right." He actually helped me with some of the jokes. I like him. Again, he's a hero of mine, but I just believe that one of the two guys is gonna win the race, and Dubya is not… I'm not going to leave the country. If he wins, I wish him the best. He'd be our president, all that shit, but I think he'd be a disaster.
O: You're friends with [conservative California ex-congressman] Bob Dornan and G. Gordon Liddy. Does your opposition to everything they stand for as human beings affect your friendship?
AF: A little. [Laughs.]
O: Do you hang out and talk?
AF: No, not so much. Dornan…
O: I mean, Dornan is nuts.
AF: Dornan is crazy. He's absolutely nuts. I find him endlessly entertaining, and I wouldn't call him a friend so much as an acquaintance I'm friendly with. With G—I'm so close to him I call him G—he and I are friends. I consider him a friend. With Dornan, when I did my sitcom Lateline, I had the idea that he was going to be Freundlich's neighbor. I wanted, every once in a while, to have Dornan coming over, like, [in gruff, pitch-perfect Dornan voice] "I need a cup of sugar. Goddamn Clinton. I believe Paula Corbin Jones." And then just have him rant for three minutes and leave. It'd be one of those sitcom moments, like, "Here comes Bob Dornan." [Imitates Dornan again.] "God bless those guys in the 148th Airborne. I tell you, we need a commander-in-chief who's not draft-dodger-in-chief." You know. But then he lost, so it didn't make any sense for him to be in Washington. I go to Christian Coalition events every once in a while, and Dornan has this tradition: At the Road To Victory celebrations they have every September in Washington, he's the last speaker late Friday night, and then he goes into a small ballroom and holds court until 3 or 4 in the morning, and I attend. So I've done things where I correct him and he goes, "Al's right." He once said something critical of the John Birch Society, so someone in the group said, "How come you said something critical about the John Birch Society?" He explained why, but then he started singing their praises. So I said, "Uh, Bob, they're really anti-Semitic." He goes, "Al's right. That's terrible."
O: Why didn't Lateline succeed?
AF: A number of reasons. One of the main reasons was that NBC never really got behind it. It was under two different regimes, and neither regime liked it. I don't know. We probably made some… Most sitcoms take time to grow, and we made some early mistakes. But I thought we did some really funny shows, and I sort of blame the mentality where they're so tuned into the ratings that they don't really pay much attention to… They're not impresarios anymore. They're just sort of technocrats, where they go, "Okay, it went up or it went down this many share points, and then in the quarter-hour it did this." Never mind that they put us following Dateline—you don't put a new sitcom after an hour-long show—and teamed us with [the opera-themed Nathan Lane sitcom] Encore! Encore!, which was sending a nice signal to everybody.
O: Who didn't love Encore! Encore!?
AF: Oh, Nathan Lane.
O: As I recall, the critics' knock on Lateline was that it didn't go far enough, that it didn't go for the jugular, that it was a little Inside The Beltway. Did you ever feel that it needed to go for the throat?
AF: I think that was Caryn James' critique. I must have read hundreds of different things. Caryn James, from The New York Times, said that about… Our first episode must have aired more than a year after we [shot it], and she criticized us for not being current enough. I kind of wondered if she understood how people do TV. She had just moved over from film, so maybe she didn't understand it. I think she said it wasn't cutting-edge enough because we weren't tackling the issue of that day in the pilot we had made. I don't think it was too Inside The Beltway. I think it was about the characters and, yeah, some stuff was, you know, like on ER: There's a lot of jargon that people don't understand, and it's not inside; it's just specific. I felt like we were specific. I have people all the time coming up to me who really loved the show…" [Laughs.] Well, that happens. When Warren Littlefield was still at NBC, and we had done five shows in the first season, we had a meeting with him to argue that we should be picked up for more shows. So I said to him, "Warren, everyone who comes up to me says they love the show." And I was just trying to be a dumb star who thinks… He got the joke. Anyone who's on TV is like, "People really love it."
O: Why are The Ladies Man and Superstar commercially successful, while Stuart Saves His Family was not?
AF: Yeah, I'm not sure those… They're more successful than Stuart, there's no doubt about that. We came out at the worst possible time.
O: Were you after It's Pat?
AF: I can't even remember. [It was. —ed.] I think we were after It's Pat, but It's Pat was not one of the Saturday Night Live Studio movies. It was perceived as such, and we came out as Saturday Night Live was under attack. It was 1995, we were at a nadir critically, and we were taking all kinds of shit. Billy Madison had just come out, which was perceived as a Saturday Night Live movie, and Tommy Boy had just come out, which was perceived as a Saturday Night Live movie. Both have a lot of funny things in them, but they're not at all the kind of movie Stuart Saves His Family was. Stuart was an actual Harold Ramis movie: It was about something. It was not what people expected. One reviewer wrote, "Watching Stuart Saves His Family head into the malls of America is like watching a rookie soldier walk into an ambush. The people who are going to see the movie won't like it, and the people who would like it aren't going to go to see it." There was a lot of truth to that. I think part of what was true about that was that I don't think Paramount was equipped intellectually to market it. For example, Mr. Holland's Opus was something Disney marketed, and they marketed very carefully: The first thing they did was show it to music teachers and get some buzz going in the community. If they had treated our thing a little differently, shown it to people at rehab clinics and people who were professionals in that field, I think that might have helped a little bit. Instead, I met with them and said, "Look, this has to be marketed very differently from the other SNL films," and they just put together a trailer and a campaign that didn't send the right signal. Those are some of the reasons. I'm very proud of the movie.
O: It seems to have a life on video and cable. It still circulates quite a bit.
AF: It does, and if I'm out in a crowd, not a day goes by that someone doesn't tell me the movie meant a lot to them: "Oh, that was my family," or something like that. I really like the film, and Harold says he gets that all the time. "Everyone who comes up to me really likes it."
O: What would you say has been the strangest incident of fallout from the Rush Limbaugh book? His fans, obviously, have approached you.
AF: There was much less weirdness coming out of doing a book like that than I thought there would be. When I did the book tour, I was actually afraid that I would be sucker-punched by someone in line who was coming to have the book signed—that they'd break my jaw or my eye socket, or something. In the beginning, I was very nervous in the few cities I did, so I'd look down the line of people and try to pick out people I thought looked kind of weird. Whenever that really weird person would come, they were always my biggest fan. So there was none of that. Occasionally, I'd meet someone who was a little hostile. I've gotten some hostile e-mail and a couple of slightly threatening e-mails, but nothing much.
O: What are your next projects?
AF: I have a screenplay that I just wrote with Pat Proft, who is one of the guys behind Hot Shots! and The Naked Gun. We're hoping that becomes a movie. Then I'm looking for a trophy wife, which is my next big project.
O: You're going to trade up?
AF: Yeah. Don't tell my wife.