Al Franken on "Truth" and "Lies"
October 21, 2005Comments (0)
| E-mail this to a friend In 2005, Hillel Campus Report was one of the first publications to speak with then-comedian Al Franken about his political aspirations and his Jewish identity. Three years later, Franken ran for the U.S. Senate from Minnesota, his home state. On July 7, 2009, after a lengthy post-election process, Franken took his seat in the U.S. Senate. Here is another look at that 2005 Al Franken interview.
Franken's work has spanned all areas of the media, from stand-up comedy to TV, film, books and public speaking. Best known as one of the original writers and cast members of "Saturday Night Live," he is now a syndicated radio host on the Air America Radio network, where he hosts "The Al Franken Show" every afternoon. Author of the best-selling "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them," Franken has a new book, "The Truth (with Jokes)," that will be in stores on Oct. 25. Franken recently spoke with Hillel about his career, his own college days at Harvard and his future in the world of politics.
Tell us a little bit about Harvard in the '70s when you were there.
Well, I started in '69 and I was there until '73, and I was going through something of a transition at the time. We were in the middle of a war, so there was a lot of anti-war activity, so there was a lot of focus on that and a little less focus on academics, in some quarters, than maybe there should have been. It was kind of a, you know, the '60s. The end of the '60s, but the '60s, so there was pot, there was Frisbee, there were anti-war protesting, and then we also had to go to school. Every year, I studied less hard. My freshman year I actually was like a student, and then it just became clear to me, one, that I wasn't going to be a scientist, which is sort of what I thought I was going to be, and then it sort of also became clear I was going to be a comedian. So there was slightly less motivation to be a real serious student, although I did the reading and stuff like that. I also met my wife there in Boston my freshman year, so I had a girlfriend.
Were you involved in Jewish life?
There was a Hillel or something like that. I think it was Hillel. I wasn't really involved that much at all. My girlfriend was a fallen Catholic. I considered myself Jewish, I had a lot of Jewish friends, obviously. Every once in a while I go to somebody or some place for a seder or something like that. I think I went to think Hillel once.
Do you have any kids in college now?
Yeah, I have one who is a junior in college.
And what is your take on college life today, comparing his experience to yours?
Well, he works much, much harder than I did. Part of it is he's an engineering major [at Princeton]. So he actually works much, much harder than the other people at school who aren't engineering majors. My daughter is a graduate. She also went to Harvard. I also saw that they worked harder there than we did, were more serious. It's a very different time. There are still vestiges of the preppy legacy, but more so when I was there. It's more of a meritocracy now. It's also 50/50 women to men, and it was three-quarters men when I was there. It's also much more diverse racially, so there's quite a different feel. I probably wouldn't have gotten in today.
Then you went back to Harvard as a fellow a few years ago. What was it like to be on campus again after 30 years?
Well, it wasn't as much fun as I though it was going to be because I was working on my book ["Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them"], so I was really just buried in the book. It just took on a tremendous amount of work. And the reason why I had timed it the way I did was that my daughter was a second-semester senior, so I did get to see her and her roommates, and that was nice.
And how did she like having Dad on campus?
To some degree, she liked it. I was going back and forth between New York, and she would come to my apartment to throw parties.
What did you learn from TeamFranken, the group of students who helped you research your book?
I learned, first of all, a lot about using the Internet. They were amazing, using all wireless laptops. I learned from very, very committed kids, very smart, very passionate about doing good stuff. They were quite inspiring. And some were Jewish – two of them are actually working on the show now ["The Al Franken Show" on Air America Radio] and are Jewish.
We have this phrase we use at Hillel a lot called "meaningful Jewish experiences." Do you have a memory of your first meaningful Jewish experience?
Meaningful Jewish experiences to me are just watching Jewish comedians on TV with my dad. He liked Buddy Hackett, he liked Henny Youngman, he liked Jack Benny, he liked Phil Silvers. Really, it's a culturally Jewish thing, but I think the reason I became a comedian was watching so many comedians with my dad on TV and that he loved them. It's a cultural thing, but I really like that it's a Jewish thing.
What would you consider your most meaningful Jewish experience?
That really sort of is. I mean, I've been to Israel, and I think a meaningful Jewish experience to me is watching Buddy Hackett.
You started working on "Saturday Night Live" only a couple years after you graduated from college, right? How was it to go performing for college crowds to a national audience? Did you ever imagine that it would happen, or that it would happen so fast?
We had the arrogance of youth, you know, so I thought that things would happen, but not quite that fast, maybe. We performed not just for college audiences just because we happened to be in college. We performed at clubs, too. But I got the job on "SNL," and I looked around me at these people that got there the first day that everyone met. And I looked at the other writers that had been hired, and there were, I think, a couple cast members hired, like Gilda [Radner] and Danny [Aykroyd], and I looked around me and thought, "Oh, this is going to be a big hit." There wasn't anything else like it. Our generation hadn't been allowed to be on TV yet. I remember going to the control room in 8H, the studio, and just like, almost passing out. Almost fainting, because this was like the nerve center – from this control room it was going to go to millions of homes. I had this sort of very hallowed version of the networks in my mind. They were like universities or something – great institutions. I was just blown away by the power of it, I remember, at that moment. And then it was just a thrill, you know, to write a joke that millions of people saw and heard. It was just like, "Oh my God, I can't believe it."
And now you've done so much – writing, performing, producing. Do you define yourself in one of those categories? Do you see yourself mainly as a writer, as a performer, as a satirist?
It's all the same thing in an odd way. I write and perform, I conceive the stuff, I try to make sure that it gets done properly. And I'm obviously a radio host now, so that's mainly my focus.
So how do you make a decision when you have all of these opportunities? How do you decide "maybe I'll do radio now" or "now's the time to write another book?"
Well, the radio I did because in writing "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them," the first thing I did is debunk the myth of the liberal media. And in doing that, I sort of realized in doing research on that how many people got their news from talk radio and how dominated and monolithic was the right wing. I sort of felt for years that someone has to push back and take them on, and no one was doing it, so I got to do it.
So how's it been going in the past 18 months that you've been on the air?
We had a shock right at the beginning when the guy who first ran Air America sort of led everyone to believe there was more financing than there was. He led us to believe that we had three years of capital to go through before we had to make a profit, which is what new businesses usually have to do. We didn't have three years, we had three weeks. So after three weeks we lost Los Angeles, we lost Chicago. It was very dicey there. Basically, we barely hung on. Now it's much better, but it slowed things down. It was hard, obviously, to get affiliates to our network if they thought the network wasn't going to be around another day. But now we have 70 affiliates, about 63 percent of the country.
What do you like about doing radio compared to working on TV or in film or stand-up? What do you enjoy about working in this medium?
I really like the medium of sound. You obviously don't have to go from camera blocking to art direction and wardrobe, although we do televise the show, but it's really a televised version of a radio show. Also, I'm a huge "Bob & Ray" fan, radio comics from the '50s and the '60s. They were hilarious, and I've just been a big fan of theirs. And I like being able to yammer about my mind. And one thing I like about this job is that I learn a lot. Every night I have my reading and preparation, and I learn a lot of stuff.
So tell us about the new book.
It's called "The Truth (with Jokes)," and I didn't want it to be one with those long subtitles. Those all look silly now. It's basically divided into three sections. The first is "The Science of Evil," which is about Bush's reelection and how he did it, through fear, smear and queers. The next part is just sort of what's happening now, though I obviously wrote it months ago, but when I was writing the books there were still a lot of Americans who felt the president was competent. And it goes into the cronyism, it goes into the [Terry] Schiavo case and Social Security. There are actually three chapters about the war, especially the cronyism there, how awful this Congress is in so many different ways, how corrupt [Rep. Tom] DeLay is. The cronyism of the war and the war profiteering, which Harry Truman called treason. And then the last part is called is "The Resurrection of Hope," and it's in the form of a letter to my grandchildren written 10 years from now. It tells about the people who stood up during this dark period.
I just saw an article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that you were considering going back to Minnesota to help [FBI whistleblower] Coleen Rowley run from Congress. What is it about her and her candidacy that would cause you to make such a big move?
I'm not going back to Minnesota for Coleen Rowley. I grew up in Minnesota and I'm an empty-nester now, basically, so we're going to move back there. And Coleen I like a lot. She was a very brave and very professional whistleblower.
And what about your own political plans?
I'm going to try to help candidates in 2006 for state, local and federal offices. Also, try to build a progressive infrastructure. It's there, but I'm going to help foster it.