As political satirists go, Al Franken is in a league of his own. Five Emmy Awards reveal his sublime impact on “Saturday Night Live” as one of its original writers and later as a producer and performer. His books, including “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot” and “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right,” landed him atop best-seller lists in recent years and enabled him to produce and host a hit radio show, where he blends politics and humor.
When Franken sat down with the Forward on a recent afternoon, he was as insightful as he was funny, discussing politics, comedy and why Jews can’t get enough of both.
“Everyone likes comedy pretty much, but Jews really like comedy,” he said. “It’s just part of our culture in the same way that scholarship is.”
His contributions to the Jewish community are remarkable, even if they get less attention than his ongoing feuds with Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. His schedule is packed with helping nonprofit organizations devoted to Jewish causes. Last year, he headlined the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta’s campaign kick-off, hosted a Seeds of Peace annual Bid for Peace benefit in Manhattan, and still made time to speak at Temple Emanuel in Los Angeles. Jewish organizations are courting Franken left and right. Franken said that he likes Jewish audiences because he can discuss almost anything with them.
For Jews, Franken said, there is a connection between political activism and comedy. “Every temple has the rabbi who thinks he is a comedian,” he joked. He sees satire as a chance to integrate these two passions, comedy and politics, which Jews pursue notoriously with equal fervor.
Franken, 53, grew up in the “gentile section” of a Jewish suburb near Minneapolis. His parents were not observant: “There was not a tremendous amount of religious piety,” he recalled. They did, however, give him a sense of Jewish identity that he carries with him today. His wife, Franni, converted from Catholicism, and the Frankens’ children identify as Jewish.
As a child, Franken attended a Protestant private school that, he joked, began admitting Jews during the 1950s to raise its SAT scores. In high school, Franken did experience antisemitism, yet the way he dealt would portend his future endeavors: The senior lounge was sprayed with anti-Jewish graffiti, but rather than get angry or upset, Franken wrote an amusing retort and appeared in the school chapel to read it to his classmates — while sporting a Nazi armband. This shocking but clever tactic, he recalled, “cleared the air,” and showed him how humor could be used to defuse and challenge unfunny situations.
He was deeply affected by the political commitment shown by his father, Joe. A second-generation immigrant and printing salesman, Joe parted with the Republican Party in the 1960s when the Civil Rights Movement picked up speed. Being Jewish and knowing that his own people suffered through the Holocaust, Joe empathized with African-Americans and became a Democrat.
Franken’s father also instilled in his son a love of comedy. When Franken was growing up, his family “didn’t spend a lot of quality time together,” he said. “We never went horseback riding or rafting or skiing. We had very little quality time together but we had a lot of quantity time together watching TV. And that was my favorite time: watching comedians with Dad.”
His father “loved comedy,” enjoying everyone from Buddy Hackett to Johnny Carson to Dick Van Dyke. “I am a comedian because my dad liked comedy,” Franken said.
In high school, around the time of his chapel speech, Franken began writing and performing both sketch and stand-up comedy with Tom Davis, who remained his writing partner for 20 years. He continued to do comedy at Harvard University, most notably for the university’s satirical newspaper, The Harvard Lampoon. It was in college that Franken figured out he would be a professional comedian.
In the 1970s, he spent five years writing for a new NBC television show called “Saturday Night Live,” working with its initial and most revered cast. After varying degrees of nonsuccess on his own, Franken later returned to the show, helping to rejuvenate the format. He stayed for 10 more years.
During this second stint, he spent more time in front of the camera, launching his own performing career.
His best-known character was Stuart Smalley, a self-help/group therapy addict with low self-esteem who summed up the 1980s’ cultural obsession with psychobabble. Smalley was based on Franken’s real-life venture into Al-Anon, a 12- step program for friends and family members of alcoholics. In Franken’s case, the friend was his longtime writing partner, Tom Davis. The friendship and working relationship ended because of Davis’s addictions and, according to Davis, because Franken’s career was taking off more quickly.
As Stuart Smalley, Franken wrote the best-selling book “I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me,” and even made a film, “Stuart Saves His Family” — which tanked, as most “Saturday Night Live” character-driven films do.
Franken’s focus shifted from comedy to political satire as he grew older. His 1996 book, “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot,” camped out on The New York Times Best Seller List for 23 consecutive weeks and made Franken a household name across America. In 2003, “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them” made him a household name in China when Fox — whose cable news network’s slogan is “fair and balanced” — infamously sued him for copyright infringement. Both books were also sold as audio CDs, and both won Grammy Awards for Best Spoken Word Album.
Today he is one of the leading political talk show hosts on Air America, a successful radio network with a liberal bent; originally called “The O’Franken Factor” in teasing homage to right-wing talk show host Bill O’Reilly, “The Al Franken Show” runs three hours every afternoon.
Like O’Reilly, Franken doesn’t pull punches when it comes to criticizing his rivals. But he also doesn’t shy away from praising those whose work he admires. Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central “hosts the best political satire show on the air on TV,” Franken said, “in the tradition of Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, and these are people I looked up to as a kid.”
Evidently, hosting his own daily radio show, writing for “Saturday Night Live” on occasion and speaking across the country is not enough for Franken. He is now considering a run for the U.S. Senate — no kidding.
Although currently he is based in New York, Franken and his wife are looking at property in Minnesota. Franken was close to late Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone, and hopes to keep Wellstone’s idealistic vision strong there. Were he to run and win Minnesota’s Democratic nomination, his 2008 opponent would be first-term Republican Norm Coleman, who is also a New York Jew transplanted in Minnesota.
Franken isn’t afraid of battling the Republicans head-on. He already has worked out a strategy for defeating them: “continuing to reveal the truth about them.”