Al Franken, late of "Saturday Night Live," joined the ranks of bestselling authors last week when his unexpectedly popular and predictably hilarious work of political satire, "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations," hit number four on the New York Times Bestseller List. Franken's book lampoons the full range of conservative punditry and politics, taking the piss out of everyone from Pat Buchanan to George Will. But it is Limbaugh, media ringmaster of the Republican Revolution, who gets the biggest noogies. Franken, who spent the bulk of last summer at the unenviable task of listening to Limbaugh's show "three hours a day, five days a week," probes the facts behind the expansive radio personality's outrageous accusations, sometimes marshalling statistical research and sometimes relying on data of a more anecdotal nature. Responding to Limbaugh's roundhouse charge that feminists ("feminazis") believe that all heterosexual sex is rape, Franken offers the following: "I know a lot of
women, almost all of whom consider themselves feminist, and I know only one
who actually holds this belief. And we've been married nearly 20 years."
Limbaugh himself has yet to acknowledge Franken's book, but the comedian has won grudging laughs from other conservative quarters. The most memorable reaction from the Right sprang from Franken's own fevered brain. In a preface to his book, Franken imagines a stinging review from Jeane Kirkpatrick in the New York Times:
"My goodness. If this is the kind of mindless tripe that passes for political satire these days, I fear for this nation!" Continuing the satire, in a "letter" to the Times Book Review editor, Franken questions the ethics of assigning a book review to a "former lover":
"As anyone who was familiar with the
Manhattan '80s club scene knows, Ms. Kirkpatrick and I endured a somewhat
stormy and all too public affair during her tenure as our country's U.N.
"I don't know what this horrible, horrible man is talking about," an outraged Kirkpatrick responds in the letters column. "During the time I served as ambassador to the United Nations, I was far too busy defending the people of America including (unfortunately) Mr. Franken, against the dark forces of Soviet Communism to cheat on my husband, let alone 'go clubbing' as Mr. Franken suggests."
We sat down for breakfast last week with Franken at Sara's Kitchen, a cozy eatery on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The comedian sized up the Republicans' eccentric presidential field, discussed Democratic entreaties he has received to become the liberals' Rush Limbaugh, and at one point morphed into Stuart Smalley, the enthusiastic 12-Step character he developed for "Saturday Night Live," who urged Limbaugh to get into a recovery program for overeaters.
I'm curious how you decided to use Rush Limbaugh as your theme. You could have
...Newt Gingrich is a big fat idiot. The reason I chose Limbaugh is first of all, when I made the decision, it was late '94, right before the Congressional elections. He was this huge power, he was being called the "Majority Maker." He was made an honorary
member of the Republicans' freshman class. They certainly deserve each other. And I
listened to him, I just listened to him. And I thought, how does this guy get
away with this? This guy can't be allowed to get away with this. Someone's
got to do something's that funny. Someone's got to do something in his face.
That's why I did so much research, very thorough -- I had a very good research assistant, Jeff Rodke. We let Limbaugh speak for himself. The better you
nail him, the more fun it is.
People have asked me, "How could you stand listening to Limbaugh? It must be really irritating." The most irritating thing about it was how boring it was. Apart from being offensive, it's the same show everyday.
If you were playing Stuart Smalley, what would you say about Limbaugh?
(Switching into character) Well, see, actually I'm not interested in politics that much, although one of my heroes is Mahatma Gandhi. Although a woman in my overeaters anonymous group said he had an eating disorder, so I don't know. But anyway, Rush is clearly someone who needs to get into recovery, he needs an OA meeting.
Do you think his obesity is a symptom of a deeper problem, or is that his
(Still Stuart) Oh no, it's obviously how his disease manifests itself, any kind of substance dependency is very deep, issues of self esteem, you can just tell that he's
a really insecure and vulnerable person -- and I love him. You know, sometimes I listen to him on the radio, and he's very judgmental, he's a very angry person, and I just want to remind him that anytime you have a finger pointing at someone else, there's three pointing back at you.
So do you have much hope, Stuart, for Rush's recovery?
Well, you know, you have to be realistic too. But there are
miracles, and you know, wouldn't that be something, to walk into a meeting and
there he is: "Hello, I'm Rush L., and I'm an overeater.' Wouldn't that be
just something. I would hug him.
Thanks, Stuart. Back to Al: how would you evaluate this year's crop of Republican presidential hopefuls?
One thing I've noticed: Steve Forbes when he speaks almost never blinks. He has this weird stare while he's speaking, he's very programmed. It's amazing that Forbes is getting this far. I mean, the flat tax guy
won't release his own tax form. I hope the guy gets nominated. It would be
He was asked in the Iowa debate, "How
much would you save with the flat tax?" He sidestepped the question. But according to Fortune magazine he's worth $430 million; so if he's a
mildly competent investor he would make $43 million a year on interest, at 10%. And he would pay no taxes on that $43 million, because the flat tax would eliminate taxes on interest and capital gains. His flat tax would save millions for his siblings too.
So, come on Republicans, please, please nominate him. But I think they'll pick Dole.
Dole seems so darkly tragic, like a character out of "Moby Dick." What do you think of him?
In some ways, I have a lot of respect for him.
Richard Ben Cramer's book on the '88 presidential campaign ("What It Takes") is great on Dole. I remember reading about how he came home from the war in a body
cast on the train, and his sister telling his mother how they had to pick
cigarette butts off him, they used him as an ashtray. You get this sense of
how driven and how courageous he is, he almost died several times. Just the
fact that he has to actively hold that left hand in place, otherwise it flails out
and goes behind him. This is a constant thing he has to do. On the
other hand, as my wife said, "You'd think something like that, the human ash tray
thing, you'd think that'd make you very compassionate." And I said, "Or very
angry." And I think he's a lot of both.
He has done some stuff, certainly for disabled people. I think he's got more
heart than those other guys running, and he's certainly more realistic and less ideological.
I mean three of those guys -- Dornan, Keyes and Taylor -- could be certifiably crazy, you know what I mean? Bob Dornan and I once did the "Politically Incorrect" show together. Before we went on the air, he comes to the green room, starts spinning off this Vince Foster murder stuff, finally comes up to me, says he's a big Stuart Smalley fan. So as a result I talk to him every once in awhile. And he's totally
entertaining. I abhor his politics, and he knows it. I make no bones about it.
But he's actually very funny.
Is he able to laugh at himself?
Well, I told this joke at the White House Correspondents Dinner a while ago. I said having Al D'Amato leading an ethics
investigation is like getting Bob Dornan to head up a mental health
task force. So a few days later Dornan calls me up, and he tracks me down in some office in Hollywood. He says, "Al, I hear you did me in at the White House Correspondents Dinner."
"Well, I did tell a joke."
He says, "What was the joke?"
I tell him. There's this pause. Then he says, "Oh...that's okay."
Do you see yourself as part of a tradition of American
That was a big part of my job on "Saturday Night Live." It was
some of the best stuff we ever did. We won an Emmy for the political special we did in '92 right before the election. It included the best political stuff we'd
done for 17 or 18 years. It was one of the highest-rated specials of the
When I was a kid I really liked Dick Gregory, there was that kind of comedy
around. Good political stuff. Lenny Bruce, who I discovered in college after
he was gone. I really admired those guys. Godfrey Cambridge, remember him?
And the fact this book is doing so well....you know, when I
was a kid, if a book like this came out, I would have been excited. It feels
like this is connecting with people, and providing a lot of pleasure. I've been on
a couple of conservative talk shows, and they even like it. Open-minded conservatives admit that it's
pretty funny, sometimes grudgingly.
Has Limbaugh reacted to the book?
My publisher sent the book to him about two months ago, with a cover
letter I wrote that said, "Dear Rush: Al thinks it may help sales of the book
if you mention it on your show." I've been told he's been screening calls to
make sure nobody mentions the book on his show.
Have you ever met him?
No. In '92 I invited him to be on this Comedy Central
coverage I was doing of the conventions. He had some interesting conditions
he laid down before appearing. He had to appear on camera alone, and no one
could comment on what he had said. So I said no.
He's not good when he has to deal with other people. His format is called "unguested confrontation." That's something he perfected -- beating up on people who aren't there to defend themselves.
Think the Democrats need a Rush Limbaugh?
Well, I've been asked by some high-ranking Democrats to do that, but I don't
think I want to do it. Just too big a commitment. I consider myself foremost a
comedian. I'm a comedian who pays a lot of attention to politics, because I'm
a citizen. But I don't know if I want to commit my career to politics. It's
tempting now though, because this book is doing so well. People are saying,
this is it, you found your niche, this is what you should do. I'm not sure.
You know, I love Curly of the Three Stooges. I read
Mo's autobiography. He said that Curly had an axe, and when he was conducting
on Broadway he would conduct with the axe and his clothes would start falling
off. I would give a year of my life to be able to see that. See, I love that.
That's a gift to mankind. I just know it was brilliant.
But I don't want to do comedy stuff that doesn't have to do with anything, so I
have to figure out what I'll do next.