Al Franken

The political satirist scripts lines the Democrats could have used to win in 2000, muses on torture and orgasms -- and remains "concerned" about Rush Limbaugh.

By Douglas Cruickshank
Published April 20, 2002 7:19PM (EDT)

Political satirist and author Al Franken speaks in the flat, soothing tone of a veteran broadcaster. He also looks nerdy. This combination of voice and visage makes everything he says seem funny -- or serious, depending on your political persuasion. So, for example, when he comes out in favor of torture, as he did in a February speech at the National Press Club in Washington, not everybody gets the joke. And he was joking, he says. Mostly.

Of course, if by the time Franken made his torture joke, the audience was not prepared to laugh, it is hard to blame the messenger. There can't be many Americans left, and certainly not in the National Press Club, who aren't familiar with Franken's brand of humor -- a bent variation of straight-faced speechifying in which politicians, pundits and untouchable topics get tossed and gored like runners on the streets of Pamplona.

From his start in 1975 on "Saturday Night Live" as one of the show's original writers, Franken has distinguished himself as a funny guy with enough political savvy and command of the facts to humble even his most bellicose targets: Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh among them. As the one-man mobile uplink, half of the "Franken and Davis" comedy team, and the New Age TV host Stuart Smalley, Franken has been responsible for many a spilled brewski and pot-enhanced coughing fit. His irony-clad delivery and devastating impersonations (he's better at doing Pat Robertson than Pat Robertson is) handily take over where groovy satirists of yore left off.

As befits the modern-day comedic phenom, Franken crossed over into books in 1992 by channeling the insipid feel-goodism of his Stuart Smalley character into "I'm Good Enough, I'm Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!" The book was the basis for the quirky 1995 movie "Stuart Saves his Family." But it was in 1996 that Franken incurred the undying wrath of dittoheads, and the love of liberals, when he sank his fangs into a certain rotund right-wing broadcaster. The book -- "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations" -- was a bestseller.

Three years later, Franken followed "Rush" with "Why Not Me? The Inside Story of the Making and Unmaking of the Franken Presidency," which did for authorized campaign biographies what "This Is Spinal Tap" did for rockumentaries.

Franken was already in demand as a political satirist and commentator (he covered the 1988 Democratic National Convention for CNN), but the success of "Rush" and "Why Not Me?" made him ubiquitous on shows such as "Politically Incorrect" and a frequent terror on the speaking circuit.

In his new book, "Oh, the Things I Know!" (coming out this month), Franken, posing as a grandiose know-it-all, offers "an easy-to-follow user's manual for human existence." It's a modest and funny effort -- all the chapter titles begin with "Oh" and end with an exclamation mark -- but there's nothing the Bush White House or even Limbaugh need fear.

"It was just sort of a fun book," Franken says. "It's geared to graduation, a gift book." And the first chapter your graduate will turn to is No. 6: "Oh, the Orgasms You'll Have!" where Franken's sagacity mates with his practicality to produce this jewel:

"Orgasm is the pinnacle of sexual accomplishment. This is not to say that the pursuit of orgasms should be the end-all and be-all of your sexual life. Because, like life itself, the best part of sex is the journey and not the destination ... Some young men arrive at their destination too early. To them I say, next time you embark on a journey, try using desensitizing gel or ointment. This will help your partner complete her journey, making it far more likely that she will go on future journeys with you."

Still, the lefty wisenheimer is never far from matters of state. In the new book, for instance, Franken somehow manages, amid prodigious tips for living, to take a few shots at his old pal Limbaugh.

"When are you going to stop picking on him?" I asked.

"I don't pick on him," Franken insisted. "I talk about how concerned I am."

The conservative radio host's welfare is just one of many concerns that Franken shared during a recent phone conversation. Al Gore in 2004, the pope's meeting with U.S. cardinals, the origins of Dick Cheney's wealth -- all are grist for Franken's opinions, which he tends to express with icy irony and a pretty good punch line.

Shortly after Sept. 11, Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, declared (in an article published in, "It's the end of the age of irony." When you heard that did you consider your career over?

No, I knew Graydon was being ironic.

Has it been a particularly tough time to be a satirist?

For six weeks it was -- I mean it really was -- although I had to speak a week after [Sept. 11] to a human rights campaign group in Minneapolis, and they didn't call it off, and they were right not to. I flew in from New York. Thanks to Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, I had funny stuff to talk about. You remember that [Falwell] blamed Sept. 11 on a lot of us.

This was on Robertson's show, "The 700 Club." But then later Falwell said he was misquoted.

He didn't say he was misquoted; he said he was taken out of context. Somewhere here I have the [transcript from "The 700 Club"] ... Here it is. He said: "I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way -- all of them who have tried to secularize America -- I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.'"

That was Falwell speaking to Pat Robertson?

And Pat Robertson said, "I totally concur." That's what he said. And so immediately after [Falwell] said it was taken out of context, I got the quote. My biggest laugh has been that the only way [the quote] could have been taken out of context is if he immediately preceded it with, "I'd have to be a fucking nut to say ..."

You've praised President Bush's performance in recent months, but do you really think he's doing any better than you could do?

I do believe I'd collapse under the pressure -- I really do believe I'd do that. I'm not kidding. If I had to make a decision that was really affecting the lives of millions of people, I think I'd be crushed by the pressure.

The first day [Sept. 11] he wasn't so hot; he looked a little shaky. But I thought he came back in a way that showed that he maybe had the stuff to be the guy who had to be in charge during that time. I certainly don't agree with any of his domestic policies, or the basic thrust of his domestic policies. And I do think that to some degree a lot of that has been disgraceful.

How about Dick Cheney's job? Is that a role you think you could handle?

Uh, probably could handle that, yeah. I could probably not be crushed ... but, goddamn, I don't know if I could sit in that meeting and go, "OK, what do we do?" I think they did what you had to do. And I think that it was a blessing that they had the freedom to do what they did, whereas I don't know if Gore would have. Because he would have had the tremendous pressure by the Republican assholes in Congress -- the Tom DeLays and those guys -- [saying] "You gotta strike back within an hour."

Bush had the luxury of waiting a little while.

Yes, he had the luxury of doing what made sense.

Do you think Clinton would have handled things any better?

I think he would have handled things similarly. He would have been in a much different situation. He would have been having to deal with the accusations that he had let our guard down. It would have been his CIA; it would have been his FBI. I'm not the first to say this, so in an odd way it was better that it was Bush than Gore. The country did unite behind Bush, and that's partly because the Democratic Party was willing to close ranks behind him. And I don't know that the Republican Party, ... to their disgrace, would have been able to close ranks around Gore.

Without mentioning the name Rush Limbaugh, why do right-wing pundits do so much better on TV and radio than left-wing pundits? Is it because, politics aside, right-wingers are just better theater?

It does help if you don't really care about what you're saying in terms of how factually accurate you are. That makes it easier to be theatrical. And Rush certainly doesn't care. Being able to really believe that you're absolutely certain of what you're saying helps. Reasonable liberals like myself -- I wrote about it in the Rush book -- have some sense of not being sure of everything that they say. And I don't know if being absolutely certain about everything is necessarily a sign of wisdom, but Bill O' Reilly seems to think so.

What's happened to the left anyway? We're hearing so little from them. Have they just given up?

The success of Michael Moore's book ["Stupid White Men"] gives you some idea of how much people are yearning for something. And I do think there was more of a delay on Gore's part than there should have been. He spoke, finally, this week in Florida, about Bush policies on the environment and the budget, things like that. And I think all of that got sucked out by the World Trade Center.

And you know, slowly, and maybe just in time for the [midterm] elections, we'll see some real discussion on what the Bush administration has been doing on these policies -- and blowing it, saying they're going to protect Social Security, then not. War and recession were the two things [Bush] said would stop them from protecting [Social Security], so he's kind of covered there. But now the information's coming out about the Cheney task force [on energy policy] and who they met with, and everything's becoming clear: They're exactly what we feared.

Do you think Gore should run again? Would he get your endorsement?

That's the $64,000 question that was asked a lot this last weekend. I'd like to see what he's saying. It was interesting that this weekend he said something about how he and Clinton thought they had done a good job. I wish he had said that during the election. I was talking to friends in the campaign the whole time [during the 2000 election] and I kept saying, "Talk about the last eight years!" And they would say, "Our focus groups show that people don't want to hear about it and don't give Gore credit for it." And I'd say, "I know. Then change that!" This was July 2000. I said, "You have from July to November to remind people of how good things have been the last eight years and to give Gore some of the credit for it."

I mean, John Ellis, who is Bush's first cousin, who is the guy at Fox who called Florida for Bush the first time, said he never understood why Gore didn't say, "What is it, Gov. Bush, that you don't like about peace and prosperity?" And I think that would've won the election. There are a million things you could point to that could've won the election when you've lost by 200 votes. You know: Someone farted at a labor union get-out-the-vote rally and some people left and didn't get out to vote -- there are a million things I could point to.

Remember that point in the vice presidential debate when Lieberman said, "Well, you've done pretty well over the last eight years"? And Cheney said, "Yeah, well, the government had nothing to do with it," and it got big applause. If Lieberman had only said, "Are you joking?" That was a point that made Cheney look good and Joe kind of wimped out. Because Halliburton is just awash in government contracts.

Cheney was not chosen [to be Halliburton's CEO] because he knew anything about the oil business; he was chosen because he'd been secretary of defense and got to know all those guys in the Middle East during the Gulf War. So the government had everything to do with Cheney. I mean, Halliburton owns Brown & Root. I've done a lot of USO tours in the last several years, and every year I've gone, I've gone to Kosovo, to Camp Bondsteel. Brown & Root, which is a Halliburton subsidiary, has been contracted by the Defense Department to build Camp Bondsteel ... the point is that a lot of Cheney's money came from the government.

There were a million places during the campaign where the election should have been won. But the biggest of them should have been, "Hey, look what we've done the last eight years." I mean, if [Gore's] going to get the schmutz from Clinton, he should also get credit for the good stuff.

What sort of material do you do on the USO tours? Is it political?

I do some. It depends on when I'm doing it. The last one I did was in October, about a month after 9/11, and we were just beginning to engage in Afghanistan. So I was doing a lot of very dark humor. I told this joke in Kosovo -- I asked the commander first if I could do the joke. I told him the joke, and he laughed and said, "Sure." The joke was this: "You know, we Americans back in America were all very concerned during the fighting here in Kosovo about taking casualties. And in a way I think it restricted what you guys could do. Now, fortunately, there were no combat casualties here in Kosovo. But you'll be happy to know that since 9/11, Americans are now willing to take casualties in Kosovo." And they just thought that was hilarious. And those guys were aware that the No. 1 rule had been: Don't get killed here. Now that had changed: If one of you guys gets killed, it's OK.

I was reading the transcript of your talk at the National Press Club in February in which, surprisingly, you come out in support of torture.

Yes. [Laughs.]

That's going to be a surprise to a lot of people.

It surprised some people. You know, I live in New York and I feel strongly about the World Trade Center. I do. And I think that there's an argument to be made that if you save a lot of lives, that it might be OK to torture someone. There's different ways to do it. One is to give them to another country.

Let someone else get their hands dirty?

Or tell them that we're doing that. That seems to be the acceptable way to do it -- which is psychological torture, I guess. Tell the person, "Well, we're giving you to the Israelis and they're going to interrogate you." And I think they're doing that with the top-ranking al-Qaida guy [now in custody]. They're telling him stuff that makes him think he's going to be tortured, as opposed to actually torturing him. But you know, [the remark at the National Press Club] was meant to be a provocative joke.

How did it go over?

It didn't go over so great, 'cause that was sort of a lefty crowd. It was the National Press Club, but a lot of the people who came to the luncheon were affiliated with the organization I was speaking on behalf of [the National Community Reinvestment Coalition]. I wanted to mix things up.

But I'm a little on the fence on it. I know we don't want to become the people we're torturing, but on the other hand you can definitely write a scenario in which anyone would torture somebody: They know when the nuclear bomb's going to go off. Where? In Manhattan. And you have to get the information in an hour.

Now, after two very successful books of political satire, you've written an advice and self-help book, a guide to success. In this book you get in a few more licks at poor old Rush Limbaugh.

I talk about him a little in the chapter on weight, but I talk about him more in the chapter on envy.

You've never met, right?

I've never met the man.

Have you heard anything from him to indicate he gets the joke?

He got it. I don't think he thinks it's a joke. I understand that he did not like the book ["Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations"], and understandably so ... In years since, he's mentioned me here and there, and always not in a great way, but that's fine. But in ["Oh, The Things I Know!"] I talk about his hearing loss and how he actually didn't tell the people he was negotiating [his broadcasting contract] with that he was going deaf.

You make a joke out of it by coming to his defense.

Well, yeah, I express a lot of concern that this is fraud and it's the kind of fraud you go to prison for and I begged the people who would actually press charges against him not to. Because, I pointed out, the best defense against rape in prison is good hearing, ironically.

That was noble of you.


Being that you're now in the advice business, the pope's called for all the American cardinals to come to Rome because of the sex abuse scandals. How would you advise him to deal with this?

I looked at Cardinal Law's statement and I think there was a key there where Cardinal Law said that they hadn't placed a high enough priority on protecting the children. So, if I were the pope I'd tell them to put that higher up.

A little higher up on the priority list?

Yeah, I think it was 9.

So you'd move it where?

I'd move it to 2 or 3. It's certainly gotta go above bingo.

Continuing with the subject of good and evil, Carolyn Risher, the mayor of Inglis, Fla., recently issued a proclamation banning Satan from her three-square-mile town. If you could ban Satan from a three-square-mile area, where would it be?

Are you asking this of everyone you talk to?

No, just you.

Three square miles, or circular? Can it be a radius of three miles?

It can be a radius. We can play fast and loose with this.

OK. Um, boy, that's a tough one.

It is a tough one, and you only get to pick one area to ban Satan from.

OK, hold on. Um, Battle Creek, Mich.

Why there?

I eat a lot of cereal.

Douglas Cruickshank

Douglas Cruickshank is a senior writer for Salon. For more articles by Cruickshank, visit his archive.

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