Al Franken, Seriously (cover story)
I’m in a rental car with Al Franken, and we’re driving across New Hampshire on the Sunday before the nation’s first primary, heading to a John Edwards rally. The Democrats are in a kooky mood following the sudden collapse of Howard Dean in Iowa, and Franken — comedian, celebrity, scourge — is spending two days in the state not in any official capacity but as a sort of good-will representative from the party’s satiric wing. He is not, as you might think from the outrageous trappings of his comedy, an extreme lefty but rather a devout party man, one who says, for example, that the Democratic Leadership Council is a moral force for good. He believes in the process; he’s friends with several of the candidates as well as many members of the press corps; he’s here to soak it all up.
We’re an hour late, and there are still 30 miles to go.
Franken is doing the driving, and he’s full of energy, bursting with ideas, bits of comedy history (Bob and Ray, the Dean Martin roasts), political insults, patches of anger. The president of the United States has been doing some things lately that would get any political satirist excited, like announcing with great fanfare that the nation would undertake a mission to Mars and then failing even to mention the historic new venture six days later in his State of the Union address, after it got a flat reaction. Franken is particularly keyed up because he will soon have a new forum for voicing himself on such matters: a daily three-hour talk show, the flagship program in what will be a new ”liberal” talk radio network. But it hasn’t started yet, which is frustrating. ”They said Clinton was poll-driven?” he’s saying, and he’s hitting the gas pedal more firmly as he talks. ”Well, this was totally poll-driven! But it should have been more exploited in terms of ridicule. This was, you know, really ripe. It’s like, What happened to Mars? And what we get in the speech is steroids and abstinence. ‘Let’s send a message to kids that the only sure way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases is through . . . abstinence! Yaaay!’ Uh-oh.”
The uh-oh is because blue lights are whipping through the car. A New Hampshire state trooper with what you might call perfect comic timing breaks in on Franken’s jag and pulls us over. Franken is respectful and polite as he hands over his license, and as deeply relieved as any ordinary driver when the trooper lets him off with a warning a few minutes later. It’s not a huge thing, but I haven’t been in a car that was stopped for speeding since I was a teenager, and somehow it just feels right, a premonition of things to come.
And so it is. The next event on the schedule (we missed the Edwards thing completely) is a Howard Dean rally in downtown Manchester. Before stepping into the restored interior of the Palace Theater, however, it is necessary to add a point that will seem out of place but in fact cuts right to the core. From 1966 to 1969, Franken was a member of the varsity wrestling team at his high school in Hopkins, Minn. Six years after graduation, when he showed up in New York to begin work as a writer on the first season of ”Saturday Night Live,” he was still almost as much an athlete as a comedian. ”He seemed like a total jock,” says the comedian Laraine Newman, who was a member of the original cast. ”He always had a football in his hands when they were writing. And he had this very defined musculature. His butt was like a cut basketball. Which, you know, you don’t normally see in comedy writers.”
Sidestepping the cut-basketball issue, Franken still has a wrestler’s build, but more to the point he has kept his grappler’s mentality. As he enters the Palace Theater, 860 defiant Dean supporters have filled the seats. They’re on edge, eager to prove to Peter Jennings, Tim Russert and the rest of the national media that have ranged thickly around the perimeter that their man isn’t done yet. Onstage, Martin Sheen speaks first, then Dean’s demure wife, then the suddenly embattled former governor of Vermont himself. Sometime after Dean begins taking questions from the audience, a manic-looking heckler starts to heckle, accusing Dean of ”covering up for Dick Cheney.” He gets louder. A couple of spindly members of Dean’s security team approach him uncertainly; he swings his arms and keeps shouting. It goes on for several minutes and seems to be veering toward actual violence. Dean, the media, the members of the audience: nobody knows what to do.
At this moment Franken turns, cocks his head slightly, gives that well-known magnified, tortoise-shell-framed gaze and says: ”I think the two of us can get him out. You wanna do it?” After a pause that is meant to be emphatic, I say, ”No.” But it’s too late: he’s off, in rumpled jeans and a big down jacket, plowing up the aisle.
By this time there is a confused scrum around the heckler, who is holding his ground and still ranting. Franken hits the floor, wedges himself among a couple dozen legs and puts the man in a wrestling hold, grabbing him at the knees. That destabilizes him, and others now quickly push him down the aisle and out the side door of the theater. Franken gets up, looking dazed; his glasses are snapped in two. He’s quickly swarmed by confused but excited reporters who want to know, like, what was he doing?
An hour later, over lunch with friends, Franken was beginning to regret his lunge. Such a veteran of political spin ought to have known better. ”That was dumb,” he said in a voice close to that of his S.N.L. character Stuart Smalley. ”That was, like, really dumb.” He called his wife, and in a hangdog tone explained what he’d done; she told him his behavior was ”inappropriate.” Minutes later his cellphone started ringing — CBS, The Daily News. Over the next several days the story would mutate as it percolated through the ether. Franken became obsessed with correcting a report in The New York Post (whose owner, Rupert Murdoch, he has characterized as ”evil”) that he had ”body-slammed” the heckler; he wrote a letter to the editor, which only made the matter worse. Meanwhile, the story was picked up and embellished by right-wing media outlets and blogs and in The Post’s own letters column: ”Stone Cold Al Franken. . . .” ”Al Franken is a big, fat idiot. . . .” ”Franken is a disturbed man. . . .” ”Maybe he’s in the wrong profession. Clowns perform their stunts in the circus.” Stories of the lunge appeared as far away as Japan.
The incident packs in a lot of things about Franken that, taken together, have helped make him a kind of man of the moment, the voice of this year’s Angry Democrats. There is the urge to be at the center of political events, which grew in him steadily through the years of Republican attacks on his political hero, Bill Clinton, and reached a new level of intensity in the Bush era. There is his habit of getting himself caught up — intentionally or not — in the so-called right-wing echo chamber. More than anything, the incident highlights a striking trait, which is bundled up with Franken’s lacerating wit and fierce political partisanship: an almost childlike habit of throwing himself directly at things he thinks are wrong. It has an element of weirdness to it: some people at the Palace Theater seemed to think he’d gone nuts, which is precisely the way the conservatives he has put in rhetorical wrestling holds have reacted. But Franken is so ardent about what he supports (in this case, he said he was upholding Dean’s freedom of speech and the crowd’s freedom of assembly) that even political foes grant he’s sincere. ”It amazes me that a man can be in his 50’s and have such idealism,” said Ben Stein, the former Nixon and Ford speechwriter with whom Franken has engaged in a few debates recently. ”He’s actually an inspiration in his level of commitment.”
The impulse to lunge — combined with another trait, which he shares with the rest of his fellow liberals and which is maybe the most commented-on aspect of this election season: a seething, churning outrage at George W. Bush — has helped lift Franken, in the past 10 months, to a new level not just of celebrity but also of relevance. His current best-selling book, ”Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them,” with its mix of high and low satire, vigorously infantile name-calling (”Bill O’Leilly”) and impassioned political argument, has become a kind of blueprint for liberals who sense an opening and are eager to take the battle to the enemy. He has come to occupy a unique position at the crossroads of the political, media and entertainment worlds and is aggressively exploiting it, personally hooking up prominent figures from all three arenas in the effort to unite against Bush. ”Al has become a rallying point for Democrats,” said Paul Begala, the former Clinton adviser and now host of CNN’s ”Crossfire.” ”There are a few of them: Senator Clinton, President Clinton, and now Al Franken is another. The thing about this year is, ‘liberal’ and ‘wimp’ have become decoupled. Al has been one of the real sparks of that. Liberals are ready to fight.”
A main front in this newly aggressive campaign will commence on March 31, when Air America Radio — the much-talked-about, 24-hour, left-leaning radio network — goes live, with Franken as its big gun in the noon-to-3-p.m. slot going up against his old nemesis, Rush Limbaugh. The network has no official ties to the Democratic Party, but there are unofficial ties. Air America’s C.E.O., Mark Walsh, is friends with the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Terry McAuliffe. John Podesta, a former chief of staff in the Clinton White House, will offer advice and, through his think tank, the Center for American Progress, an information pool. ”We’ll be a resource for them, much the same way that the Heritage Foundation provides stuff that right-wing talkers use,” Podesta said.
It’s an uphill effort by liberals to infiltrate what has long been staunchly conservative terrain, but the timing seems good. ”Six months ago I wouldn’t have given a liberal radio network a dime’s chance for success,” the pollster John Zogby said. ”What motivates talk radio is heavy emotion. Liberals are usually too busy fighting one another. But we are really polarized today, and there is high emotion on the liberal side.”
Franken has no experience as a radio host, and he plans to go right to the top — to Limbaugh himself — for assistance. ”Rush has said he doesn’t know why guys with new radio shows don’t ask his advice,” he said. ”So I plan to take him up on that before we go on the air: ‘How do you prepare? What’s your staff like? How do you screen calls?”’ Pause. ”It wouldn’t be to taunt him.” Longer pause. ”Well, it couldn’t hurt to try.”
Franken would be nothing today without Rush Limbaugh. O.K., that’s an exaggeration. But if Limbaugh has exerted a huge influence over American conservatives, the shadow he casts over liberals is probably just as great. (Limbaugh, through a spokesman, declined to be interviewed for this article, as did Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, the Fox News personalities and frequent Franken foes.) Limbaugh’s first great insight was in realizing, circa 1990, that there was value in the abandoned real estate that was AM talk radio. His second stroke of genius was in bringing what was thought a dinosaur of a medium into significance by becoming a voice for those who felt frustrated and alienated by the Clinton 90’s. He is, by universal acknowledgment, the progenitor of the legions of conservative talkers on the dial today. And with a weekly minimum audience of 14.5 million, his dominance continues despite his recent personal and legal troubles with prescription drugs.
If Limbaugh rose as a reaction to Bill Clinton, Al Franken’s career as serious political satirist took wing with the 1996 publication of a collection of bons mots called ”Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations,” a book that, among other things, made the ad hominem attack seem witty, at least to some. The book’s enormous success (23 weeks on the best-seller list) was as much as anything a testament to Limbaugh’s power and popularity. Ever since its publication, Limbaugh and Franken have been joined at the hip, the Siamese twins of American political bomb throwers. (The two have never met personally, nor have they spoken.)
But while Franken was basking in the glow of that book’s success, a new force rose to prominence on the right. Its name was Fox. Clinton supporters and others whined at its coverage; to Franken its slogan — ”fair and balanced” — coupled with its emergence as the top-rated cable news channel, was a gauntlet thrown down. ”Nobody was going after them for their lies,” he says. ”The mainstream media was intimidated.” As he had with Limbaugh, and with the heckler at the Dean rally, he took matters into his own hands last May, metaphorically throwing himself at the knees of an unsuspecting Bill O’Reilly at the BookExpo America convention in Los Angeles. It was only 10 months ago, but it seems an age: for one thing, Bush’s re-election seemed inevitable then. For Franken’s purposes it scarcely mattered that O’Reilly considers himself a political independent. What mattered was that Democrats saw Fox as a right-wing P.R. machine and O’Reilly as its loudest, most bullying voice.
Before 700 startled booksellers (and a nationwide C-Span audience) Franken turned the book-chat forum into a tirade on O’Reilly’s veracity, questioning the story O’Reilly had repeatedly told about his humble origins and taking particular delight in laying out a series of misstatements O’Reilly had made about a journalism award his previous show, ”Inside Edition,” had won (which built to a payoff Franken had waiting: ”Don’t you think it’s odd that you got it wrong about a journalism award?”). To ice the affair, to really drive home the intensely personal nature of the attack, Franken had a blowup of the cover of his soon-to-be-published book that featured an unretouched photo of O’Reilly (positioned between the words ”Lies” and ”Lying Liars” in the title) with ridiculous red splotches all over his face.
The BookExpo event was almost painful to watch. With O’Reilly roiling in anger in his chair, Franken, only a few feet away at the podium, in the middle of ripping the man to pieces, turned and asked O’Reilly if he could have a drink from O’Reilly’s water bottle. ”Unbelievable,” was O’Reilly’s judgment of the spectacle, and it was. More remarkable than O’Reilly’s anger at being blindsided, however, was the raw emotion shown by Franken, who had, after all, planned what he was going to do. At one point O’Reilly hit him dead on: ”Even people who agree with you in this room, they can’t possibly think that you’re objective. . . . You make a nice living being a propagandist, and more power to you, but don’t put yourself up as a truth teller, because you’re not.”
The comeback revealed the essence of Franken: ”I am, though. . . . I do tell the truth.” The secret to a bomb thrower’s success, surely, whether a Limbaugh or a Franken, is sincerity of conviction. ”We’ve been taking it and taking it on the left,” Franken said at one point, almost shaking. And then, referring to how he believed his book had captured the lies of the right: ”So I got this chapter and verse . . . I got it. And we’re not going to sit for it anymore.”
Next came the lawsuit filed last August by Fox News lawyers (widely thought to have been pushed by O’Reilly, though he denies it) to block publication of Franken’s book, arguing that the subtitle, ”A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right,” violated the network’s trademark right to the phrase ”fair and balanced.” The publicity surrounding the lawsuit, its quick dismissal by the judge as being ”wholly without merit” and the laughter in the courtroom directed at Fox’s lawyers as they tried to argue that a work of satire ought to be labeled as such, resulted in ”Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them” jolting to No. 1 on the Amazon sales ranking before it was published. By the end of the first wave of media coverage of the event, Franken had reached a new level of fame.
There is, of course, a huge element of P.R. in all of this; Franken’s lunges and tackles may spring from real commitment, but he’s also a virtuoso at playing the media. A couple of years before the O’Reilly altercation, after seeing Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, declare on C-Span that Democrats had ”sissified” politics, Franken called him up and challenged him to a fight in a parking garage — ”like ‘Fight Club.”’ ”I have no idea whether he was serious or not,” Lowry told me. ”But I felt that as someone who tries to be a serious journalist, I couldn’t take him up on it.” Franken had no book to promote at the time, but he got mileage out of the incident by devoting a chapter of ”Lies” to it. (Lowry has written about it as well.) At the BookExpo event, both Franken and O’Reilly were promoting books, and both of those books have been at or near the top of the best-seller lists since their publications.
But there have been larger forces at work in recent months that help account for Franken’s increased profile. While all this was going on, the situation in Iraq was deteriorating, weapons of mass destruction were going unfound, the White House political team seemed to have developed a tin ear and Howard Dean tapped into, and for a time channeled, a rapidly rising pool of anger. Franken’s timing, in other words, was perfect. ”I think of Al as a kind of comedy version of Howard Dean in that he wants to show people how to fight back,” said Jonathan Alter, a columnist at Newsweek who has known Franken for 10 years. Democratic voters ultimately decided they wanted an electable candidate rather than an angry one; they wanted to be the angry ones, and so there was a role open for someone as stoker of the flames.
A good indication of the kind of popularity Franken has achieved among partisan Democrats came at a Kerry rally in Nashua during Franken’s New Hampshire swing. In the wake of the Iowa victory, the candidate was fiery and the crowd boisterous. After the speech, the senator came down off the stage and made his way along the bleachers. People cheered, pretty forcefully. Next, Senator Ted Kennedy, who had joined him onstage, came along; he was right up against the barrier, so people could reach out and pat the bearish shoulders. It was a hard-core crowd — men with working-class faces, gray-haired women in ”I’m a Health Care Voter” T-shirts — and there was some real feeling in the place, a blend of hope and nostalgia. You could see Kennedy lighting up from the energy.
But then an actual shriek went up — the sort of girl-squeal you associate with footage of the early Beatles. A gang of young women in RockTheVote.org T-shirts was responsible for the high notes, but lots of others joined in. Heads turned; people waved; cameras flashed.
”It’s Al Franken! Al! Over here! Oh, my God!”
Franken had just stepped into the crowd’s line of sight. His head was overwhelmed by a fur hat, but everyone recognized him. Instantly he diverted a sizable portion of the attention away from the man who may be the next president of the United States. Tom Brokaw gave Franken a playful boxer’s jab; Bob Shrum, Kerry’s media adviser, cornered him for a quick chat. Local reporters shoved microphones in his face. Quintessential mom and grandma types wanted photos and autographs. They said things like ”Thank you for writing your books” and ”You’re a great American” and ”Thank you for giving it to Ann Coulter.” He grinned, signed, basked. He answered every question in detail, whether from a national TV reporter or just some dude (”Al, what’s up with Dennis Miller, man?”), punctuating jokes with his machine-gun laugh.
Franken is everywhere these days — Letterman, ”Hardball,” a U.S.O. tour of Iraq, a dentist’s convention in Chicago — and in each locale he dissects George W. Bush: his intelligence, personality, looks, manner, even his faith (”This guy Bush isn’t a Christian — Jesus is not about giving tax breaks to people who are already rich”). Some on the right think his manner of expressing his political passion is too narrow and mean to be effective. Regarding Franken and others on the left, Frank Luntz, a pollster who is known for his work with Republicans, said: ”The anger toward Bush is too much. There are people who are concerned, but when you come at him so personally with your attack you destroy your own credibility with a wide audience.” Rich Lowry says that Franken is fulfilling an accepted role: ”He criticizes Ann Coulter and others for having a nasty tone; then he writes the most unfair, nasty things about conservatives. So there’s an element of the pot calling the kettle black. But it’s O.K. to have bomb throwers and people who are outrageous and fun. Coulter and Franken are both broadly in that category.”
But those who know Franken well say there is real soberness beneath the madcap. Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, has been a friend of Franken’s since 1992 and has read his books in draft. ”Al is really a policy wonk,” he said. ”This is not someone who dabbles in policy and politics. He has a nuanced sense of the issues and reads very widely. We’ve talked through foreign affairs and defense issues, and I can tell you he is able to deal with the substance of those better than a whole lot of members of the House and Senate I’ve dealt with.”
The great political satirists — Dick Gregory, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce — have all worked from a depth of emotion. But few if any have had the opportunities that Franken is enjoying, thanks both to his establishment sensibility and the fact that he’s living in an era when the lines between politics, entertainment and media are blurred. He and his family were regulars at the Renaissance Weekend retreat the Clintons made famous during their years in the White House; he counts Bill and Hillary Clinton as friends and has helped Hillary Clinton and Tom Daschle, the Senate minority leader, with speeches.
Some of Franken’s recent behind-the-scenes actions are at least as interesting as his public performances and show the depth of his seriousness. Last fall, when Dean seemed the inevitable nominee before a single primary vote had been cast, Franken was troubled that John Kerry was being written off. ”I liked Dean, but I also think Kerry is just a really smart, capable man,” he told me. ”I’d noticed that he was very good in a small gathering, so I thought, What if I invite some opinion makers over to hear him?” On Dec. 4, an impressive collection of the media elite and assorted other notables — Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker, Frank Rich of The New York Times, Howard Fineman and Jonathan Alter of Newsweek, Jim Kelly of Time, Jeff Greenfield of CNN, Eric Alterman of The Nation, Richard Cohen of The Washington Post, Jacob Weisberg of Slate and others, including, as eminence grise, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. — responded to his call and had a little powwow with Kerry at the Upper West Side apartment of Franken and his wife, Franni.
”The whole thing was odd, I would say, because people didn’t know why they were there,” Kelly said. ”But I think the idea was to put John Kerry into the belly of the beast. It may have been the actual beginning of the new approach he took — ‘I’m going to stay in this room and take every question you throw at me.”’ Alterman grilled Kerry on his vote on Iraq, and he gave a long, tortured answer. Then he was asked about it a second time. ”By the third go-round, the answer was getting shorter and more relevant,” Kelly said.
”It was a really interesting event,” Alter said. ”A lot of these people hadn’t actually met Kerry before. Al wanted them to get to know him. It was an example of him playing a sort of intermediary role in the nexus of politics, media and entertainment.”
The next time Franken saw Kerry was at the rally in Nashua, seven weeks later. Things had changed significantly; Kerry was considered a new and improved candidate and now looked almost unbeatable. The senator took Franken aside, and they talked for a few minutes. ”I told him I’m taking credit for the turnaround,” Franken told me. ”He said, ‘I knew you would.”’
Forty floors above Midtown Manhattan, Mark Walsh, the C.E.O. of Air America, stands in a conference room whose walls are covered with index cards that say things like ”Press Secretary for Terrorists” and ”Corporate Welfare Pledge Drive” — comedy bits in the making. He draws a bell curve on a marker board, then makes lines dividing his curve into sections. The sections on the far left and far right are almost flat, but as you approach the middle, both sides grow. He draws an oval around the swollen area to the left of center. ”I think Al and voices like Al’s really blend in here,” he said. ”I think Michael Moore, for example, is a very talented writer and performer, but a lot of what he says starts to go out on the curve — much like Michael Savage, who is pretty far out on the other side. Everybody is fighting over a very skinny slice of the independents, because those are the people who are persuadable.”
The chart is Walsh’s way of characterizing the electorate/radio audience. Air America, he said, intends to tilt leftward, but not too far. Walsh, who is 49 with gray hair and chiseled features, was at HBO in the early 1980’s, persuading people to do the unthinkable and pay for TV programming; next he was with AOL in its early days. Those two companies succeeded, he said, because they hit their respective media with a new idea at just the right time. ”And I think the timing today is just right for a progressive media business aimed at an audience that’s underserved.”
The idea of a liberal radio network that would try to offset what Democrats see as the tractor beam of Fox and talk-radio franchises like Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Hannity and Savage — which together, Democrats argue, pull the mainstream media to the right — first came up early last year. It was initially spearheaded by the Chicago investors Sheldon and Anita Drobny, and when Franken heard about it, he was immediately interested. It languished for months until David Goodfriend, a former Clinton White House staff member, and Evan Cohen, an entrepreneur who at the time was developing a pan-Asian radio network, saw an opportunity and pulled together a group of investors to resuscitate the project. They brought in Walsh, who had been volunteering for Kerry’s presidential campaign.
Jon Sinton, an Atlanta radio executive, has been with the project from the beginning. After having failed to attract an audience in Atlanta for the liberal host Mike Malloy, who was sandwiched between a sports show and Mexican programming, and seeing Jim Hightower languish between Rush Limbaugh and G. Gordon Liddy, Sinton became a believer in ”formatic purity.” ”I’d been a radio programmer for 20 years, but it finally hit me: you don’t put a Led Zeppelin record on after country.” With conservative talkers ruling the air, Sinton figured, liberal talk-radio programs were sure to struggle in syndication. ”So I argued for a network situation, where we would never have to worry about programming conflicts.”
The term ”radio network” is something of a throwback. The medium began with one dominant network — NBC — controlling stations and programming; in 1943 the government forced it to split into two entities, one of which became the ABC network. Today, in contrast, the radio landscape is largely divided into station owners and programmers. A company that owns a particular show peddles it to various stations; station owners pick and choose from the grocery shelves of available programming, discarding shows that don’t perform for them. Faced with the overwhelming might of conservative talk radio, Walsh, Sinton, Cohen and their colleagues devised a plan that goes against the structure of the industry. The parent company, Progress Media, controls two linked entities: Air America Radio, which will create shows, and Equal Time Media, which buys, leases and manages radio stations in major markets. The network will start with stations in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco, all of which will carry the full slate of Air America programs. (The network is also offering shows to other stations and will make its programming available via satellite and online.)
Some radio industry observers dispute the ”formatic purity” idea. They point out that the major stations have a mix of programming — sports, relationship counseling, investment advice, news, talk — and suggest that earlier attempts at liberal talk failed because the shows weren’t very good. On the other hand, they say, the idea of a liberal network valiantly going against an industry that’s in the hands of conservatives is probably a smart fund-raising tactic. Together, Progress Media’s two companies expect to have raised $60 million by the time they go on the air and hope to raise another $15 million soon after.
The networks’ creative team is led by Shelley Lewis, a career broadcast news producer, and Lizz Winstead, a former stand-up comic who was co-creator of Comedy Central’s ”Daily Show.” Everyone agreed from the beginning that ”The Daily Show,” with its mix of comedy and an aggressively bratty approach to the news, was one model for the network’s programs. They want to upgrade the typical talk format — ”a big ugly white guy giving you the answers,” in Winstead’s words — and are banking on a ready audience for slickly produced AM-dial shows that they say will have a late-night TV feel.
Most of the network’s shows are three hours long; live programming will run from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., with reruns filling in overnight and on weekends, at least initially. Each show will mix hard news, politics and pop culture as its hosts and writers see fit. Several programs will consist of a pair of hosts, like a comedian and a traditional radio news foil. Franken’s co-host is Katherine Lanpher from Minnesota Public Radio. Other hosts include the comedian Janeane Garofalo, who will run the evening shift, and Winstead, who will fill the 9 a.m.-to-noon slot with, as co-host, the Public Enemy rapper Chuck D.
Though people at the network can’t quite believe he means it, Franken has decided to call his show ”The O’Franken Factor” — ”just to drive O’Reilly nuts; I’m hoping he sues me again.” He has wanted to get behind a mike ever since Lorne Michaels passed him over as host of the ”Weekend Update” segment of S.N.L. in 1995 in favor of Norm MacDonald — one of the events that finally led Franken to leave the show — and he is taking his foray into radio seriously. It will give him a daily outlet for his politics and his comedy and a chance, he hopes, to actually have an effect on the November election. He and his team of writers have been compiling files on a range of topics that is utterly Frankenesque. The Bush tax policy will be ”a huge story for us,” says Ben Wikler, Franken’s producer. Then, too, Franken unleashes a hilarious, X-rated Strom Thurmond impersonation that has been playing in his head and that he desperately wants to make work: ”I want to do Thurmond a lot, from the grave or wherever he is. And I want him to be more honest in death than in life. I mean, here’s a guy who basically said, ‘I’ll fight to the death for segregation’ and had a daughter who was black.”
He wants to have Paul Krugman, Kevin Phillips and the Clintons as guests. Also Gary Bauer, G. Gordon Liddy, Chris Rock and Michael Moore. He wants to feature national-security experts. He wants it to be in part a homage to old-time radio. He plans to have Bob Elliot, one of his radio heroes, come on to revive an old character.
The show will likely take a more practical approach to politics than, say, ”Real Time With Bill Maher.” ”Watch Maher, and it’s like, ‘Everyone’s a crook,”’ said James Downey, a writer who worked with Franken on S.N.L. ”Al is the least cynical political comedian I know. I’ll bet there are 50 senators he admires, as opposed to zero.”
Franken’s political views are more eclectic than you might imagine. He’s a big booster of the military and counts John McCain as one of his heroes. ”On trade, I would have voted for Nafta,” he said, ”but now I’d be working to fix it and get more environmental and labor standards into it.” He supports universal health care and is warming to the idea of a single-payer system. This range of opinions, he says, fits within the scope of the word ”liberal.” ”I want to reclaim ‘liberal,”’ Franken likes to say. ”I’m a liberal, and I think most Americans are liberals.” At one point, he wanted to call his program ”The Liberal Show.” But others at the network are less comfortable embracing the L word. ”I think it’s a brand that needs some revival, because it’s been demonized,” Walsh said. ”But it’s very expensive to revive a brand, and it takes a long time.” The concern, of course, is not to scare away audience segments that might be attracted to the programming. ”I think we’ll take from Howard Stern’s audience and from NPR’s audience,” Winstead said. Walsh said that they want to appeal to the independents and even some Republicans.
Luntz, the Republican pollster, said that they might: ”You’ve got to remember that people will listen to talk-radio hosts they don’t agree with. We’ve found this. Some people want to get agitated.” Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine and the unofficial dean of the industry, agrees that because of the tenor of the times, talk radio might begin slanting leftward, but he’s dubious of Air America’s network concept. ”The business of owning stations is quite different from the business of programming them. They are in danger of violating one of the laws of physics in the business: as a station, you can’t get too attached to the programming — any more than the New York Jets should become too attached to their players.”
Harrison, Luntz and everyone else I talked to on the subject, however, agreed that Al Franken has excellent prospects for success in talk radio and that he perfectly captures the mood on the left. As Luntz said: ”Most comedians and talk-show hosts do not have the brains of Al Franken. He’s very smart and just happens to be funny.” The Air America people are banking on that. They have literally made Franken the face of the network. One plan for the company’s advertising campaign is to feature political-campaign-style buttons with Franken’s mug in the center. ”What I think Al is going to do for us is become a show horse for other talent to develop alongside,” Walsh said. ”Great teams have a lead dog, an A-Rod or a Jeter, and other stars develop behind them.”
It remains to be seen how much of a team player Franken will be. The network’s executives see their undertaking not as a stunt to influence this year’s election but as a long-term business. ”Rupert Murdoch changed the media landscape with Fox,” said Evan Cohen, the chairman. ”That is the motivation of our investors. It’s a business venture as much as a political one.” And that takes time. Even with the current liberal anger as a springboard, the network’s business plan has it showing a profit in its fourth year.
Someone might want to tell that to the lead dog. Though he says he is interested in sticking around, Franken has reportedly signed only a one-year contract. ”I’m doing this because I want to use my energies to get Bush unelected,” he told me. ”I’d be happy if the election of a Democrat ended the show.”
Al Franken and I are standing wedged into the half-bathroom in his apartment, staring at the walls. The family calls this the Nixon Bathroom; it’s covered with memorabilia associated with the 37th president. In one long frame is a copy of the five-page handwritten letter Elvis Presley sent to Nixon in 1970 asking to be made a ”federal agent at large.” Above it are three photographs of Nixon as he’s about to board the presidential helicopter after his resignation, which were taken by Franken’s brother, Owen, a veteran photojournalist. Next to the toilet is a framed copy of Nixon’s letter of resignation, with the tiny blue letters of Henry Kissinger’s initials in the corner. Beside the sink is a copy of President Carter’s commutation of the Watergate sentence of G. Gordon Liddy. (”That was a present from G. — I get to call him G. because we’re friends.”) And there is a letter from Nixon’s personal secretary — written to Franken in 1992 after Franken invited the former president to be a guest on an S.N.L. political special — saying she’s sorry Nixon can’t appear on ”your special show.” Franken said the phrase aloud, savoring its weirdness. This is the bathroom decor of a political junkie and a serious clown.
The apartment itself is elegant but lived-in: French doors, lots of old gilt-framed photos, stacks of books and newspapers. ”We’re stay-at-home types,” Franken’s wife, Franni, said. ”Even back when S.N.L. was in its heyday and there were invitations to go to Hugh Hefner’s and Studio 54, we were never on the celebrity circuit.” Their daughter, Thomasin, who teaches at a public school in the Bronx, and son, Joe, who is a freshman at Princeton, troop in and out regularly with their friends; Franken does most of his writing at the dining-room table. ”I manage Al’s life,” his wife said. She is a slight, energetic woman. They met at a college mixer when she was 17 and he was 18; they’ve been married for 28 years, and friends say they are deeply devoted to each other. ”Al is truly unusual for an entertainer and celebrity in that he is a functional person with a functional family,” said Norman Ornstein, whose family vacations with the Frankens.
Franken, who is 52, was born in New York City, but he was raised in the heartland of liberalism: Minnesota. He counts the Minnesotans Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy and Paul Wellstone among his political heroes. His father was a printing salesman and, during Franken’s early years, a Republican. But then came the civil rights movement and scenes on TV of white Southerners inflicting violence on black protesters; the boy had already had the Holocaust imprinted on his being, so when Joe Franken likened the behavior they were watching to that event and told his son that, as Jews, they would be for civil rights and hence Democrats, Al never looked back. ”We were antiwar Minnesota radicals in the 60’s,” said Mark Luther, with whom Franken has been friends since high school.
Franken stays close with friends from every period of his life, with one notable exception. He and Tom Davis met in high school and developed a comedy act. They continued to perform intermittently after Franken was accepted at Harvard, and in 1975 Lorne Michaels signed the duo as writers on ”Saturday Night Live.” Franken stayed until 1980 and then returned from 1985 to 1995. ”We were as close as brothers,” both men said to me separately. But the relationship soured. Davis said one problem was that Franken’s career was moving faster. Franken said he also came to believe that Davis had a drug and alcohol problem and urged him to go into a 12-step program. Davis didn’t agree, and Franken tried to take on the problem himself by attending Al-Anon meetings for partners of abusers. It didn’t work; Franken and Davis split up in 1989 (recently they’ve talked about Davis appearing on the radio show), but out of the Al-Anon experience came Stuart Smalley, the character that every audience Franken performs for asks to hear from. ”At one meeting, we had to share something about a higher power,” Franken said. ”And I said that as a Jew, it was hard for me to think in terms of a loving God who would let the Holocaust happen. And I thought that was kind of meaningful. And right after that this guy says, ‘Well, I think the higher power put an apartment into my life to give me the courage to leave my lover.’ So I’m thinking, What an idiot. But then a few weeks later the same guy said something that was so helpful to me. And I remember thinking: Oh, my God. You can learn stuff from people who are stupid! It was really a revelation to me. So that’s the essence of Stuart.”
Politics has always been part of Franken’s humor. He and James Downey, who is politically more conservative, created many of the classic S.N.L. political pieces, including working with Dana Carvey on the material for his George H.W. Bush impersonation. ”They were the twin towers of political comedy for me,” Carvey said, ”and I think some of the humor was because of the balance between them. Al had great political instincts. He wrote the first Ross Perot thing by himself, which was really clever and really funny. Too bad I didn’t have the impression down yet. But it was something really dry about how much money he had, like, ‘See, even if I gave away a hundred million dollars I’d still have one point eight billion, unnerstand?”’
Everyone who knows Franken well remarks on his incessant cheerfulness, which doesn’t seem to fit with the anger he holds for those he considers politically duplicitous, but he manages to integrate the two things, toggling constantly back and forth. If there is one event that changed him in recent years — if not dampening his cheer, then hardening his anger — it was the 2002 memorial service for his friend Paul Wellstone. The central chapter in ”Lies,” and one that isn’t meant to be funny, is his painstaking examination of how the event became ”a sort of perfect political storm for Republican opportunists.” Franken teared up as he talked about his friendship with Wellstone, the circumstances surrounding his death and how moving he found the memorial. But some parts of the event were overtly political, and Franken became enraged as he watched these be highlighted and then pumped up by conservatives until the memorial wound up, in the words of Christopher Caldwell in The Weekly Standard, as ”a rally devoted to a politics that was twisted, pagan, childish, inhumane and even totalitarian.”
”The bastards lied about it,” Franken said. ”They used it to influence the election. And they got what they wanted.” Republicans retook the Senate in 2002 and added to their margin in the House. Wellstone’s seat, for which Minnesota Democrats had hastily put up Walter Mondale, went to the Republican Norm Coleman.
Franken came out of that event, among other things, with a new prospective ambition. In the aftermath of Mondale’s defeat, some influential Minnesotans approached him about running against Coleman in 2008. He is seriously considering it. It would mean moving back to Minnesota and reconnecting with his roots, which attracts him now that he and his wife are empty-nesters. He has talked to Democratic consultants; party fund-raisers have offered to work for him. ”Eventually I’d go to Hillary for advice,” he said. ”She became a senator without ever having lived in the state before.”
Paul Begala, who has offered his advice, said: ”I think he’d be a terrific candidate. But the biggest thing any politician needs is a thick skin. He’d have to develop that or perish.”
It’s Sunday, Feb. 15, two and a half weeks after Al Franken put a heckler in a wrestling hold on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, and we’re back at the Palace Theater in Manchester. Robert A. Baines, the mayor of Manchester, is onstage, talking to a packed house about freedom of speech. It’s a different crowd this time. The Deaniacs are gone; these are people in jackets and ties and fur-collared coats. A theater crowd. Even with little advance warning, the $20 tickets sold out fast.
The story of Franken’s lunge was big news here, and when the theater president and the (Democratic) mayor heard the comedian was being accused of ”body slamming” in the media, they decided to get involved. Result: the mayor reads a proclamation naming this Al Franken Day, to thunderous applause, and hands Franken the key to the city. For his part, Franken puts on a show, the proceeds of which will go to the Palace’s restoration fund. The bulk of it is material he has been performing for some time now, which gets a hearty reception from the self-selected audience as he riffs on Halliburton, ”evildoers” and Bush’s job-creation record. But the whole opening bit is new, as Franken gives his take on the events that transpired in this very theater. When he comes out, he makes a dive for the mayor’s knees to peals of laughter. Then he goes into a bit of Laurel and Hardy with the theater president. ”Now, did I body-slam the guy?” he asks, and the man obliges with a long, ”Noooo.”
”By the way,” Franken goes on, ”the body slam is not a high-school wrestling move. At no time during my high-school wrestling career did the coach say, ‘O.K., guys, today we’re going to work on the body slam . . . and the pile driver.”’
The crowd loves it. And the event has come full circle: it’s been Frankenized. It has gone through the media/political machine and come out the other side as a joke.