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Left-brained

Comedian Al Franken's irreverent take on politics has made him a darling of Democrats and a rogue to Republicans.

By BILL ADAIR, Times Staff Writer
Published October 26, 2003

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[AP photos]
Al Franken
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Franken joins hands with then-Vice President Al Gore and his wife, Tipper, at a 1999 fundraiser. Today, Gore sometimes is the target of the comedian’s jokes.

ARLINGTON, Va. - About 250 people are crammed inside the bookstore, standing eight deep in the Mystery aisle and 12 deep in Fiction. Some arrived five hours early to get a good seat.

They're here to see Al Franken, the actor and former Saturday Night Live writer. But these college students and 30-year-old professionals aren't interested in his memories of "Weekend Update" or John Belushi. They came to hear Franken talk about tax policy, Bill O'Reilly and how the Democrats can win again.

The bug-eyed comedian who wrote the Saturday Night Live sketch called "Julia Child Bleeding to Death" and starred as Stuart Smalley ("Doggone it, people like me!") is now an important, if wacky, voice in the Democratic Party.

His No. 1 bestseller, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, is a political call to arms. It's also an odd mix of fact and fiction. It includes a statistical analysis of President Bush's tax cuts and a make-believe sex scene involving U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris and Tallahassee power broker Mac Stipanovich. ("Hold me, Mac, I'm scared.") It explores the Bush environmental record (in a chapter called "Vast Lagoons of Pig Feces") and has a comic strip called The Gospel of Supply Side Jesus.

The crowd at the bookstore is just getting warmed up when Franken warns them he needs to leave early so he can speak to a group of real estate investors.

"This one is going to be a little shorter because I'm giving a speech," he says. "I'm taking money from the Man."

He offers his fans a consolation prize. He invites them to meet him at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel after the speech.

"I'll buy everybody a drink," he says.

Sex in Tallahassee

Franken, 52, got interested in politics while he was growing up in Minnesota. His family watched the TV news while eating dinner and his parents encouraged Franken and his brother to talk about current events.

His father, manager of a plant that made quilt jacket liners, was a Republican, but became a Democrat in 1964 because of Barry Goldwater's opposition to civil-rights legislation.

After Franken graduated from Harvard with a degree in social relations in 1973, he became a standup comedian and got hired by Saturday Night Live executive producer Lorne Michaels.

He is remembered largely for his role as Smalley, the namby-pamby self-help guru. But Franken was primarily a writer who wrote or co-wrote many of the show's political sketches, including Dan Aykroyd's Jimmy Carter, Dana Carvey's George Bush and the legendary Final Days skit with Aykroyd as President Nixon and Belushi as Henry Kissinger. (In the sketch, a depressed Nixon tells a painting of Lincoln, "Well, Abe, you were lucky. They shot you.") Franken worked for the show periodically between 1977 and 1994.

As conservatives seized the radio airwaves in the 1990s, Franken's writing and corporate speeches became more partisan. In 1996, he wrote Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot, a satirical attack on conservatives for being hypocritical.

In the new book, much of his anger - and behind the twinkle in his eye, there is always a flicker of fury - is directed at the Fox News Channel and its conservative commentators. He skewers O'Reilly for lying about a TV award, attacks Sean Hannity for distorting statistics and says Alan Colmes, who is supposed to be Fox's resident liberal, is a milquetoast. To make his point, Franken repeatedly puts Colmes' name in tiny type, so it is Hannity and Colmes.

He blasts Ann Coulter for several mistakes, including a flagrant one in which she claimed the New York Times waited two days to run a front-page story about the death of Dale Earnhardt.

Franken titles one chapter "Ann Coulter: Nutcase." The next chapter is "You Know Who I Don't Like? Ann Coulter."

A Fox spokeswoman said Hannity, Colmes and O'Reilly declined to comment for this story. Coulter did not return telephone calls.

Colmes told the Associated Press recently that liberals need to use him as a punching bag to bolster their claims that Fox is conservative. O'Reilly has been the most vocal against Franken, calling the book defamatory. Fox unwittingly launched Franken's book to the top of the bestseller lists. It sued him for using the network's "fair and balanced" slogan in the book's subtitle. A judge threw out the case, but the lawsuit provided Franken with gobs of free publicity.

Much of the book is meticulously documented to show how the Bush administration and its conservative supporters have lied to or misled the public. One example from the 12 pages of footnotes: Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer claimed outgoing Clinton staffers vandalized the White House, but the claims were proven false by the General Accounting Office.

Other parts are as fictional as a Saturday Night Live script.

Franken writes about Bush being a heavy drinker and even "an obnoxious drunk" until he turned 40: "Finally, Laura Bush laid down the law. Threatened with losing sex from his wife, Bush decided to quit drinking and turn to Christ."

He ridicules O'Reilly for including a tawdry sex scene in his 1998 novel Those Who Trespass. Franken then uses O'Reilly's scene as the basis for a make-believe encounter between Stipanovich, the Republican power broker in Tallahassee, and Harris, who was Florida's secretary of state:

A wave of calm, mingled with desire, washed over Florida's highest-ranking election official. It was good to have a man around. A real man. Not one of those country club milksops, but a living, breathing, farting man . . .

"Hold me, Mac, I'm scared."

"I'll do more than hold you, baby," he said, crushing his mouth to her lips.

Harris recoiled at the acrid taste of cigars and rye. "You stink, Mac."

"I know baby. And I know you love it."

Harris says the passage is typical of the way Democrats continue to push conspiracy theories about the 2000 election. "I love Mac - but not like that," she says with a smile.

Stipanovich says Franken was wrong on almost all counts: He doesn't drink or smoke, and he did not, ahem, have sexual relations with that woman.

But he confesses that "I have been known to rattle a fart every now and then."

Loving Mommy

As Franken sips a Diet Pepsi at his hotel before the bookstore appearance, he bemoans how conservatives took control of talk radio in the 1990s while liberals were silent. He says that illustrates the difference between the two sides.

"It was right-wing people obsessively wanting to hear their own ideas confirmed, and liberals being content to listen to National Public Radio and get information."

He says conservatives love their country the way a 4-year-old loves her Mommy: unconditionally. Anyone who criticizes Mommy is bad.

By contrast, liberals have a "grownup love" for their country, Franken says. They take the bad with the good and help their loved one grow.

He's angry with the Washington news media for not challenging the Bush administration. He says reporters have been intimidated by Republican claims that the media is too liberal.

He says the news media needs to "think more critically, get off its ass and work. Don't be cowed, have your antenna up for things that don't sound right, hold them accountable for what they say."

Franken is not sympathetic to the drug problem of his nemesis, Rush Limbaugh. He says Limbaugh should insist on the maximum prison sentence. Franken leans into a reporter's tape recorder and does his Rush impression: "I am a man of my woooorrrd, friends! Noooo man is above the law! That's what I said during the impeachment of Bill Clinton. That's why I want to go to the most dangerous prison, where the chances of my being killed or raped are the highest, my friiiiennnds!"

Franken says that's the kind of routine he would do on his own radio talk show. He's been talking with an investor group about the possibility of forming a radio network for liberals.

He's not sure if it will work.

"It may be hard to do three hours a day," he says. "I would have to try to be funny and I would try to impart much more information than (the conservatives) actually do and . . . I'd have to be honest."

He often refers to right-wingers as nuts, but says there are liberal nuts, too. They sometimes show up at his events and ask if Sen. Paul Wellstone, the Minnesota Democrat who died in a plane crash, was actually killed by the Republicans so they could get control of the Senate.

Republicans are the enemy, he says. But they didn't kill Wellstone.

Democrats can't afford him

The people packed into the Arlington bookstore look like they came from a Howard Dean rally: professionals in their 20s and 30s, subscribers to the New Yorker, people who go mountain biking and then hang out at Starbucks. There's not a strand of pearls in sight.

They like Franken because he is a voice for a political party that has suffered from laryngitis. They say he's a good spokesman because he's funny and he's willing to challenge the conservative pundits.

"I like that he takes the time to seek out the truth - or an approximation of it, anyway," says Jason Walther, 26, an Arlington writer.

But one of his fans is troubled by Franken's bareknuckled attacks.

"There's a whole lot of people-bashing going on," says Matt Jones, an Arlington attorney. "I think he's hilarious. But I'm disappointed this seems to be the new strategy. I don't think we need to get in the muck" with the conservatives.

When Franken is finished autographing books, he walks outside and climbs into the backseat of a Lincoln that will take him to the Ritz.

"Oh, s--! I need my wallet!" he says. "I don't have any money. I've got to buy everybody drinks."

He asks his driver to go to his hotel room and retrieve his wallet.

Pause. Punch line coming.

"Don't go into my drugs," he says.

The driver retrieves the wallet and Franken walks into the elegant ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton, where he'll address a group of international real-estate investors. As he looks at the crowd from the podium, he sees an all-white, mostly male group in business suits.

"I'd glad to see that this group hasn't given in to that stupid affirmative action nonsense," he tells them.

He says he recognizes this is a Republican crowd.

"What I've discovered is that the Democrats can't afford me," he says. "What I do is make fun of you, you laugh, and then you pay me."

(He declined to say how much he was paid, but the Boston Globe says he got $30,000 for a similar speech last month.)

It might be a Republican crowd, but he delivers a steady stream of Democratic jokes.

"Al Gore - you may remember him. He's the one who won the election."

The audience laughs at most jokes, although a few people seem unhappy with his explicit language.

They like his dig at Hillary Clinton. "She pledged that if she were elected to the Senate, she would not seek the presidency in 2004. And if you know anything about the Clintons, you know they keep their word."

One drink per person

After the speech, he finds about 40 fans waiting in the lobby.

"So you're buying drinks for all of us?" someone asks.

Yes, he says, but he quickly determines the Ritz-Carlton bar is too pricey, so he leads them across the street to a bar called Blackie's.

"Everyone gets one drink!" he says, modifying "drink" with a well-known adjective.

He orders a Guinness and tosses his credit card on the bar. He sits on a stool, sneaking peeks at the baseball playoffs as he autographs books and poses for snapshots. Someone asks what made him became a comedian.

He says it was the same thing that got him interested in politics: watching TV. He sat with his dad and watched comedians such as Bob and Ray and Buddy Hackett. (That's a theme with the Franken family: the positive force of television.)

Around the bar, his fans discuss why the Democratic Party went astray and how it can bounce back. Someone says Democrats need to say more about how government helps people. Someone else says the party has been too timid about challenging Republicans.

Someone asks Franken, "Why is it that, within our own party, the people who are discussing our issues the best are comedians?"

"Yeah," says another. "What happened to our party, man?"

Before Franken can answer, someone else pipes up.

"Did the Republicans kill Wellstone?"

- Staff writer Bill Adair can be reached at adair@sptimes.com or 202 463-0575

* * *

Here are some excerpts from Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, by Al Franken.

"Why did they hate Clinton so much? I think it's because we - and by that I mean Bill, Hillary and myself - I think we represented everything they despised. We were young. We were charismatic. . . . The mauling of Clinton was payback for Nixon, Bork, Iran-Contra and Clarence Thomas . . . but more than that, it was payback for the sixties: Freedom Riding, bra burning, pot smoking, free loving, tree hugging, draft dodging, Woodstock attending, Woodstock overdosing, God not-fearing, and carrot cake. They've never forgiven us for carrot cake."

"When President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he is said to have turned to an aide and remarked, "We have just lost the South for a generation.' The Republican Party became the home to Southern bigots and still is today."

"The mastermind behind Bush's dirty tricks campaign in South Carolina and beyond was a man by the name of Karl Rove, whose fleshy and formless physique belies a heart as cold and steely and deadly as a discarded refrigerator with the door still attached." (Franken includes this footnote about the location of the metaphorical refrigerator: "In an elementary school playground during a Minnesota winter.")

* * *

Al Franken is a Big Fat Idiot: Conservatives (and Alan Colmes) respond to his book

"Al Franken had 14 Harvard researchers working on his best-selling new book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. With this much manpower, he should have been able to produce a work of scholarship worthy of Gunnar Myrdal or Edward O. Wilson, instead of a loosely knit collection of anecdotes padded out with cartoons."

- Rich Lowry, editor of National Review

* * *

"Franken's job is to do exactly what Donald Segretti did for Nixon - dig up dirt on people. He is not a satirist; he is not a comedian. He's someone who wants to injure people's reputations, and I think people have got to know that."

- Bill O'Reilly, host of The O'Reilly Factor

* * *

Ann Coulter acknowledges her mistake about Dale Earnhardt and the New York Times and says it has been corrected. She says Franken's other allegations of mistakes are "inconsequential." She writes on her Web site: "It's interesting that the most devastating examples of my alleged "lies' keep changing. As soon as one is disproved, I'm asked to respond to another. This is behavior normally associated with tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorists. One crackpot argument after another is shot down - but the conspiracy theorists just move on to the next crackpot argument without pause or reconsideration. Certainly without apology."

* * *

"What am I supposed to do? Should I not work there because I'm a liberal and they want to paint Fox as a conservative? For (Franken and his supporters) to make the argument that Fox is conservative, they have to diminish my role there."

- Alan Colmes, co-host of Hannity and Colmes

Compiled by Times news researcher John Martin Sources: www.townhall.com Time, anncoulter.com, the Associated Press


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