Al Franken is not one to mince words: his most famous book is entitled Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot. His brash deadpan comedy has earned him Emmys, a Grammy, and 2 New York Times best sellers. From his days on Saturday Night Live as a writer and sometimes performer, to his political satires that have earned him international accolades, Franken is a man of many hats, and whose memory will be as qualified as it is quantified.
Birth Of A Comedian
Al Franken was born May 21, 1951, in downtown Manhattan in New York City. At a young age, the family moved to Minnesota, eventually settling in Minneapolis. He grew up a Republican, supporting the heroes of the party such as Thomas Dewey and Alf Landon. However, during the civil rights movement, Franken switched party affiliation, and remains a Democrat to this day. In second grade, he had his first taste of comedy when he composed a skit parodying a song some of his classmates had performed. An intelligent and hard-working student (and high school wrestler!), he earned a scholarship to attend Harvard University, where he learned of the works of Dick Gregory and Lenny Bruce. He graduated summa cum laude in 1973, but by then he had already gotten a taste of his true passion: comedy.
Franken entered the comedy scene with a bang, earning a job as a staff writer for a new untested NBC series "Saturday Night." He created several interesting skits while with the series, most notably "The Me Decade" about the self-obsessed 1970s, as well as helping flesh out the popular Coneheads character. In 1980, after winning 4 Emmys for his writing, he left the series and struck out for Hollywood. He had little success (other than a brief but hilarious turn as a drunk baggage handler in Trading Places) and returned to the show (now named Saturday Night Live) in 1985. He continued to create interesting characters, including Stuart Smalley, a feel-good therapist racked with issues himself (and famous for his dogma "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!").
Soon Franken became more and more well known in political circles as an astute comic observer. Franken earned quite a bit of prestige when he won an Emmy for his 1988 coverage of the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. These proceedings became a ritual for Franken, as he hosted Comedy Central's 1992 election night, and again in 1996, when he ran down the candidate list as a co-host of Bill Maher's ABC show "Politically Incorrect." He has also hosted the White House Correspondents Dinner twice, the only person to do so.
Ups And Downs
In 1992, Franken released a ghostwritten autobiography by his character Stuart Smalley entitled, appropriately enough, I'm Good Enough, I'm Smart Enough, And Doggone It, People Like Me!. It made the New York Times best seller list, and was nominated for a Grammy for "Best Comedy Album." Franken also showed an affinity for appearing in and helping create movies: he wrote the script for the 1994 vehicle When A Man Loves A Woman (featuring Meg Ryan), and in 1995, a Stuart Smalley movie entitled Stuart Saves His Family (and scripted by Franken himself) was released. The film was both a critical and commercial failure, but Franken wasn't fazed. He quit his job at Saturday Night Live (after they refused to let him be the "Weekend Update" anchor) and began writing a second book.
Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations reached the number one spot on the New York Times bestseller list and sold over million copies. Filled with scathing commentary on the Republican Party, the book was a firebrand, as people from both sides of the aisle argued for and against it merit. The audio version won a Grammy for "Best Comedy" award, and pundits everywhere discussed the book for months.
In 1998, Franken successfully produced a pilot for NBC called "Lateline" about a show very similar to NBC's already successful "Dateline" program. Critically lauded, the show received little attention by the public and was grossly mistreated by NBC, who abruptly cancelled the show after 2 seasons. Franken's response? "They're idiots."
In 2000, Franken released another book, Why Not Me? The Inside Story of the Making and Unmaking of the Franken Presidency, a fictional account of his candidacy in the 2000 Presidential election. He also became a (semi-)regular on the short-lived
Clerks: The Animated Series" and "3rd Rock From The Sun." His 2002 book, Oh, The Things I Know: A Guide To Success, Or, Failing That, Happiness again topped the New York Times bestseller list.
2003 brought Franken's most controversial book yet. Entitled Lies and The Lying Liars Who Tell Them, it offered up a scathing look at both the spin tactics of the Bush Administration and the "fair and balanced" news being offered at Fox News. He was subsequently sued by Fox News for using the phrase fair and balanced in the book's subtitle, a phrase they claim to have trademarked. A judge threw out the suit, calling it "wholly without merit", and another Franken book climbed to the top of the bestseller list.
In 2004, Franken took up a job working for Air America Radio as host of a show he lovingly titled The O'Franken Factor. An edited video version of the show appeared on the Sundance Channel in 2005. In January 2007, Franken resigned his position with Air America Radio in order to fully commit himself to a bid for election as a United States Senator.
More To Come
Al Franken continues to be a dominating force in both American comedy and politics. Whether or not you agree with his viewpoints, he is at heart a satirist in the vein of Will Rogers or Art Buchwald, and one must admire the boldness and tenacity this sort of engagement requires. Only time will tell if "people like Franken," but it's obvious in the here and now that Franken stands out as a interesting, insightful, and above all funny commentator on our world today.