Campus & Community

Franken’s scattershot scores

4 min read

Satirist amuses, provokes, apologizes at Kennedy School

Al Franken and Alex
Humorist and author Al Franken gets a good laugh out of Alex Jones (right), director of the Shorenstein Center, during a brown-bag lunch at the Kennedy School on Tuesday, Nov. 27. (Staff photo by Jon Chase)

“I apologize if I offended you.”

With that, comedian and political satirist Al Franken closed his funny, sometimes profane, hourlong brown bag lunch in the Taubman Center’s fifth floor Allison Dining Room on Tuesday (Nov. 27).

The event, sponsored by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, was a lunch in name only. There was little munching going on among the standing room only crowd of about 100, who instead listened, laughed, and asked Franken questions, such as whether he’s ever come up with jokes he’s deemed too brutal to tell.

Perhaps surprisingly for the man who was one of the original “Saturday Night Live” writers and whose best-selling book is “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot,” the answer is yes. Franken treated the brown-baggers to a couple of rejected post-Sept. 11 parodies. One poked fun at several hijackers who reportedly didn’t know their Sept. 11 task was a suicide mission. The second, involving a fictional Pakistani Washington, D.C., cab driver, took a shot at the Bush Administration for its “crusade” and “infinite justice” gaffes in the wake of Sept. 11.

Shorenstein Center Director Alex Jones introduced Franken, saying he “is one of that rare breed who can be serious and funny simultaneously.”

Poison gas jokes …

Franken proved Jones’ point immediately, playing the part of the comedy historian and asserting that though he declared after Sept. 11 that it would never be safe to joke again, comedy has survived. It was changed by Sept. 11, however, much as it was after other conflicts – apparently poison gas jokes didn’t go over well until long after World War I, Franken said.

Franken gave as an example the old joke of a tourist in New York city going up to a local and asking “Do you have the time or should I just go f – – myself?” That joke, he said, has been changed to today’s version: “Do you have the time and isn’t Mayor Giuliani doing a great job?”

“We laughed through World War II. We laughed through Vietnam. We laughed when Princess Diana died,” Franken said, then adding, “OK, maybe just in my house.”

Others in Franken’s crosshairs Tuesday included televangelist Jerry Falwell, and the post-Sept. 11 detainees, for whom, Franken said, torture should be an option. Franken also told about how he tried out a joke on Tipper Gore about her husband’s famed stiffness before telling it publicly because his instincts told him it might be too much.

“Trust your instincts,” Tipper advised him.

Franken gave some history about one of the creations he’s best known for, the “Saturday Night Live” character Stuart Smalley, who he said arose from Franken’s experience in Al-Anon, a support program for people with family members who are alcoholics. When he first arrived, Franken said he didn’t take some of the people in the program seriously, but as things went on, he realized they were saying some important things.

“[Stuart] wasn’t my way of making fun of 12-step programs, it’s my way of explaining it,” Franken said.

Bush, Gore funny

In response to questions, Franken observed that George W. Bush has a decent sense of humor but Gore has a better one. He also said he’s happy Dick Cheney is vice president.

“When he [Bush] was inaugurated he had less trips abroad than Cheney had heart attacks,” Franken said.

Franken said he recently asked former President Bill Clinton whether he thought Gore would have gotten the same kind of bipartisan support that Bush has enjoyed had Gore been president on Sept. 11. No, Clinton reportedly replied, predicting instead bipartisan strife, congressional investigations, and calls for impeachment. Franken concluded that perhaps the 2000 presidential election turned out for the best.

“I just think we’re kind of lucky that the Supreme Court stole the election,” Franken said.

Franken also mulled the “pop-culturalization of politics,” that has political candidates vying for spots on “Saturday Night Live” and late-night talk shows. In the end, Franken concluded it’s a good thing.

“I think it’s great because it gives me a job,” he said.