I'm Good Enough, I'm Smart Enough, and, Doggonnit, People Like Me!
DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA—
The sold-out screening of Al Franken: God Spoke at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival has drawn a thousand moviegoers to Durham's Fletcher Hall on a warm Friday night. That's presumably because the Air America host, Saturday Night Live veteran, and author of Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them has pledged to appear in person for a Q&A. But what follows the movie feels a lot more like a rock concert—or maybe a campaign rally.
Even before Franken ambles down the long aisle toward the stage, the audience has already responded with thunderous applause to the comic's well-timed one-liner near the end of the film: "I'm thinking of running in 2008 against Norm Coleman." In part because alcoholic beverages are freely allowed in Fletcher Hall, you might suppose that this rowdy crowd would want to know what Stuart Smalley would say about American Idol, or what it was like for Franken to work with party animal John Belushi. But after a standing ovation—and a third-tier balcony holler for Franken to push the podium to center stage ("We can't see you!")—the audience proceeds to query the potential candidate on issues: government-sanctioned surveillance, death-penalty legislation, even campaign finance. Maybe there's a grass-is-always-greener factor at work here in North Carolina. Leaving the theater, I hear a woman behind me exclaim, like a toddler reviewing ice cream, "I love Minnesota!"
God Spoke, which opens the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival at the Riverview on Thursday night (followed by another Franken-hosted Q&A), is a biographical documentary that plays like a standup comedy film to the extent that its subject is rarely if ever offstage. (Even the tireless crusader's slooow rise from the hotel bed to greet Election Day 2004 can't help but appear scripted; such is the nature of celebrity docs.) Directors Chris Hegedus and Nick Doob, both close associates of doc giant D.A. Pennebaker, catch their star launching Air America with The O'Franken Factor; facing off against Ann Coulter, Michael Medved, and Sean Hannity; playing Saddam Hussein for the troops on his USO tour; impersonating Henry Kissinger for Henry Kissinger; and shedding a tear at John Kerry's concession speech. ("I'll cry at a good McDonald's commercial," Franken confessed to the Full Frame crowd—while crying.)
Unfocused but brisk and plenty fun, God Spoke is most compelling for its suggestion of how politics and showbiz are at once incestuously entwined and, perhaps, irreconcilably different. Destined to alter the party affiliations of no one, it's a movie that's tailor-made for Franken's many fans—and maybe for his voters.
Before the Full Frame screening, Franken—who says he'd be the "only New York Jew in the [Senate] race who grew up in Minnesota"—told me that he does indeed plan to run for office in 2008.
Actually, that's a lie.
But he did tell me a bunch of other things, not all of them funny.
City Pages:Okay—let's not beat around the Bush. Does anyone really want another comedian in office?
Al Franken: Well, I think there's a difference between being inadvertently funny and being actually funny. Maybe [voters] wouldn't mind having someone who had real training in comedy. I actually think that satirists sometimes crystallize ideas and concepts and issues more clearly than politicians do.
CP:Forget my comedian joke. Don't you think most people—liberals as well as conservatives—are a little tired of celebrities inserting themselves into political debates and political races?
Franken: Well, the Republicans didn't complain when Schwarzenegger jumped in. And his [prior] experience was limited to taking steroids and lifting weights. I'll admit I'm probably not appreciative enough of the art of sculpting your body.
CP:Aw, don't sell yourself short.
Franken: [Schwarzenegger] was an actor, too—running around in movies and shooting people. I think I come at it from a different place. I had a very different career than he did or Reagan did or any of these guys did. I've had a way more serious career [laughs].
CP:What kind of place is it that you come from?
Franken: I've always done political satire. So the subject matter is something I've always been thinking and writing about in one way or another. When I did Saturday Night Live, we did political stuff, a lot of which I wrote with other people, including Tom Davis. We never felt that it was the job of the show to advocate for one position or another; we felt that would be inappropriate for a show like ours. And then when I left the show, I felt like, Well, now I can write about what I believe. That was when the Gingrich revolution was ascendant. That was when I wrote Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations, which was about a number of things, including that [Limbaugh] was the mouthpiece of that revolution. A lot of it was about attempts to get rid of the EPA and dismantle the safety net. And [the book] was also a lament for what political discourse had become as a result of guys like Rush.
CP:Because your view of politics is grounded in satire, is there an even greater risk of your platform being too reactive in that stereotypically liberal way? Can reacting to right-wing nonsense have the effect of reinforcing right-wing power, of allowing them to keep the serve?
Franken: People are going to be so sick of [Republicans] by '08—they already are, really—that a campaign is going to have to include a critique of the last eight years. It'd be crazy not to include that. But it'll also have to include a vision going forward—the vision that we have.
CP:What is that vision?
Franken: It's the vision of a more just society in all respects—certainly in economic respects. There was a report out in the New York Times recently from David Cay Johnston—who we have on the [Air America] show a lot—about how much the wealthiest Americans have benefited from the latest tax cut. Tax justice is going to be part of this [vision]. And simple things like the living wage. Fair-trade deals. Health care for everyone. Investment in our schools—which we in Minnesota used to lead, and now we're not anymore. Using science again [laughs]. Addressing the real problem, which is global warming—that's just a common-sense issue and a moral issue. Renewable energy, bio-fuels. Pension reform, making sure that people have safe retirements. Addressing the stupid bankruptcy stuff. Establishing a foreign policy where we respect the views of other countries—where we make ourselves more secure by doing that.
CP:I'm guessing this requires quite a balancing act for you. You have this need to address, as you say, the last eight years, and at the same time to move forward. Then there's a balancing act between the need to draw on your celebrity—to make 'em laugh, essentially—while at the same time making it clear that, despite making 'em laugh, you're actually dead serious about this stuff.
Franken: It may be a balancing act, but I don't find it to be an inorganic balancing act. I do like comedy for the sake of comedy—so I love stupid comedy. I can write a sketch of Julia Child bleeding to death and feel like I've really done something for humanity. But at the same time, I've always used comedy to talk about serious things in a serious manner.
CP:The film seems to capture your sense that you may need to clean up your act—your language, basically—in order to get votes.
Franken: The film ends with me remembering that when I told the Buddy Hackett joke—the penis-on-the-forehead joke—when I was speaking at Temple [University], it offended some people. This is an odd thing. I mean, my wife and my staff have said, "Don't tell that joke." And I'm going, Yeah, but I still don't see what's wrong with that joke. So it's actually just a matter of judgment.
CP:I could imagine that if I was in your position, I wouldn't necessarily want the votes of people who'd be deeply offended by the Buddy Hackett joke.
Franken: Yeah, but you can't feel that way. You want to win. I do think that people have the right to know that I take things seriously enough—that I take [sensitive voters] seriously. It's almost a meta-issue. Why should people back me—why should people work for me or fight for me—if I don't care about the votes of people who are offended by the Buddy Hackett joke?
CP:Well, the obvious question is, Are you gonna run? But I'll pose it another way: Why wouldn't you run?
Franken: The reasons not to do it—possibly—are that I might feel it's more important to stay on the radio. And I've got to get every member of the family to agree that it's the right thing to do. Our kids have always been the center of our life.
CP:Does part of the temptation to run have to do with your sense that if you don't run, no one else will—at least no one who represents that vision you described?
Franken: Well, yeah. In 2008, I want someone to run who's gonna beat Norm. And I want someone to run who believes in the stuff that I believe in—believes in it to the degree that I do [laughs].
CP:The movie's opening joke is that God tells you to write Liars. So is God also telling you to run for office? Or is Paul Wellstone telling you to run? Stuart Smalley?
Franken: I think it's a combination of all three.
CP:The film includes footage of Wellstone's 1991 speech before the Senate, where he says that going to war in Iraq will inspire the world's hatred of the United States. That's an amazingly prescient speech.
Franken: But he's wrong about '91, you know. I think we did the right thing in '91.
CP:You've been inspired by Wellstone. He was a good friend of yours. But what do you think are the major differences between the two of you?
Franken: I don't know what the major differences are. He came from a different place—from organizing in rural Minnesota. We have different backgrounds. Politically, he might be slightly to my left—on trade issues, for instance—but just slightly. I think he was right about NAFTA. But at the time I would've probably gone along with [Bill] Clinton. These are relatively minor [differences]. He really did know the nuts and bolts of economic issues. Maybe to some extent I'm a little more interested in foreign policy. But I think he probably had more energy than I do. I never saw Paul when he wasn't full of energy.
CP:In general, do you think that Democrats in Minnesota used to be a lot more vital?
Franken: I'm impressed with our mayors in the Twin Cities. And I see some younger, up-and-coming leaders who I like. I like Amy Klobuchar—even though I'm not ready to endorse her in the primaries yet. We had Ford Bell on [the show] and he was very impressive. I don't want to dis the Minnesota DFL.
CP:So why does the party keep losing?
Franken: Well, we don't keep losing. I can explain the last two cycles. In 2000, we actually kinda won.
CP:And then in 2004...
Franken: Nah, I don't think we won in '04. In 2002, to the president's eternal disgrace, he used 9/11 to win the election and to chide us. I think that's all coming home to roost for him now. And if you look at all the pickup in House seats—that was the historic part, in 2004—all that net gain is from Texas, from that redistricting. And now we're seeing that come home to roost.
CP:When you see these things come home to roost, when you see how much worse things are now than they were even a year or two ago, does it ever make you glad that Kerry didn't get elected? That having the "roost" come on his watch would've discredited the party and made it hard or impossible for the party to recover?
Franken: Not really. Because I ultimately think that [Kerry] is a responsible guy. We had George Packer on [the show] yesterday; he's the author of The Assassins' Gate, the book about Iraq. It feels to me like we're just beginning to figure out how we should've fought that war. The early mistakes are going to haunt us. Those mistakes have probably caused damage that's irreparable, damage that Kerry couldn't have addressed. Nevertheless, [the Republicans] continue to make a lot of mistakes. There's still the profound lack of intellectual honesty and seriousness—in the way they approach the war, in the way they talk to Americans, in the way they approach the rest of the world. That hurts us every single day. I'd like to think that Kerry would've approached these things with more seriousness. To this day, Rumsfeld won't call what's going on in Iraq an insurgency. And it's important for them to call it an insurgency—if for no other reason than to kick in their counterinsurgency doctrine. Part of the counterinsurgency doctrine says, Don't try to kill the insurgents. But an another part of it, a big part, involves taking a town [in Iraq] and then living there, getting to know the people. That is beginning to work in some places. Even so, they're rotating people out after they've been there a year. The counterinsurgency doctrine would say, Stay there longer.
CP:You're at war yourself, in a way, right? Any time you've come across an anti-Franken slam in the right-wing press or blogosphere and said, "Whoa—touché"?
Franken: Not really. The people who attack me are attacking me for things that aren't true. There's one guy who wrote that I've only hired one black person, one African American. And now that's being repeated over and over again—and it's just not true. [The writer] got that statistic by not counting any African Americans I hired who didn't fit into the little category that he created. Then Steve Forbes writes about it in his column called "Fact and Comment." And it's not a fact, you know? So now I have to decide: Do I respond to this guy or not?
CP:Do documentary films help correct the balance? You're here at the Full Frame, which is the Cannes of American documentary festivals, a real haven for lovers of political docs. Do you think these films have an impact in what they call the "real world"? Or are they just preaching to the converted?
Franken: I think it's both—just like the [Air America] show. I mean, I think it's okay to preach to the choir: You give people information that they can use in the real world, that's how it works. I just saw a [Full Frame] documentary called My Country, My Country: It's about a Sunni Muslim family in Baghdad; it takes place over the course of eight months, right around the time of the  elections. I think it's a really important film for any American to watch, because you see through the eyes of Iraqi people and you get to know them well. The film is very moving, very emotional. With documentaries, it's maybe not about converting—it's about contributing to empathy and understanding.
CP:You're kind of a softie—you get teary-eyed with some regularity. Is appearing human an asset or a liability for someone who's trying to gain public favor in politics?
Franken: I think it's an asset—although I don't think it's good if you blubber all the time [laughs].
CP:You can just look in the mirror and say, "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and, doggonnit, people like me!"
Franken: I get angry, too—especially when it has to do with the troops. These guys [in the White House] seem to be very blithely willing to risk other people's lives and then completely disrespect [the troops] on top of it.
CP:Given all these issues, do you ever feel like you were funnier before you got so involved in current events? Has the politics taken a toll on your comedy?
Franken: You know, one of the things that I really like about the USO tours that I do is that I really don't do politics on them. It's really very pure comedy—just doing Bob Hope-type stuff. It's a little liberating, but I also feel like it's tremendous fun. And I don't think I've lost a step on that. If anything, I feel like I know what I'm doing [in comedy] more now than ever.
CP:Any issues you plan to lie about if you run for office?
Franken: To be honest, I think a big part of my campaign has to be that I tell the truth. I mean, I've written books called Lies and The Truth—so I've got to tell the truth. There'll be some stands I'll take that maybe don't represent the majority opinion in Minnesota or anywhere else [laughs], and I'll just have to be honest about it. I think people will know that I have convictions.
CP:You say people will know. So that means you're gonna run, huh? You want to announce it right here?
Franken: No. It's sort of like if I run, then people will know.
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