Al Franken pops politics on The Popcorn Reel
The new documentary "Al Franken: God Spoke" makes its way around the United States
 

 Al Franken-3.jpg        
 
At Time Magazine's "100 Most Influential People" event this year.   (Photo: Janet Mayer)           As Moses in "Al Franken: God Spoke"  (Photo: Balcony Releasing)

           
                                                                               
By Omar P.L. Moore   October 2006

For almost all of the last eleven months author, comedian and political satirist Al Franken has been plowing full steam ahead.  On the radio, on book tours, on speaking engagements, on interviews, press junkets, USO tours in Iraq for United States troops stationed there, political fundraisers.  You name it, he has done it
and is still doing it.  At the moment Franken is contemplating a run for the United States Senate to represent the state of Minnesota in 2008.  Should the lifelong Democrat throw his hat into the political ring he will face incumbent Republican Minnesota senator Norm Coleman, who has New York roots as does Franken, who was born in Brooklyn, but raised in Minnesota.  (Franken will reportedly announce his intentions about a Senate challenge following the November elections in the U.S.)

These days in America, Al Franken is enjoying unparalleled popularity.  His best-selling 2003 book "Lies and The Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look At The Right" garnered even more attention when Fox News took Mr. Franken to court, alleging a trademark infringement of the phrase "fair and balanced", which Fox uses as part of its slogan.  Fox, to the delight of Franken and his fans, were literally laughed out of court by a New York judge.  Of all the Saturday Night Live alums, Mr. Franken is in a position to potentially wield enormous influence and power in the political sphere.  While fellow SNL alum Eddie Murphy played a "Distinguished Gentleman" in a film of the same name in the '90's, Franken could find himself being called just that by colleagues on Capitol Hill beginning in 2009.

At this moment on a Friday morning, he finds himself on the phone from Washington, D.C., where he very kindly spoke with us for a few minutes to promote his new documentary "Al Franken: God Spoke".  The film is in several U.S. cities and is making its way around the country as the election season winds down and the voters step into the voting booths next month.  The documentary, a hilarious, rip-roaring and passionate depiction of a man who has had politics in the blood since day one, is directed by documentary filmmakers Chris Hegedus and Nick Doob.  "God Spoke" follows Franken around for parts of a year and a half beginning in the Fall of 2003 shortly after the release of the book "Lies and the Lying Liars", whose release was accelerated after the Fox News lawsuit fiasco and its surrounding publicity, his encounters with political figures on the right and left, his daily radio show on Air America Radio and through the 2004 presidential election campaign.


                                               "It was the most important election since '68.  And we lost it.  But that doesn't mean we don't just keep on fighting -- but I wasn't going to deny what a big blow it was."


When told that his wife of 28 years, Franni, was a tremendous presence in the documentary as she helped keep Al on the sane path during a tense, frustrating,
pressure-packed 2004 presidential election that resulted in defeat for Democratic candidate John Kerry, the sincere observation elicited this response: "well, yeah,
we're a team, and we have been for a long time. . . when the kids were small we both were devoted parents and the focus of our family was on our kids, and now
we've transitioned to kind of the empty-nesters and she's served, more focused on helping me in my work."  While some whose daily  lives are chronicled for television or film may have felt the experience of cameras following their every move as constraining and intrusive, Franken didn't notice them after a while.  "Nick and Chris are very good at blending in."  The camera however, did capture Al in an emotionally candid moment after he finds out the result of the U.S. presidential
election in November 2004.  He remembered many things about that moment and the days immediately after that.  "I had been saying the whole campaign season that this was the most important presidential election since at least '68.  Kerry came on during the show . . . and it looked like we were going to lose.  I don't take that back.  It was the most important election since '68.  And we lost it.  But that doesn't mean we don't just keep on fighting -- but I wasn't going to deny what a big blow it was."
 

                                    
At the 2004 Republican National Convention in "Al Franken: God Spoke".   (Photo: Balcony Releasing)   As president George W. Bush in "Al Franken: God Spoke"  (Photo: Balcony Releasing)

Franken however, is laughing moments later as he recalls running into Karen Hughes, the former White House Communications Director for president George W. Bush, and now occasional consultant.  He speaks of the incident where she has to quickly respond to a reporter's question about Bush's driving accident a few decades ago, citing that "she made things up on her feet" when answering charges that the then-future president was drunk at the time he drove into a hedge.  In the film Franken is a little less conciliatory towards Hughes than he is when he recalls the event.  "Liar!" he says on film as he turns away from a speedily departing Hughes, whom he has spent a minute or so walking and talking with down a hallway behind the scenes during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City.

The political satirist gives his trademark laugh, a laugh that punctuates many of his own jokes, both on his radio show and in "Al Franken: God Spoke".  It's an infectious laugh, and he has his interviewer laughing frequently with his ironic humor and droll, deadpan observations.  Despite his readiness to laugh, the 55-year-old former Upper West Side of Manhattan resident (who now lives in Minnesota where he most often broadcasts his radio show "The Al Franken Show" five days a week on Air America Radio), has faced tough times -- on a daily basis in fact.  Franken is no stranger to hate.  Typically he will read some of the hate mail he gets, and although he mocks the grammar of those letters, he has spoken seriously on-air about the litany of anti-Jewish, anti-Semitic hate mail he gets in any given week.  On a more traumatic level, Franken lost his father in 1993, a man who had been a card-carrying Jacob Javits Republican before switching to Democrat following conservative candidate Barry Goldwater's avowed stance against the Civil Rights Bill during the 1964 presidential campaign.  Then in late 2003, Al's mother passed away.  She had suffered for several years with severe depression.  And in politics, Franken felt that America lost a truly great person in the shape of Paul Wellstone, the former Democratic senator from Minnesota who was killed in a plane crash in October 2002, less than a month before Minnesota's senate election.  The tragic loss of Wellstone, his wife and one of their children deeply affected Franken, as did the conservative pundits' and right-leaning media like Fox News Channel's characterizations of the televised memorial service as a political stunt and fundraiser for Democratic senate candidate Walter Mondale, the replacement who went on to lose to Coleman in November 2002.  In a chapter from his "Lies" book addressing the furor over the memorial service Franken paid tribute to Wellstone: "I, along with innumerable people, loved Paul Wellstone.  For what he stood for, for what he fought for, and for who he was.  I loved his wife Sheila, too.  I don't think I ever saw Paul without Sheila by his side."


         "I don't think it does anyone any good when you have Ben Affleck talking about politics.  As knowledgeable as Ben is . . . it's not as effective as someone . . . from the Saban Center (at Brookings)."


Franken is known to do impersonations of many political heavyweights, including Henry Kissinger (whom he meets in the documentary and does an impression of in his presence) and the late Strom Thurmond ("the penis it knows no bigotry!") in a strained Bible Belt southern drawl.  Thurmond was the Southern former segregationist white senator whose illicit sexual relationship with an under-aged black maid in the 1920's produced a child, Essie Mae, whom three years ago came forward to acknowledge that Thurmond (whom had regularly sent her money for years later while in office) was her father. 

Franken has been called, and likely regards himself, as a political wonk.  He could talk politics day and night, and probably even in his sleep.  He is well-connected, and has friends on both sides of the political aisle.  Among his Republican and conservative friends is G. Gordon Liddy, a member of president Nixon's Administration who was convicted of burglary, conspiracy and illegal wiretapping in connection with the Watergate Hotel break-in.  "I should invite Gordon to come see it (the film) . . . there's a premiere (on the day of this interview) in Washington, so I should invite Gordon, Tony Blankley (a conservative newspaper columnist at The Washington Times) and maybe a few other people."  Asked whether any Republicans have seen "Al Franken: God Spoke", he says that "I haven't gotten any reaction from anyone on the other side of the aisle.  I've had some more neutral people watch it."  The film itself has personalities from the right and left in it, including Michael Moore, Ann Coulter, Al Gore, Robert F. Kennedy, Senator Bob Kerrey, Brit Hume, Janeane Garofalo, Senator John Kerry, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and Neal Boortz.

Numerous people from celebrity-land worldwide have run for office over the years -- in the U.S., Ronald Reagan, Jesse Ventura, Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in England, Glenda Jackson, in Liberia, soccer legend George Weah, and in Italy a porn star whom had been elected to Italian parliament several years ago -- and to this list potentially Mr. Franken's name will be added.  Franken however, sets himself apart from other celebrities in the arena of politics.  "I am someone who has been writing about politics . . . it's my full-time job . . . it's been my full-time job for quite a while.  Even though I do comedy . . . I do straight comedy, I do USO . . . I put myself in a different category obviously because I'm on the (radio) show for three hours a day."   In America, a chorus of people in 2003, including some pundits in the mainstream press, asserted that a celebrity had no right to speak about their political views, be it on the ongoing war in Iraq or anything else, and that they should stick to their day jobs.  Franken himself agrees with this sentiment.  "I've always felt uncomfortable with celebrities spouting their political views unless it's someone like (director) Rob Reiner who has a proposition on the state ballot in California, someone who has really taken some action and is a serious player in an issue.  But I don't necessarily feel that does anybody a lot of good when, you know, there's Ben Affleck going on talking about politics.  And as smart as Ben is, and as knowledgeable -- he's, you know -- he's Ben Affleck -- and it's not -- I don't think it's as effective as someone who is from the Saban Center (for Middle East Policy at Brookings Institution)."  He laughs.  "You know what I mean?" 


                                         What would a documentary on Bill O'Reilly be called, and what would it be like?  "It would probably be called 'Bill O'Reilly: God Spoke" -- but he'd mean it."


In conjunction with his stance on celebrities and politics, Franken also addresses his "Tim Robbins rule", which he uses on his daily radio show.  "I call it 'the Tim Robbins rule' because Tim is sort of the high bar.  Tim is an actor who really actually does know his stuff."  Robbins, the Oscar-winning actor and activist, has been involved in politics for many years, and has been arrested along with long-time partner Susan Sarandon at numerous political demonstrations.  He has directed the theatrical stage production "Embedded", about the Iraq war, and such political films as the satire "Bob Roberts" and political dramas "The Cradle Will Rock" and "Dead Man Walking", all three of which featured Sarandon.  Franken also utilizes the "Tim Robbins rule" by inviting celebrities on to do performance skits, such as Meg Ryan, or Stanley Tucci (who plays U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on Franken's show.)  Bebe Neuwirth plays Ann Coulter on the radio show in several sketches.  Franken himself has played vice-president Dick Cheney, impersonating him in re-enactments of the duck-hunting incident where Cheney accidentally shot a fellow duck-hunter back in February.

On a more serious note, Franken has days where politics is a tough road to hoe.  Has his passion for politics waned or has he been discouraged by the political process?  "Yeah, it happens sort of every day," Franken says.  "But we regroup . . . ".  He doesn't see the Republican-led Congress or the voting machines that affected the results of the 2004 presidential election in Ohio posing the biggest obstacle in American politics, citing that there isn't any one thing that poses the biggest obstacle, although he was quick to say that "the importance of special interests in raising money" was one significant obstacle. 

A scenario is drawn up for Franken: what would a similarly-themed documentary on Bill O'Reilly be like and what would it be called?  "It probably would be the same thing, "Bill O'Reilly: God Spoke" -- but he'd mean it."  As for his thoughts on whether O'Reilly would ever run for political office, Franken offered: "I don't think he will . . . I don't think he could make it through the campaign."


"Al Franken: God Spoke" is currently playing in several U.S. cities including New York, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Dallas, and over the next few weeks and months will be opening in many other American cities, including Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Sacramento, Austin, New Orleans, Berkeley, Columbus and St. Louis.

 

 


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