Not Shutting Up Anywhere
This Al Franken is your Al Franken
Trio's Brilliant but Cancelled came on the other night. As it turns out, many brilliant television shows have been canceled because of executive impatience with low ratings or, in the case of Bridget Loves Bernie, because a Catholic loved a Jew and they got married. Controversy. Lateline, an NBC sitcom starring Al Franken, was canceled in 1999 after 19 episodes. I don't even remember Lateline which probably says more about me than it does about the show, since we've established that the latter is brilliant but apparently it used a mainstream format to satirize the business of mainstream news. People who do remember it (or have seen the complete series on DVD) posit that it might have been too incisive and intelligent for its own good. Regardless, it didn't work.
Al Franken has likely been called incisive and intelligent, and, if he hasn't, I'm calling him that right now. And Al Franken works. Lateline's failure was a rare one in a career that has taken him from Saturday Night Live to scattered film work to publishing and criticism and activism to Air America Radio, where he hosts The Al Franken Show. Al Franken is going to run for Senate in 2008. There had been some speculation about an '06 run with the announcement that Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., would not seek re-election. But "there is no question that I couldn't do it, because I have a commitment to Air America, and people have invested in Air America based on that commitment. If I would have said I'll run in 2006, I wouldn't be able to fulfill that commitment, and I think it would have been actionable," he laughs. "2008 is something I'm very seriously looking at."
Meanwhile, Air America is more than seriously looking at Austin as its latest market. The network will launch its progressive programming on KOKE 1600AM (recently acquired along with six other local stations by Border Media Partners) on Monday, March 14, with a live show from the State Theater. Not coincidentally, Franken will be at SXSW Interactive the very same day. He spoke of both reasons for being here and more by telephone from New York.
Austin Chronicle: Will the live show be part of your appearance at South by Southwest Interactive?
Al Franken: I don't think so. I think I'm going to be interviewed by someone. Evan?
AC: Evan Smith. He's the editor of Texas Monthly.
AF: Yes! That's it. That's him. The editor of Texas will be interviewing me. Texas Monthly. Evan Smith.
AC: I guess he'll be in control of what you'll talk about for the most part, but
AF: Oh, no he won't.
AC: Then what sort of things will you talk about?
AF: Probably we'll be talking about the Bush administration, about Social Security, about the right-wing media: about our role in pushing back against those things at Air America. Where Democrats go from here. We could talk about Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and those guys. And Iraq. And the corruption of guys like DeLay. All of the stuff that sort of needs to be talked about now as much as we possibly can.
AC: I wonder if Representative DeLay has his ticket yet.
AF: Well, I don't know. I don't think he goes to Austin unless he's indicted.
AC: Speaking of your role, and the role of Air America, I guess one thing that I'm curious about is if when you were a writer at SNL you ever remotely envisioned
AF: Doing this? No
AC: I think at this point, and I don't want to overstate it, but you and Jon Stewart and maybe Bill Maher are the ones that people toward the left are looking to in terms of fighting the good fight, as sort of potential secular saviors.
AF: That's what I consider myself.
AC: How do you think all of this came about with you? Out of a perceived necessity?
AF: Actually, a lot of it did come out of necessity, oddly enough. There's an evolution that you can track that starts with leaving Saturday Night Live and writing the Rush Limbaugh book and the progression that led to Lies and [the] Lying Liars [Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right]. From out of that just came ... I realized the necessity for somebody to just stand up and do radio and just try to establish some kind of foothold in this huge, vast right-wing terrain. To get an audience and try to get people listening in their cars, to accidentally listen, to have Uncle Bob listening when his liberal niece is driving and have him hear a couple of things and go, "Huh, that's kind of interesting."
AC: Are you convinced that radio is the most effective medium at this point in terms of the message you're trying to get across? Is it going better than you thought?
AF: It doesn't happen overnight, but we've been adding stations pretty fast lately and we are going to be adding Dallas. And Austin, as we talked about. And Brownsville. We have Corpus Christi, so, we're beginning to have a Texas presence. I want to be everywhere. We've actually had a lot of success in pretty conservative markets. ... We've done really well in San Diego, which, you know, is the most conservative town in a pretty liberal state. ... It's important at this point that we're everywhere they are. It's really important that we be in places like Austin, because I think there's just a real demand for what we do there. But I want people all over to at least get the chance to hear us. ... We're already on Sirius and XM. Our streaming numbers are extremely high. We're, I think, the fourth most-listened-to radio on the Internet. The first one is some sort of dance music or something. Romanian techno. But just being in the running there with Romanian techno means that people are able to listen to us all over the world.
AC: Let's talk about the world, or at least something kind of topical.
AC: In terms of our own instability, and, I don't know, our anticipation of the end of the world and the current administration's role in it, do you think that thinking people in this country are looking in the wrong direction? That is, is it maybe less about al Qaeda operatives and nukes and global security and more about Americans with deeply religious conservative tendencies successfully impeding technology and progress?
AF: Well, I don't know. I think that you're maybe making some false divides here. I don't know that people who are maybe even right-wing Christian nuts can't use the Internet.
AC: I was thinking more along the lines of stem-cell research, for instance. Science. The environment.
AF: Oh, yeah, well, that's crazy. When you're talking about fact-based policies versus faith-based policies, yeah, there's a huge divide. You've just got to remember that this country was actually formed on the Enlightenment. ... Which really goes back to the founding fathers and how unreligious they were. I think every religion shares a prohibition against murder, so there's really no problem there. [laughs] Now, you know, when you start getting to an issue like choice, an issue like stem-cell research ... I mean, I can respect someone who believes that abortion is wrong, and doesn't want anyone to get an abortion. I kind of can respect that, [laughs] but I can't understand imposing that belief. I can't understand, for example, prohibition on stem-cell research. I still don't understand the anti-gay stuff. I don't understand it from a religious point of view. The Bible says you can't eat pork. It's just like, you know, you're not supposed to, I don't know, touch the skin of a pig or something. Huh? [consults with Billy Kimball, his executive producer] Yeah. [laughs] You're not supposed to wear a fabric made from two different animals. So, right away, say, you're in the Super Bowl: You're wearing your shoes, which are made from ... you're touching a pigskin. Yeah, and you're refusing to sell your own daughter into slavery. You're just in complete violation, you're making all kinds of mortal sins all at the same time. But the one they pick from the Bible is the gay one. It's just kind of like, come on, guys, that's your belief. I'm sorry. No one's forcing you to be gay. Really. Honest.
AC: How dire is this? I mean, even joking about it, it seems that institutionalized, legislative violence against groups of people or against the exchange of ideas on the Internet or wherever, could become as dangerous as terrorism. How does that make you feel?
AF: There are all kinds of ways to go off the tracks. It'd be nice to stay on the tracks in terms of treating people with dignity, making progress curing disease, promoting tolerance and peace and understanding and joy. It'd be nice. But it is a scary situation, and that's sort of what I, in my humble way, am trying to do: to keep these things on the tracks. I'm not always successful. I'm sure I've offended people and haven't contributed to an understanding, you know, partly out of their own stupidity. Aesthetics and values clash, especially in comedy, but I'm really trying to stay on a righteous path. We all should.
AC: So, when I called you a secular savior before, you're more of just the conductor of the peace and goodwill express, maybe?
AF: I don't know what I am. I'm just a guy trying to do a radio show and push back against these jerks.
A Conversation With Al Franken will ensue at 3:30pm, Monday, March 14, room 18B of the Austin Convention Center. Four and a half hours earlier, The Al Franken Show will hit the air live on KOKE 1600AM from the State Theater (719 Congress). For more, see www.thealfrankenshow.com and www.sxsw.com.