WHAT I LIKE ABOUT WATCHING POLITICAL EVENTS,” SAYS AL Franken, “is making snide remarks while they’re happening.” That hardly sets him apart, except that he’s found a way to make a living at it. In January, Franken and a studio full of Comedy Central cronies lampooned President Bush’s State of the Union Address while the speech was still in progress—TV’s first example, experts believe, of Simulcast Satire. This week, the long-time Saturday Night Live writer-performer will host Comedy Central’s Indecision ’92: The Democratic Convention and will follow up with the Republicans in August. The politicos provide the straight lines; Franken and various guest commentators add the twist.
Laughs have been the platform for Franken, 42, ever since his Minneapolis school days. After the girls in his second-grade class put on “this really insipid show, ‘I’m a Little Teapot,’ I sat down and wrote a scathing parody,” he says. “I got the other boys together, and we dressed in drag [and staged it]. The girls were in tears.” That was also around the time Franken got interested in politics, watching the 1960 conventions with his dad, Joe, a salesman and a Nixon backer, and his mom, Phoebe, a real estate agent who was for Kennedy. Al sided with Joe but late defected to the Democrats.
Franken and his writing partner of 20 years, Tom Davis, were still in high school when they began doing stand-up routines in Minneapolis clubs. After Franken graduated from Harvard (“I always tested well”) in 1973, he and Davis reunited and signed on with SNL. The first bit they ever wrote for the show dealt with a new campaign slogan for Gerald Ford: If he’s so dumb, why is he President? More recently, Franken has concocted sly on-air impersonations of Pat Robertson and Paul Tsongas.
Although he admits to being a liberal, Franken insists that even Dan Quayle “would be proud” of his New York City family life. He has been married since 1975 to Franni Bryson; they have a daughter, Thomasin Davis (named after Tom Davis), 11, and a son, Joe, 7. A full-time homemaker, Franni, says Al, is also “a laugher, which all comedians need.”
These days, Franken is perhaps best known to SNL fans as the alarmingly upbeat, terminally Milquetoast chat show host, Stuart Smalley. In October, Dell will publish a collection of Smalley’s inspirational messages, I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me. Those people, Franken hopes, include Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton, whom he would like Stuart to interview at Madison Square Garden. Are the big news organizations sweating in their glassed-in booths? “I told Tom Brokaw what I was doing,” Franken says. “He didn’t seem too intimidated.”