February 11, 2005 | This interview originally aired on Free Forum with Terrence McNally on Los Angeles’ KPFK radio.
After a wonderful career on Saturday Night Live and then debunking right-wing propaganda in his best-selling books and Grammy-winning audio books, Lies, and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them and Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, Al Franken has taken the fight to America’s airwaves on Air America. With co-host Katherine Lanpher, Franken offers three hours a day of commentary and comedy, as well as substantive interviews – last week’s guests included FBI whistleblower Sibel Edmunds, former EPA head Christine Todd Whitman, The Innocence Project’s Barry Scheck, David Brock, author of The Republican Noise Machine, and Jared Diamond, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse.
The fastest growing network in radio history, Air America is now on in 50 markets, including seven of the top 10, and doing very well against Rush, Hannity and the rest of the rabid right.
And while Franken isn’t yet running for senator of Minnesota, could a leap into politics be too far in the future?
Welcome, Al Franken, to KPFK and Free Forum.
Terrence McNally: I always want listeners to get a sense of the personal path of my guests, to get to know the people behind the work and the ideas that we deal with …
Al Franken: I should do that.
Yes … We actually met in 1974 when you and your partner, Tom Davis, had just graduated college and were playing at the Garden Festival down near USC.
I remember that show. It was outdoors – it was a very nice evening and it was a beautiful event.
So you had to get from there to Saturday Night Live, and from Saturday Night Live to best-selling books and Air America. How did it happen?
Saturday Night Live we sort of got on as a fluke; we were the only writers that [SNL executive producer] Lorne [Michaels] hired who he hadn’t met. When he was first putting the staff together, we submitted material through an agent, and he read it and hired us. We still believe to this day that had he met us, he wouldn’t have hired us. …
So we were there from the first day. We were very fortunate to be a big part of this groundbreaking show. I did the show for about the first five years, then left for five, and came back for ten – so I did fifteen years of that show. I did a lot of different kinds of things – mainly writing, but I did perform a little bit. One of the things I specialized in was writing political material, and I did a lot of it with other guys, including Jim Downey, Tom Davis and other people.
We never felt it was the job of Saturday Night Live to have a political point of view or axe to grind. We just felt it was inappropriate … and besides, Jim and I didn’t particularly agree politically, which was good, because we kept each other honest. So when I left SNLRush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, which sort of launched me into what I’m doing now.
Now you’re on the radio. That’s a big transition, from being primarily behind-the-scenes, doing the occasional brief sketch on SNL, and then sitting in a room writing books for years, where you have complete control. … Suddenly you’re on the air three hours a day. What were the biggest challenges and what have you learned over, these first nine months?
Well you get the feeling of being jack-of-all-trades, master of none, but I think I’m getting pretty good at radio, I think my learning curve has been fairly steep in large part because of my co-host, Kathryn Lanpher, who’s a radio pro. She worked on public radio for years, and before that on a commercial station, and before that worked as a journalist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, which is a really good paper. I had done her show often enough in St. Paul when I’d go back to Minnesota, that I totally felt comfortable with her. I felt like if worse comes to worse, I’ll just have Kathryn interview me. (Laughs.) I could just have Kathryn be the host.
You could be the daily guest.
I never seem to have any problem being a guest, so I figured, OK, this is my little safety net, my big safety net. I did want to learn how to be a host, in case Kathryn got a cold, or wanted to take a week off because she couldn’t stand me any longer, … which happened last summer (laughs). I think I’ve been learning, and I think I do OK, and I enjoy it. I signed on originally for a year and stupidly allowed it to get out, that it was only for a year. People assumed, “Oh, I see, he’s just doing it till the election.” That wasn’t why. I only signed up for a year because I didn’t know if I’d like it.
Sure, yeah. Big change – five days a week.
It’s a commitment, you know. But then I discovered I really, really like doing it.
Now … something we have in common … You and I have both performed and written comedy. My listeners probably don’t even know.
[Laughs] I think your listeners should know that you’ve done such things …
I’m outing myself here. I co-wrote the novelty records, I Like ‘Em Big and Stupid, and Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun…
I know Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun by Julie Brown.
Yeah – and the movie Earth Girls Are Easy, that gave the world Jim Carrey, so … Now I’m dealing with serious issues on the radio, and I find it’s hard for me to know where that funny part of me can come in. How do you deal with that one?
Well, it’s sort of been an evolution for me. I’ve written books about serious things, but I never felt there was any kind of disconnect between comedy and something serious. I’ve never felt that at all. I had this argument with the censors at NBC all the time, , They’d say, “You’re taking something very serious and doing comedy about it – isn’t that trivializing it?” And I’d say, “No it isn’t. It just depends on how you do it.” So I’ve always taken very serious stuff and done comedy with it in one form or another. Last night I did Letterman … We got talking about visiting Walter Reed Hospital. I’ve done stuff for the USO, and they arranged for me to go visit soldiers who’ve been wounded.
You go in there and you’re thinking this is going to be hard, visiting guys who have lost limbs. … What I discovered was that it was easy, actually. They were funny. Every one of them. There was a woman there, a helicopter pilot, who lost almost all of her left leg, and the right leg to the knee, and I think part of one arm. She was cheerful.
One of the first guys I talked to was on crutches and he was missing one of his legs below the knee. I said, “What happened?,” and he said, “I came in here for a vasectomy and when I woke up my leg was gone.”
… If you meet these guys, do not say, “Thank you for your service.” Because that is the most perfunctory line … They do impressions of congressmen coming through saying, “thank you for your service, thank you for your service …” I ended up taking Polaroids with these guys – and I’d sign ’em, “Thank you for getting grievously wounded.” So treating stuff with humor is fine if you’re coming from the right place, if it has a point, or maybe if it’s just silly.
If it’s just damn funny?
Yeah … In my books I do that. I feel like it’s nutritional candy – I think they go down real easy. Like on our show, we get serious at times, and hopefully we get funny sometimes, and sometimes emotional … and sometimes passionate, and sometimes I rail. It’s a different mixture everyday.
I’ve done this show now for about eight years and I think a wonderful thing about radio is that you’re talking to thousands or hundreds of thousands of people most of them by themselves, You’re talking to one person multiplied by many, many, many, and it’s like they’re in your living room, or your den or something.
Or you’re in their car.
Yeah, exactly. You’re in their traffic.
There’s an intimacy to the medium but I don’t actually think about that that much. I don’t picture the person sitting in my lap. That’s what Garrison Keillor actually told me – “Don’t think of a person sitting in the theater listening to you, think of someone sitting on your lap.”
(Laughing) That’s a scary picture. … I mentioned that one of your guests last week was David Brock who wrote the book, The Republican Noise Machine. Obviously one of the reasons that you’ve chosen to re-up with Air America is because of the phenomenal power of the Republican echo chamber.
Say whatever you want about values, about terror, about fear, about any of that. Misinformation won this election. Seventy percent of Bush’s supporters believed we’d found WMDs. I think misinformation is a very deliberate strategy – Not only the reinforcement of misinformation but also the disparagement of facts and intelligence – it’s a double-whammy. We’re up against a great deal here. Can you talk just a little about the role you think that KPFK, Air America, and others should take in fighting this uphill battle?
Well, you guys have been fighting for a long time, and I salute you for it.
The first part of Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, looked at the myth of a liberal mainstream media. I basically concluded – I felt this going in but I felt it more powerfully coming out – that there’s been an infrastructure built by the right over the last 40 years, since Goldwater lost in ’64, It’s included the building of think tanks and things like the Media Research Center, which tries to extract anything out of context that makes it look like the mainstream media has a liberal bias. And this has been pounded, and pounded, and pounded in by the unbelievably right-wing terrain of talk radio. This pounding has been internalized by the mainstream media and they are now doing the job of the right.
They bend over backwards to censor themselves.
They’re afraid of their own shadow. Today, we had Richard Wolfe, who’s just gotten the White House beat at Newsweek. I spent a good 45 minutes beating him up over his cover article on Bush, because it was what I call a “beat sweetener.” Because he just got the beat and …
… he wants that access!
Yeah. And it was just totally syncophantic, and ridiculous. All the quotes are from White House staff. His defense was that they’re the ones who know him the best. It’s ridiculous stuff, like Karl Rove saying, “You know, it happens all the time, we get the briefing papers at night, and we all read them, and next morning he’s three steps ahead of everybody.”
So at least Wolfe is getting hit by somebody. Maybe that will help. And we’re building. L.A. will be our 50th channel. We have seven of the top ten markets, and this is after only nine months. The idea is to be on in 95 percent of America as soon as possible.
You’re absolutely right when you say that a large majority of Bush supporters, believe that we have found WMDs in Iraq. A large majority felt that Saddam had taken part in 9/11 or had given al Qaeda substantial support.
The funny one is that when Bush supporters are asked if al Qaeda hadn’t received support from Saddam Hussein, and if there were no WMDs, should we have invaded Iraq – a majority of them say no.
It just drives you crazy. It was partly, of course, the administration itself, The day the Duelfer Report came out, Cheney announced, “Well this confirms everything we said”…
[Laughs] And he trusted that a lot of Rush’s listeners were not going to actually read the Duelfer Report.
No, they weren’t even going to read any responsible newspaper summary of it. He emphasized that Saddam “wanted” WMDs and his “intention” was to develop them. And that was sort of right – kinda. Except there were no programs and there was nothing there, and, it had nothing to do with nuclear. …
Thomas Jefferson said that an informed citizenry deserves to be entrusted with its own government. And I say that a misinformed citizenry is downright dangerous.
Well, unfortunately, whether the citizenry is informed or not informed, we still have to rely on the citizenry. That’s our system … So the job of informing people goes to those of us who take this seriously enough to put in all these hours, researching …
You had a team of 14 research assistants on your book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, right? Are you setting out to actually make that a major feature of what you’re up to on the radio, too – making sure you get the facts straight?
When you write a book calling other people liars, you got to watch it, you know. We correct ourselves all the time if we find a mistake. I’ll give you an example: I was talking about Bush’s inaugural address on freedom. It’s so frustrating because the only places that they’ve even nominally done something about freedom are Afghanistan and Iraq. In Iraq, freedom was like the ninth reason we were given. In Afghanistan, you remember, we asked the Taliban to turn over bin Laden. Well if they had, we wouldn’t have gone in there, and we wouldn’t be talking now about little girls going to school. No we wouldn’t have done anything.
I’ve done a number of USO tours, and the year before last I went to Uzbekistan, which has an air force base right above Afghanistan. So I run into these PSY-OPs guys and I ask them, “Tell me about the Uzbeki regime here,” and they go, “Oh, it’s great.” And I said, “Aren’t they the most repressive regime in the former Soviet Republic?” And they said, “Oh, yeah, yeah, they’re horrible. They boil people.” And on the show, I said they boil dissidents in oil. It turned out they just boil ’em in water.
And of course, you got in trouble for that from the right.