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Al Franken Talks About SNL, Stuart Smalley and 'Considering' Another Run At the U.S. Senate

U.S. Senator and comedian Al Franken, left, accepts the Ernie Kovacs Award from VideoFest founder Bart Weiss on Thursday at the Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff.
U.S. Senator and comedian Al Franken, left, accepts the Ernie Kovacs Award from VideoFest founder Bart Weiss on Thursday at the Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff. Danny Gallagher
Comedian and former U.S. Senator Al Franken isn't the first Saturday Night Live alum to win the Ernie Kovacs Award, an honor bestowed by the Video Association of Dallas for pioneering work in television. He may, however, be one of the most influential members of the show's long roster of creative names — and in ways that went far beyond the boundaries of our screens.

Franken worked on the very first SNL writing staff in 1975 for the long-running NBC sketch show, a job he got with his writer and comedy partner Tom Davis. Following his exit from the show in 1994, he wrote three best-selling books of political humor, and in 2006 was elected to the U.S. Senate from his home state of Minnesota.

"People always asked me what's your favorite moments from SNL," Franken says. "It was always 3 in the morning on the 17th floor of [30 Rockefeller Plaza] with the writers and the cast members and just falling on the floor laughing."

Franken received the Ernie Kovacs Award following a live Q&A on Thursday with the association's founder, Bart Weiss, at the Texas Theatre. The two talked about Franken's work in television and politics for over an hour, followed by a screening of the 2006 documentary Al Franken: God Spoke, chronicling the launch of the left-wing Air America radio network and the events leading up to Franken's decision to run for U.S. Senator Norm Coleman's seat.

The stage of the Texas Theatre was decorated with standing mirrors showing projections of Kovacs' and Franken's TV work. The setting was a clever nod to Franken's famous SNL character Stuart Smalley, the hopelessly optimistic host of Daily Affirmations, who is a "caring nurturer, a member of several 12-step programs, but not a licensed therapist."

Franken says he came up with the character while attending AL-ANON meetings with his wife, who was recovering from alcohol addiction, and hearing speakers using the program's steps and cliches to get through life. One of the members who sounds similar to the character showed him, "Oh, I see. You can learn stuff from anybody," Franken says.

Franken and his comedy writing and performing partner, Tom Davis, joined the show after a talent agency caught their act at Los Angeles' Comedy Store and asked if they'd ever written for TV. But Franken says the shows at the time didn't appeal to their generation's sense of humor.

"He said, 'Write the show you'd like to see,'" Franken says. "So we put a packet together that had a newscast, a commercial parody, a sketch that was a parody of the Sonny & Cher show and a conceptual film."

Their treatment sounds like the creation of producer Lorne Michael's first SNL, but Franken says, "Well, Lorne wouldn't say so."

Franken moved in front of the camera with his "Franken & Davis" show segment, which parodied live TV comedies of the 1950s. Eventually, he gained a seat behind the "Weekend Update" desk as a correspondent and commentator. During his second run on SNL, when Michaels returned to the show in 1985, Franken got more screen time with impressions of political leaders such as U.S. Senator Paul Simon and his "bow tie" as well as one-time presidential hopeful Pat Robertson.

Smalley often coached some of the show's famous hosts. One of his most famous Smalley moments had NBA superstar Michael Jordan telling himself, "I don't have to dribble the ball fast or throw the ball into the basket."  "It was just fucking perfect," Franken says. "In dress [rehearsal], he cracked up a little too much and I said, 'Try not to do that,' and he kept going and him trying not to laugh was the tension. The thing to doing a live show is sometimes it piques and sometimes it doesn't but when it piques, oh boy, you're happy."

Franken left SNL in 1994 because he felt the timing was right when the show chose Norm Macdonald to become the "Weekend Update" anchor, "and that was the right choice."

Being free of the need to maintain satirical objectivity helped him launch his first best-selling book Rush Limbaugh Is a Big, Fat Idiot and Other Observations, featuring essays on right-wing figureheads like Limbaugh, who dominated the radio waves in the late 1990s.

"I saw that Limbaugh was dangerous and he was dividing people," Franken says. "The Fairness Doctrine went away and he took advantage of it and he lied all the time. He was sexist, homophobic and racist."

Franken's status as a political satirist grew with his Air America radio show, The O'Franken Factor, a play off former Fox News host Bill O'Reilly's news show The O'Reilly Factor. He continued to appear on bestseller lists with books such as Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, which bugged O'Reilly enough to pick a fight with him on C-SAN and push his network to pursue a civil copyright suit against Franken — which, he says, "was laughed out of court."

Franken's love for and success with political humor also pushed him to be more politically active in the mid-2000s. He supported races by Democratic candidate U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone from Minnesota, who famously jeopardized his chances of staying a senator by voting against wars in Iraq under President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush. 
Franken became close friends with and an admirer of Wellstone during his 2002 campaign, which ended tragically just 11 days before election day, when Wellstone died in a plane crash with his wife and daughter, two aides and two pilots. Wellstone's Republican opponent, Coleman, was later defeated by Franken in 2008.

"Coleman said in Roll Call, 'To be blunt, I'm a 99% improvement over Paul Wellstone,'" Franken says. "I read that and thought I wonder who's gonna beat this guy, and I thought maybe it could be me."

Franken defeated Coleman by a margin of 312 votes. He championed and helped pass influential legislation such as the Affordable Care Act and the Service Dogs for Veterans Act.

Franken resigned and apologized following accusations of sexual harassment starting with radio host Leeann Tweeden, who claimed the year before that Franken groped her while she was sleeping during a USO tour in 2006, a moment that Franken called "bizarre and let's just leave it at that."

Franken recently returned to television on late-night talk shows, including a guest host spot this past summer on Jimmy Kimmel Live! Weiss asked Franken if he's thought about taking another run at the Senate, because "there are very few people who can confront people who are lying."

"I'm considering it," Franken says. 
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Danny Gallagher has been a regular contributor to the Dallas Observer since 2014. He has also written features, essays and stories for MTV, the Chicago Tribune, Maxim, Cracked, Mental_Floss, The Week, CNET and The Onion AV Club.

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