DATE October 31, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Political satirist Al Franken discusses the 2000
presidential campaign and the upcoming "SNL Presidential Bash
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Last night, George Bush was a guest on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno." Al
Gore will be on tonight. During this campaign where the likability factor
has become so important, the candidates are trying to prove that they have a
sense of humor. On today's FRESH AIR, we're going to talk to two political
satirists about the campaign. Al Franken worked on "Saturday Night Live" as a
writer and performer for 15 years. He supports Al Gore. Bill Maher is the
host of "Politically Incorrect." He supports Ralph Nader. We approached
several comics and satirists who are Republicans, and for various reasons,
they each declined. But more about that later.
On Sunday evening, Gore and Bush will play themselves in the opening sketch of
"SNL's Presidential Bash 2000." My guest, Al Franken, co-wrote that sketch
and is a consulting producer for the program. He's also the author of the
best-seller "Rush Limbaugh is a Big, Fat Idiot" and a satirical campaign diary
called "Why Not Me?" He's working for the Gore campaign, stumping and
writing. I asked if he's writing jokes for Gore.
Mr. AL FRANKEN (Satirist): Yeah. I've been part of a team that has written
for him. I've written jokes for the Al Smith Dinner and for the Gridiron
Dinner and for some little other things. So every once in a while, I'm on a
conference call actually with the vice president sometimes, but, you know,
with other writers, including Kristin Gore.
GROSS: That's his daughter. Is she the one who writes for the sitcom or is
the other one?
Mr. FRANKEN: She's the one who writes for "Futurama."
GROSS: Right. OK. So can you tell us a couple of lines you've written for
Gore for one of those comedy dinners?
Mr. FRANKEN: Let me see. Well, I wrote this thing for the Gridiron, which he
can't use on the stump, but which was pretty successful at the Gridiron, and
now I use it, which is that this was my ploy for him for the debate, which
was--Gore would say something negative about the Bush-Quayle administration,
at which point Bush would feel compelled to defend his father, President Bush,
and at that point, Gore would say, `I knew George Bush. George Bush was a
friend of mine. And you, sir, are no George Bush,' which I believe would
hopelessly confuse Governor Bush.
GROSS: Do you know who wrote Tipper's recent line, `It's not "The Dating
Game." You don't have to fall in love with Al Gore. I did that. What you
need to do is figure out who you're going to vote for, and I know that you're
going to weigh experience'? Do you know who came up with that?
Mr. FRANKEN: I'll bet you Tipper did.
Mr. FRANKEN: Yeah. That sounds like Tipper. I really like Tipper. The
first time--it's part of the reason I like Gore. The first time I met Tipper
was in 1994 at the White House Correspondents Dinner, and this was the first
time I ever talked with a big Washington Beltway crowd, and I was really
nervous. And before the dinner, there was a cocktail party for the dais,
and the vice president was there and Tipper and the president and Mrs.
Clinton. I took Tipper aside and I said, `I have a joke about your husband.'
And she said, `What's the joke?' This is a true story. I said, `Well, OK,
here's'--I said, `I'm a little worried that this might be a little over the
line. My instinct tells me not to do it.' She says, `What's the joke?' And
I said, `OK, here's the joke. Vice President Gore reaffirmed his commitment
to the environment today when he announced a new policy regarding the stick up
his butt. Instead of replacing the stick every day with a new stick, as he
does now, he announced that he will keep the same stick up there throughout
the rest of the administration. Evidently, this will save an entire rain
forest.' And she looked at me and she said, `I'd go with my instinct.' So I
really like her. And now one thing, you know the kiss at the convention?
Mr. FRANKEN: That was my idea.
GROSS: Oh, sure.
Mr. FRANKEN: Yeah. No, no. In fact, I demonstrated it for them, not on
Tipper, on Karenna. And the kisses were very--the oldest Gore daughter--very
similar kisses, except the one with Tipper and the vice president, there was
less struggling. And it didn't end with Tipper kneeing the vice president.
Also, the Secret Service didn't drag him away, but he had--of course, he had
to speak. And also, he approached her really sort of head on, and I came over
the back kind of--but, anyway, it was very, very similar. It was my idea, my
GROSS: In your book, "Why Not Me?," which was a satirical campaign diary with
you running as president, you chose as your vice presidential running mate Joe
Lieberman. Now this book was published--was it one year ago or two years ago?
Mr. FRANKEN: Like a year and a half ago.
GROSS: OK. So, I mean, you didn't know that Al Gore would actually choose
Mr. FRANKEN: I was prescient.
GROSS: You were prescient.
Mr. FRANKEN: That's right.
GROSS: Yeah. Why did you choose him?
Mr. FRANKEN: I picked him for a different reason. I picked him to balance
the ticket because I'm a reformed Jew.
GROSS: What did...
Mr. FRANKEN: And...
GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.
Mr. FRANKEN: Well, a part of the premise of my book was that--there are many
premises, but one of them is in the book, I'm a jerk, hard as that is to
believe. But I pick an entirely Jewish Cabinet and--including a Jewish
running mate. And if you kind of looked around the horizon of prominent Jews
in America who you could pick as a running mate, Joe sort of leaped forward.
You wouldn't pick Barbara Boxer. You wouldn't pick Frank Lautenberg, you
know, you wouldn't--so I ended up with Joe. And I know Joe, and actually, Joe
read the book and he came up with some bumper stickers for...
Mr. FRANKEN: One was `Franken-Lieberman, no bull, no pork.'
GROSS: That's it.
Mr. FRANKEN: Joe is really funny, and I was just in Nashville last week
and just talking to Tad Devine and Carter Eskew and those guys, and they were
talking about, I guess, the vice president's going on "Leno" and I was talking
about Joe doing one of these shows. And they said, `Well, we're trying to
keep him off these shows because we don't want him to--he's maybe getting a
reputation of being sort of too funny.' And if you know him, he does have
that, you know, reformed rabbi who wants to be a comedian vibe, a little bit,
you know what I mean? He's got that kind of--he loves humor, and I guess that
they might feel like it'll cut into his gravitas, but I think he's got plenty
of--I think you can have gravitas and a sense of humor at the same time.
GROSS: My guest is Al Franken. You wrote for "Saturday Night Live" for about
15 years, and now you're a consulting producer to the "SNL Presidential Bash,"
which is scheduled for Sunday night. And I believe you co-wrote the opening
sketch in which Bush and Gore will actually play themselves.
Mr. FRANKEN: Yes. On the show, there's a little co-opening. Jim Downey,
who's producing the show and who has written all the debate sketches on the
show this year, who came back from not writing for "SNL" to write those debate
sketches, is producing the show, and he and I wrote that together, the opening
of this one. Yes, Bush and Gore appear together via the magic of a split
GROSS: Oh, so they're not in the same room together.
Mr. FRANKEN: We shot it--and I wasn't there, Jim was there--when it was shot,
it was in the same studio, but they were at different times. But it was like
an hour apart, because again, they're both in town for the Al Smith dinner.
GROSS: What made you or Jim Downey think of actually inviting them to play
themselves, as opposed to getting cast members from the show to play them,
which is what usually happens?
Mr. FRANKEN: Well, cast members from the show do play them, but I think we
just had a meeting early on about this special, and it just seemed that they
were so willing to go on "Letterman" and "Leno" and all those shows that it
didn't seem like such a leap that they would agree to do our show.
GROSS: So did you have to send the sketches in to the Bush and Gore campaigns
before they'd agree to do it?
Mr. FRANKEN: Oh, yeah, yeah. Yeah, and they were both very nice to do it, by
the way. The Bush camp was very nice. And...
GROSS: Did they count laugh lines, like who had the more self-deprecating
Mr. FRANKEN: It was actually really--it was almost like dealing with Barak
Mr. FRANKEN: In fact, the first version we wrote, we had written a lot of
Gore sort of taking the credit for being one of the first fans of "Saturday
Night Live," you know, and that kind of thing, you know, exaggerating his
fandom of the show and boasting about being one of the first fans and stuff,
and that kind of joke. And the Bush people felt that he had too many of the
jokes, and the Gore people felt that his jokes were too self-deprecatory, so
we had them reacting negatively to the same thing. You know, we ended up
taking one of the self-deprecatory jokes out of Gore's, and the Bush people
volunteered to have him mispronounce words, which we never would have thought
to do, but they were very nice to suggest that.
GROSS: You mean they suggested it?
Mr. FRANKEN: Yeah.
Mr. FRANKEN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Putting aside for a moment your credentials as a comic who's
co-writing this sketch for Bush and Gore, do you think it's a good idea for
the presidential candidates to play themselves on an "SNL" program, or do you
think that they should stay out of comedy like that and just do what they do
for real and let the actors impersonate them?
Mr. FRANKEN: Well, in the abstract, I don't think it's a bad idea. I can be
specifically a bad idea if they get the wrong script, if they did the wrong
thing. You know, some people have said it's not dignified, and I just think
we're so far beyond that, so, you know, if I were in the Gore camp and Bush
was going to do it, I'd want to do it. You're reaching people who aren't
necessarily watching a lot of C-SPAN, and there's no--also, you know, when
these guys go on "Letterman" or "Leno," when they do these shows, you know,
I'm sort of the designated pep talker for--I talked to Lieberman before he
went on Conan. I talked to Gore. I talked to Hillary before they go on these
And all I tell them is--I have a little thing I say, which is that America
doesn't want the president of the United States to be the funniest guy in the
country. They don't want Robin Williams to be the president. They just want
to know you're human and have a good sense of humor and just relax. And I
think that it's fine. I don't think it's a waste of their time, and I think
it's good to show that they have a sense of humor, but again, they have to be
careful exactly what they're doing, though.
GROSS: When Nader was on "Saturday Night Live" recently in a sketch with Rob
Lowe that I thought was very funny, it was basically, you know, Rob Lowe
parodying how self-absorbed actors are with Ralph Nader parodying how
self-absorbed he is as a political candidate.
Mr. FRANKEN: Yeah.
GROSS: It was a pretty funny sketch.
Mr. FRANKEN: I thought the beginning from this was funny, too, which was that
he's telling Loren, `You wouldn't even let me in a sketch, you know, about
GROSS: That's right. That's right.
Mr. FRANKEN: Which was--yeah.
GROSS: I'd forgotten that part.
Mr. FRANKEN: He'd go, `Well, Ralph, you weren't in the debate.'
GROSS: My guest is satirist Al Franken. We'll talk more after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest, Al Franken, is a political satirist who's now working with
the Gore campaign. He wrote for and performed on "Saturday Night Live" for 15
years, and he's the author of the satirical campaign diary "Why Not Me?"
Do you think a lot of voters are kind of weighing this election as if the
person who wins the election is going to have dinner with them every night and
they have to decide who the best dinner companion would be?
Mr. FRANKEN: I think there may be a little of that. You know, I have a
theory, which is that Clinton, who's been such a successful president in so
many ways. Obviously, he had one real big problem. But he's taken these
record deficits and turned them into surpluses, on and on, the whole litany of
successes that we've had in this presidency, economically and crime and all
that stuff. And he did it with one hand tied behind his back the whole time.
He was being investigated from day one. And I think people might be thinking
now, `You know, it probably isn't that hard to be president. I mean, if he
can do such a good job with this handicap, how hard can it be? So we'll take
a flyer on Bush, who seems like, you know, a nice guy,' a little bit of a
towel-snapper. I went to school with guys like George W., and you didn't want
to be around them when they did have a towel.
GROSS: After every debate, some of the networks had focus groups in which
they would talk to a group of undecided voters. And after every debate,
people would get up and say, `I don't know. I still can't make up my mind. I
need more information.'
Mr. FRANKEN: Sure.
GROSS: And I'm wondering what went through your mind, watching the dialogues
with the undecided voters and knowing that so much of the debate was being
played to undecided voters?
Mr. FRANKEN: I've had this experience--stumping for Gore, I was in a diner in
a suburb of Chicago in Illinois. I walk in and, you know, I go up to people
and I say, `I hope I'm not bothering you, but I'm campaigning for Al Gore,'
and I had a guy say, `I'm undecided.' And I said, `OK, well, what issues do
you care about?' And he said, `The environment and medication.' So I
thought, OK, this is a gimme, so I laid out sort of the differences on the
environment and how Bush, as governor of Texas, has appointed the chemical
lobbyists to be the regulator of the environment in Texas and how bad his
record is and how Houston's become the smoggiest city, etc., etc. Then I
went into the--compared the two plans for prescription drugs for seniors.
And he said, `Oh, I didn't know. Oh, I see. I see.' So I go, `So now are
you going to vote for Gore?' And he said, `Well, I'm still undecided.' I
said, `OK, OK. What other issues?' `OK, I'll tell you one thing,' he said.
`I want to keep guns out of schools.' So then I told him the comparative
stances on guns, on the Brady Bill, which Bush won't say he's for or
against--that kind of thing--and after that, he said, `Oh, I didn't know that.
OK. OK.' I go, `Are you going to vote for Gore?' He said, `Well, I still
don't know.' And at a certain point, you just kind of got to move on, you
GROSS: You know, another guest on our show today is Bill Maher, the host of
"Politically Incorrect," who I know that you know because you've done a lot of
work with him...
Mr. FRANKEN: Sure.
GROSS: ...on his show. And he's got a lot of problems with both Gore and
Bush, and he's going to be voting for Nader. The Gore campaign is running a
big campaign right now to try to wrestle away votes from Nader, hoping that
those people who they wrestle away will vote for Gore. What do you think of
the premise that Bush and Gore are basically the same thing, and therefore,
better to vote for Nader?
Mr. FRANKEN: Oh, I think it's ridiculous. I think there are just tremendous
differences between these two guys. And if you just look sort of like who's
on their team, I mean, it's--Cheney voted against Head Start; he voted against
clean water, clean air. He voted against a ban on cop killer bullets. Bush
has said that his favorite Supreme Court justices are Anton Scalia and
Clarence Thomas, and that's the kind of judges he'll appoint. And I think
it's easy if you can't get elected president, which Ralph can't--and by the
way, Ralph is a hero in my book, and he's saved a tremendous number of lives
and I think is an icon. But he's not going to get elected president. And
when you're in that position of you're not going to get elected president, you
can say things that you can't say if you're going to be president, and you can
say, `I want universal health care the minute I get elected,' and not have to
say how you're going to do it.
Al Gore has been in the House and in the Senate and vice president long enough
to know how the world works and to get things done and to deal with the
reality of what we have in Washington, which is we have Trent Lott, and we
have Denny Hastert and we have Tom DeLay in Congress, and there are certain
things you can't do when there's a Republican majority. So, you know,
sometimes I think the most cynical people are the people who are voting for
Nader and just don't care. It doesn't matter then what really happens. I
mean, I know that Bill is--I like Bill a lot and I think his show's great, but
I know he's a pretty cynical guy, and I think it's a sort of a cynical stance
to say, `You know, it really doesn't make any difference.' It makes a huge
GROSS: Where are you going to be on Election Night?
Mr. FRANKEN: I've been invited to come down to Nashville. I think this is
going to be such a close election that I want to watch it at home with my
remote control, because I want to pop around. You know, I'm a political
junkie, and I don't want to be in some, you know, room where there's a
thousand people or even a holding room where there's 40 people and not be able
to control the remote, which is what you do with a remote control if you have
it in your hand, and so I kind of actually want to be able to call people,
find out what's happening in Minnesota, my state. When I campaigned for Gore,
I do campaign for local candidates in these areas and there are a number of
them who I've grown very--I have a lot of affection for. So I think I want to
do it at home so I can be calling people and watching the TV and eating my
food--well, my wife's cooking, not so much what I make.
GROSS: Al Franken. His latest book is the satirical campaign diary "Why Not
Me?" He's currently working for the Gore campaign. He's a consulting
producer for this Sunday's "SNL Presidential Bash 2000." I'm Terry Gross, and
this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, political satirist Bill Maher, host of "Politically
Incorrect," discusses the presidential campaign and why he wouldn't write
jokes for a candidate.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.