Al Franken Is a Big Fat Radio Host

Is America ready to turn the talk-radio dial over to the left

Comedian Al Franken arrives at the 2003 New York Magazine Awards, honoring recipients for outstanding contributions to New York City, at the Four Seasons Restaurant, New York City, December 15th, 2003. Credit: Mark Mainz/Getty

THERE'S "THE O'FRANKEN FACTOR" ON AIR AMERICA, a little island, an outpost, a brand-new infidel in the empire of conservative wrath and rant radio, the solitary liberal midday talk show in America, with Al Franken, the comedian and writer, in command. Around the offices of The Factor, it is sometimes observed that March 31st, the day the show began broadcasting, marked the end of the television era and the beginning of the era of radio.

Air America put four shows on the air on March 31st, on five stations (Rush Limbaugh is on 600). The Factor is the network's flagship, and it is intended to supply the missing half of the country's acrimonious political dialogue — the exchange, that is, between people who ardently believe that the president is a decent and well-intentioned man, and those who recoil at the mention of his name.

Franken is just learning about radio. Unlike movies and television, radio is a single-sense medium, Franken has relied to a degree on gesture and expression for the effects of his humor. Gesture isn't a radio tool. Furthermore, people who listen to radio often crave regularity. It's called appointment radio. Each segment needs a slot. "The Oy, Oy, Oy Show," for example. People who think, "The Oy, Oy, Oy Show' is my favorite part of The Factor" have to know that Franken performs it routinely at, say, twenty minutes past the second hour of his three-hour show. On "The Oy, Oy, Oy Show," Franken's partner, Katherine Lanpher, reads provocative newspaper headlines — COLLEGE FOR THE HOME-SCHOOLED IS SHAPING LEADERS FOR THE RIGHT, for example — to which Franken responds by saying, "Oy," and so on. "Radio's a severe task mistress," Lanpher says. "You have to have a format, and you have to stick to it." Before moving to New York to take part in The O'Franken Factor, Lanpher had her own show, Midmorning, on Minnesota Public Radio. One of the things she's in charge of teaching Franken is the necessity of a format.

Franken has a satyrlike body — short and bulky, with a low center of gravity; he looks as if he would be difficult to knock off his feet. He has a big, wide head and a wide mouth. The lenses of his glasses make his eyes look watery. He has a habit when he says something funny of searching the faces of everyone around him for a reaction. When he listens to people, he tends to rest his elbows on the table or cover his chin with his hands. His hands are thick; they look quilted. He is rarely still.

A few weeks before The Factor is to go on the air, Franken has assembled his staff for the first time, in a conference room in midtown Manhattan. In addition to Lanpher, there are two executive producers (Billy Kimball and Gabrielle Zuckerman) and Team O'Franken (Ayo Griffin, Tim Bradley, Jim Norton and Ben Wikler), who will provide research. While Franken waits for someone to bring him a sandwich, he is asked how the idea for the show came to him. "I looked at what I could do in this election year," he says. "Where I could have the most influence, I was actually speaking to Hillary Clinton last night, and she said twenty-five percent of people get their news from radio — and there has been such a right-wing element to the whole radio landscape."

He begins drawing with a felt marker on a piece of paper. "Doing this show is risky, it's ambitious," he says, "but I'm just coming off a huge best seller, and my profile is as big as it's ever been, and I think it's going to work. Anyway, I'd be mad at myself for the rest of my life if I didn't try it."

The drawing looks like a grid. Franken works on it while he talks. "I know when our show was announced about a year ago, Sean Hannity said, 'Good luck, let him try to face twenty minutes without anything to say,' and I can understand, reading his book, why that's challenging for him," Franken says. "Katherine's been doing radio for about six years. If worse comes to worse, I'll just have her interview me."

From the droopy curving line Franken makes with his marker, it becomes apparent that he's drawing a map of the country. After Florida, he begins filling in the Western states. "At SNL, I wrote a lot with Jim Downey," he says. "We did some political stuff, but we never really felt that it was our job to have a political ax to grind. When I left SNL, I decided that I could express my viewpoint. I wrote Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot because I was angry at the Gingrich revolution. I was essentially a typical Minnesota progressive liberal. I like what Hubert Humphrey was fond of saying about the role of government: 'Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.' The judge of a society is how it treats those in the shadow of life — the sick, the poor, the old and the disappeared."

Franken finishes the map. "I'm really hungry," he says. He leaves the room to check on the sandwiches. When he comes back, Mark Walsh, the head of the network, appears in the doorway. Walsh wants to know where he can reach Franken the next day for a call with sponsors.

Franken says he'll be in New Orleans.

"Is that Central or Mountain time?" Franken pretends to be taken aback.

"Mountain time?"

Walsh shrugs and says, "Draw me a map. I failed geography."

"I drew you a map," Franken says, holding up his drawing.

A young woman puts her head in the door and says, "Al, David Gans for you." David Gans has made a career of being informed about the Grateful Dead. For the music that will accompany the show, Franken is going to play only Jerry Garcia. Franken has called Gans for help. "What I'm looking for is the clean, melodic, upbeat, soaring solo and less the vague, spacey, acidy solo," Franken says. "I don't want people to be scared." He listens, makes a few comments, then hangs up.

A young man from the PR agency representing the show arrives and says that the station needs a press release to issue the following day. Franken puts his head down, then looks up. "'I'm so happy to be on in three battleground states: New York, Illinois and California,'" he says. "No, wait, those aren't battleground states. What the hell are we doing?"

"'Said a scared Franken'?" the young man asks.

"No, no, not that," Franken says. "Stay away from that. 'Said an angry Franken.' It's a joke."

Franken repeats the statement. Then he sighs. "That's for now," he says. "Maybe I'll think of something better."

FRANKEN IS FIFTY-TWO. He remembers first noting that he could make people laugh when he was three, and he performed in his parents' living room for some of their friends an imitation of Jackie Gleason saying, "And away we go," as Gleason did often on his variety show. "I'm telling the truth," Franken says, describing the scene, "but I find it's embarrassing. It was more the Jewish-mother syndrome — 'Isn't he smart and adorable and funny?'" Franken grew up in Minnesota. In second grade he wrote his first comedy sketch. "To make fun of the girls," he says. "One day all the boys got back from recess and the girls were gone, and we were taken to the AV room, and the girls did a show for us. It even included 'I'm a Little Teapot.' So I wrote a scathing parody of it, and I got the boys together and said, 'We have a surprise for the girls,' and we did the show, and they cried, so I considered the show a success. The teacher tried to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear and said, 'Why don't the boys and girls do a show together?' We did a Civil War sketch. The only joke I remember was getting the news of the end of the war on the telephone, an anachronistic joke."

As children, Franken and his brother, Owen, who is five years older, watched the news each night with their parents, then discussed over dinner what they'd seen. Owen is a photographer and has lived in Paris since 1988. Remarkably, his photograph of Jane Fonda addressing a rally is the one that was doctored by a Republican operative to include John Kerry. Al says that he and Owen "were very much Sputnik kids — Sputnik was 1957, and Russia's putting a satellite in space before the U.S. did scared the bejesus out of everyone in America. So people thought, 'We need to send kids to school to get smart so that we can defeat the Russians.' We were sent to be scientists, which meant, just be really good at school."

Owen and Al also used to write political parodies of popular songs. To the tune of "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," from Mary Poppins, they wrote the "Ku Klux Klan Marching Song": "When I was just a little boy/My father he did say/Oh, my son, when you're grown up/You'll join the KKK/And if anyone should ask you/Here is what you'll say/We're superpatriotic, anti-Catholic, segregacious/Um-diddle-iddle-iddle-um-diddle-i/Um-diddle-iddle-iddle-um-diddle-i."

Owen recalls two other stray verses. "When we hold a rally/We need a field that's spacious/And even though we're idiots/We claim to be sagacious."

OWEN WAS THE FIRST MEMBER of the family to go to college. He went to MIT and studied physics. His plan was that Al would follow him to MIT, but Owen decided that MIT was too sedate for Al and that he should go to Harvard instead. Al had a reputation for being funny, but perhaps a larger one for being loud and uninhibited. In New York, on Broadway, he saw the play Lenny, about Lenny Bruce, and asked the producer for the rights to what would be the play's first amateur production. The Boston Globe described the production — starring Franken and held in the dining hall of Franken's dormitory — as one of the ten best pieces of amateur theater in the city. At the end of the play, Lenny Bruce dies on the toilet, naked. Franken says, "I thought, 'What the hell.' I didn't care."

At a mixer when Franken was eighteen, he met Franni Bryson, from Portland, Maine, a freshman at Simmons College in Boston. They have been married for twenty-eight years and have two children. Owen, meanwhile, had decided not to become an astrophysicist. For a while he stayed in Boston, and while he was there he got drafted. Although Owen and Al look and sound alike, Owen's build is slight. Al decided to help his brother lose enough weight to be disqualified from the service.

"To do this, we would go to the Harvard squash courts," Owen says. "I hadn't eaten, and we would play, and I would fall down, and Al would say, 'Get up, the Viet Cong are coming.'" Owen showed up for his physical weighing 109 pounds. Around his head he wore an American flag, and he brought with him the Ho Chi Minh diaries and a book called Military Justice Is to Justice As Military Music Is to Music. "There were thirty of us," he says. "The Army guys saw that I had been to MIT, so the first thing is they give you an intelligence test. They put the other guys in one room, me in another, and said, 'Don't even think about failing this.' All day they would try to order me around: 'You, over there with the flag, sit down.' And I would say, 'I'm sorry, I'm not actually in the Army yet, you can't tell me what to do.'"

Owen says he told them that if he were drafted he wasn't going to Canada, he was going to show up, "and I don't think they wanted that," he says. At the end, they told him, "We can give you a six-week deferment and have you come back for another assessment, but to be honest, we don't ever want to see you here again."

ON THE MORNING OF THE first rehearsal for The O'Franken Factor, Franken is walking around his apartment in Manhattan in jeans and a white T-shirt. Team O'Franken is sitting at the dining-room table, studying laptops. They look like FBI agents — somber and vaguely anonymous. Franken walks back and forth between the living room and a maid's room off the kitchen that is being used as an office by Nate Allard, his assistant.

The kitchen has wallpaper and a long counter, at the end of which is Franni on the phone, ordering three cars to take the crew to the studio. Franken sits at the table holding a clipping with the headline FALLING REIGN IN SPAIN. While he reads, Franni approaches with a blue shirt and says, "Do you need this?" Franken, still reading, extends one arm, and Franni puts his hand through the sleeve. Then, holding the shirt by the collar and the other sleeve, she walks around the back of the chair so that he can insert his other arm.

"Sweetie," Franni says, "what shoes do you want? The black sneakers?"

"Black sneakers," Franken says. After the rehearsal, Franken and Lanpher will travel to Washington to attend a party.

"Backpack, Sweetie? Are you taking your backpack, and can I put your Dopp kit in there?" Franni holds the backpack before him, as if it were a visual aid. Franken nods.

Franni leaves the room and comes back with a blue blazer. Franken is tying his shoelaces. For some reason he ties only one.

"OK, guys," Franni says. "Cabs are downstairs."

Franken stands up and tucks in his shirt, then buckles his belt. He puts on the blazer and they leave.

THE STUDIO HAS A LOW CEILING, fluorescent lights and a picture window giving onto the control room. Lanpher is there when they arrive. She is a small woman, in her early forties, with short, reddish hair and a round face. The expression in her eyes is alert and intelligent. The show moves slowly. Franken and Lanpher discuss Spain, they mention Colin Powell, they mention Medicare. They have a guest on the phone, a man named Mark Luther whom Franken went to high school with. Luther is a conservative, and he is to appear regularly to defend Rush Limbaugh. Perhaps too much time is spent with Franken and Luther reminiscing. Coming back from a break, Franken announces, "We've invited Bill O'Reilly to come on The Factor, but he's scared to. If he hasn't come on by Friday, we're going to interview his talking book." Imitating O'Reilly's trademark, Franken says, "Shut up! Shut up!" He grins and looks around at the others. "We got to get Bill's 'shut up' so that I can press it whenever I want," he says.

Lanpher reminds him to give the number for callers to reach them.

"1-800-F-U-K-B-U-S-H," Franken says. "We tried not to get that number. ..."

The next day, in the hour before the second rehearsal, Franken and Lanpher sit together in the studio. Lanpher is intent on having Franken lay out a structure for the show. "Let's go through it hour by hour," she says. When Franken digresses, Lanpher politely insists he return his attention to the task. "I want to lay out the broad pattern first," she says.

Once that is disposed of, Franken records a satirical advertisement. Leaning toward the microphone, speaking deliberately and using a deep, patrician voice, he says, "Three, two, one... George W. Booosh wants to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage. But evidently Booosh has no problem with terrorist couples getting married. Right now in America there are terrorists planning to sanctify their love for each other in holy matrimony and blow up the Holland Tunnel. Call George W. Booosh and tell him America doesn't need a president who is soft on terrorist marriages. Because, unlike gays, terrorists can breed." Then, "Brought to you by the Coalition to Distract You From Important Issues."

The rehearsal show begins. He and Lanpher talk on the phone to David Sirota, of the Center for American Progress, a think tank for liberal issues. Sirota has discovered that among the members of President Bush's independent commission to study the search for weapons of mass destruction are three people who contributed to Bush's campaign. One of them was the first person Bush invited to spend the night in the Lincoln bedroom. The show's main guest is former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, but he's not answering the phone where he had arranged to be.

"This happens all the time," Lanpher tells Franken during a break. "We'll vamp, just talk until we get him."

When Reich is finally on the line, Franken ends up listening to him so intently that he is sitting at one point with his elbows on his knees and staring at the floor, while Lanpher waves her arms to get his attention.

After Reich concludes, Franken and Lanpher perform a skit Franken wrote.

"Katherine's teaching me about radio," he says.

"Well, things might happen in the world, and on live radio you have to react to them," Lanpher says. "With a little forethought and preparation, we can handle unexpected situations like old pros."

"Exactly," Franken says. "Let's say the country is hit by another terrorist attack. It would be inappropriate for us to continue doing comedy. So let's say we're doing a show and having some fun with my Strom Thurmond impression."

"Al, he's dead," Lanpher says.

"But it's a good impression, and there's no reason I can't do him from the grave, where I think he'll be more honest," Franken says. "So he was talking about the illegitimate black daughter he had when a terrorist attack occurred."

Franken grimaces. His voice becomes high and gravelly. "Sure, I had a black daughter," he says in a Southern accent. "I screwed them all. 'Cause the pecker knows no bigotry."

Lanpher says, "Al -"

"I even had an Amish girl," Franken says. "Lots of them. See, the Amish girl, she takes a year off. You got to get them on the year off."

"Al, there's been a terrible outbreak of small -" "I'm not Al," he says defiantly. "I'm Strom, and I've screwed everything."

"Stop doing comedy," Lanpher says. "There's been an outbreak of smallpox. In Seattle."

"I screwed a girl with smallpox," Franken says. "Built up my immunity. She was Bangladeshi."

"Al, stop it."

"See," Franken says, leering, "the pecker knows no bigotry."

THE SKIT DELIVERS THEM INTO A break for the news. Franken sits back in his chair. "This is fun," he says. "We could pull this off." Lanpher responds cautiously. "If we get really, really, really organized," she says.

The first shows advance cautiously. Franken seems more somber, more formal, more respectful than is customary for him, but his appealing irreverence and his gift for quick thinking emerge. The show receives a record number of responses to the Web site of a station in San Bernardino, California, which offers a streaming version of it. "The manager of the station is a Republican, but he likes it," Franken says. The format appears to work. At the end of the first week, Franken also says, "I don't think we're going to make any changes. I'm really proud of how it's going." The pioneer king of liberal appointment radio is hopeful.