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As a sketch comedy writer and featured performer on "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ), Al Franken used biting satire and casual irony to skewer all things cultural and political. Partnered with high school friend Tom Davis, Franken earned big laughs - and the occasional outrage - for his shock jock-like parodies and sketches that fearlessly targeted presidents, celebrities and even the president of NBC, which resulted in Franken's five-year departure from the show. When he returned in 1985, Franken was more subdued, though no less funny, veering away from the over-the-top satire of the past. Always looking to expand into different arenas and never afraid to back down from a fight, Franken delved deeper into his political interests, particularly after he left "SNL" in 1995. Fueled by his outrage at the conservative movement in the mid-1990s, Franken wrote several bestselling books that skewered the right in hilarious fashion, while in the next decade he took the fight to the airwaves in 2004 when he landed his own highly-rated radio show on the fledgling liberal network, Air America. A regular participant on USO tours who frequented war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, Franken completed the...
As a sketch comedy writer and featured performer on "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ), Al Franken used biting satire and casual irony to skewer all things cultural and political. Partnered with high school friend Tom Davis, Franken earned big laughs - and the occasional outrage - for his shock jock-like parodies and sketches that fearlessly targeted presidents, celebrities and even the president of NBC, which resulted in Franken's five-year departure from the show. When he returned in 1985, Franken was more subdued, though no less funny, veering away from the over-the-top satire of the past. Always looking to expand into different arenas and never afraid to back down from a fight, Franken delved deeper into his political interests, particularly after he left "SNL" in 1995. Fueled by his outrage at the conservative movement in the mid-1990s, Franken wrote several bestselling books that skewered the right in hilarious fashion, while in the next decade he took the fight to the airwaves in 2004 when he landed his own highly-rated radio show on the fledgling liberal network, Air America. A regular participant on USO tours who frequented war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, Franken completed the transformation from entertainment to politics when he ran for United States Senator in 2008, making him one of the rare politically active celebrities who sought to use his fame for the common public good.
Born on May 21, 1951 in New York, NY, Franken was raised in St. Louis Park, MN by his father, Joe, a printing salesman and his mother, Phoebe, a homemaker and real estate agent. Though he demonstrated an aptitude for math and science, Franken also developed a devious and unflinching sense of humor, thanks to absorbing Jewish comics on television like Jack Benny, Buddy Hackett and Henny Youngman - one of his earliest performances was a parody of "I'm a Little Teapot" that made many of the girls in his second grade class cry. Until the tenth grade, Franken attended St. Louis Park High School, then switched to the more posh Blake School, a private college preparatory institution where he was on the wrestling team and met future comedy collaborator, Tom Davis. Both combined their interests in politics and comedy into parody songs and sketches, including a mock song about the Ku Klux Klan called "Superpatrioticanticatholicsegragatious." Impressed with the duo's talents, Franken's mother convinced them to audition at the Brave New Workshop, a sketch comedy theater in Minneapolis ran by improvisational comedian, Dudley Riggs.
Franken and Davis came to Riggs' workshop in the late 1960s, a time when the coffee shop-like atmosphere was a magnet for the counterculture youth and the occasional police raid. After performing in politically-themed skits at the theater, Franken left Minnesota to attend Harvard University on scholarship in 1969, though he returned home whenever he could to perform with Davis at the workshop. At Harvard, Franken earned his degree in social relations and behavioral sciences, graduating cum laude, while performing stand-up at local nightclubs. Following graduation, Franken moved to Los Angeles with Davis, where the two paid their dues as starving comics working the club circuit. While performing at the Comedy Store, the formally named Franken & Davis were called by Lorne Michaels, producer for a new skit show, then called "Saturday Night," who was looking for writers. Despite not having met Michaels personally, Franken & Davis became the youngest writers on the show and helped contribute some of the more politically-edged humor. The duo also appeared occasionally onscreen as featured performers, making an announcement in one early appearance: "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen Tonight we'd like to stick our necks out a little on national television to call for a violent overthrow of the United States government [Pause for applause] Thank you Thank you very much."
Franken & Davis delighted in pushing the envelope when it came to matters of taste in television comedy. As a commentator on the show's "Weekend Update" segment, Franken elicited hundreds of letters and calls from outraged viewers when - in the course of a science essay about the supposed indestructibility of cockroaches - he variously burned, impaled and dismembered a number of live insects. Despite such grotesque routines, Franken & Davis came to specialize in writing fairly elaborate historical sketches involving such unlikely subjects as leeches and other ghastly medieval medical cures - like the fourth season's "Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber" sketch starring Steve Martin and a Roman "vomitorium" from a fifth season outing with Burt Reynolds. The pair retained their youthful vulgarity even after achieving veteran status with sketches like "Dr. Shockley's House of Sperm." The comedy duo also began appearing in on-air segments called "The Franken & Davis Show." One memorable installment had straight man Davis confiding to the audience that Franken had an inoperable brain tumor that made his comedy erratic. He encouraged the audience to laugh heartily nonetheless in order to encourage the dying comic.
As a team, Franken & Davis wrote for various projects outside of "Saturday Night Live" supervised by Michaels, including "The Paul Simon Special" (NBC, 1977), "Bob & Ray & Jane, Laraine & Gilda" (NBC, 1981) and "Steve Martin's Best Show Ever" (NBC, 1981). As an individual, Franken became increasingly prominent as a performer on "S.N.L." He began appearing frequently as a commentator on the "Weekend Update" segments in 1979-80, and gained a small footnote in television comedy history when he announced that the "Me Decade" of the 1970s would be followed by the "Al Franken Decade," in which every matter would be considered in terms of what it meant to "me, Al Franken.: Somehow, this excessive self-regard proved endearing to many, but not to NBC executives when he delivered a blistering on-air attack on then-president, Fred Silverman, in the infamous "Limo for the Lam-O" tirade, which mocked him for delivering poor ratings to the network. In return, Franken was removed from consideration as Michaels' heir apparent.
Franken & Davis were among the exodus of writers and performers who departed the show's golden era of Belushi, Radner and Murray when Michaels left in 1980, leaving the writing team scrounging for work. In the feature world, Franken made his acting debut with a cameo in John Landis' "Trading Places" (1983), starring "S.N.L." alums Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy. Franken & Davis joined the writing staff of Michaels' ill-fated primetime comedy-variety series "The New Show" (NBC, 1984), a gig that ended with an angry falling-out with their boss. Nonetheless, when Michaels returned to executive producing duties on a shaky "S.N.L." in 1985, he rehired Franken & Davis as producers. Franken would stay on for the next decade - even after his partnership with Davis dissolved. Outside of the show, the comedy team made their feature screenwriting and starring debut with the little-seen flop, "One More Saturday Night" (1986), produced by friend Aykroyd.
Though his humor was often tinged with political themes, Franken stayed away from politics proper throughout his career. But by 1988, Franken stepped into the arena and began providing commentary for CNN at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, GA. As the anchor and a writer for "Indecision '92," (Comedy Central, 1992), Franken covered both the Democratic National Convention in New York and Republican National Convention in Houston for a total of 16 hours of programming in eight days. He also provided election eve coverage for the cable network in 1992. Franken's appearances on "S.N.L." became less frequent over the years, but were also more refined and less juvenile, favoring more low-key character pieces over his youthful style of shock comedy. Franken's most memorable character in the early 1990s was the nurturing self-help junkie, Stuart Smalley, who was devoted to 12-step recovery programs and often intoned into a mirror, "I'm good enough, I'm strong enough, and doggone it, people like me." Franken managed to lampoon the excesses of recovery without minimizing its virtues or denigrating its practitioners.
A member since 1987 of Al-Anon, a 12-Step support program for co-dependent family and friends of alcoholics, Franken was well-suited to co-executive produce and co-script the family drama, "When a Man Loves a Woman" (1994), featuring Meg Ryan as an alcoholic woman and Andy Garcia as her co-dependent husband. Thanks to the popularity of Smalley on "SNL," he wrote and starred in the underperforming feature "Stuart Saves His Family" (1995), based on Franken-as-Smalley's novel, I'm Good Enough, I'm Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!: Daily Affirmations With Stuart Smalley. Though the film had its share of supporters, most reviewers were disconcerted by the mixture of satire and heavy family drama with a cast of accomplished dramatic performers. Franken fared much better as the author of Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations, a collection of humorous political essays published in 1996. After a turn as an onscreen commentator paired with conservative Ariana Huffington for Comedy Central's "Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher" during the 1996 presidential election, he headlined "Lateline" (NBC, 1998-99), a sitcom spoof of "Nightline" (ABC, 1980- ), the long-running news program once hosted by Ted Koppel.
In 1999, Franken released his second politically-themed book, Why Not Me? The Inside Story of the Making and Unmaking of the Franken Presidency, a satirical and completely fictionalized account of his ousting of then-Vice President Al Gore from the Democratic ticket to become the 43rd President of the United States by running on the pledge to eliminate ATM fees. The book was well-received, but failed to reach the best-selling status of its predecessor. His next book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, managed to outdo his first political tome by targeting several prominent Republicans and conservatives, documenting the numerous lies and inaccuracies of pundits and show hosts Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity with his usual ironic aplomb. The book's subtitle, A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, prompted FOX News to file a lawsuit claiming an alleged violation of trademark rights. FOX News then tried to file an injunction to block sales of the book, but U.S. District Judge Denny Chin refused the request, citing that the network's claim was "wholly without merit." FOX News dropped their lawsuit days later, while Franken's book went on to top The New York Times best seller list.
On March 31, 2004, Franken took his first tentative steps into talk radio, a world that had previously been completely foreign to him. With the onslaught of right-wing talk radio dominating the airwaves for two decades, a small network of stations calling itself Air America Radio emerged to offer a much-needed liberal slant on politics. Franken was approached to become a host, giving the fledgling network a well-known face to plaster on billboards. Reluctant at first - Franken initially signed only a one-year deal, feeling he might not like hosting duties - he quickly became attuned to putting on a show five days a week. His show, originally called "The O'Franken Factor" - a satirical take on his arch-nemesis Bill O'Reilly's FOX News show - proved to be the top ratings winner on Air America despite his neophyte status in the radio world. And while Air America had initial financial problems - former executives claimed they had three years of financing, when they only had three weeks - the network gained prominence, expanding to over 70 markets its first two years, with Franken's show consistently on top of the ratings heap. A documentary, "Left of the Dial" (2005), detailing the first uncertain days of the network aired on HBO in early 2005. Meanwhile, Franken continued churning out political humor, publishing The Truth (with Jokes) in 2005, which focused on the fears and smears of the 2004 presidential campaign.
At the time of the release The Truth, rumors began to swirl that Franken was considering a run for United States Senator of Minnesota against incumbent Norm Coleman, who earlier had won the office after Paul Wellstone died tragically in an airplane crash just weeks before the 2002 midterm election. Though he publicly denied the rumors like any good politician, Franken began raising money for his own political action committee, Midwest Values PAC, in 2005. Though not a sign of an actual run, forming a PAC was a clear sign that Franken was becoming more actively involved in politics. Then in January 2007, Franken decided to leave Air America and announced a couple of weeks later on his last show that he was making a run for the Senate. After winning the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party primary, Franken began running against the incumbent Coleman as a staunch opponent of the Iraq War, proponent of universal health care and advocate for increasing available money for college students. Despite being ridiculed by his Republican adversaries for not being serious enough for office - not to mention being the target for righteous indignation from right-wing women's groups for a satire he wrote for Playboy in 2000 called "Porn-O-Rama!" - Franken nonetheless kept close in the polls throughout the summer and into fall. He eventually won a tightly contested race that dragged on well beyond election day due to Coleman's repeated challenges and demands for recounts. Coleman eventually conceded in mid-2009 and Franken was duly sworn in. As he continued fighting the good fight in the Senate, he was greeted with sad news on July 19, 2012 when old partner, Tom Davis, succumbed to tongue and throat cancer at 59 years old.
By Shawn Dwyer
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