He Retorts. We Deride.
How Al Franken went from satirist to monotonous
By P.J. Bednarski, Editor -- Broadcasting & Cable, 8/31/2003 8:00:00 PM
They say—as a matter of fact, I heard it again just about a week ago on National Public Radio's On the Media—that, as Lenny Bruce began being prosecuted for obscenity, his nightclub act became the occasion for him to spout rambling legal arguments while his courtroom appearances became the place to see his standup act.
Something like that has happened to Al Franken. He ended the week of Aug. 18 as a brilliant comedian/satirist and performance artist and, by the beginning of the week of Aug 25, turned into this guy who somehow mistook himself for a political analyst.
If you saw him on CNN's Crossfire last Monday or Tuesday, you saw the deluded Al Franken who got to thinking he had politically impactful comments to make, not the Franken whose controversial Lies And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right wasn't accomplishment enough. It's a great book that skewers the Republican template, which these days includes Fox and its night-time talk host Bill O'Reilly. It's a very funny read. Great book.
Then Franken began taking himself seriously.
At one point on Crossfire last Monday, he was so intent on making a point—that it was the military built by that old softie President Clinton that had succeeded for strongman President Bush in Iraq and Afghanistan—that he frantically insisted to be heard as if he were some pouty 8-year old at a McDonald's playground.
Trying to get a word in edgewise isn't easy on shout shows like Crossfire, but here was Franken, a two-day guest host, shouting maniacally: "I am the co-host of this show! I am the co-host of this show! I am the co-host of this show. I can say this! I am the co-host of this show!"
Permanently twerpish host Tucker Carlson, observing this ranting, petulant display, remarked, "Al, your face is actually twitching, so you're making me a little nervous."
It wasn't funny. It was freakish.
Indeed, as you certainly know by now, Franken's new book got Fox News in a snit, particularly O'Reilly, about whom Franken would have certainly written his previous book, Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, if O'Reilly had been well-known in 1997 (and if he were fat, I guess).
Fox sued for copyright infringement (the "Fair and Balanced" thing) and lost as it must have certainly known it would. Fox also must have known it was going to be made to look foolish by a federal judge, Denny Chin, who performed as expected.
In the 24/7 news cycle, I know this is all old news, but I needed to mention all this because of one wildly irrelevant argument that Fox had made in its lawsuit: that Franken was "increasingly unfunny." That doesn't have much legal clout as an argument.
But, by last week, Fox was shown to be exactly right. Everybody said Fox was foolish for bringing the suit, and it was, but it was very possibly true that Fox potentate Roger Ailes (I believe that is his official title now) might have known that Franken would drown in his own self-importance immediately after winning in court.
That's what happened. That is not good news if you are a satirist trying to sell copies of your book, and, although Fox helped propel Franken's screed to the top of the bestseller lists, let's check it again in a couple weeks.
Because, somehow, Franken went from funny guy, former Saturday Night Live writer and performer, whose dry style and kind of bookish demeanor is darned funny, to Al Franken, the political strategist, the liberal savant who really thinks he knows something.
Why this happens to famous people is beyond my comprehension, but Al Franken's analysis of the 21st century military-industrial complex is told with such fervent complexity that a listener might conclude that he has crossed the border of comical cynicism and entered the state of aggressive paranoia.
Johnny Carson knew how to do a nightly political monologue without letting us know his politics; and even Mort Sahl, while liberal and Democratic, had the ability to lampoon the left. Every time comedians get serious, they sound stupid.
Sorry, Al. You are increasingly unfunny. You're good enough. You're smart enough. But when you set yourself up as the only truth-teller in the media, doggone it, you're just not good enough.
Bednarski may be reached at email@example.com
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