While hyping his book, Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, Al Franken was asked in a Mother Jones interview about the earnest humorlessness of many liberals. “I hadn’t really thought of that until this book,” Franken replied. “I thought of most comedians as liberal, most people in show business are liberal. But when the book came out, people said to me, ‘Thank God, finally, a funny liberal.’ And I’m going ‘Liberals aren’t funny? I thought we were. Oh, I guess we aren’t.’”
Not knowing that liberals are so thin-skinned that you can see what they had for lunch if you hold them up to the light reveals a fairly shocking blind spot for a satirist who makes his living making allegedly hysterical observations about American politics. One wonders what Franken thought of the already old joke, “How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb?” Answer: “That’s not funny.” The overwhelming majority of serious liberals are not funny — about politics, that is. In their personal lives or even in their professional lives, they can be very funny people. But move the topic to politics, and professional liberals turn deadly earnest, like Very Serious Student Government Treasurers who insist activities fees are no joking matter. Most comedy writers who understand contemporary politics know this. For example, in one episode of The Simpsons Democrats can be seen waving posters at their convention which read, “We hate life and ourselves.”
Now, I was given the assignment of writing a piece on “why Al Franken isn’t funny.” But, I must confess, in all fairness, he can be very funny. During the primaries, I saw him on C-Span explaining why he didn’t support Bill Bradley. As I recall, he said, in that monotone doofus-robot voice of his, “Bill Bradley says that his heart troubles aren’t a big deal. He says his irregular heartbeat was caused by the fact that he started drinking cream soda, which has caffeine in it.” Long pause, stares at the camera. “Me, I would like to have a president who can drink cream soda.”
Okay, so it may not translate too well on paper, but it was actually very funny when deadpanned. The problem with Franken is not that he’s unfunny. He has very good timing and many of the skits he wrote for Saturday Night Live were excellent (as was his cameo appearance in Trading Places).
Though before we can go any further, it must be stated unequivocally that his Stuart Smalley character (you know, that twelve-step guy who says, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me”) should have been pillow-smothered like Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a long, long, long time ago. After all, there is a reason why Franken’s Stuart Saves His Family only grossed $911,310 at the box office. Even Heaven’s Gate broke a million.
What’s truly annoying about much of Franken’s humor isn’t his jokes, but the liberals who think they’re so darn funny. When he came out with Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, some liberals cheered it as brilliant satire and some simply cheered it as brilliant. In fact there was a lot of talk on both sides of the ideological spectrum about what it meant that the Left was reduced to relying on a buck-toothed sketch-writer as its most effective voice. Franken claimed that he was simply doing to the Right what they had been doing to the Clintons. Sounds fair enough, except it isn’t. First of all, Franken denounces conservatives for what he thinks have been unfair methods and attacks. Well, if he thinks they’re unfair and worth denouncing then what is the justification for doing precisely the thing he thinks is so deplorable?
Indeed, I have always wondered what would happen if I came out with a book called Hillary Clinton Is a Piano-Legged B***h, or maybe Bill Clinton Is a Redneck Perv. Well, okay; the last one could actually be his official biography. But the point remains; liberals thought Franken’s attack on Limbaugh’s weight was just so darn funny when everybody in the world knows that if a conservative attacked a liberal for his weight, or any other “personal” characteristic, it would be just plain mean.
For liberals there’s no such thing as a cheap shot at conservatives, because conservatives are bad people. But cheap shots — or simply funny shots — at liberals are hardhearted nastiness. For example, whenever I write things like “I’m sweating like Jerry Nadler eating pasta,” liberals bash me for my “mean-spiritedness.” In interviews, when asked why he titled his book Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, Franken says, “First of all he is very, very fat. The guy is enormous. He is very, very, very fat.” Because he’s a comedian, Franken gets to exploit this double standard to great and somewhat unfair effect.
Which leads us to the issue of Franken’s stunning hypocrisy. He claims that his main beef against conservatives generally and Limbaugh particularly is that they lie. “Anybody who deliberately propagandizes with lies should be held up to scorn and ridicule,” he says with great moral satisfaction. This strikes one as a bit odd coming from someone renowned for, and boastful of, his sphincter-cleaning sycophancy of Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Al Gore is a profound, remorseless, and very bad liar. Bill Clinton is a profound, remorseless, and very good liar. Both of them participate in literally evil propaganda about conservatives for their own gain, claiming or suggesting, by themselves or through lieutenants, that Republicans favor the return of Jim Crow, support hate crimes, and the rest. And these guys run the country; Rush Limbaugh is just a DJ. And yet Franken goes on his merry way claiming some sort of moral high ground as an independent-minded funny guy, while at the same time shilling shamelessly for them.
And at bottom, that reveals what Franken really is: a party hack, a very good, and at times quite entertaining one, but a hack nonetheless. Because he fits a poorly defined niche in American politics — the clownish comedian who seems to be stumbling into political humor — he is capable of having his cake and eating it too. When asked about the fact that he shills for Gore, he simply makes the same jokes (over and over and over again) about how he just wants to be invited to White House state dinners — Tee hee isn’t that funny? — and, boom, he’s off the hook. He directs videos of the Clintons for their appearances at events like the Gridiron Dinner, writes jokes for the president and vice president at the expense of Republicans, and stumps for the Gore campaign at every opportunity. He’s James Carville as mensch.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with all that; there’s a role for hacks in all parties. But it does make him a lot less funny once you realize why he’s making the jokes.