I never lie. That is, unless it’s absolutely necessary. So, the story I’m about to tell you is a little embarrassing.
It starts two and a half years ago. My son, Joe, a junior in a very high-powered, expensive New York City private high school, was beginning his college search. We started to put together a list of schools to visit during spring break. The boy wants to be an engineer, so M.I.T., Michigan, Washington University, and Princeton were early contenders.
My wife, who, I have to tell you, is not usually funny, had a hilarious idea. Why don’t I take Joe down to Bob Jones University as a prospective student (which, technically, he was), and have fun at their expense?
Great idea, honey! Hilarious! We could ask them all kinds of snarky questions in the information session. Like about their interracial dating policy. Because of bad publicity, Bob Jones had changed the policy since Bush’s visit. Now, according to news reports, they were allowing kids to date interracially with their parents’ permission. “Yeah, um, I understand the students need their parents’ permission to date other races. I was wondering. My wife is fine with Joe dating a black girl. But I’m against it. How would that work out?”
Or, “Yeah, um, on your interracial dating policy, I have a theoretical question. Tiger Woods? Could he date anyone? Or no one? Could he even go out by himself?” Oddly enough, the answer to that last question, I would learn, was “no,” unless Tiger was leaving off-campus either to go home or on a mission.
Excited about all the comic possibilities, I immediately asked my assistant Liz to call BJU, which is what they call themselves. Find out when they have information sessions and tours. Liz called, and found the people in the BJU admissions office to be incredibly friendly. I mention this because it will become a leitmotif for rest of this chapter.
Of course, there were plenty of information sessions and tours! Come down anytime! We’d love to get to know Joe! What’s he interested in? Liz did her best — the boy’s into history. Great!
That afternoon, when Joe got back from his fancy, two-thirds Jewish high school, I told him the good news. We were going to go on a little comedy adventure. Joe, and in retrospect, this is to the boy’s credit, was absolutely appalled. “No!”
“What?” I said incredulously. This was my son, who grew up in a comedy household. Didn’t he recognize a great idea?
“Leave these people alone!” he said angrily. “What did they do to you?”
“Well, they’re racist and nuts, and -“
”Dad, they just have a different belief system. Leave them alone.”
And that, I thought, was that. What I didn’t understand was that when you contact an evangelical organization, they will not stop mailing you shit. Did you know that BJU has quite a history department? Did you know that the BJU cheerleaders wear skirts down to their ankles? It’s in their brochure.
And then there were the calls.
“Hi! Is Joe there?”
“Um, who may I say is calling?”
“Josie Martin from Bob Jones University.”
“Oh. Joe’s not here now.”
“When will he be back?”
“Um, hmmm, I…don’t know.”
This happened a lot. A lot. And, because I’m a busy man and my wife wasn’t vigilant enough, Joe actually answered a few times, getting angrier and angrier at me because he was now being forced to lie. Something we Frankens don’t do. Unless it’s absolutely necessary.
The last straw was the call from a junior at BJU who was from Manhattan. “Where,” he asked Joe, “do you go to church?”
“I don’t go to church,” Joe answered reflexively. On the other end of the phone, he heard a shocked GASP.
“…in Manhattan,” he quickly recovered. “I go to church on Long Island.”
“Oh,” said the very nice young man whom my son was lying to.
Joe charged out of his room and confronted me. “This has got to stop! I don’t like lying to people!” He told me to call Bob Jones and tell them he had decided to go to a secular college. Which was, of course, entirely true.
So, the next day, I had Liz call and tell BJU the bad news. They were disappointed, but understood. And were extremely nice about it.
CUT TO: TeamFranken. Present day. A good idea never dies. I needed a kid without Joe’s integrity. Fortunately, I was at Harvard. Among the fourteen members of TeamFranken, I had fourteen volunteers, including Owen Kane, a thirty-eight year-old mid-career Kennedy School grad student.
But to maximize the chances of our little scheme working, it was important that my “son” or “daughter” be able to pass for a high school junior. Owen was out.
Andrew Barr was in. A sophomore at the college, Andrew was perfect. Fresh-faced, eager, he could easily pass for seventeen. Valedictorian at Boston Latin, the top public school in Boston, Andrew was razor sharp and quick on his feet. Only one problem. The Jewish thing. Neither Andrew nor I knew jack about Christianity, particularly the weird, freakish kind practiced by these incredibly nice people at Bob Jones University.
We decided to do our homework. Learning about Christianity would be too difficult and time-consuming. Also, boring. Instead, we checked out BJU’s website, hoping, not just to learn enough to pull off our scam, but also to find stuff to make fun of.
Unfortunately, we discovered that the interracial dating policy had been discarded altogether. Shit. There went the Tiger Woods joke.
But not to worry. There was plenty of other fodder. First of all, the “university” is not accredited. That’s right. They have the same degree-granting power as Schlotsky’s Deli. They claim it’s because they don’t want to be accredited. We think it’s because they don’t believe in science. You see, they stand without apology for the absolute authority of the Bible. God created the Earth in six days. And He didn’t put gays in it, either.
Then, there’s the BJU policy on student use of the Internet, which is “a source of much content antagonistic to Godliness.” No argument there. Chat rooms, instant messaging, and web-based e-mail accounts are banned. Students are not allowed to access websites with “Biblically offensive material.” In addition to the usual pornography and violence, this includes “crude, vulgar language or gestures, tasteless humor (excretory functions, etc.), and graphic medical photos.” Fortunately, BJU has an automatic filter, updated daily, to block these websites. And since nobody’s perfect, i.e., we’re all sinners, if the filter picks up a student attempting to access one of these websites, the “incident” is logged for an Internet administrator. In fact, all Internet use is constantly monitored by the “university,” giving parents real peace of mind. Like the incredible friendliness, “constant monitoring” would also become a theme of life at BJU.
And speaking of parents, Andrew and I found the linchpin for what would become “our elaborate ruse.” On the BJU website is a letter telling parents that it is their “God-given responsibility” not to allow their children to choose their own college. The consequences of that are made clear in the vivid and terrifying stories of the “Three College Shipwrecks,” written by Bob Jones, Sr., the founder of the “university.”
The first two “shipwrecks,” known as “His Only Daughter” and “The Pride of His Mother,” come to alarmingly similar ends. In each, a promising, God-fearing student is allowed to go off to a secular university. After returning from their freshman years, both have lost their way, their faith shattered. The Only Daughter “rushed upstairs, stood in front of a mirror, took a gun, and blew out her brains.” Whereas the Pride of His Mother, having contracted “an unspeakable disease,” announces his intention to “buy a gun and blow out my brains.”
The third shipwreck, “The Son of an Aged Minister,” is less violent, though certainly just as tragic. He had been “a great boy, bright, clean, obedient, Christian.” Unfortunately, although the boy makes the life-saving decision to attend a Christian school, it isn’t BJU. “A skeptic had got in the Science Department” of the less-Christian Christian school, and when the boy returns home, he has lost his faith and becomes “a drunken, atheistic bum.”
So. Parents could save their kids from suicide, alcoholism, and the clap by forcing them to go to BJU. Excellent. This was our key. Since neither Andrew nor I could pull off being devout evangelical Christians, it would be Andrew’s mother who desperately wanted him to go to Bob Jones. Instead of being Andrew’s father, I would be a friend of the family — in fact, the best friend of Andrew’s father, who had died tragically of brain cancer, no wait, boating accident, three years ago. Andrew’s mom had sunk into a deep depression, then miraculously found Christ.
It was perfect. Neither Andrew nor I would have to know anything. But why wasn’t Mom there? Sick? No. Threw out her back carrying boxes of blood at a blood drive. At church. As you can see, we started putting way too much thought into the back story, and way too little into the fact that I have been on television for nearly thirty years.
Seeing as how we did spend the time on the back story, you really should hear it. Because it’s pretty good. Andrew’s father, Hank, my college roommate and financial advisor, ran an incredibly successful hedge fund. Andrew’s mother, Ellen, therefore, was not just a stunningly beautiful widow — she looks like Naomi Judd — but also fabulously wealthy. Now for the delicious spin. I was more than just a family friend. I had my eye on the Widow Barr, and seeing to it that young Andrew would agree to attend Bob Jones would be a feather in my cap.
Andrew’s part was equally delicious. Eager to please his mother, he had happily agreed to visit what he thought was just a typical, fun-in-the-sun Christian school. Our plan, as you can clearly see, was brilliant. Neither of us would have to know anything about either Christianity or Bob Jones University. We had thought of everything.
And, yes, I considered the possibility that I would be recognized. A disguise? Nah. I’d just cut my hair extra short. Yeah, that would do it.
“Hi, Mr. Franken! Big fan!” “Good to see you, Mr. Franken!” “Loved you on SNL!” These were the security guards at La Guardia. Nothing to worry about. We were still in New York. Didn’t mean the haircut wasn’t working.
We arrived in Greenville. The Hertz rent-a-car gal, also a big fan. That’s good, I explained to Andrew. It’s good to have a fan base. But this Hertz woman, she wasn’t a nutcase evangelical. She watches secular TV. Don’t worry.
So we got there around 11 AM. Drove through the gates. Didn’t set off the Jew alarm. We’re in.
Took a look around. Not an unattractive campus. Buildings, grass — nice day. But the place was eerily devoid of human activity. We’d soon learn that everyone was at chapel, this being a weekday. Out of the car and into the Administration Building. At the desk, an extremely friendly, well-scrubbed, wide-eyed young man greeted us and sent us along into the admissions office, where we were met by an extremely friendly, well-scrubbed, wide-eyed female staffer. Like every woman at BJU, she wore a skirt that covered not just her upper thigh, but her lower thigh, and her knee, and her calf, and her either well-turned or not well-turned ankle. No real way of knowing. But she was really nice and showed us the official admissions video, which featured two miniature pirates who introduced themselves as “your guardians.” At BJU, they told us, you’re never alone. Remember I said “constant monitoring” would be a theme? The creepy mini-pirates weren’t kidding.
We scheduled a 1 PM interview with “Daniel” and decided to grab some lunch, joining the mass of students pouring out of chapel and into the dining commons. There were thousands of them, young men in shirts and ties and khakis, young women in their ankle-length skirts. You could say we stood out. We about to face our first test.
His name was Mark, an intense, though extremely nice finance major. In an effort to appear that I had nothing to hide, I said hi. Mark squinted, looked me over skeptically, and decided to keep an eye on us. Very nicely, he offered to help us get lunch and sit with us, and then asked us lots and lots of questions about who we were and why we were there.
I took this as an opportunity to take our elaborate ruse out for a little test drive. Andrew’s dad, dead. Mom, depressed. Mom finds Jesus. Wants Andrew at BJU. Throws out back carrying boxes of blood. Mark asked if Andrew wanted to go there. Andrew didn’t know, but I pointed out that his mother really, really wanted him to. Mark said that Andrew shouldn’t go unless he really wanted to. Hadn’t Mark read “The Three Shipwrecks?”
Then things started getting sticky. Mark was asking me questions. Like, what did I do for a living? And why did I look familiar? I told him I was a writer, which is true, by the way. Remember, I lie only when it’s absolutely necessary.
To get us off a potentially incognito-blowing line of questioning, I cleverly changed the subject to creationism. You really believe it? Mark said he did, and so did all his friends sitting around us. According to Mark, evolution made no sense at all. No mutation, he insisted, had ever been beneficial. I looked at my thumb, but said nothing, as I used it to hold my fork and shove the worst lunch I’ve ever had into my mouth. It was some kind of creamed broccoli on a bun. But then again, you don’t go to Bob Jones for the food!
Mark told us that the chances of protoplasm evolving into a human being were infinitesimally small: one over ten to the 256th, or something like that. Steve, an intense, but extremely nice, business administration major, came up with a vivid analogy. “The chances,” Steve said, “of protoplasm turning into a fully-formed human being are worse than the chances of an explosion in a junkyard yielding an intact Boeing 747.”
Mark could tell that I wasn’t buying. “So, Alan,” he said. Oh, I forgot. I had changed my name to “Alan” as part of our undercover operation. My name really is Alan — remember, only when absolutely necessary. “So, Alan,” he said, “Why do you believe in evolution?”
“Well, Mark, I’m not a scientist. But it seems that every scientist in this field at an accredited university [heh, heh] believes in evolution. You know, at M.I.T., Stanford, Wisconsin, Arizona State, Wake Forest, you know, everywhere.”
Mark had a good answer. “So, just because everyone believes something, you think it’s true. Well, remember, the Catholic Church taught for hundreds of years that the sun revolved around the Earth. Then they persecuted Galileo for saying the opposite.”
“I think you’re making my point, Mark. The Church based their conclusions on faith, just as you are. Galileo was an empiricist, like all those scientists at the accredited universities.”
Andrew was growing more and more uncomfortable. Though he is thirty-two years my junior, he felt that I was exhibiting poor judgment by questioning the fundamental belief of the entire institution while attempting to remain inconspicuous. After a lot of eye contact between the two of us, we decided it was time to bail.
We told Mark and his friends that we had an appointment with an admissions officer, which again was true. Mark offered to walk us to the admissions office, but we told him that first we had to pick up something at a pharmacy, which while not true, was a necessary lie. We had to ditch Mark. Otherwise, our cover would be blown.
On the way to the “pharmacy,” I was recognized by several students, some of whom yelled out, “Al Franken!” I waved. And gave out some autographs. The kids were very nice.
There were still thirty minutes until our appointment, so we did the only thing that made sense. We hid.
At 1 PM sharp, we slipped into the Administration Building for our appointment with Daniel Schmidt. We were praying that Danny hadn’t been alerted to the presence of a liberal satirist on campus. It was our only hope.
We were unbelievably lucky. Danny had no idea who I was. Clearly a recent graduate of the university, he was a sweet, almost innocent young man. A perfect patsy. He bought our elaborate ruse hook, line, and sinker.
Moved by the story of young Andrew’s father’s death (boating accident), he understood totally Mom’s depression and subsequent salvation. “It sounds like your mother’s life has been transformed.”
“Yes,” Andrew said. “And now she wants me to come here.”
“Well, you’re the one who really should want this.”
Hadn’t anyone read “The Three Shipwrecks?!” Even in the admissions department?
“Well,” Andrew replied, “I’m not into the whole religion thing as much as my mother.”
“That would be impossible,” I offered. “She’s very beautiful. She looks like Naomi Judd.”
“But I’m okay with it,” Andrew continued. “I haven’t really developed my own personal relationship with Christ, but I think it would be good to work on that. Plus, I’m really pumped about going off to college. I have a friend at Syracuse, and he’s having a blast.”
Danny moved past the blast at Syracuse and came back to Mom. “She sounds like she’s happier than she’s ever been.”
“Yeah,” Andrew nodded. “Well, at least since Dad died.”
I had a couple questions. Andrew was interested in pre-med. “I know you teach creationism as opposed to evolution. How does that work out with medical schools?”
“Oh, it’s no problem,” Danny reassured. “In fact, we have a higher percentage of students accepted to medical school than the national average.”
“Really? And what would that percentage be?” I wanted to know.
“I don’t have that off hand,” Danny replied. “Perhaps I can get it for you.”
Then Andrew pounced. At the airport in New York, we had picked up a U.S. News and World Report Guide to the 1400 Top Colleges and Universities. “Maybe it’s in here,” Andrew suggested innocently, pulling it out of his backpack.
Danny blanched, knowing, as we did, that Bob Jones was not listed among the one thousand, four hundred top colleges and universities in the United States. Andrew flipped to South Carolina. “Hmmm…maybe it’s under ‘J.’”
“Give me that.” I took the book and examined it thoroughly, as Danny looked on uncomfortably. “It’s…it’s not here.”
“No,” said Danny. “A lot of colleges pay to get in that thing.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Yes,” he nodded authoritatively.
Andrew understood. “So it’s like an advertisement?”
That was quite a relief for me. Until that moment, I had been feeling more and more guilty. But now that Danny was lying about the college guide, I felt a lot better. Putting the book aside, I smiled at Danny. “Well, at least we know Bob Jones is an accredited university.”
“No. Actually, we choose not to be accredited. I can give you a pamphlet on that.”
Assured that the pamphlet would explain everything, we moved on. Andrew expressed an interest in theater. Danny got very excited. Every year Bob Jones’s theater department presents what Danny called a “Shakespeare-play.” Danny told us that before he came to BJU, “I wasn’t much for operas and Shakespeare-plays.”
One concern. Mom, the one that looks like Naomi Judd, was worried about a certain element that Andrew might be exposed to in the drama department. Did Danny understand what I was getting at? To make it even clearer, I used the magic phrase, “alternative lifestyle.” Any of that here at BJU?
“Oh, no, no, no, no,” Danny shook his head. “No, no, no, no. No.” None of that here. We could be absolutely certain of that.
Good, good. Because Andrew was looking forward in particular to the heterosexual experience of college life.
“Yeah, my mom doesn’t like me dating, because of, you know…but college is the time that, you know…”
“Oh, yes. We want you to meet girls here,” Danny smiled. “We encourage that.”
“So, the dating scene,” I asked on behalf of the boy. “What’s that like?”
Before Danny could respond, Andrew expressed some mild concern. “Yeah, I was talking to some guys outside and they said there were some…rules.”
“Yes,” Danny nodded. “You cannot leave campus with someone of the opposite sex, unless you are accompanied by a chaperone.”
Andrew raised his eyebrows. Then, looking for a ray of hope, “But on campus, you know…”
“We have a snack shop. You can sit and have a snack together.”
Andrew and I looked at each other. How to put this?
I took it upon myself. “In terms of, um, you know, um — how far can he go?”
Danny understood. “Well, obviously, there’s absolutely no physical contact.”
A numbed silence from the two of us.
“None?” finally came out of Andrew’s gaping mouth.
“That’s right. No holding hands, hugging, kissing, anything like that.”
“Backrubs?” Andrew asked for clarification.
“Oh, you mean in public? Well, that’s understandable,” Andrew conceded.
“No. No physical contact anywhere. At all.”
Maybe Danny had seen this reaction before. He knew just what to say. “Because, Andrew, you know what hand-holding leads to.”
Andrew took a wild stab. “Sin?”
“That’s right. You see, our rules are like guardrails that keep you on the path of Christ.”
So far, our plan was working beautifully. Young Andrew, who at first seemed amenable to, even excited about, pleasing his mother, was now reeling. It was time to set up the kill.
“You know, Danny, Andrew’s mother really wants him to come here. I read that you have to be in the dorms by 10:20 for the 10:30 prayer group, and then lights out at 11. But how about weekends?”
Andrew perked up. “Yeah, how far is it to Atlanta? Because my mom might let me bring my car, and a lot of the bands I like don’t play here in Greenville.”
“Well, you can have a car on campus, but you can only use it on weekends to go home or if you’re going on a mission,” Danny explained helpfully.
“Oh, I see.” Andrew nodded. “I guess it wouldn’t be so bad to take the bus. Because Weezer didn’t play in Greenville last time out.”
“No, no. We don’t want you going to rock concerts. There’s no rock and roll.”
“No rock ‘n’ roll?” I asked.
“No, we don’t endorse that, obviously.”
“What if I don’t play it too loud?” Andrew said, becoming upset.
“No. We don’t allow it in the dorms at all.”
“I could use headphones,” Andrew suggested.
Things were getting a little tense. “How about country music? That’s good clean fun,” I winked.
“Christian rock?” I tried. Certainly they must allow Christian rock.
Danny shook his head. “We don’t endorse that.”
By now, Andrew was visibly shaken. No hand-holding. No road trips. No tunes. Lots and lots of prayer.
That’s when I spoke up. “Danny, could I have a word with you alone?”
I nodded to Andrew, who excused himself and stepped into the nearby men’s room. I waited for the door to close, then turned to Danny, suddenly in his face.
“Listen. This kid’s mother is extremely wealthy. She has tons of money. She wants him to come here. If he comes here, I’m talking another building. Okay?! And you’re blowing it!”
Danny recoiled. His eyes opened wide. It was as if he had seen Satan himself.
I was pleading. “Don’t tell him everything. You said before ‘nobody’s perfect.’ Certainly there are kids who do stuff here.”
“Well, I said that because we’re all sinners. And the rules are guardrails to keep you on the path of Christ. I can’t withhold anything from Andrew. That would defeat the whole purpose. Which is to live a life in Christ.”
Aw, hell. Danny was absolutely, totally, without question incorruptible. Screw it.
We had our story. The place was weird, but the people extremely nice. A good honest day’s work done, lying to God-fearing people. We’d sleep well tonight. But we decided to poke around a little more since we had some time to kill. Off to the museum, where BJU houses the largest collection of sacred art in the Western Hemisphere.
And let me tell you, it’s a lot of sacred art: Botticelli, Granacci, Tintoretto, Dolci, Rembrandt, Ribera, Rubens, Van Dyck. Twenty-seven rooms full. A priceless collection. Donated by wealthy alums? Not quite. Most of it was purchased by Bob Jones, Jr. himself, the second of the three Bob Joneses.
You see, Dr. Bob II had spent some summers in the 1930′s as a tour guide in Rome, Paris, and Vienna, and had acquired quite a taste for fine art. Luckily, when he returned to Europe in the late 40′s, he was able acquire quite a bit of it at very reasonable prices. Hmmm.
What, do you suppose, would be the chances of a white supremacist who came to Europe in the 30′s knowing someone who knew someone who had recently come across some “misplaced” art in the late 1940′s? In fact, I thought I recognized a couple pieces that used to belong to my grandfather, who was a big collector of sacred Christian art before he was hauled off to Buchenwald. I now felt a little a better about lying to Danny.
Still with some time to kill, we decided to hop on the three o’clock tour with a delightful Christian family of four. We had a lovely time, even had some laughs, until we got to the theater, where our bluff was finally called. On the stage were several gigantic crosses, scenery for what they call “The Living Gallery.” This involves recreating great works of sacred art using real people in tableaux. I was very excited about getting Andrew to take a picture of me hanging from one of the crosses. Then we met Benj. Benj, from the public liaison’s office.
“I’ll take them from here,” Benj told our tour guide. We didn’t like the way he said that. Nor the way he said, “Let me tell you a little about the theater. The floor is from Rockefeller Center. But it’s no Saturday Night Live.”
The jig was up.
“Can I just ask what you’re down here looking for?” he inquired pointedly.
“Well, it’s a long story,” I said, willing, but not really eager, to go into the whole boating-accident-depression-salvation-boxes-of-blood thing again.
“Uh huh. Look. We’ve had enough of being made fun of,” Benj said with more than a touch of bitterness. Then turning to Andrew, he added, “I hope this isn’t awkward for you.”
“Oh no,” said Andrew cheerfully. “We’ve been getting this all day.” Actually, we hadn’t. But I thought it was a nice touch.
Benj continued. “If you’re legit, I’d be happy to show you anything you want to see. But we’re not going to put our heads on the chopping block again.” I had to admire his directness and his willingness to call us on what should have been obvious to everyone all day. And yet, he had the manners to leave open the remote possibility that we were, as he put it, “legit.” And even while being hostile, he was extremely nice about it.
Accompanied by Benj, we made a show of being interested in the alumni building, the least interesting building on campus, and then were walked to our car.
And as we bid farewell to old BJU, we realized that we learned something, not just about Bob Jones University, but about ourselves. We’d come to Bob Jones expecting to encounter racist, intolerant homophobes. Instead, we found people who were welcoming, friendly, and extremely nice. A little weird, yes. And no doubt homophobic. But well-meaning. Kind of.
More importantly, we learned that while we were happy with the way we had misled poor Danny, it was not something we were particularly proud of. Yes, we got a good story out of it. But while there’s a certain subversive thrill in deceiving people, it also left us with an unsettled feeling in our stomachs that a trip to the Waffle House only exacerbated.
In a way, I was glad that Benj had cut short our tour before I got up on one of those giant crosses. (Although if he hadn’t, you’d be looking at a pretty cool picture right now.) I don’t begrudge them their crazy religion. Hell, I admire it. No, I don’t. But it’s their right to have it. Just as it’s my inherent right to invade their privacy under false pretenses. No, it isn’t.
Mark, Steve, Benj, and especially Danny, when you finally read this — we’re very sorry.
Also, we stole some stuff from the gift shop. No, we didn’t.
Yes, we did.
No, we didn’t. We’re not crooks.