Al Franken is a former Saturday Night Live regular (playing twelve-step addict Stuart Smalley), an author of satirical throwdowns (Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot), and, since mid-2004, the host of “The Al Franken Show” on the Air America radio network. This week, a taped version of the show is coming to the Sundance Channel, meaning that, if nothing else, Franken will be forced to wear a shirt and tie every day. Adam Sternbergh spoke to him about the comedy of Ann Coulter and his own potential political career.
The format of your show—a radio show taped for TV—sounds similar to “The Howard Stern Show.”
We’re halfway between what Imus does and what Stern does. Imus’s show goes out live on MSNBC. With Stern’s there’s a lot more postproduction and behind-the-scenes stuff. And strippers.
Since you presumably won’t have strippers, what will there be for people to, you know, look at?
Visually, it’s as exciting as Charlie Rose. It’s not a visual feast.
Do you think of yourself as being in the same line of work as Rush Limbaugh?
This is something that really bugs me. A lot of people who write about me in passing will say, “The Al Frankens and the Rush Limbaughs are ruining discourse.” And I’m like, Have you listened to my show? I’ve had Norm Orenstein and E.J. Dionne and Joe Conason and Naomi Klein. And me!
How about Ann Coulter?
I’m on the radio every day, and Coulter ain’t. My last book outsold her last two books. And I do it without lying and without being vicious and evil.
Are you still considering running for political office yourself?
It’s hovering around 50 percent. But I’m moving to Minnesota. I’m moving back home.
Is your typical listener someone who agrees with you, or an opponent?
Most of the people listening are liberal. But there’s nothing wrong with preaching to the choir, if you make the choir bigger and stronger. But I did get an e-mail I really prize. It was from a sailor, father of two, from Texas, a week after the election. He said, “I voted for Bush, and all I knew about you I’d heard from Bill O’Reilly. On November 3rd, I tuned in to your show in my pickup to hear you cry in your vegetarian chili. I’m still a Republican, but now I’m listening every day.”
Comedians tend to be either apolitical or vaguely nihilistic. How did your activist approach evolve?
At SNL, I wrote political stuff, but I never felt the show should have an axe to grind. But when I left in ’95, I could let my own beliefs out. Now I think it’s just too important. In comedy, it’s easier not to have a dog in the fight, because then you can go all over the place. But I have a dog in the fight.