During his run for the Senate, and through the subsequent vote count, Al Franken put aside the jokes and showed a more serious side of his personality. Now that he’s been seated, some are wondering if he’s free to be funny again. We asked longtime SNL writer and Franken collaborator James Downey.
MIKE PESCA: During Al Franken’s run for the Senate from Minnesota and the subsequent eight-month tally of votes, the former Saturday Night Live funnyman tried, by all accounts, to tamp down his funniness. Headline writers responded in kind, as ABC, NBC, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and the AP all ran stories about his swearing-in under the words “No joke.” But all kidding aside, when will Franken stop putting all kidding aside? We called long-time SNL writer James Downey, who often collaborated with Franken and had a hand in most of that show’s great political sketches. Those include Michael Dukakis saying, “I can't believe I'm losing to this guy,” Al Gore sighing during a debate and cable news anchors offering Barack Obama a more comfortable pillow. Downey says that Franken was wise to steer clear of comedy during the campaign, but now that he’s a sitting senator he’s free to be funny again - cautiously funny.
JAMES DOWNEY: I think what he'll probably try to avoid is the kind of stuff that annoys middle-of-the-road people who have their antennae out for an obnoxious, smart-ass punk. That’s the danger.
MIKE PESCA: Right, not all funny people can totally calculate exactly where and how they are funny. Some are either on or off. They don't have a dimmer switch and they can't cut out certain aspects of their humor. What do you know about Al Franken? Is he able to be lighthearted without getting into the “Rush Limbaugh is a big fat idiot” type jokes?
JAMES DOWNEY: Well, you know, he’s not very ideological, really, but he’s hyper-partisan. He might take shots on behalf of Democrats against all Republicans, but I also think that he has a bit of a tendency to maybe regard people who disagree as morally corrupt, in addition to being mistaken.
[MIKE LAUGHS] And that’s something I think he would be advised to tone down a bit. But I hope he’s entertaining. It’s a good thing.
MIKE PESCA: [LAUGHS] Has that scorched earth type philosophy ever reared its head in your relationship when you’re writing a sketch or something?
JAMES DOWNEY: You know, we were just trying to be funny. for the most part. I mean, I had, myself, kind of a coldblooded, anarchic kind of stance on everything, and I kind of made fun of passionate comics who wanted to leave you with an important truth. And I was more interested in being silly. Franken was mostly like that. There was a part of him that wanted to take shots at Republicans. If I disagreed with him it would be because I thought, well, it’s not that funny, it’s just getting something off your chest more.
MIKE PESCA: Or it would only be funny to someone who agrees with you, to begin with.
JAMES DOWNEY: Right, right. Sometimes when I look back at sketches we've done together there are moments where I sort of wince and go, that’s just kind of angry speechifying and not really comedy, and the fact that the audience roared said more about the collective politics of the audience than that it was funny. I mean, to me the telltale sign of when you’re slipping off the edge is when you’re getting applause, rather than laughter. Laughter is an involuntary response. And, you know, we've all seen people who deliver not terribly funny but perfectly politically pitched acts that get standing ovations. And I don't think Al likes that any more than I do.
MIKE PESCA: Can you think of a specific sketch that maybe fell in that category?
JAMES DOWNEY: I don’t know why, but I remember this joke with absolute clarity that I remembered really fighting against. It was in that debate piece that you mentioned, Dukakis and Bush in 1988 that we had written with Tom Davis, and, and there was a moment where someone brings up Iran Contra, and Bush says:
DANA CARVEY PLAYING PRESIDENT BUSH: Well Diane, let me answer some of that. First of all, I didn't know the Iran arms sale was going to the Contras. I was told the money was going for the bombing of abortion clinics.
JAMES DOWNEY: And I just said, is that funny or is it just designed to get yeahs from a certain segment of the audience? And it wasn't – I was no fan of Bush. I didn't vote for him. I just thought like, shouldn't we be trying to be funny? But toward the end of our working together, I had noticed that by that time he would object on political grounds to jokes that he thought were unfair, that misrepresents Chris Dodd’s views or something like that. And I would go, wait a minute, since when does fair have anything [LAUGHING] to do with political comedy? You’re dealing in the caricature, and if we had to be scrupulously fair and they had to be fact-checked, there'd be nothing left of them.
MIKE PESCA: Yeah, I think it would be called a David Broder column.
JAMES DOWNEY: [LAUGHS] That was part of his evolution as he got more serious, and I guess I probably remained irresponsible.
MIKE PESCA: Towards the later stages of your collaboration, your responsibility was more to the joke, whereas he began to see his responsibility as being towards the truth of the cause.
JAMES DOWNEY: Probably more than Al, I enjoyed upsetting people with sort of politically incorrect thoughts, not because Al was afraid to do that. It’s just that he thought that what happened to be politically correct was also right and true. I did a joke one time in a piece we wrote together about Jerry Brown and Bill Clinton backstage preparing for one of their debates in ’92 and agreeing on ground rules and what they're not going to get into.
PHIL HARTMAN PLAYING BILL CLINTON: The last thing America wants to dwell on is something that happened years ago, like who registered for what draft and how they got out of it.
[LAUGHTER] Or when they finally did go to Vietnam, what side they may have fought on.
JAMES DOWNEY: And I remember Al going, oh, come on, that’s not fair, you know. And I said -
[MIKE LAUGHS] - Jesus, Al, this is comedy. If the audience refuses to laugh because of their collective sense of outrage at the unfairness of it all, then we'll cut it after dress. But, you know, we didn't need to cut the joke [LAUGHS], as it turns out.
MIKE PESCA: It’s going to come up. Someone’s going to say, well, let's do a Senate sketch. Who’s going to play Al Franken?
JAMES DOWNEY: [LAUGHS]
MIKE PESCA: Should we call up Al Franken to play himself? Have you thought about that?
JAMES DOWNEY: Well, I mean, it is going to be awkward because [LAUGHS] I know I'm going to hear from him. But there was a guy in our cast about five years ago who did the greatest Franken impression. Now, everyone who’s ever worked with Al does an Al Franken impression, but it would be [LAUGHS] worth bringing this guy back. I mean, there’s certainly no reason we would back off. And I would think that Al, of all people, he’s the last guy who can say, that was really unfair.
MIKE PESCA: James Downey, a longtime writer for Saturday Night Live, is responsible for many, if not most, of that show’s most memorable political sketches. Thank you very much, James.
JAMES DOWNEY: Okay, not at all. Thank you.
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MIKE PESCA: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips, Nazanin Rafsanjani, Michael Bernstein and P.J. Vogt, with more help from Sarah Fidelibus and Kasia Gladki, and edited by our senior producer, Katya Rogers. We had technical direction from Jennifer Munson and more engineering help from Zach Marsh. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.