General 10-6-2006

EXCHANGE: Al Franken and Ed Bok Lee on Mixing Politics and Art

A conversation with satirist and radio personality Al Franken and award-winning author of "Real Karaoke People," Ed Bok Lee on mixing politics and art, how to make democratic art, and why Al feels sure that Dan Quayle killed counterculture.

Ed Bok Lee
Al Franken

CELEBRATED MINNESOTA AUTHORS LIKE SATIRIST AL FRANKEN AND ACCLAIMED NOVELIST ED BOK LEE gathered recently for a reading at the Kitty Kat Klub, but this was no ordinary literary event. These authors marshaled their words to help raise money for LitPAC (an author-run political action committee) and Colleen Rowley’s bid for a Senate seat. access+ENGAGE sat down with Real Karaoke People author Ed Bok Lee and political raconteur Al Franken to get the skinny on this mix of writing and politics, how to make democratic art, and how Al is convinced that Dan Quayle killed counterculture.

a+E: What prompted you to become more publicly politically active, Al? I hear you’ve even started your own political action committee, the Midwest Values PAC. The Not Ready for Primetime Players was fully countercultural. Founding PACs and organizing vote drives seems anything but…

Franken: It was possible to be countercultural then—there was a counterculture. I remember when, in ’88, Dan Quayle became the first Bush’s running mate. Someone asked him what his favorite band was at Woodstock. He said Jimi Hendrix. In that moment, I just realized… There’s no counterculture anymore. It no longer exists. Nelson Rockefeller, who was president when we started with Saturday Night Live, would never have said “Jimi Hendrix.” So when I heard Dan Quayle give that answer, I just thought, “Oh well. I guess that’s over. There’s officially no counterculture anymore.” [laughing] At that point, all of us [in Saturday Night Live] were working for RCA, a very large corporation. They understood to leave us alone… or actually, Lorne [Michaels] made them understand they had to leave us alone, so we were able to pretty much do what we wanted. The show was a breakthrough of sorts, because before we came on, the only shows were variety shows, like The Carol Burnett Show. Now, that was a very good show, but you’d never call Carol Burnett “countercultural.” It was just for a very different generation. The other show that was on at the time was Sonny and Cher. What an awful show! [laughing] It was just terrible. After Sonny died, they started rerunning them for a while, kind of as a tribute or a curiosity, and let me tell you—they were really, really bad. SNL was a breakthrough because it was the first show on TV made by people who grew up watching TV. There was nothing else like it. We did lots of parodies of other things on TV—that was something only baby boomers who came of age in the ’60s, watching these shows, could have thought to do. So, I suppose in that sense we were “countercultural.” But that’s when there still was a counterculture. But you have to remember, the whole point of the show was always just to be entertaining—it wasn’t about being countercultural, it was about entertainment. That’s why I’m often really uncomfortable calling myself an “artist.”  I’m a comedian, a satirist. I consider what I do more a craft than an art. I know it’s probably just semantics—the distinction doesn’t really mean a thing—but, to me, I’ve always felt uncomfortable being called an artist.

a+E: Too high falutin’?

Franken: Yeah, I think so. My purpose then was just to entertain. And now, my purpose is to persuade and illuminate, explore political ideas… and to entertain. That doesn’t seem like art to me—more like a craft, really.

aE: What do you both think is the most effective way for the non-politician—an artist, entertainer, writer—to engage the political process? And which comes first: being an effective political pitch man and staying on message or being a good entertainer (or novelist, or artist)?

Franken: There’s always a combination of things on the radio show. There are times when we need to get really wonky to get the message out; but then there’s time in the show where we’re silly… or emotional, or angry.

I got into politics because I was angry. When I was on Saturday Night Live, I was writing the show with other people. We never felt that the job of the show was to have a political point of view. We felt like it was to be as funny as possible. We didn’t think it was appropriate for the show to be overtly political, because there were lots of people working for the show, and that’s not what they signed on for. They didn’t sign on to The Daily Show, they were working for a comedy show. But for that matter, even The Daily Show has to keep a check on any ideology that might seep into the writing. I was also writing, at the time, with Jim Downey who is quite conservative. He’s a close friend of mine, and we kept each other honest. I’m really proud of the fifteen seasons I worked on SNL. But when I finally left the show, I had a chance to write my own material. That was when the Gingrich revolution was ascendant, in ’95, and that made me really angry. I was angry about how they divided people, labeled people they didn’t like. They used a whole, ugly vocabulary: Democrats were “traitors,” “corrupt,” “deranged.”

Around that time, I wrote the book Rush Limbaugh is a Big, Fat Idiot. He was a mouthpiece for that whole Gingrich movement, so I used him as an entry point to write about the whole thing. That’s when I first really became publicly political, because that book was a big hit. That launched this new side of my career.

Ed Bok Lee: As for me, I see myself mainly as a storyteller. Telling stories about people in my life and my past—and sometimes that’s political.

a+E: Do you think that audiences respond well to authors as political speakers?

Ed Bok Lee: I think people are interested in hearing what authors have to say about the current state of America. From what I’ve gathered from the people who come to readings—I have this new book out [Real Karaoke People] and I’ve done nearly 100 readings in three different countries—people are very interested in getting a point of view that’s not from the mainstream media. They want a personalized point of view. I was reading a blog by an Iraqi girl about her daily life. One day she wrote, “My brother went to the store, and he never came back.” I think that voice, even talking about the mundane, is really powerful. People are hungry for that deeply personal voice because of a distrust of mass media.

a+E: Al, do you agree? Your books certainly have a distinct, even personal voice—a reader know they’re reading Al Franken.

Franken: Well, my books are my books. But, while I like to weave personal stories in them, mainly it’s about looking at policy and spin coming from the other side. Each book is slightly different, obviously, but lately I’ve been focusing on this administration and the Right wing media misleading the public.

a+E: Why did you start Midwest Values PAC? Why not just directly raise money for the Democratic Party or the DFL or individual candidate’s campaigns?

Franken: I wanted to use my profile to raise money for Democrats—I want to help them win elections in the House and the Senate, and in the Minnesota State House and Senate. We’ve raised about $750,000 so far, giving the money to candidates, activist groups, the DFL. I do raise money for individual candidate’s campaigns, too. But I wanted to have a PAC because I thought of it as an easier way to raise money. And I wanted to see if I could do it.

a+E: Whom, specifically, are you mobilizing with The Al Franken Show or Midwest Values PAC? Who is the audience you’re both going for?

Franken: Whoever listens to us. I don’t have an audience in mind. I imagine that most of the people who listen to us are liberal, but I know that some of our listeners are conservative, too. I’ve actually met conservatives at book signings who’ve changed because of the show or one of my books. That’s very gratifying. But, there is some aspect to all this that’s preaching to the choir. I think that’s okay. We’re telling the truth—and people respond to that. I heard from a soldier in Iraq who downloads the show on his iPod—he wrote to thank me for the show and to tell me that it gives him lots of ammunition when he’s arguing politics with his buddies. I hope we also have some listeners who haven’t made up their minds yet and don’t have a strong ideology. Maybe we can catch them before the other guys do—they should at least have the opportunity to hear a point of view that’s not Right Wing.

Ed Bok Lee: Most of the authors whose work I read—the poets, novelists—are more on the liberal end of the spectrum. I don’t think of my work as “political” really, but I’m most gratified when someone’s read something of mine and it’s changed the way they look at their friend, or their neighbor. I think that’s really all I can do as a storyteller—tell a story that connects with a reader and helps them empathize, see the person on the bus differently, with more humanity. I actually think there’s something really political about that. That’s what all art does, really. It explores what it means to be human.

a+E: Didn’t you describe karaoke that way, Ed? That it gives voice to the voiceless and the marginalized?

Ed Bok Lee: Karaoke in my book is a metaphor for lots of things. It cuts across class and race and geography. There’s a karaoke bar in every town and city in America. When you see people on that stage, mic in hand, the star of the show for three minutes—they’re often the same people who would never get an opportunity for that kind of public expression. I think Spoken Word open mic nights offer the same chance. I see a lot of angry youth at Spoken Word events, especially around election time. I think these are manifestations of the democratization of art… for better and for worse, because not all of these expressions are the most well-though-out or polished. But that’s not the point. The point is baring your soul and having a stage to do it on. I think Spoken Word, which is part of what I do, is a new, exciting kind of art. You don’t have to have been writing for years and years, you can just whip out something you wrote and read it. That simple. Whether your fourteen or fifteen or forty, you can get on that stage and read what you’ve written.

a+E: Al, what are you most concerned about as this election season approaches?

Franken: There are so many things, really. Unfortunately, a lot of times, what candidates end up having to talk about doesn’t really reflect the most important issues, the issues they really need to talk about. I hope issues that don’t get lost in the shuffle are universal health care, renewable energy, and establishing a sane foreign policy. Not to mention all the issues that speak to the problem of maintaining the middle class. Democrats have to argue from a point of view that people understand—we have to give a narrative and not a litany. The narrative I’m giving is that I grew up here, in Minnesota, in the 1950s. I felt like the luckiest kid in the world, and I was. At that point, Minnesota had the attitude that we’re all in this together. We focused on the common interest more than the special interest. One of the things we really have to make clear is that this is what it’s really all about. We need to be unafraid to tell the special interests that they really aren’t so special, and refocus our energies on what’s good for everybody. People need to be able to educate their kids, have health care for their families. Every kid should have a real opportunity to succeed, and we’re way, way far away from that. That’s what we should be focused on.