Literature 1-15-2006

Letters from a Writer: Me, Kevin, and Al

Jean Sramek describes the penalties of fame.

Jean Sramek

If I ever become famous, I am going to confine myself to my home office, wearing dark glasses and a Mrs. Onassis scarf on the rare occasions that I go out in public, including trips to the grocery store and in the sauna at the gym. It is far too much work to be admired by people like me.

I got to meet Al Franken last month. When I say “meet Al Franken” I mean “have Al Franken sign my copy of his book, same as everyone else.” On a nationwide tour, Air America taped “The Al Franken Show” in Duluth, which is full of commie pinko liberal tree-huggers like me and thus provided a large, tittering, spontaneously applauding audience for the talk radio show’s live broadcast. Afterwards, we all stood in line with our books.

I’ve been a fan of Franken’s work since I was thirteen years old. While normal seventh-grade girls were smacking their shiny, watermelon-flavored lips over fan-mag pictures of David Cassidy, Leif Garrett, Randy Mantooth (I can’t believe I remember these names) and other purveyors of the shag hairstyle, I was worshipping the early seasons of “Saturday Night Live.” During the closing credits I waited for the list of writers to scroll past, convinced that these people—the ones who had thought of all this stuff—were the coolest and smartest people on the show, a theory later partially corroborated by the evidence of Chevy Chase’s film career. When Franken and his partner Tom Davis appeared in sketches, I was star-struck: not only were they clever, but they had made other people seem clever as well. Because of writing.

After the Air America broadcast, I thought about just buying Al’s book and going home. But I was determined to at least shake his hand, especially after what had happened the month before last, which was that I had a chance to meet Kevin Kling and didn’t.

I went to see “Gales of November,” narrated by Kevin. (Kevin … Al … see how the funny writers just use each other’s first names? It’s a thing we do.) Afterwards, I chatted with my friend Dan, who was also in the show, and ended up MPR’s intimate post-performance reception, where all the regionally famous celebrities chatted with us, the audience. I was standing this close to Kevin Kling and he wasn’t talking to anyone at that moment, he was just drinking a glass of wine and standing by himself looking very tired, and there was my chance, my chance to say Hello I have admired you since forever and you are a genius and sorry about the motorcycle accident and this show was so great and I am also a humorist and playwright and I sat by your mom when you did a show at Big Top Chatauqua and did I mention I have admired you since forever– and suddenly I was too shy to go up to him and say any of it. I just went home and wrote “ME = COMPLETE DORK” on my white-erase board.

So I stood in line after the Air America broadcast, book in hand, ready to tell Al what an influence he’d been on me, the seventh-grader who would later become a Creative Artist. When it was finally my turn, I shook Al’s hand, thanked him for doing the show, and said, “I have been a fan of your work since I was in the seventh grade.”

“Thank you,” he nodded. I continued, “And I grew up to be a writer.”

“Oh?” Al asked me as he hunted for the title page, “What do you write?”

I stammered, “Well …mmmr … ehhg … comedy?” Which is true. Mostly. But which made me sound like a complete dork. Then I made it worse by saying weakly, “I guess everyone says that.” Which is also probably true. But who cares? Al simply smiled, looked very tired, and asked me how to spell my name. Then my friend Bruce took a picture of me with Al and that was that.

Shortly afterwards, I heard someone say, “Al Franken wasn’t very funny in person.” Well, duh. He had spent the day giving interviews, signing books, doing a 3-hour radio broadcast, signing more books, giving more interviews, and prepping for the next day’s equally insane schedule. And here’s the super-secret about people who make their living performing for other people: most of them are introverts. Doing the show is exhilarating; schmoozing with people after the show—even people who are telling you how great you are—is emotionally and physically draining and you wish they would all just go home and send you cards and letters instead of expecting you to answer them when they say, “Where on earth do you get your ideas!!!” and “How long did it take you to write that!!!” and “I’ve been a fan of your work since I was in the seventh grade!!!”

A few days ago, I ran into a young woman who is a local actress and budding writer. “Jean Sramek!!!” she said, “You’re the best writer in Duluth!!!” Which is not true. She’s young and wrong. I’m lazy, a hack, and—as my friends Kevin and Al will tell you—a complete dork. I would say I’m probably the 83rd best writer in Duluth—the 77th best, tops. “Someday,” she continued wistfully, “I really want to be in one of your plays.” Then she asked me if I would give her advice about a show she wants to produce next summer, and I said that of course I would.

It was nice to hear—that I’ve inspired someone in some way. It made me feel like it always does: exhausted, but good. And happy that there are enough Creative Artists in the world to ensure a steady supply as long as we keep making more of our kind. It’s probably how Al felt when I shook his hand and thanked him, and the way Kevin probably would have felt if I had shaken his hand and thanked him. Exhausted, but good. And glad that most people just go home after the show.

p.s. to Al: If you don’t run against Norm Coleman in ’08, our friendship is over.