From roughly 1984 to the mid 90’s, I worked as a stand-up comic. Time may show that this was the most convenient period in entertainment history to become a comedian. Comedy clubs fed emerging cable TV’s insatiable need for inexpensively produced content, and a large number of people became “stars” quickly. Many a little too quickly. There were often comparisons to what had happened with rock music in the 60’s and 70’s, but it wasn’t the same. For one thing, in the overall, there was greater originality and creativity in what we might call “professional” rock music than there ever was in the comedy from the 80’s-90’s stand-up boom.
I’m bringing up old history to context the closing of a circle in the world of making jokes and satire: The election (finally!) of Al Franken to the U.S. Senate. Franken, like myself and many other comics, used politics as source material for comedy routines. Presidents were funny, political scandals were funny… the idea that smart people would devote their time and energies to running America was funny.
While I can’t definitively prove it, I believe that a certain amount of damage ensued as the result of all this. The more politics was integrated into show business, the more an attitude emerged that politics was a branch of show business. Based on that, politicians were required only to meet the same standard of personal discipline and excellence as, say, Liza Minnelli. And with news channels looking for soft angles on complex political issues, politics became a content “platform” in the entertainment industry sense. It didn’t help that politicians themselves were more than happy to play along. Worse, the symbiotic relationships that were forming were causing both sides to play each other like a child’s toy piano. Could a politician seek and find a softer arena than a Larry King interview? Sure … call Jay Leno.
Reminding you that I haven’t got good empirical evidence to back this up, I’ll assert that once you’ve successfully reduced the presentation of a candidate to something that’s less like a college debate and more like running for homecoming king, you create an environment in which those who seek office can opt to run on likeability. If all the circumstances in which candidates would otherwise be pressed on their experience or ideas are turned into user-friendly joke and sound bite shows, followed by debates in which pundits focus on image and joke moments rather than policy and content… then at the light end you get Mike Huckabee. At the dark end you get eight years with two wars, followed by a legacy of economic collapse and hundreds of thousands out of work.
I can’t speak for the man but my suspicion is that Al Franken realized after eight years of Bush/Cheney that, much as it took him off his professional track, there was absolutely nothing funny about having very wrong people in government. Mr. Franken might have simply profited from presenting jokes about wrong people in government, but instead he’s bringing his impressive intelligence and articulate speech to the Senate. He’s gone from standing on the sidelines and throwing jokes to getting into the game and trying to do something, and I applaud him.
The Minnesota Supreme Court’s decision last week allowing Franken to get to work was highlighted by its sharp contrast to Sarah Palin’s decision to do even less work than she’s been doing. Regardless of what we learn later about Palin’s throwing the towel, it can now be stated categorically that this is a woman who just doesn’t like the hard parts of life such as work and concentration and reading. For every 30 seconds that Franken will spend in the spotlight as a new senator, he’ll have spent hours doing the heavy lifting of learning and mobilizing his new office. Sarah Palin likes things the other way around. On top of everything else we’ve come to resent about her, she’s also lazy.
Al Franken may have proven that the theory that some comedians are actually very serious people working as funny people is more than just a theory, in a way that Fred Grandy and Sonny Bono simply could not. An anachronism in our Larry the Cable Guy times, Al Franken deploys wit as a tool for getting his ideas across. I’m not suggesting that we’ll see a political renaissance in which Garrison Keillor and Calvin Trillin replace Hannity and Colmes, but Franken helps us with our belief that the new era of hope and change means more people will put their money/careers where their mouths are.
I’ve worked as a writer for political comics Dennis Miller and Bill Maher and enjoyed those jobs immensely. When I was involved in the creation of a TV pilot for ABC that made fun of the news and predated The Daily Show by five years, I was excited by the possibilities. But in this work and my stand up appearances, I may have contributed, albeit quite modestly, to the notion that the workings of government were as funny and goofy as John DeLorean’s coke bust. We can now say with some authority that from 2000 to 2008, there was nothing funny about the Bush administration. Yet at the time, it felt like comedy was some kind of cottage industry operating out of that White House basement room Oliver North used to occupy. Al Franken benefited from all that, but now he’s using what was given to go to another level. The old “S—t Happens” and “Whatever” bumper stickers that have faded may be replaced by a new one: “That was fun. Now let’s get to work.”