Why Air America and Al Franken will fail

Looking back at the past year or so in retrospect, it’s getting easier to speak about the election year with a bit of distance and detachment. While Decision 2004 ended up with a result I favor, it took a long time to get there and there was a lot of new silliness along the way…

Well, it’s probably flippant to call organizations like MoveOn.org and Air American silly, but certainly looking back at some of the actions and rhetoric they engaged in, one must concede that it’s hard to take them entirely seriously, either. I have a lot of thoughts I’ve been mulling over about this past election cycle, but the one I want to focus on today is Air America, the “new” liberal talk radio network… Specifically, Al Franken’s role in it.

WHY I ONCE LIKED AL

It would be easy to dismiss the opinion of anyone who dislikes a particular celebrity. After all, their mind is made up and their opinion of the person in question must therefore be biased, correct? And I suppose that is a reasonable assumption.

However, in this case, I have not come to the table with a predisposition to dislike Al Franken. In fact, for a large span in his career, I have found much of his professional work to be quite enjoyable.

During his stint on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, Franken was a great absurdist humorist, poking fun at any number of cultural conventions. Whether he was on Weekend Update wearing a satellite uplink helmet or making special appearances with one-time comedy partner Tom Davis, Franken was wacky in an enjoyable, slapstick kind of way.

Yet for me, perhaps his greatest contribution to the culture is his self-help character, Stuart Smalley. Having grown up myself in a home with an alcoholic parent, much of the self-help/self-love/affirmation mind-set he was skewering was immediately identifiable, if not through direct family parallels than through contact with others whose problems ran along the same lines.

Although enjoyable as a skit character, the high-water mark for the Stuart Smalley character was a small, modest film that spun the character off into his own movie, “Stuart Saves His Family.” While the flick barely made a blip at the box office, it quickly became a personal favorite because the film moved beyond the surface caricature of Stuart and showed us his whole, dysfunctional family life. No longer as slapstick a character, the movie was successful in touching deep emotional chords that anyone who has been part of a dependency household can identify with, even if the specifics of their lives vary from those in the movie.

The film succeeded (creatively, if not commercially) because Franken’s script treated each character as valid and human – even the largely unsympathetic alcoholic father. And he had what appeared to be an uncanny understanding of the hopelessness that can often pervade life inside a family with a dependency dysfunction.

Simply for making the movie “Stuart Saves His Family,” I can never really dislike Al Franken. But I can be disappointed in the quality of his current work.

And I am.

WHY I NO LONGER CARE FOR AL FRANKEN’S WORK

When Franken was focused on comedy, or even on movie making, much of his work was sharp, humorous and witty. When I initially heard he was thinking of becoming the liberal response to Rush Limbaugh, my first thought was, “Well, here’s a funny guy, so maybe the Libs finally have the right idea here.”

That hasn’t proven to be the case.

In my view, Franken’s political punditry career got off to a bad start with his first overtly political tome, “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big, Fat Idiot.”

I was a bit taken aback. Not because Franken chose to attack Rush – for liberals, who is a riper target for lampooning than Mr. Limbaugh, after all? – but because of the level of the humor.

Big? Fat? Idiot? That’s the best a talented humorist like Franken can come up with is to call the nation’s top conservative radio host fat and dumb? Name-calling? That’s the best Franken could do?

Surely it has to be just a matter of the title of the book only, I thought. A marketing ploy. Choose an outrageous, even cheap, title to get attention, but surely a more sophisticated brand of parody would show up in the interior pages, right?

Nope. For all his bluster, Franken couldn’t scrape together anything greater than that: name-calling. Considering the heart Franken had displayed behind the movie “Stuart Saves His Family,” such base vitriol was disappointing, at the very least.

And Limbaugh hasn’t been his only target. The current president gets treated to no deeper commentary that does Rush: Franken spends a lot of time his calling GWB stupid. And he doesn’t even spend much time searching for a variety of synonyms to add some variety to the endless name-calling.

It’s disappointing, really. While I am not a liberal and never will be, I kinda liked the idea of Franken as a liberal response to Rush. If he had proven to be as humorous as Limbaugh, from the other side of the aisle, it could have made flipping back and forth between the two shows loads of fun. A nice rivalry. But Franken just isn’t cutting it.

Al, speaking as someone who really has appreciated your work if not your politics, here’s a sincere plea: Make your show funnier. And here’s the first hint: Name-calling wears thin. You’re capable of better humor than just calling W., Rush and anyone else who doesn’t agree with you stupid, fat and ugly. If you think Rush is only a name-caller, you haven’t really analyzed his show and its appeal deeply enough.

Can there be a liberal version of Rush Limbaugh? Sure. And Franken had potential.

But fat jokes and calling people stupid can only get you so far. And it really does go against the grain, Al, of much of your best work.

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