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
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
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
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
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
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
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