Stuart Saves His Country: An interview with Al Franken and Stuart Smalley

(with contributions from Maureen Gallagher Hansen and Nancy Gallagher)

It’s easier to put on slippers than to carpet the whole world.
– Al Franken in Stuart Saves His Family

Al Franken is one of the original writers of Saturday Night Live and won six Emmy’s for his work there and a Grammy for best comedy album in 1996. He’s a comedian and actor, and a political pundit and satirist. He wrote Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot and is the creator of the show, “Daily Affirmations with Stuart Smalley” which aired on “Saturday Night Live.”

Franken recently has been cited as a contender to appear on a national liberal radio network reportedly in planning by a group of wealthy Democratic donors who seek to counterbalance the conservative tenor of radio programs like “The Rush Limbaugh Show.” There’s been no word, however, about involvement by Stuart Smalley.

Smalley was the star in his own movie, Stuart Saves His Family, written by Al Franken.

I talked to them both recently — Al Franken about politics and “Stuart” (who doesn’t do politics) about meditation and how it can help us all.

Al Franken: Yeah.
Hi, Al. It’s Rita.
Stuart Smalley: Hi Rita, how are you doing?

Fine. Before we start, I just wanted to tell you that my sister Maureen bought another couple of copies of Stuart Saves His Family and gave them out for Christmas.
Franken: God bless her.

I wonder if Stuart would want to comment on things while we’re talking?
Franken: Maybe. (laughs)

Can Stuart share his thoughts on how meditation could improve the world, one person at a time?
Stuart Smalley: OK, well you know, meditation is one of the steps. Prayer and meditation. There is a saying that “hope is fear that’s said its prayers.” So I think meditation is a way of praying, and I think that it can turn fear into hope.

I think that if the whole world were hopeful, instead of fearful, we’d have just a much better world.

Oh, I think you do know something about politics there, Stuart.
Stuart Smalley: No, I’m not interested in politics. It’s just that meditation is very helpful to me, you know, especially when I remember to do it, and especially if I’m starting to go into a shame spiral. I say “Stuart, you’re starting to go into a shame spiral, and it’s time to meditate.”

It’s not always successful, I have to be honest, you know. It’s a program of rigorous honesty, and every once in a while, I’m sitting there trying to meditate, and I can’t.

And then I think, “OK, you’re trying to meditate, but you can’t and that’s OK.” And then I try not to think about that, and then I think, “But that’s the whole point of meditation is not to think, and just to find that center, and to try to become one with the Higher Power.” But sometimes that doesn’t happen.

How about when you first started to meditate, what happened, and how did you kind of hone your meditation skills over the years?
Stuart Smalley: Well, it takes time. It took me about 12 years before I could just get the…you know, all the voices out of my head. You know, all the voices saying, “You’re not doing this right, you’re not meditating correctly, stop talking to yourself, stop thinking about it.” You know, all that kind of stuff, that took a long time.

And then when I finally did it, it was because I was very tired. I was exhausted, and something happened, and it kicked in, and since then I’ve been able to do it every once in a while.

I wanted to tell you, Stuart, there was a big article on Overeaters Anonymous in a recent Minneapolis Sunday paper.
Stuart Smalley: Oh, that’s great. Was it a good article?

Yeah, it was good. It didn’t mention you, and I was surprised.
Stuart Smalley: That’s OK. I’m not grandiose about it.

I heard that you recently gave Al Gore some affirmations. What were they?
Stuart Smalley: Well, let’s see…. I had him do some mirror work. So I had him look in the mirror and say, you know, “Hello, me,” you know, “I am sad about not being president. And that’s OK. But I don’t have to be the most powerful person in the world. I don’t have to be able to bomb a country any time I want.”

And he sort of objected to that, because he said he wouldn’t do that if he were president…arbitrarily bomb, gratuitously…I can’t remember the word he used.

Then I advised him to say, “All I have to do is be the best Al I can be, because I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me. ”

And I think it worked. He felt better.

I’m glad he felt better. Do you have any affirmations that you could give to maybe George W., or Saddam Hussein?
Stuart Smalley: Well, let me see. For W, it would be, “Hello, me. I am fun to be with. The majority of the people didn’t vote for me, but that’s OK. Because I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, I overcame my drinking problem.” I think that would be a good one for him.

And what about Saddam Hussein? That would be a tough one, I know, but…
Stuart Smalley: I think he is a rage-aholic, so I think that he has, you know, a tremendous amount of work to do… I don’t even know where to begin.

All right. We’ll just leave it at that. I don’t know if you can answer this, Stuart, I know politics makes you nervous, but do you have any ideas about how to handle the Iraq situation that we’re in, and North Korea? Any thoughts?
Stuart Smalley: Well…I don’t know…no, I have no idea. I just think that if everyone involved put the focus on themselves, that would help.

Right. If world politics were run like an OA meeting, and everybody took their own inventory.
Stuart Smalley: That’s what I’m saying, that everyone should take his or her own inventory. But you put it better than me.

I also was just thinking that maybe the world just hasn’t hit bottom yet, huh? That we’re just not forced to work the program.
Stuart Smalley: Well, let’s hope the world doesn’t actually hit bottom!

Do you think any right wing people that you know could really use the practice of meditation?
Stuart Smalley: Well, I think, you know, everyone can, so every right wing person can.

How about the pagan left?
Stuart Smalley: The pagan left?

Yes, that’s the term some people use here in Minneapolis for people who are Democrats.
Stuart Smalley: Well, they just have to learn not to hate the other side that’s hating them. To embrace them with love.

Thank you, Stuart. The next questions are for Al. I’m interested in what you think is coming up in 2004. What issues do you think the Democrats need to focus on to be a contender in the elections?
Franken: Bill Clinton said that in the fight of the small, the meaner wins. I think the Democrats have to get a little bigger, and I think we have to show that we’re for national security, sure, but also for economic justice, expanding the economy, protecting the environment, improving education and health care, all those things…a way to make sure that the people who lose in globalization don’t fall through the cracks.

Those were the same issues, though, that the Democrats went on in the last election.
Franken: Well, I don’t think those are issues that they actually did effectively at all, including nationally, especially. I mean, they got caught, you know? Also, I think we have to be more aggressive in getting our message out and more aggressive in combating the right wing part of the media. That is a very organized and pernicious group.

What would an alternative, a Green party, that type of thing, what would they have to do to become viable competitors in the upcoming elections?
Franken: I have very mixed feelings about that, and actually, I’m a Democrat and I think that people in the Green party should become active in the Democratic party and try to make sure their concerns are handled within the party.

Would you ever join a third party?
Franken: No. Unless the Democratic party just went haywire somewhere, but no.

What did you think of Hollywood, working on movies?
Franken: I had a great time working on the movies, both the major movies I’ve done. I’ve had a great time. I like the people in Hollywood a lot.

The other movie you’re referring to, When a Man Loves a Woman, with Andy Garcia…
Franken: I co-wrote that.

And was that from experience, the whole Minnesota recovery thing, that you wanted to include in that movie?
Franken: It comes from an amalgam of stuff I’ve heard in Al-Anon. I go to Al-Anon. I don’t mind people knowing that.

Is Andy Garcia as cute in person as he is in…
Franken: (laughs) He really is a great guy. I really like Andy a lot. He’s a good dad, and husband, and he’s really…he’s the real thing.

There’s a lot of guys in the business who are the real thing, but not that many. But he is.

Al, Stuart doesn’t usually comment on politics, but you do, and you’re from Minnesota, and formersly a big Wellstone supporter. Could you comment on the loss of Sen. Wellstone and the impact on politics? And then, the Wellstone memorial, the flak about that. You were at the memorial. What did you think?
Franken: At a wake you tell funny stories about people, and laugh and celebrate their life. There was a lot of that, and there was also a lot of weeping and sobbing, and cheering.

And it was interesting to see that someone like Joe Klein in the New Yorker wrote a piece about it, and his was more straight-ahead understanding of what happened, what it was. And it was a reflection of Paul. Paul was an advocate for the dispossessed and the poor, and that’s what this thing was about.

It looked like a campaign thing, but it was just really, “Carry forward what Paul believed in.” The only actual campaign, “We’re gonna win, ” kind of thing came from Rick Kahn and from Mark Wellstone. And Mark Wellstone lost his dad. Lost his mom, and lost his sister.

And for people to…you know, what was disgusting was that the Republicans kept saying this had been planned to fool everyone. “It was advertised as a memorial but it was just a political rally.” And that they had planned it. Limbaugh was doing a whole thing like this had been planned.

Like this wasn’t what it was. Which was an event that the kids had a huge part in planning, that the speakers who spoke eloquently about all the people who were lost in the crash, the closest people to Paul, his surviving sons, who had just gone through this trauma had basically organized, approved of everything, and it was a spontaneous thing.

Twenty thousand people came to this thing because they wanted to express their grief, and their joy about his life, and celebrate their lives, and that’s what it was.

And people, like Limbaugh literally said that people had been bused in. That the house had been packed. He literally said this. “This was a packed house.” You know?

And what happens is, there is a right-wing media, Fox and Rush Limbaugh, the Washington Times and the New York Post, and they report this horrible outrage. And especially talk radio.

They get people to complain, and that becomes the story, the complaining. And you know, you have someone in Minnesota, Sarah Janacek (Republican activist) who added to the distortion, saying that it was all scripted, and that the proof was that it was on the Jumbotron, what everyone was saying, and that the people were even cued to laugh and applaud.

And of course she was referring to the simulcast. She either didn’t understand what a simulcast was, or she didn’t understand what closed-captioning was, which I think is hard to believe, or she was presenting it as something that it wasn’t. Which is sort of in keeping with all the kinds of distortions I heard in the aftermath of the memorial.

Limbaugh was on the next day, and the day before also, the day of the memorial, those Haitians had come into Florida, and Limbaugh was saying that the Democrats had also planned that.

A vast left-wing conspiracy?
Franken: Well, you know, there’s something very unspiritual about that kind of taking a tragedy and exploiting it. And that’s what they accused the Democrats of doing, but the only way they could accuse the Democrats of doing that was by distorting what happened.

So I’m just thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if we could have politics run like a twelve-step meeting or something, where you have principles before personalities?
Franken: Let me say something positive. There are definitely people of good conscience on both sides who do try to talk to each other. I have a number of friends who are on what I consider the religious right. And I don’t think they would necessarily say they weren’t.

A friend of mine, I think, would probably say he’s on the religious right. He might say he’s a Christian conservative or a cultural conservative. But I don’t think he’d be insulted by the “religious right.” He and I probably disagree on almost every social issue. But we’re friends. And I’ve been trying, with not a great deal of success, to get him together with people, for example, from the gay and lesbian community, to get him sort of just to see them more as human beings.

And I think that he would say that gays and lesbians should have basic rights…not be discriminated against in employment and things like that, but you know, he won’t go that far on things like adoption, and that kind of thing, and that’s because of his deeply felt religious views. I disagree with him, but, we can have a civil conversation. And I think he’s a sincere and serious person.

So that’s an example, and I think that there are sincere and serious people on all sides. Like Paul. (Wellstone) went together with Domenici on certain things…. So there are people on both sides of the political spectrum who can get together and seriously come to a consensus on things and not do the kind of things that Limbaugh does.

You know, it just seems, though, like the whole way we’re doing politics, everybody’s criticizing everybody…isn’t there something new coming along pretty soon? As we say in the EDGE business, a different paradigm coming along?
Franken: Hopefully. What happens is, it’s almost like the Arab-Israeli conflict. Where there’s such long-standing crimes that each has committed against the other, at least that’s the perception each side has, that there’s no trust.

So, when Norm Coleman says in the debate with Mondale that “I want to change the tone,” after he called Paul Wellstone “a joke,” after they ran the ads against Paul that were dishonest.

The Republican Senate Committee ran an ad against Paul in which they said, “Paul Wellstone voted millions for saving the seaweed in Maui.” Or something.

He did do that. But so did 89 percent of Republicans in the Senate, and so did Bill Frist (Republican Senate Majority Leader). So when you’re doing stuff like that, and then you say “I want to change the tone,” it’s very hard to turn the other cheek and go, like, “Oh, well, OK, well, you can hit us, you can say dishonest things about us, you can play that way, but we’re not supposed to?” You know what I mean?

Yes, I do!
Franken: So then somebody draws a cartoon of a Republican throwing an old person off a cliff. And you know, Sean Hannity (right wing commentator), that’s all he can talk about for the next year, you know what I mean?

Doesn’t Stuart have some good ideas for us on politics?
Franken: Stuart would just say, “It’s very complicated, and it’s better if I ignore it. Because otherwise, I’d just go crazy. There’s a lot of negativity, I’ve noticed. I don’t know if you have.”

Oh, yeah, I think that’s true, Stuart, really.
Stuart Smalley: Yeah, there’s a lot of negativity, and I just start watching it and I just go crazy. And I just have to meditate. That’s when I meditate, actually. It just makes me nervous, if I’m like in a car and someone turns on Rush Limbaugh. I just have to tune him out.

Well, it’s nerve-wracking.
Stuart Smalley: Yeah, it’s nerve-wracking. And I just say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” And I just do a Serenity Prayer, and I realize that I cannot change Rush Limbaugh, what he says, and I just have to have enough courage to accept that.

Are you going to be doing any more movies, Stuart?
Stuart Smalley: I don’t know. The first one lost a lot of money for the studio, and sometimes they don’t like to make sequels when the first movie lost a lot of money.

That was kind of because of the way they marketed it, right? I read a quote about how they showed it in malls, and that people who go to malls wouldn’t go to the movie and people who would see it wouldn’t go to the malls.
Franken: Yeah. Some reviewer said that, and I thought that was a good thing to say. They marketed it like it was another Saturday Night Live movie. Like Tommy Boy or Wayne’s World. And it wasn’t, it was a movie about family and about codependency.

I’m very proud of the movie and they use it to teach in a lot of codependency programs and in rehabs and stuff. So, I’m very proud of it, and it’s just that it didn’t… it’s true, it’s like people who went to see it were expecting something different, and people who would really love the movie didn’t go to see it.

Well, all my friends and I went to the Mall of America to see it. I don’t ever usually go to the Mall of America. I want to tell you that it’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, and I’m a movie person, and it was so… my sister gave it to me for Christmas, and we’ve played it over and over, and I wish you’d do another….
Franken: Well, I had one planned out where the opening was going to be Stuart on jury duty. He gets sequestered with an alcoholic. And the trial was a drug trial, and you know I should.

That movie was so funny, the Stuart movie.
Franken: Well, thank you. Keep that part in the interview!

These are just questions I was curious about, about you. To me, it just seems like the two political parties are so dead, you know, and Jesse Ventura, for all that people say about him, he was alive, and it was so nice to have that aliveness. Do you think there’s anything coming in politics that’s going to enliven the people?
Franken: I actually don’t see it. I’m a Democrat, and I believe that the Democratic Party is the hope, and we did not have good performances last time. I think that’s partly because there wasn’t the kind of leadership you’re talking about, or the “life” you’re talking about.

At least here in Minneapolis, at KSTP, they’ve got some humor, you know, as far as politics goes. And you’re humorous, and that seems to be the hope for me.
Franken: I think that’s important, and I’m going to be doing a book starting in January. I’m going to be a Fellow at the Kennedy School at Harvard. And I’m going to write a book there.

What’s it going to be?
Franken: It’s going to be sort of around this myth of the liberal bias of the media. And, my perception anyway, of how the right has distorted things, and how Bush and those people kind of don’t play by the rules.

Is it going to be funny, too?
Franken: Yeah!

Do you ever miss living in Minnesota?
Franken: I do. I come back a lot. My mom lives in Minnesota. And so I come back to visit her a lot. I have a lot of friends there.

Does Stuart have any plans?
Stuart Smalley: I’m in recovery…and, you know, that’s a constant, and I just take everything day by day. I don’t have my show back yet, but I’m going to sit with my publicist. You know, party planning…getting RSVPs, you know, that kind of thing. It’s a lot of fun. And we occasionally rent a movie that I don’t approve of, but other than that, actually, it’s very fun.

Any romantic involvements?
Stuart Smalley: Oh, no. Nothing romantic to report.

Al, do you still perform?
Franken: Oh, yeah.

Are you going to be in Minnesota soon?
Franken: I don’t know. The last time I performed in Minnesota, I did a fundraiser for Paul.

Does Stuart make appearances?
Franken: I’d love for Stuart to show up in Minnesota for one night.

We love him here.
Franken: A one-man show at the Guthrie. (laughs)

Really, why not?
Franken: That would be fun, actually, to do an Al Franken/Stuart Smalley night at the Guthrie or something.

Yeah, maybe around New Year’s or something, like Louie Anderson always does here. Stuart’s one of my heroes.
Franken: Well, thank you. He’s one of mine, too.

Well, I hope you come here soon.
Franken: Yeah, we’ll try to let you know if Stuart comes in.

Please do. Thank you for talking with me.
Franken: Well, Rita, it’s great talking to you. Thank you. And thank your sister.

about Rita Gallagher Rosenberg

The late Rita Gallagher Rosenberg was a writer and freelance journalist and an Account Executive at the Edge.

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