For subscribers: Al Franken, now on his stand-up comedy tour, discusses politics, humor, the Grateful Dead and Bill Walton – The San Diego Union-Tribune

For subscribers: Al Franken, now on his stand-up comedy tour, discusses politics, humor, the Grateful Dead and Bill Walton – The San Diego Union-Tribune

When Al Franken brings his “The Only Former U.S. Senator Now on Tour Tour” to the Balboa Theatre Saturday night he will proudly sing the praises of Republican Senator Ted Cruz and denounce the Grateful Dead as the most boring and overrated band of all time.
April Fool’s!
A former “Saturday Night Live” TV comedy mainstay and a former Democratic U.S. Senator from Minnesota, Franken loathes Cruz. But he loves the Dead.
Now a New York resident, Franken estimates that — since 1973 — he has attended between 50 and 60 concerts by the Dead. The pioneering jam band’s 1978 and 1980 “SNL” performances were largely the result of enthusiastic lobbying by Franken and his now-deceased comedy partner, Tom Davis.
“Tom took me to my first Dead concert in 1973, in Santa Barbara, and that was it!” said Franken, a five-time Emmy Award-winner, who remains an avid Deadhead to this day. Accordingly, the pre-show music that plays in each theater on his tour is dominated by songs from Franken’s own Dead playlist.
“Their music moves me spiritually,” he said.

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“I love the improvisational aspect of it and the fact I can (enjoy) going to (multiple) Dead shows in a row. I love the Eagles’ music, but I only need to go to one Eagles’ show every 10 years, you know? There’s a feeling of community that you get when you’re at a Dead show.”
Franken’s embrace of the oft-repeated sentiment “There is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert” has long been a matter of record.

So is his disdain for Cruz, U.S. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and the GOP in general, as evidenced by such best-selling Franken books as “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations” and “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.”

Franken’s “The Only Former U.S. Senator Now on Tour Tour” finds him skewering Cruz nightly with such lines as: “I like Ted Cruz more than most of my colleagues like Ted Cruz. And I hate Ted Cruz.”

That same line is printed on coffee mugs and shot glasses that were for sale on his website but are now both sold out.
“The mugs have sold very fast. I’m not sure how many we have left,” said Franken, 70, who earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Harvard University in 1973.
Cruz is also targeted in a chapter in “Al Franken, Giant of the Senate,” which was published in 2017 and became a best-seller. The book makes almost no mention of Donald Trump.

“I do bring up Trump in my show, but it’s minimal,” Franken said, speaking from his home in New York City.
“Making fun of Trump is not as easy as shooting fish in a barrel; it’s as easy as being in a room with a barrel. But that’s not my joke, its Todd Barry’s joke about (‘SNL’ alum) Chevy Chase. Todd used it about 20 years ago at a roast we did of Chevy.”
A policy wonk, and proud of it, Franken served on the Senate Energy, Judiciary, Indian Affairs and HELP (Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions) committees during his eight years in office. He earned a reputation for being well prepared and for asking penetrating questions during hearings.

He now hosts the “The Al Franken Podcast,” a weekly show whose guests have included Norman Lear, Amy Klobuchar, David Letterman and — on April 3 — San Diego’s Bill Walton, a fellow Deadhead.
“Al Franken, Giant of the Senate” was published just months before Franken resigned his Senate seat. He did so following allegations of sexual misconduct that were made against him by eight women, including conservative talk-radio host Leeann Tweeden.
Franken, who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2009 and reelected in 2014, strongly disputed most of the allegations against him. But he issued apologies, both spoken and written. He stepped down from office before a Senate Ethics Committee hearing could be convened, after 36 Senate Democrats called for him to resign.

In a 2019 article in The New Yorker, a number of those senators — including Tammy Duckworth, Heidi Heitkamp and Patrick Leahy — expressed regret that they had rushed to judgement without benefit of a hearing for Franken and his accusers to address the charges.
Then-President Trump, not surprisingly, was happy to weigh in after Franken resigned.
“Boy, did he fold up like a wet rag, huh?” Trump said at a 2018 political rally in Minnesota. “Man, he was gone so fast. He was gone so fast. I don’t want to mention Al Franken’s name, okay, so I won’t mention it. It was like: ‘I did something? Oh, I resign, I quit’.”
Franken laughed when asked if he now finds himself missing the days when Richard Nixon was in the White House.

“Well, yeah,” he replied. “In an odd way, if you think about it, Nixon was actually serious. He was a bad guy in many ways, obviously. He was also anti-Semitic and wanted to bomb (Pentagon Papers whistle-blower) Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office.
“But Nixon was a guy who at least was serious about the job and the domestic agenda … A lot of good stuff happened during his presidency, environmentally, and there were times he was flirting with some sort of universal health care. And he appointed some competent people and worked hard.
“Trump is incomparable. I mean, Trump literally wanted to overthrow the government. That’s pretty bad!”

Franken spoke to the Union-Tribune for 30 minutes earlier this month. Here are edited excerpts from that interview.
Q: Is it fair to say you’ve done far more interviews than you would ever care to recall?

A: Yeah, that’s fair to say. And I don’t recall them.
Q: This interview is running on April 1. What’s the best April Fool’s trick you’ve ever played on anyone?
A: (Pauses) I had an idea for an April Fool’s joke that I thought was really funny once. (Laughing uproariously) I did a show (on NBC from 1998 to 1999) called “LateLine,” a sitcom that was set in a place like “Nightline” and someone like (“NightLine” host) Ted Koppel. Of course, I spent some time researching it by hanging around “Nightline.”

At the time, the (1996) book “Primary Colors (A Novel of Politics)” by “Anonymous” was out. I told Ted I had an idea that he should do one of those shows where they follow someone around on a book tour and say they were covering the book tour by “Anonymous,” and do it as an April Fool’s trick and have a guy with a big bag over his head. And that they should interview him and show him on his book tour!
I think I’m recalling this because I just had a lunch with (“Nightline” veteran) Jeff Greenfield. And when I went to pitch Jeff (in the late 1990s) on the “Anonymous” book tour idea for “Nightline,” he really was not interested.
Q: And the punchline was that it would have been you under under the bag?

A: No. It would never be acknowledged that this wasn’t a real person. And he would have done a book-signing and a sit-down (interview) with Ted. I talked to Ted, who is a great guy, a few months ago, and said: “Do you remember that idea I had?” And he didn’t. Not only had he rejected the idea back then, it was so afar afield from anything he’d do that he just erased it from his mind!
Q: Doing a comedy tour is transactional: People pay money to see you perform and you give them something in return. What kind of experience do you want to give them?
A: Mainly, laughter. I do talk politics. And I do a thing at the end of the show that is kind of emotional, about why I’m a Democrat. You know, good stand-up can go different places. But the No. 1 job is laughs. And I would say I deliver on that score. But I think people are coming expecting a little bit more than that.

Q: When did you last do a stand-up comedy tour before now?
A: I haven’t toured as a single stand-up comedian until, really, this tour. I did tour in a comedy duo with Tom Davis about 38 years ago.
Q: So, how did you prepare for “The Only Former U.S. Senator Now on Tour Tour?”

A: What you’re asking is: “How does a guy who never toured as a single stand-up before get to doing that?” And, basically, I really love stand-up as an art form. I admire people like (George) Carlin and (Richard) Pryor, and a whole bunch of great stand-ups, and contemporary comedians as well. I’ve always aspired to it, and thought: “Well, maybe I’ll do that someday.”
Q: Did you try out material first in comedy clubs?
A: I started doing this (in 2019) before the pandemic. Well, I started giving speeches, which is distinct from touring. The difference between now and then is that I had a podium, spoke, and had notes. It wasn’t stand-up, but it had a lot of laughs in it. That was interrupted by COVID.

Then, as COVID was beginning to look like it might end at some point, I said: “You know what? It’s time to do stand-up.” So, I started going to The Comedy Cellar here in New York, where two of my four grandchildren are. I started to do three nights a week at The Comedy Cellar to work up my act, and it took a while until I was happy with it. But your question is really the right question because I honor the art form of stand-up.
Q: Bill Maher told me a few years ago that he has more enthusiastic audiences in “red state” cities than in “blue state” cities. How about you?
A: Well, I’m thinking that in “red cities” there are “blue people,” and that maybe “blue people” in “red cities” are more excited seeing an act that speaks to them than people who live in New York or Boston or San Francisco. I did a show in Kansas City, which probably went Democratic (in the 2020 election). But it’s not that big a city. And it’s surrounded by people who didn’t get vaccinated. (Laughs) So, I do think people in reddish areas who are progressives are probably are more enthusiastic when I perform.

Q: You sound like someone who would really like to return to politics.
A: I’m not sure. I really enjoy doing this show, and comedy is where I started. I always did political satire when I was on “Saturday Night Live,” with other people, of course. So, going into politics made a lot of sense to me because I cared about this stuff.
I do know I’m enjoying what I do now and getting into the fray with my podcast and writing. I have a political action committee that’s active and supporting, not just candidates but organizations that are doing good things. My committee just gave $100,000 to a refugee organization. So, I’m doing all kinds of stuff and not ruling anything out.

Q: The Chinese philosopher Lao-Tze once said: “The only people actually qualified to be politicians are smart enough not to be.” You’re a smart guy, so I assume you disagree.
A: Wasn’t he Burmese? (Laughs) I don’t buy that. It’s true that there are downsides to being a politician, no doubt, and especially in this country now. I remember the first week I got to the Senate, I started talking to a few of the veteran members. And I said: “It seems like things are the worst they’ve ever been here.” And one senator said to me: “No, it’s been worse.” I asked him: “When?” And he said: “In 1856.” (Laughs)
I said: “(Senator Charles) Sumner getting caned? You’re talking the lead-up to the Civil War?!” And he said: “Yes.” But things have got nothing but worse since then. And the Senate is not getting stuff done, and hasn’t been. And, to a great degree, I blame (Senate Minority Leader Mitch) McConnell.

Q: Are you sure you aren’t eager to jump back into the fray?
A: Well, you know, it depends. I just haven’t made that decision, although I’m open to it.
Q: Who is a bigger Deadhead: You, or Patrick Leahy?
A: Me! I’ve seen Pat at Dead & Co. concerts. And I’ve also seen (Dead drummer) Mickey Hart show up at the Capitol to see Pat and me.

Q: Given the recent controversy surrounding Spotify’s Joe Rogan podcast, might you move your Spotify Grateful Dead playlist to another streaming outlet?
A: Oh, damn. You (expletive) noticed! Um, on the one hand I’m thinking: “How many hits did my playlist get?” On the other hand, it’s a matter of principle. You’re the first member of the press to ask me about that. I’ve got to answer: “Yes,” although I’ve got to ask someone to show me how to do that.
(Laughs) You’ve got Bill Walton in San Diego. I know Bill obviously — the Dead! So, here’s a funny story about Bill. Bernie Cahill managed the Dead and is now the manager of Dead & Co. He told me that when very, very self-important people were kind of jerks about nagging him for really great seats for Dead concerts, he would get them the seat directly behind Walton! I told that to Bill a few weeks ago, and he didn’t know.

Basketball legend, longtime Grateful Dead fan is hosting the pay-per-views of the fabled band’s five farewell concerts. ‘I couldn’t be more excited,’ he says.

Q: When Paul McCartney played here at Petco Park, Bill had a center aisle seat and the guy seated directly behind him was in a wheelchair.
A: (Laughs) Are you coming to my show in San Diego?

Q: Yeah, I’ll be seated right behind Bill Walton.
A: (Laughs) I’ll give you a comp ticket for that seat!
When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: Balboa Theatre, 868 Fourth Ave., Gaslamp Quarter
Tickets: $41.50-$51.50
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