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Al Franken jests with truth

What’s so funny ’bout peace, love, and getting it right?

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"My way of joking is to tell the truth." -George Bernard Shaw, John Bull's Other Island, II, 1904

"Truth is the most horrible joke of all."

-Portuguese proverb

You can wear out a dictionary of quotations in a hurry looking up what others have said on the subject of truth. The concept has also inspired a lot of airwave-borne chatter of the sort that would have you believe that New York Sen. Hillary Clinton is, first and foremost, a lesbian murderess, that liberalism, never mind progressive politics, is a plot to keep the common man down, and that, let's just say, President George W. Bush is a strong and charismatic leader with a just and selfless agenda. That kind of truth-telling-trimmed with the siege-mentality self-martyrdom of the perpetually aggrieved-has dominated political talk radio for the better part of two decades, thanks in large part to a sometimes-fat and occasionally drug-addicted ideologue named Rush Limbaugh.

That kind of political talk radio, Al Franken believes, is a lie, and there's no need to get all metaphysical about the ultimate slipperiness of truth when the facts are just lying out there on the ground.

Pointing them out, synthesizing and analyzing the news of the day, connecting the dots of patterns not visible in their particulars, is what Al Franken likes to do. He does it primarily in books-2005's The Truth (With Jokes) is his latest-and on the radio for Air America, the fledgling network of which his is the most prominent public face (his show airs in Missoula from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KKNS, 105.9 FM).

Last week, for instance, Franken and his twice-weekly guest, Helena Democratic political operative/blogger David Sirota, tried to tease the larger meaning out of two seemingly unrelated items from the recent news. In Los Angeles, two months earlier, the Los Angeles Times had reported that "the Internal Revenue Service has warned one of Southern California's largest and most liberal churches that it is at risk of losing its tax-exempt status because of an antiwar sermon." Two months later, The New York Times was reporting that the Rev. Herbert H. Lusk II had proffered his Philadelphia church to host a rally intended to whip up support for Supreme Court nominee Judge Samuel A. Alito, Jr. without censure.

That such punitively wielded inequalities of

attention exist, that they're effectively shielded by an empty rhetoric of inclusion, that the hypocritical disparity of it is barely and rarely noticed-all are proof positive that the government's relationship with organized religion is corrupt.

That's true, but is it funny?

Though he's been a comedian for 30 years, including two decades with "Saturday Night Live," and perhaps because he's considering a run for the United States Senate from Minnesota in 2008, Franken has staked his contemporary reputation more on being right than being funny. And being right, unlike being funny, requires a moral approach.

For instance: Not long ago, Franken says, he hosted David Brock-the repentant journalist who famously assassinated the character of Anita Hill in The American Spectator at the behest of right-wing hatchet men before abandoning the conservative movement for a second career as an apologetic Democrat.

"He comes on and he's doing this thing, Media Matters," says Franken, "and Media Matters is basically doing what I do a lot-fact-checking the media. So...I played him something from a documentary on Bush that 'Nova' did, on Bush and Jesus. And there's a quote from some friend of his who had been his liaison to the evangelical community in the '88 election, who says something like: 'Is his religiosity manufactured? Yes. Is it genuine? Yes. Can he tell the difference when it is and when it isn't? I don't know.'

"So I played that for David...and I said, now we could have just played the first part. 'Is his religiosity manufactured? Yes.' And left it at that. But it would have been misleading. And I literally saw David tear up. Because he had been working with these right-wing guys so long...He'd just started Media Matters and I think it was like, 'I finally joined the right side.' He was like, moved."

Franken cackles at the word. It starts as a chuckle, but when something, often an unlikelihood, strikes him as funny enough, he usually ends up cackling. Apparently it's possible to be moral and funny both.

But it's almost impossible to be immoral and funny, which may be why it's hard, under the current definitions, to find a funny Republican. P.J. O'Rourke may be the exception that complicates the rule, but he was much funnier under Clinton. Nowadays you mostly see him in The Atlantic Monthly, trying (and succeeding, in fairness) to look smart. Where else do you even look for a funny conservative? Mallard Fillmore? Mallard Fillmore isn't funny. It's just mean.

"It's not as easy to make fun of a progressive ideology [as it] is to make fun of a conservative ideology," Franken buddy Sirota guesses. "A lot of what's called conservative ideology is just completely hypocritical. Oh we want to help everybody, we're going to cut everybody's taxes who are millionaires. There's not as much material in sort of an overarching ideological way about trying to help the poor."

But if conservatism is lost to comedy, Franken seems sure, comedy is just as lost on conservatives.

"I mean, I wrote a short story in Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot called "Operation Chicken Hawk," and I put all these chicken hawks-Gingrich and Limbaugh and Pat Buchanan and Dan Quayle and George Will and Phil Gramm-in a platoon, and they're in Vietnam, and they're totally chicken and won't fight, and Ollie North has to kind of take this famously cowardly platoon and get 'em to fight. So I had them on a night ambush, and each is lost in their thoughts with their fear, and Quayle is starting to dream about Marilyn and starts feeling somebody blowing in his ear, and it's Pat Buchanan. And then I just say that the next 45 minutes are the longest of Quayle's life. Within this story, you know."

It was no time, of course, before a Franken critic confused fact and fiction, with humor caught in the crossfire.

Peter Schweizer, author of Do As I Say (Not As I Do): Profiles in Liberal Hypocrisy, wrote that Franken claimed that Pat Buchanan and Dan Quayle had a homosexual relationship.

Franken cackles at the memory. "It's like wow, wow. That is really funny."

"The Al Franken Show" broadcasts live from the Missoula Children's Theatre Friday morning, Jan. 13, with guests including Independent political columnist George Ochenski. At 8 p.m., Franken is the special guest at The Montana Human Rights Network's third annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day benefit at the Wilma Theatre. Tickets to the fundraiser cost . Tickets to a pre-show reception with Franken cost per person or per couple. Call (406) 442-5506.

btyer@missoulanews.com

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