Al Franken's guide to life
Humorist offers tips in 'Oh, the Things I Know!'
(CNN) -- This is the time of year when new graduates, ready to make their way in the world, are greeted by gifts of books.
You know the type of work -- Dr. Seuss' "Oh, the Places You'll Go!" Anna Quindlen's "A Short Guide to a Happy Life," Maria Shriver's "Ten Things I Wish I'd Known Before I Went Out into the Real World" -- earnest, uplifting (and slim) volumes about how life is a journey and an adventure, full of excitement, pleasure and wonderment.
Which, as Al Franken can tell you, is just a load of hooey.
The chapter titles to Franken's new book, "Oh, the Things I Know!" (Dutton), say it all: "Oh, the Mistakes You'll Keep Repeating!" "Oh, Are You Going to Hate Your First Job!" "Oh, the Violent Television Your Children Will Watch!" and of course, "Oh, What Doesn't Kill You Can Have Lingering Aftereffects!" This is life from the perspective of a person who's actually lived.
Well, OK, it's a parody. But one that was ripe for the writing, Franken says in a phone interview from his home in New York. He had planned to write a book about getting to the top of the corporate world, but his publisher showed him the books by Quindlen and Shriver and asked if he would do something like it.
"I read them and I thought they were hilarious," he says. "I thought [commencement books] were a great genre for a pure humor book."
So Franken, who will be 51 later in May, went to work, incorporating a variety of elements from his comedic arsenal: self-deprecation, name-dropping, enlightening "chapter summaries," advertising copy for Canada, sucking up to Oprah Winfrey, one-liners, and swipes at Enron -- in his guide to life after graduation.
But it's not as if Franken is all jokes. A common theme in commencement books is being able to learn from setbacks, and though Franken jokingly jabs at that cliche, he says that it was the commercial failure of his movie "Stuart Saves His Family" that helped lead to his current career as a political and literary humorist.
"If [the movie] had actually been successful it would have been a lot better teacher for me than the failure than it was, because it would have given me the opportunity to do more movies," he laughs.
"On the other hand, it gave me the opportunity to do, 'Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot,' and I probably wouldn't have done that if the movie had been a success."
Still, he adds, "There's some quote about both success and failure being equally fraudulent. But the success one's a lot nicer fraud."
'It works out well for everybody'
In between writing the occasional book -- besides "Limbaugh," there was a book about his neurotic self-help character, Stuart Smalley, and a fictional chronicle of Franken's presidential campaign, "Why Not Me?" -- Franken has carved out a career as a liberal humorist and activist. (See our companion story, "Al Franken's take on politics," for more.)
A good bit of his time nowadays is spent on the business speaker circuit, where many of his audiences -- ironically -- tend to be conservative.
"I always start off by saying, 'I've discovered Democrats can't afford me,' and then they laugh at that, because it makes them feel like they're rich," he says. "And then I make fun of them, and then they laugh, and then they pay me. So it works out well for everybody."
He's well aware of the incongruity of a member of the countercultural vanguard -- when he was with "Saturday Night Live," Franken once co-wrote a wicked sketch about Richard Nixon's final days -- entertaining the suits. But, Franken says, the divisions are much muddier nowadays.
"The time when I decided there was no counterculture anymore," he says, "was when Dan Quayle became vice president and was asked who his favorite musical group was, and he said, 'Jimi Hendrix.' And at that point, I just said, 'You can't mark anything anymore. It's all over.'"
Besides, he adds, his corporate audiences are often fans -- something which appeals to Franken's sense of absurdity.
A new honor
Perhaps equally absurd, given the new book, is the fact that Franken has never actually given a commencement address until this year. He is scheduled to give the 2002 Class Day speech at his alma mater, Harvard, in early June. His predecessors for that honor have included Bono and Mother Teresa.
("She wasn't funny, I heard," he says of the latter.)
And what advice will he have for these newly minted Ivy League sheepskin holders, ready to blaze their trails?
Well, don't believe everything people tell you at commencement addresses, he says.
"From what I can tell ... most commencement speakers are chosen because they're successful. And almost a uniform theme throughout these speeches is the fraudulence of success," he says. "So [a lot of graduates will] be hearing a lot of glib aphorisms that are pretty useless.
"I'll be warning them against bad advice," Franken says.
To Al Franken, it's all comedy
January 18, 2001
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