Saturday Night’s Children: Al Franken (1977-1980; 1985-1986; 1988-1995)
Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 38 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member every other week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
SNL has a long history of pitting two groups together to create comedy gold: the untamed, brash Chicago improv troupers and the pompous nerds of Harvard. Tina Fey put it nicely in a 2011 New Yorker piece when she wrote “If Harvard is Classical Military Theory, Improv is Vietnam.” While the Harvardlings mostly occupy writing positions at SNL (see Conan O’Brien and Jim Downey), it was Al Franken who, like recent Weekend Update addition Colin Jost, transformed his scribe-only gig into not only a cast member spot but namesake recognition with the SNL audience, which for Franken stretched across a nearly 20-year period. Unlike Jost, however, Franken never got to bask in the Weekend Update anchor glory he’d always hoped to achieve, but that’s never taken away from his place as one of the original Saturday Night’s founding fathers and most passionate defenders and detractors.
Born in New York City and raised in the suburbs of Minneapolis, Franken first struck up a friendhip with his longtime writing partner Tom Davis during childhood. They often performed together during high school both at morning announcements and local comedy clubs soon after. The duo temporarily split up when they went off to separate colleges, with Franken attending Harvard and graduating in 1973 with a degree in government and Davis attending the University of the Pacific in California for a year. They met up again in Los Angeles after Franken’s graduation and continued their act, ultimately submitting a writing packet for Lorne Michaels’s new NBC show Saturday Night that included, according to Franken in Live from New York, some sketches, a commercial parody, and “a news parody.” Michaels hired both Franken and Davis for the first season of SNL but paid them as if they were one employee; the two shared a $350/week “apprentice writer” check.
Together, Franken and Davis were the brain behind many of SNL‘s early hit sketches, including the “Little Chocolate Donuts” commercial parody with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd’s bloody take on Julia Child in the sketch “The French Chef.” They also managed to land some screen time with their segment “The Franken and Davis Show,” which saw the pair acting out fake variety show bits as “international Communist revolutionaries” (clips of the segment, sadly, don’t seem to be online anywhere), and following Belushi and Aykroyd’s departure in 1979 the duo was promoted to featured players. When Lorne Michaels left at the end of the season and NBC hired associate producer Jean Doumanian to replace him, Franken — who had his sights set on the gig for himself — became one of the most vocal critics of SNL’s early ’80s incarnation, even appearing in an Update segment in season 6 to proclaim: “No English-speaking person could do a worse job than Jean.” During the end of the segment, Franken took those complaints even further: “It’s clearly time to yank this tired old format off the air.”
Fortunately, both SNL and Franken survived the early ’80s, and when Michaels returned to produce in 1985 he cast Franken again as a featured player (as well as promoting he and Davis to producers). After working only as a writer for the next two seasons, Franken returned again in 1988 and appeared sporadically on Update and in other sketches, impersonating a handful of mostly political figures like Henry Kissinger, Paul Tsongas, and 700 Club host Pat Robertson. He struck recurring character gold in 1991 with his effeminate affirmation guru Stuart Smalley, a character Franken originally wrote for Mike Myers but ultimately decided to take on himself. Smalley made 19 SNL appearances between 1991-1995, returned for a cameo in 2002, wrote a 1992 book, and led the 1995 box office flop Stuart Saves His Family.
During all his seasons at SNL, Franken was the first to take the hint from Chevy Chase that name recognition via Weekend Update was the clearest path to fame on the show. Franken tried banking off this in the most obvious way possible not only with the “Franken and Davis” bits but on his many Weekend Update appearances as well, notably in a 1979 segment where he tells the audience that the ’80s will be “The Al Franken Decade.” In his brief monologue about the selfishness of the ’70s, Franken’s cantankerously wry delivery comes out in full force as he manages to say his own name an impressive 10 times: “You know, I know a lot of you out there are thinking, ‘Why Al Franken?’ Well, because I thought of it, and I’m on TV, so I’ve already gotten the jump on you.”
Considering Franken’s longstanding pull behind the scenes at SNL, the selection of Norm Macdonald as new Update anchor in 1994 was the last straw in his race to the Update desk. “It was something I’d always wanted to do,” Franken says in Live from New York before looking back on his screen test for the gig, which ultimately went to Macdonald at the discretion of Michaels and NBC bigwig Don Ohlmeyer. According to Michaels, “The writing was on the wall with Al when he didn’t get Update and Norm Macdonald did. Which was a very tough decision. I think there was a feeling at that moment, from Ohlmeyer in particular, that Al was too associated with the show — the ‘old’ show.”
While Franken finished out the season — long enough to both appear as a guest Update correspondent and mock the failure of his own Stuart Smalley movie in a sketch — the Update loss drove him to leave the show at the end of the 20th season. Several years prior he had also split with his longtime comedy partner after Davis’s drug use put a heavy strain on their relationship (which Davis disputed, though Franken’s consequential Al-Anon attendance would later inspire his Stuart Smalley character), though they reconciled years later before Davis passed away from cancer in 2012. Franken took up over 20 minutes of C-SPAN airtime to deliver a power eulogy in his honor, and in a twist of sardonic Franken and Davis-style humor, went into painstaking detail about how well Davis worked the blood pump during Aykroyd’s famous sketch as Julia Child.
Aside from his work on SNL, Franken has released several books and spoken word albums, appeared in a handful of film and TV shows, and hosted his own Air America Radio show, but the majority of his more recent professional endeavors has been his political work as a US Senator for Minnesota since 2009. Considering Franken pioneered the smarmy fake news desk delivery that later evolved into Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and the caricatural narcissism that Stephen Colbert mastered on The Colbert Report, it seems fitting that he’s made the circular transition from young political satirist to real-life politician who has been both lovingly mocked and mockingly loved by his successors.