Tag Archives: Al Franken

Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, Al Franken

Plume, 2003 (2004 reprint), 421 pages, C$20.00 tpb, ISBN 0-452-28521-6

I had a plan. In retrospect, it was even a cunning plan.

On November 2nd 2004, American Election Day, I would buy Al Franken’s infamous Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them (A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right) and start reading as the results came in. I would read as Election Night wore on and John Kerry would be declared the (rightful) winner. Being a Canadian, I couldn’t vote myself, but it would be the least I could do to celebrate. There would be schadenfreude as the Republicans would be driven out of office! A new age of reason, peace and prosperity would be ushered in! A fitting conclusion to the madness of the past four years would be written in the history books! And through it all, dependable humorist Al Franken would be my laugh track. Har-har.

I did allow for the small possibility that Franken would be there to cheer me up in case of a Republican victory. Small. Possibility.

Well, it didn’t turn out that way. By 10:30 (Ottawa Time), as early results from Ohio and Florida started trickling in, my tingling statistical senses told me that the game was already over. A look at the CBC and another at CNN.com pretty much confirmed the deal. Minutes, if not hours before even the most enthusiastic networks, I called the election to Bush and went to bed for further nightmares. By them, I’d made it only fifty pages into Al Franken’s book.

The next few days were so full of gallows humour that even Franken’s political satire felt off-key. It’s one thing to humorously uncover lies after lies from American’s radical right-wing commentators, but when the results are in and they show that no one really cares, that’s a pretty damning criticism for Franken’s thesis.

Oh, it’s not as if the book was completely lost on me. One of the unfortunate tendency of the last four years have been to give me a crash-course in American media despite not having access to any of it: While I’m constantly mystified by Ann Coulter’s popularity (does anyone really take her seriously as anything but a conservative stand-up comedian?), her name is familiar to me, as are those of other right-wing pundits like Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. Canadians not having this level of partisan discourse, this all looks like a bit of circus from up here. (But we’re glad to see you show us the worst-case scenarios. No, really, we owe a lot to you for what we’re not.)

It goes without saying that American political expertise is essential background for this book, which merrily takes us across the conservative landscape, cracking jokes and scoring points. Some of the book is hilarious (Franken is a better comedian than he’s a pundit), some of it is devastating (as with Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot, some of Franken’s criticism of his opponents’ statistics is just beautiful) and some of it falls flat (“The Waitress and the Lawyer”) or skirts tastelessness (“Operation Chickenhawk: Episode I”). Unfortunately, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them occasionally errs on the side of shrillness –and I say this despite basically being on Franken’s liberal side. Part of it is the nature of American discourse, where comparatively right-wing position have staked a claim to centrism. Part of it is also that the book is torn between being funny and being accurate, and the two don’t necessarily mesh well together.

As it happened, I ended up finishing Lies four days after the election, by which time the sky was blue again and the worst of my depression had passed (but then again it rained a lot that week in Ottawa). Despite the partisan cries of, oh, half the American population and the vast majority of non-Americans, this administration too shall pass. (“Pass over our dead bodies, crushing our skeletons to dust”, am I tempted to add, but I would merely be kidding on the square, as Franken would say.) What is unlikely to pass, unfortunately, is the rabid polarization of American politics, of which Franken is as big a culprit as the Liars he exposes. It’s all good fun and circuses and trivialization of the nature of politics… until thousands get killed. Oh, wait, did that happen already?

But really, what do I know? My pick didn’t even get elected.

Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and other observations, Al Franken

Delacorte, 1996, 351 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-22330-X

It must be *so* easy to be an American political humorist. As a Canadian used to multiple political parties, a tradition of compromise and moderate politics across the board (with occasional curious results, like Conservatives selecting our first female prime minister and Liberals balancing the federal budget!), the American political landscape appears curiously simple, a matter of conservatives (“Republicans”), liberals (“Democrats”) and a gaggle of very small parties (“Weirdoes”).

On the other hand, this clear American right-versus-left dichotomy has allowed for a strong tradition of partisan political humor. It’s in this context that Al Franken steps in.

Al Who? You probably don’t recognize the name, but you may remember the character. Franken was a writer for Saturday Night Live, and incarnated -among others- the happy self-help guru Stuart Smiley, latter writing and starring in the so-so film STUART SAVES HIS FAMILY. It’s not really a surprise to find that the acerbic humor displayed in Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot… and Other Observations is far removed from his goofy Smiley character.

Because, you see, Al Franken really does think that Rush Limbaugh is a big fat idiot. And he spends a suitable portion of the book proving it, with show excerpts, counter-arguments and an illustrated chart of Limbaugh’s weight. Sweet. Small wonder that there’s another book out there titled Al Franken Is a Buck-Toothed Moron, by Republican humorist J. P. Mauro.

Is it funny stuff? Absolutely. Remember that Al Franken was writing for Saturday Night Live well before it got boring. He unleashes the standard array of humor-writing tactics on Limbaugh and other assorted Conservatives, going from hyperbole to plain lies, strung along Franken’s testimonies of political events (which might of might not be true, but who am I to tell?) Suffice to say that unless you’re particularly sensitive about a particular person or issue, there’s bound to be worthwhile material in here. (And if you’re offended, well tough because this book has something in it to offend nearly everyone.) Don’t skim over the index.

But don’t make the mistake of assuming that if the book is funny, then it’s inconsequential. Like all smart satirists, Franken means every word he writes. And, as the French-Canadian humor magazine “Croc” used to trumpet, it’s not because we laugh that it’s funny. Franken’s dissection of Limbaugh’s most ridiculous claims (Chapter 22: “The Regan Years: Rush Limbaugh is a big fat liar”) are worth a read, if only as an exceptional primer on how statistics can be twisted, resampled and plain hammered in order to support the arguments you’re making.

It doesn’t stop there: The chapters about Environmental Regulation, Tax, Health Care and Legal Reform are written in carefully modulated anger, barely covered by dripping sarcasm. It’s obvious that Franken didn’t conjure up these jokes out of spite and thin air; an extensive underlying research carefully supports each argument. It’s smart, and it smarts.

All in all, Rush Limbaugh is a Fat Idiot and Other Observations is a mordant, offensive, funny book about American politics. Sure, it occasionally isn’t very subtle. But it’s always clever, and that counts for something.

For Canadians, the carnival-like atmosphere of American political target-shooting is an added bonus.