Wednesday, July 1, 2009

"Al Franken Threw A Pencil At Me"

Al Franken is all the things you want a senator to be – smart, caring, hardworking and extremely knowledgeable. Al is an expert on the minutiatic workings of our government. He also knows where all the states are.

Al’s habit, while waiting for food at a restaurant, is to take out a pen and freehandedly sketch a map of the United States on his, hopefully throwaway, placemat. He starts by drawing an outline of the country, and then proceeds, from memory, to fill in each of the forty-eight “continental” states in their precise geographical locations and startlingly close to their actual proportions, leaving no state out, not even the little ones, like Delaware and Rhode Island.

I bet Kay Bailey Hutchison can’t do that.

There was no question that a person with such abilities was destined for a great future.

I first met Al when I visited the production offices of Saturday Night Live during their meteoric first year on the air. Though I’d been invited to move to New York and write for the show, I had rejected the offer, preferring, instead, to remain in Los Angeles.

The word had apparently gotten around. When I introduced myself to Al, the first thing out of his mouth were, “Oh, you’re the guy who won’t work for us.” Apparently, there were hard feelings somewhere.

Nearly a quarter of a century passed before we finally worked together. Al, who lived in New York, and had a series idea for a sitcom version of Nightline, called to find out if I was interested in developing it with him. I thanked him for considering me, but decided to pass. Later, Al partnered with a writer I worked with on The Cosby Show, John Markus – who also lived in New York – and they called me again, soliciting my participation in any way I wanted. This time, I said yes.

I signed on as a full-time consultant, working mostly from L.A., but sometimes commuting to New York and pitching in in person. It was in many ways, the best job I ever had.

Creatively, Al was far bolder than I was, resulting from his less inhibited comedic range nurtured by his many years on SNL, a freewheeling circus that flew by the seat of its pants. I, on the other hand, honed my craft in the more deliberate format of the situation comedy.

My job was to corral Al’s comic inspirations into a viable storytelling structure. It was an exhilarating collaboration. Al’s “let’s try anything” exuberance freed me to take risks I had never allowed myself before. John added his talent, energy and diplomatic skills to the mix, generating a whole that was soaringly better than the sum of its individual parts.

Sometimes, however, due to conflicts in style, dueling temperaments, or workload exhaustion, there was trouble. During one late-night rewrite, Al pitched a joke, the writing staff laughed appreciatively, I said, “Don’t do that”, and Al flicked a pencil at me.

The reason I said “Don’t do that” was because Al’s joke, though unquestionably funny, benefited greatly from its topicality. Riding on SNL’s electric immediacy, it would have played beautifully. But since sitcoms are often broadcast weeks after they’re shot, Al’s joke would have reached the airwaves feeling “done to death” and lame.

You could say we both made mistakes. Al forgot about the delayed broadcast date. I forget what I’d shot down was exactly what made Al Franken who he was.

Now Al’s in the senate. Given our polarized political climate, there’ll be times, I imagine, when he’ll want to throw something. But he won’t be able to. He’ll need another strategy for making his point.

I have no doubt he’ll figure it out. You’d be wrong to underrate a man who can doodle all the states on a placemat.

A belated happy Canada Day. It's not that I forgot, I just forgot to mention it. Canadian reticence. I celebrated in my head.

1 comment:

growingupartists said...

That's a great story! I love hearing about your successes!!!