Getting to Know AL

“What’s going on?” Al Franken asked.

“I think we have a flat tire and we’re riding on the rim,” I answered. “There’s no time to do anything about it now or you’ll miss your flight.”

I can’t believe this is happening, I thought. It’s Charley’s beautiful BMW we’re in. I don’t want to ruin anything…but I don’t want Al to miss his flight either. Well, we’re almost there…I’m going to keep going.

A week ago, I was in my office at the Institute of Politics (IOP) at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government installing an updated DOS program into my desktop computer, when in sauntered John.

“Hey, can you pick up Al Franken at the airport next week? He’s doing that forum on political humor.”

“Why are you asking me? I don’t even have a car,” I responded with restrained excitement.

“I have a prior commitment that I can’t get out of. Al knows about it. I mentioned something to Charley, but he’ll be out of town. He said you might like to do it and that you can use his car.”

“Really? Yeah, I’ll do it. I’ll gladly pick up Al Franken!”

It was 1991 and Al Franken was the political writer for NBC’s Saturday Night Live. He was a Harvard alum, and very smart and funny. John had been a journalist at NBC which is how he knew Al. John’s mother was President Bush’s sister and so George Senior was his uncle and George W his cousin. For some reason never explained to me, John temporarily had an office at the Institute of Politics (IOP), several doors down the hall from mine. The IOP had the reputation of being liberal, politically, and so John having an office there was a little like “which one doesn’t fit?”

Charley was the Director of the IOP and landed the position after twelve years of serving as Seattle’s Mayor. This position was less stressful than that of Mayor. He seemed to be enjoying himself and fostered a fun work environment.

While my title was Assistant to the Director, with computers and his degree in Journalism, Charley did all his own correspondence. My main job was to coordinate our twice-yearly Senior Advisory Committee meeting which consisted of meetings all morning and then a lovely luncheon in the penthouse overlooking the Charles River. The Committee consisted of several high-profile public figures including Ted Kennedy and John Kennedy Jr. It was a fun meeting to organize. It was a dream job.

I felt lucky to have found this job in my mid-20’s, after receiving an undergraduate degree in Political Science. Not only was I meeting leaders from all over the world but for the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people who got me, and appreciated my humor. I knew I had a good sense of humor, but in my family, it was my brothers who were thought to be funny and I was their audience. Now I was surrounded by people who were funny too and they thought I was just as funny.

I expected picking up Al Franken at the airport would be interesting and fun. And, I loved driving Charley’s Beemer. It rode super smoothly, as if we were gliding down the street.

A week after John’s visit to my office, I was speeding along the Charles River on Storrow Drive on my way to pick up Al Franken.

At Logan Airport, Al got into the car and we exchanged greetings. There was an awkwardness at first but he quickly warmed-up to me.

“May I read what I plan to say tonight?” He asked.

“Sure, I’d love to hear it.” I answered.

He proceeded to read his monologue, and I laughed. He told me he was also going to play a slide show with clips of the evolution of SNL’s political humor starting with Chevy Chase impersonating Gerald Ford up through the more recent skits of Dana Carvey doing Ross Perot and President George H.W. Bush.

“We’re doing impersonations of the presidential candidates on the show. I’m working on one of Paul Tsongas but I’ll probably get Dana to do it on the show. Will you tell me what you think?”

“Sure.” His impersonation of Tsongas was strong.

“That was great! I think you should do it on the show,” I suggested.

He shifted focus and asked me a question about Governor Dukakis and his wife Kitty. I repeated a joke I had just heard on the radio, that poked fun at Kitty’s alleged substance abuse. The joke tanked; Al looked over at me with a cold stone stare.

Yikes, I’ve upset him. I certainly didn’t mean to. Geesh, just like my brothers, he can dish it out but he can’t take it.

I guess he got over it quickly, whatever it was, because he started telling me how the mother of his son’s girlfriend was dating Billy Idol. I didn’t know how to respond and was grateful that we were pulling into the school’s parking lot.

The Forum was packed that night with a young crowd –mostly graduate and undergraduate students– and it was buzzing with excitement. Al’s presentation was hilarious. He had everyone laughing. During Q & A, he seemed to get a little annoyed with some of the questions. I didn’t know if he thought they were too self-righteous or pompous or what, but he had an edge to him.

“Why aren’t there more minorities on SNL? asked a Harvard student,

“Let’s face it, minorities just aren’t that funny.” Al answered almost reflexively. Groans filled the air.

“No, look, I’m kidding. We do have minorities on the show, and we are working on getting more.” He quickly added. The event wrapped-up shortly after that.

As students came up to talk to him, I was aware of the time and that there wasn’t a lot of it before his flight would take off and told him we needed to get going.

We were back on the road and I was working up the nerve to ask him what he thought of the questions when the tire trouble began. We were silent the rest of the short trip to the airport, focused on getting there in one piece.

We arrived at Logan with little time to spare. Al got out of the car, looked at the tire and confirmed, yes, we indeed had been riding on a rim. He knew Charley’s flight was arriving soon. I suppose he assumed Charley would know how to fix it, maybe we discussed it. I don’t remember. He said thank you and good-bye.

While waiting for Charley’s flight, I thought about the evening. I was glad I had the opportunity to pick up Al. He was a funny and smart man, and I learned he could be prickly too. I was reminded of something I already knew and would be reminded of repeatedly. We humans are all pretty much the same, no matter how much fame or money or power. We have our lovely parts and our prickly parts. We can put someone on a pedestal but if we get up close, they’ll probably fall off it. It doesn’t negate their great qualities. It just gets us closer to the truth of who we all are. Human.

A couple of days later I was in my office when John sauntered in again,

“Al really appreciated your taking him to and from the airport and he wants to give you a couple of tickets to SNL.”

“Wow. That’s great!”

Postscript: The tire was changed and there was no real damage. I found out that Al had someone close to him with alcohol addiction and so it was not a funny topic to him. (It really isn’t a funny disease.) Al went on to play Paul Tsongas on SNL rather than Dana Carvey, due to my encouragement, I assume. And true to his word, he got me three tickets for the show. I took along two of my funny colleagues, Catherine and Jen, and we had a blast. Susan Dey was the host that night and The C & C Music Factory was the musical guest. Seeing Victoria Jackson, Rob Schneider, Kevin Nealon and the rest of the cast was amazing but the highlight was watching Chris Farley walk out of 30 Rock dancing and singing “Everybody Dance Now!”

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