‘He had a voice like a cartoon frog’ — book excerpt, below, from JERK: How I Wasted My Life Watching Television by Adam Buckman
By ADAM BUCKMAN
NEW YORK, July 27, 2016 — Former TV comedian Al Franken made a splash Monday night at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, delivering a speech ripping Trump University and then appearing with Bernie Sanders supporter Sarah Silverman in an attempt to unify the Democratic Party behind nominee Hillary Clinton.
But many of us on the TV beat remember Franken before he was a senator, when he was just another comedy writer, a “Saturday Night Live” veteran, trying to make a living in the TV comedy biz.
This is the story of one of those efforts, an NBC comedy series called “Lateline,” and what Franken had to say to me in an interview the day after the show was cancelled in 1999. This story is excerpted from my book called “JERK: How I Wasted My Life Watching Television,” available on Amazon:
Chapter Five: CAVALCADE OF STARS
Another comedian who agreed to get on the phone to talk about the cancellation of his own show was Al Franken, who also wound up casting the blame on someone else – in his case, NBC.
Franken’s show was a sitcom called “Lateline,” a newsroom spoof in which he starred as a gung-ho but bumbling correspondent for a late-night news show modeled loosely on ABC’s “Nightline.” NBC had just given it the axe and Franken had an axe to grind. This was another instance in which I believed I had no chance of getting the star of a cancelled show (who in this case also happened to be the show’s creator and executive producer) on the phone to tell me why he thought his show was cancelled and how he felt about it.
But I put in the request anyway and, incredibly, an NBC publicist put Franken on the phone for me, even though Franken was furious about the cancellation and in no frame of mind to do an interview that would spare NBC’s feelings. Instead, he unloaded on the network and the then-president of NBC’s entertainment division, Scott Sassa.
“We made good shows,” Franken said calmly, sounding a little weary, at the outset of our conversation. “I think NBC did a bad job in presenting it to the public,” he said, referring to the way “Lateline” had been scheduled. The show had had a short, uneven history, premiering in March 1998 for just six weeks and then going away for a year. It returned in March 1999 for a planned run of six more episodes, but five of them never aired after NBC cancelled the series the morning after the first one attracted one of the smallest audiences ever recorded by the network on a Tuesday night up to that time – 6.7 million viewers.
I then asked Franken about Sassa and whether the NBC president had called him personally to give him the bad news. The question apparently hit a sore spot and Franken turned peevish. No, Franken answered, Sassa did not call him. “It would have been nice for Sassa to call me,” said Franken, who then basically called the head of NBC a liar.
At issue was a “promise” Franken insisted Sassa had made to him about NBC’s commitment to “Lateline.” “I felt cold-cocked. … [He] promised me six shows,” said Franken, who characterized Sassa’s “promise” as “an explicit guarantee” that “Lateline” would have a run of six episodes to get on its feet.
“[Sassa] didn’t explain why he felt ethically that you can promise six and then pull [a show off the air] after one,” Franken complained. (For his part, Sassa declined a request for an interview with me then, but an NBC spokeswoman denied Sassa had promised Franken anything.)
Franken then noted that it was unfortunate for the television production industry in New York for “Lateline” to be cancelled because it was one of only a handful of situation-comedies then being produced in New York City. He then unloaded on me when it became apparent that I could not recall in that instant which other sitcoms were produced in New York. As a result of this shortcoming, Franken basically called me an idiot who lacked the qualifications he felt were necessary for writing about television, though to my knowledge, the job of covering television as a journalist was one that Franken had never held. I tried to explain to him that the identities of the other made-in-New York sitcoms (they turned out to be “Cosby” on CBS and “Spin City” on ABC) were irrelevant to our story. And if they were relevant, I told him, then I would endeavor to report them correctly before the story got into print.
It wasn’t the first time I found myself explaining to someone that I wasn’t a walking, talking encyclopedia of television, that it was not important for me to know every little thing about television when conducting an interview such as this one. The main concern for me, as with any journalist, was not necessarily to have every fact correct when you are interviewing a newsmaker and researching a story, though it certainly couldn’t hurt. What mattered much more was getting it right by the time it appeared in the paper. And I assured Franken it would be, though by this time, he had had enough of me and I had had enough of him. After we hung up, I concluded that either Franken was having a bad day or he was basically an asshole. I figured it was a little bit of both.
The story, headlined “Franken burns NBC bridge,” published on March 22, 1999, in the New York Post, was a great story for me, though I never learned how Franken felt about it. However, I developed such a visceral dislike for him in the aftermath of that interview that I welcomed the occasional opportunities that arose later to take additional swipes at him.
One was an item I didn’t really have to write later that year, though I wrote it anyway. “Former sitcom star Al Franken has landed on his feet – you can see him shoveling a forkful of steaming hot baked potato into his mouth in a commercial for Parkay margarine,” I reported on Oct. 25, in an attempt to write an item that would portray Franken as a has-been whose career had seen better days, but was now reduced to hawking margarine.
Franken went on to host a radio show on Air America, the short-lived liberal radio network. When a condensed, one-hour version of the radio show, shot in the Air America studios on videotape, began airing in 2004 on the Sundance cable channel, I took up the cudgel again to describe him in a review as having “a voice like a cartoon frog.” I also accused him of exhibiting posture unbefitting the profession of broadcasting, taking pains to write that Franken “slouches over his microphone like he has no spine” (my intention being to imply subtly that Franken lacked backbone, though I doubt anyone who read it ever caught this implication). I never learned Franken’s reaction to this column either (if he ever even had a reaction), but he had backbone enough to run for the U.S. Senate in 2008, representing Minnesota.
[Excerpted from “JERK: How I Wasted My Life Watching Television” by Adam Buckman. Copyright Adam Buckman 2014 All Rights Reserved.]
Contact Adam Buckman: AdamBuckman14@gmail.com