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Al Franken's guide to life

Humorist offers tips in 'Oh, the Things I Know!'

Al Franken
Al Franken tells graduates the truth in "Oh, the Things I Know!" -- and he knows whereof he speaks.  

By Todd Leopold

(CNN) -- This is the time of year when new graduates, ready to make their way in the world, are greeted by gifts of books.

You know the type of work -- Dr. Seuss' "Oh, the Places You'll Go!" Anna Quindlen's "A Short Guide to a Happy Life," Maria Shriver's "Ten Things I Wish I'd Known Before I Went Out into the Real World" -- earnest, uplifting (and slim) volumes about how life is a journey and an adventure, full of excitement, pleasure and wonderment.

Which, as Al Franken can tell you, is just a load of hooey.

The chapter titles to Franken's new book, "Oh, the Things I Know!" (Dutton), say it all: "Oh, the Mistakes You'll Keep Repeating!" "Oh, Are You Going to Hate Your First Job!" "Oh, the Violent Television Your Children Will Watch!" and of course, "Oh, What Doesn't Kill You Can Have Lingering Aftereffects!" This is life from the perspective of a person who's actually lived.

Well, OK, it's a parody. But one that was ripe for the writing, Franken says in a phone interview from his home in New York. He had planned to write a book about getting to the top of the corporate world, but his publisher showed him the books by Quindlen and Shriver and asked if he would do something like it.

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"I read them and I thought they were hilarious," he says. "I thought [commencement books] were a great genre for a pure humor book."

Pondering success

So Franken, who will be 51 later in May, went to work, incorporating a variety of elements from his comedic arsenal: self-deprecation, name-dropping, enlightening "chapter summaries," advertising copy for Canada, sucking up to Oprah Winfrey, one-liners, and swipes at Enron -- in his guide to life after graduation.

  • Franken on bad advice: "My version of ['If you win the rat race, you're still a rat,' referred to in Quindlen's book] goes, 'If you win the rat race, you will never have trouble feeding your family.' "
  • Franken on marriage: "I once asked the most fabulous couple I know, Madonna and Guy Ritchie, how they kept things fresh despite having been married for almost seven months. 'It's a job, Al,' Guy told me. 'We work at it every day.'"
  • Franken on cancer: "A brief digression on whether that suspicious-looking mole is actually cancer. ... Take this simple test called the ABC test. 'A' is for age. What is your age? Is it over thirteen? If so, it's cancer. That's how the ABC test works."
  • The Al Franken file

    Born: May 21, 1951, in New York City. Grew up in Minnesota

    Education: Harvard University, Class of 1973

    Writer and performer, "Saturday Night Live," 1975-80, 1986-95; Political commentator, Democratic National Convention, CNN, 1988; Anchor, political coverage, Comedy Central, 1992, 1996; Actor, "From the Earth to the Moon," HBO, 1998; Writer and star, "Lateline," NBC, 1998-99

    "Trading Places," 1983; "When a Man Loves a Woman" (co-writer), 1994; "Stuart Saves His Family," 1995

    "I'm Good Enough, I'm Smart Enough and Doggone It, People Like Me," 1992; "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations," 1996; "Why Not Me?", 1999; "Oh, the Things I Know!", 2002

    But it's not as if Franken is all jokes. A common theme in commencement books is being able to learn from setbacks, and though Franken jokingly jabs at that cliche, he says that it was the commercial failure of his movie "Stuart Saves His Family" that helped lead to his current career as a political and literary humorist.

    "If [the movie] had actually been successful it would have been a lot better teacher for me than the failure than it was, because it would have given me the opportunity to do more movies," he laughs.

    "On the other hand, it gave me the opportunity to do, 'Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot,' and I probably wouldn't have done that if the movie had been a success."

    Still, he adds, "There's some quote about both success and failure being equally fraudulent. But the success one's a lot nicer fraud."

    'It works out well for everybody'

    In between writing the occasional book -- besides "Limbaugh," there was a book about his neurotic self-help character, Stuart Smalley, and a fictional chronicle of Franken's presidential campaign, "Why Not Me?" -- Franken has carved out a career as a liberal humorist and activist. (See our companion story, "Al Franken's take on politics," for more.)

    A good bit of his time nowadays is spent on the business speaker circuit, where many of his audiences -- ironically -- tend to be conservative.

    "I always start off by saying, 'I've discovered Democrats can't afford me,' and then they laugh at that, because it makes them feel like they're rich," he says. "And then I make fun of them, and then they laugh, and then they pay me. So it works out well for everybody."

    He's well aware of the incongruity of a member of the countercultural vanguard -- when he was with "Saturday Night Live," Franken once co-wrote a wicked sketch about Richard Nixon's final days -- entertaining the suits. But, Franken says, the divisions are much muddier nowadays.

    'It works out well for everybody'

    "The time when I decided there was no counterculture anymore," he says, "was when Dan Quayle became vice president and was asked who his favorite musical group was, and he said, 'Jimi Hendrix.' And at that point, I just said, 'You can't mark anything anymore. It's all over.'"

    Besides, he adds, his corporate audiences are often fans -- something which appeals to Franken's sense of absurdity.

    A new honor

    Perhaps equally absurd, given the new book, is the fact that Franken has never actually given a commencement address until this year. He is scheduled to give the 2002 Class Day speech at his alma mater, Harvard, in early June. His predecessors for that honor have included Bono and Mother Teresa.

    ("She wasn't funny, I heard," he says of the latter.)

    And what advice will he have for these newly minted Ivy League sheepskin holders, ready to blaze their trails?

    Well, don't believe everything people tell you at commencement addresses, he says.

    "From what I can tell ... most commencement speakers are chosen because they're successful. And almost a uniform theme throughout these speeches is the fraudulence of success," he says. "So [a lot of graduates will] be hearing a lot of glib aphorisms that are pretty useless.

    "I'll be warning them against bad advice," Franken says.


    • To Al Franken, it's all comedy
    January 18, 2001

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