Al Franken documentary follows liberal icon through 2004 campaign

Ozzy, Paris and Anna Nicole, move over. Comedian and possible Senate candidate Al Franken is the latest celebrity to open his life to the 24-hour videocam.

Franken’s new documentary film “Al Franken: God Spoke” does not dwell on the minutiae of the simple life, however. Rather it follows the comic over the course of a momentous year, his launching of the liberal radio network Air America and stumping for Democrats during the 2004 election.

It was an election that Franken, Democrats and the progressive left hoped would unseat the Bush administration. Those hopes were dashed by President Bush’s defeat of Sen. John Kerry. But in the aftermath, Franken dusted himself off and got back on his donkey.

Executive produced by D.A. Pennebaker (“The War Room,” “Don’t Look Back”), “Al Franken: God Spoke” keeps the spotlight squarely on Franken from start to finish. He’s always ready with a quip or crack, and his cackle dominates the soundtrack.

Franken, who recently performed at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa, clearly takes politics seriously. And he’s not afraid to go mano-a-mano with his conservative foes, such as Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity (all three of whom appear in the film but none of whom, Franken promises, will receive any royalties).

In one scene he announces his new radio show, “The O’Franken Factor,” a name chosen, he says, “to annoy and bait Bill O’Reilly, and just maybe to get him to sue us.” In another, he hounds former Bush aide Karen Hughes and calls her a liar. In still another, at a D.C. cocktail party, he calls Republican D.C. lawyer C. Boyden Grey an

a–hole to his face while sipping Chardonnay.

And of course, highlights of his infamous May 2003 brawl with Bill O’Reilly, broadcast live on C-SPAN, are featured early on in the film.

“You have to judge when and how to do things,” says the former high school wrestler of his penchant for confrontation. “Last night I was at a USO Gala and General [Peter] Pace of the Joint Chiefs was there. There are a few things I’d like to say to him that I didn’t think were appropriate for the occasion.”

Franken attributes much of his combative style to his Jewish upbringing and its emphasis on doing the right thing, or “the requirement that Jews not only be just but that we do justice,” as he writes in his new book “The Truth (With Jokes).”

He grew up in a Reform household in Minneapolis. “It was very Jewish culturally,” he adds. “My dad was an usher at temple. It was very important to me.” Equally important were the many Jewish comedians of the late ’50s and early ’60s, beloved by Franken’s father, who influenced the budding funnyman. “They are why I became a comedian,” he says.

Franken first came into prominence as a featured player and staff writer on the early days of “Saturday Night Live,” a show he remained connected to for years (as his enduring character Stuart Smalley proves). Though an indelible liberal, he’s not easily pegged. Franken has made numerous USO tours to entertain the troops, including multiple visits to Iraq. He even once performed at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

These days, Franken spends his time writing, hosting his daily radio show on Air America and campaigning for liberal candidates across the country. Along with that he is prepping a possible run for the Senate in his home state. “I’m spending as much time as I can in Minnesota,” he says. “It is a big decision, and I promised myself I would wait until after this election cycle.”

Whether he runs or not, Franken will no doubt continue to flourish in his favorite role of all: eternal bane of the right wing. “I take what they say and use it against them,” he says. “What I do is jujitsu. They say something ridiculous, and I subject them to scorn and ridicule. That’s my job.”

“Al Franken: God Spoke” opens Friday, Oct. 6 at select Bay Area theaters.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.