"My advice to Harvard students," Al Franken said soberly, "is to drop out."
It was hard to tell whether Franken was serious or not. His round, plump face certainly looked sincere, and with the aura of innocence radiating from his big, thick glasses and curly hair, who would have doubted him? He was, after all, a 1973 Harvard alumnus himself, so he should have known something about the value of his Psych and Soc Rel degree.
But something wasn't quite right. Franken was sitting in his writing office for "NBC's Saturday Night," a new, New York-based television comedy show. And that chair Franken was sitting in--that was the chair he is paid to sit in and make jokes.
A few yards away, another writer was playing a joke on Jane Curtain, an attractive "Saturday Night" actress. The writer had taken a surgical glove and stretched it tightly across the top of a quarter. The coin stuck to the underside of the glove, but the rubber was so thin that the quarter appeared to be sitting upon it. He walked over to Curtain's desk and pressed the top of the quarter, which fell magically to the desk, and the writer walked away giggling, leaving Curtain to try to find a nonexistent hole in the glove. "Stupid trick," Curtain shouted as she poked the coin at the rubber. "What a stupid trick."
Something was rotten on the 17th floor of Rockefeller Center.
Finally, Franken's stoic expression collapsed and he broke into laughter. "I'd like to see something like that in The Crimson," he said. "But seriously, if anyone wants to make it in show business, well, it doesn't help at all to go to Harvard--not at all."
He learned back in his plush chair and grinned because he knew he had made it, for a while at least, despite his four years at Harvard. Nine months ago he had his big break, when "Saturday Night" producer Lorned Michaels discovered Franken and his partner, Tom Davis, in a Los Angeles nightclub and hired them to write for the live, 90-minute comedy.
Since then, "Saturday Night" has be ome the most talked a out show since "Laugh-in." Its ratings have consistently climbed, and the waiting period for one of the 200-odd tickets to see it live is over four months. Several of the regular actors, who bill themselves as "The Not Ready For Prime Time Players," have received offers for movie or situation-comedy roles. The standout comedian, Chevy Chase, is considered the heir-apparent to Johnny Carson ("The Tonight Show"). And "Saturday Night" has done all this at a fraction of the cost of a six million dollar woman.
"Since it's my first television job, I had to settle for whatever they could give me," Franken said. "It pays O.K., Tom and I are learning a lot, and it's gratifying to see our stuff done on television."
He broke into a grin again, recalling his high school dreams of a show business career. Franken and Davis first began writing together at Blake, a Minnesota country-day prep school, not for comedy skits or plays, but for morning chapel announcements. Although they didn't "hang out around the school theater," Franken said, they wrote together whenever they could gather up enough energy to put on a show. When Franken graduated from high school in 1969, he had Physics in mind for a concentration--"I was good at math and all that stuff"--but show business dreams were far from forgotten.
"I never even took a single Physics course at Harvard," he said. "I had a real crisis freshman year, I just didn't know what I was going to do. I guess I always wanted to do an act with Tom." Franken paused to wave to Michaels and actress Gilda Radner as they passed by the office door. "Anyhow," he continued, "my partner and I worked together for a couple of summers. I guess it was the ones between my sophomore year and my senior year. We were really lucky, we got booked in a place in Minneapolis. Our stuff was good, but our performing was so terrible." By that time Davis had quit the University of the Pacific, and Franken's show business dreams had overtaken his physics plans.
He turned to a vocational aptitude test for reassurance. Sciences came in near the bottom, while Camp Counselor finished first. Counselor was immediately ruled--"I can't canoe or anything." Runner-up Music Performer was equally unattractive because he can't play any instruments. "Speech came in third," he said. "I figured show business was close to speech."
So, knowing he would not be a psychologist, Franken spent most of his time at Harvard getting from one day to the next, always careful to keep his head above academic water. He spurned the Loeb, the Lampoon and the Pudding to work by himself for Dunster House productions.
"The Loeb, well, that's theater," Franken said, frowning a bit. "I was just never into theater. I was interested in real show business. And the Lampoon--it wasn't just that I didn't like them, I thought the stuff they were doing was terrible."
He recalled writing a skit called "Seamen on Broadway" that was rejected from the Hasty Pudding show "by some preppie so they could take some other preppie's skit." Franken started to smile again, but his tone was serious, too serious. "It's not preppies, cause I'm a preppie myself. I just don't like homosexuals. If you ask me, they're all homosexuals in the Pudding. Hey, I was glad when that Pudding homosexual got killed in Philadelphia." The smile became so broad it pushed his eyes shut. He couldn't stand it any longer. "Put that in, put that in," Franken laughed, leaning over the desk. "I'd love to see that in The Crimson."
Out of warm dormitories and into the cold show business world, Franken and Davis tried to get on television, but failed. "It's like people we get applications from who want to write for the show," Franken said. "They send us things, but they never consider what goes into a show. They don't know what we want. That's what happened to us when we started out, and it was just stupid of us to think that people were going to take things just because we liked them."
Franken and Davis did discover what people wanted. Their success came when they were still so young--Franken is 24, Davis 23--that comedians constantly caution them "not to burn out." Franken, sitting in his comfortable chair, was not disturbed. His only worry, he said, was when he would get a vacation from his writing job, not to relax, but to perform stand-up comedy.
A true "Saturday Night" fan will remember that Franken and Davis appeared on the show that was guest-hosted by Eliot Gould. They were dressed as Indians--Franken was an interviewer, and Davis was the head of the Bureau of White Man Affairs. The Indians had defeated white forces and won the West, and the whites were in the minority. Davis told Franken that the whites were occupying Wounded Stench, but that white men preferred to call it Jersey City. And Davis also revealed a white idiosyncrasy: they loved intertribal jokes, especially about the greasy Italian tribe.
The youth of the "Saturday Night" writing staff--the average age is 24--reflects the show's spirit. A recent skit featured the hands of President Ford, (played by Chase) futilely trying to roll a marijuana cigarette and forgetting whether to pour, lick and roll, or roll, lick and pour. "The humor on the show isn't ahead of its time," Franken said. "Most of the people here have been doing this kind of stuff for years. It's just that on TV you can't be as radical, so for TV it's new."
Chase, armed with a naive countenance and trim haircut, has excited the comedy world with his Ford skits. His athletic ability, coupled with Ford's athletic pursuits, adds a new dimension to political satire: physical comedy. Typical is the opening scene to the December 20th show. Chase, as Ford, climbs to the top of a 15-ft. Christmas tree. While cutting off the branches--Betty told him to trim it--he stumbles from the ladder and falls spectacularly to the wooden floor. As the crowd roars its approval, Chase lifts his head and yells, "Live from New York: It's Saturday Night!" The weekly fall has become Chase's trademark, and having a president with a reputation of clumsiness has all but shoved him into stardom.
"Weekend Update," Chase's mock news broadcast is the show's most popular skit. "It's the last thing we do," Franken said. "We throw it together around two in the afternoon on Saturday and add jokes throughout the day, right up to air time." Much of "Update" is direct satire of occurences of the previous week. On one newscast, Chase reported:
"This week, the FDA banned Red Dye #2, saying the red coloring agent is suspected of having cancer-causing qualities. Coincidentally, it was reported this week that Ronald Reagan revealed he was undergoing treatment for cancer of the hair."
Although Reagan and Ford are constantly ridiculed, they are far from alone.
The FCC announced today that for every Ford commercial run on television, a minute of an old Ronald Reagan film must be shown. As a result of this action, a spokesman for George Wallace responded by demanding equal time by showing one minute of "Ironside."
The writers often go a bit too far for the network, so an NBC censor reads the script before each show. "They've been pretty reasonable," Franken said. "Sometimes they cut things for really stupid reasons, but sometimes they let things through that I can't believe." He chuckled and added, "Like Wallace wheelchair jokes."
The show's most deadly enemy, Franken said, is not controversy, but expense. Production costs are close to $250,000 per show, extremely high for a late-night show. "Late-night advertising is worth less than prime-time. They were thinking about moving us to prime-time, and you can't really say how it would change the show. I have a feeling they won't do it."
"Saturday Night" fans will be disappointed to hear that NBC has scheduled only 11 live shows for the next six months, with reruns and other NBC features filling the lulls between. In one eight week period, however, seven live shows will go on the air. "That's going to be rough," Franken said. "When we did four in a row, the last show--I think it was with Dick Cavett hosting--came out pretty poor."
Like Cavett, most of the guest hosts are popular figures. Candice Bergen, Paul Simon, Lily Tomlin and Anthony Perkins have appeared, and Raquel Welch is scheduled for next Saturday. Tomorrow night, Ron Nessen, presidential press secretary, will make his show business debut.
Franken was traveling with the candidates in New Hampshire before the primary "just to see what politics are like." He was riding on the Ronald Reagan press but, following Reagan's campaign appearances at junior high schools. "They were asking him questions like, "Why are you running for President?'" Franken said, shaking his head. "So I asked him how he could be against decriminalization of marijuana and be against motorcycle helmet legislation because motorcycle helmets infringe of people's rights. Then the assistant press secretary threw me off the press bus. Reagan is just so bad."
The trip was a success, however, because Franken met Nessen and convinced him to host the show. "We're not selling out," Chase told People magazine. "Nessen is an interesting host. People are tired of seeing the same old craperoos, all the people you see on game and variety shows."
Change is a controversial word on the 17th floor of Rockefeller Center. Chase feels that "Update" should be used sparingly and that routines should be changed. But "Lorne feels that audiences are kind of stupid," Franken said, "so he thinks we can use jokes every week. I tend to think that our audiences are more sophisticated than most. The way it is now, we'll just take a good joke and run it into the ground. If we varied by only using a good joke once every four shows, we could use it forever."
In the shaky world of show business, "Saturday Night" is unlikely to last forever. But with costs decreasing with each show, it could run for several years, until, as Chase says, it goes down the toilet and NBC flushes it away.
When that happens, Franken said he would like to return to stand up comedy work with Davis, preferably on the West Coast. "It would really be nice to work alone with Tom again, not having people assigning us things and not having things edited out," he said.
Franken got up to leave, because it was already 2 p.m. and he had yet to start writing. He picked up a script from beneath his coffee cup, a skit in which Nessen leaves in the middle of the show. "Don't forget to put 'Kill all preppies' in the article," he smiled.
It was hard to tell if he was serious.
"If anyone wants to make it in show business, well it doesn't help at all to go to Harvard."