Me, Al Franken and the worst meeting in the history of show business: a true story

I've never publicly shared my story about The Worst Meeting In The History Of Show Business, but this seems like an appropriate time, for reasons I'll get to in a minute. 

In the late '90s I was working as a sitcom writer, and in the spring of 1998 I was between jobs and needed one. My agent lined up a meeting for me with Al Franken, who was then running a show called "Lateline," a behind-the-scenes comedy about a TV news program. Franken wanted to meet me, my agent told me, because I had a news background, having been a writer for Newsweek before I moved to Los Angeles. My recollection is that "Lateline" was produced out of New York; Franken would fly out to Los Angeles to hold a few days' meetings with prospective hires at a hotel in West Hollywood. And so the meeting got set, for breakfast a week or so later. I arrived a little early and found Franken in the hotel restaurant, where he was meeting with another writer. He asked me if I'd mind waiting for a few minutes, so I took a seat in the lobby.

After a few moments the telephone rang at the host's station, which sat in the lobby, a few feet outside the dining room entrance, and about 20 feet from where I was sitting. The host answered the call, listened for a moment, then went inside and came back with Franken. The writer with whom Franken had just met, their meeting now concluded, continued through the lobby and left. Franken picked up the phone. Here's what I heard him say:

"Hi, honey... No, still having meetings. What? CNN? No, why?" He listened for a long moment, and then I saw all the color drain from his face. And I heard him say: "He's DEAD? He's DEAD? Oh my God, Phil—Phil's DEAD? What hap--- He was murdered? Shot? What about Brynn? Is she... Brynn shot him? Brynn shot Phil? And she's dead? They're both DEAD???"

This went on for a few more minutes, and at some point—I don't remember exactly how; there may have been a radio on somewhere—I learned that that morning, out in Encino, Franken's friend and colleague Phil Hartman had been shot and killed by his wife Brynn, who then killed herself. Franken eventually hung up the phone and stood there, silent and distraught.

You have to understand my line of thinking at that moment. 

The guy was obviously shaken, and who wouldn't be. The last thing I wanted to do just then was force him to sit down and hold a business meeting. In the spirit of full disclosure, let me add that I also didn't like my chances of holding his focus while I pitched myself for a job over orange juice and croissants. It felt weird, and wrong, and like it wasn't going to end well for anybody. I figured the best thing I could do was extend my condolences and offer to reschedule the meeting, which I did. "No," Franken said distractedly, "I'm only out here for the day. I have to go back tonight. We have to have this meeting now."

"Al," I said, in what was surely the biggest understatement of my show-business career, "I'm not sure that's a good idea."

But he was insistent. We'd meet now. And he had a request: Would I mind, he asked, if we had the meeting in his room upstairs so he could keep one eye on CNN.

Again, let me give you a little background.

A show-business meeting is a performance. If you're in the position I was in that morning you're the performer, and the person across the table is the audience, and you want them to be captivated by what you're selling, which is always some aspect of yourself—your talent, your humor, your intelligence. All of this requires a measure of attention. Up to that moment I'd been pretty successful at capturing the attention of the people with whom I'd met for various jobs. Not universally so—one famous showrunner sat there and went through his mail while I ran through my resume. (No, I won't tell you who it was. Okay, it was Chuck Lorre.) This meeting seemed fairly certain to be worse than that meeting. But what was I going to do? So up to Franken's room we went, and as promised he switched on the TV and tuned to CNN.  It wasn't my best meeting ever. I talked, he listened—sort of. I kept glancing up to see him focusing one eye on the TV. Occasionally I'd hear a word or two break through --  "911 call." "Murdered." "Shot." "Coroner." "Suicide." I managed to limp through a presentation of my qualifications for the job, and then I finished, and then I stopped.

And then, here's the thing: It got worse

I guess CNN must have finally run through what little hard information it had on the Hartman murder/suicide and started repeating itself, because Franken switched off the set and focused on me. "All right," he said. "I wanted to meet you because I like your work, and because you have a news background that would work well for my show."

Okay, I remember thinking, so far so good.

"Now, I did a little checking on you," he continued. "I asked my friend Howard Fineman about you."

Okay, I thought again. Not an unreasonable thing to do. Fineman was then, and had been during my tenure at Newsweek, a big wheel in the Washington bureau.

"He told me two things about you," Franken said. "The first one was, you totally changed what it was possible to do in the back of the book at Newsweek. He said you were a real trailblazer in terms of writing with a casual voice and some attitude."

I thought this was very nice of Fineman, if a little hyperbolic, and said so. What was the second thing?

"That you're a screamer," Franken said calmly. 

"Excuse me?" I said, blinking rapidly a couple of hundred times.

"That you yell at people," he said. "You go nuts when you don't get your way, and you scream at people and treat them badly and make their lives miserable."

I wish I could tell you I have a clear recollection of what I said next, but the truth is all I remember is a loud roaring in my ears. I think I eventually sputtered something to the effect that 1) Fineman worked in DC and I worked in New York, that we never crossed paths and neither did our co-workers; 2) I had never even met Fineman face to face (still haven't, years later); and 3) what he was saying was, not for nothing, totally and demonstrably untrue. But I think I also had the glimmer of a sense, right away, that I was a dead man walking. There was no way in hell I was going to get this job. I think I may also have had the presence of mind to wonder why Franken had decided to meet with me at all under the circumstances. Years later, I still don't know. But I have a theory.

You may remember a character Franken created for Saturday Night Live and later spun off into a book and movie—Stuart Smalley, who was so addicted to 1970s-style self-actualization that it controlled his life. ("I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!") Franken has said Smalley was born out of his exposure to Al-Anon, a support group for the friends and family members of alcoholics. Here's the disclaimer: I don't know to what degree Franken himself was or is personally a fan of Smalley-style self-improvement dogma. But I've always wondered if, in some part, he wanted to meet with me because he saw an opportunity to intervene in the life of someone he believed to be struggling with destructive personal behaviors. It was a beautiful tiger trap, in a way: However much I might have protested or tried to correct the record, that only would have hardened his position, because it wouldn't mean he was wrong, it would mean I was in denial. None of this occurred to me that morning. But the theory started to gel over the following days. A week or so later when my agent called to tell me I hadn't gotten the job—No kidding, I remember thinking—I called Franken to thank him for the meeting and wish him the best with the show. "Well," he said, "you seem like you're basically a nice guy. My hope for you is that you get some help with your problems."

It's 14 years later, and I never worked another day in television. I'm not complaining—life goes where it goes, and mine has been just fine, thanks. I still haven't met Howard Fineman, although I entertain the occasional fantasy of being introduced to him at a cocktail party and maneuvering him into a corner and murmuring "Hey, Howard, got a minute? Funny story." Franken, of course, has gone on to become the diligent and effective junior senator from Minnesota. I think of all this occasionally, in a sort of abstract, twists-and-turns-of-life kind of way. I'll trot the anecdote out from time to time for friends in show business when the subject of Bad Meetings comes up, which it does a lot. And I thought of it yesterday, when I saw this remarkable video of Franken on the Senate floor, eulogizing his former writing and performing partner, Tom Davis.

You should invest the 20 minutes or so it takes to watch it. Here's a guy who, with very few exceptions, has put his head down in his first term, worked hard, stayed low, and rarely even mentioned his time as a prominent comedian. And here, standing on the floor of the greatest deliberative body in the world, he takes time to speak feelingly of a guy with whom he was young, had a falling out, reconciled, grew older. He's loving and forgiving and generous, not only toward Davis but to a couple of generations of his peers, some of them now gone. He's even expansive on the subject of comedy itself, remembering late nights in SNL's 17th-floor offices at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

Woody Allen once said that writing comedy is either easy, or it's impossible. When it's impossible it can be agony, let me tell you. When it's easy, when you're laughing, when you're rolling on the floor, literally, when Danny or Billy or Belushi or Gilda or Dana Carvey or Jim Downey or Conan O'Brien or Steve Martin or any of the hilarious people that we had the privilege to work with would come up with something that just made you explode with laughter and roll on the floor there on the 17th floor—that was just pure joy.

This is the kind of ex post facto reflection you don't tend to get from younger guys, mostly because they're still, well, facto, and they lack perspective, which is—you kids, trust me when I tell you this—more and more hard won. It is, to my knowledge, the most Franken has spoken about his show business time since he got to Washington. It's as if Davis's death unshackled him. The speech bristles with feeling, and it's studded with great little nuggets. (Recalling the Julia Child "Save the liver" sketch, Franken remembers Davis hiding on the set controlling the pressure of the fake blood spray: "I remember that was something of a union issue because that's a special effect, pumping blood.") The fact that it was delivered on the floor of the United States Senate—preceded, for good measure, by remarks from Sen. Joe Lieberman, who is nobody's idea of a laff riot—makes it something absolutely extraordinary.

Watching Franken in middle age letting go of the old hurts and slights to eulogize the friend and partner of his youth, I couldn't help thinking about that day in West Hollywood. And all I could think was: You know what? It's okay, Al. Forget it. He was misinformed, but if I have to assign a motive to his actions, I'm going to assume he did what he did out of good intentions, because life's too short, and the fact is I'd like somebody to eulogize me like this, although not anytime soon. It's okay, Al. Godspeed. And Howard, if you're reading this, let me talk to you for a second. It's kind of a funny story.

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