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.


    1. Boxer, Brown, Feinstein, many more… are you going to throw out nearly the entire progressive left as well? I disagree strongly with him on this – and let him know, as my senator – but to “lose *all* respect” (emphasis mine) seems more than a bit combative, no? 

      1.  As Diogenes points out, you lost me when you brought up Feinstein, a Democrat so far to the right that many don’t even consider her a Democrat. I wouldn’t call any of the co-sponsors of PIPA part of the “progressive left”. It could be argued there is no “progressive left” in the US Senate.

      2. There’s a progressive wing of the Democratic party? Who knew? You sure can’t tell by the way they act.

        By the way, how do you think the Senate vote on the bill to audit the Fed is going to go?

      3.  Democrats and the “progressive left” – stop it – you’re killing me! Are you also an out-of-work comedy writer?

      4. When your house is mostly termites, with little actual wood left, it’s time to burn down your fucking house.

      1. American politics is based on the principle of killing with fire anything that even mildly annoys you.

    2. When you find a politician who agrees with you 100% of the time, be sure to let us know. You might be the first.

        1. When you agree with him about many things, but you drop support because you disagree about one thing, then apparently it is about perfectionism.

          1. Bitter, drunken guy in a bar: “You farm the same plot of land profitably for 20 years, and do they call you Farmer Tom? No. Build a stone bridge with your own hands that everybody walks over every day, and do they call you Tom the Bridge Builder? No. But if you ____ one goat …”

            There are some issues on which I don’t care what else you agree with me on; get those wrong, and I cannot vote for you. Period.

  1. For the record Als story about the inspiration for Stuart Smalley is total BS.  For a very short period, and I mean short like maybe it only aired once.   There was a guy on Queensborough public access in NYC that was Stuart.  I remember watching him about a year before the character was introuduced on SNL.  This guys was the character he would sit there and look in a mirror and say the same exact things as the Stuart, he wore the sweater.  He had the hair…

    Al just copied this real guy, so it always strikes me odd when he talks about what inspired this character.

      1. Yet he never mentions this guy who was exactly like Smalley in every way.  Hell the entire Smalley movie is about a guy with a public access show. 
        Now if he said “There was this guy on public access that would do affirmations and I combined that with my own recovery experiences…”  But he never mentions this guy who was very clearly the inspiration for the character. 

        1. That’s because the best ideas either get stolen or are completely, totally your own.  And if they’re stolen, they’re the other guy’s idea, completely and totally.

          1.  I think that’s a bit harsh.  What about music riffs that resemble previous riffs.  Are they all stolen?  What about story ideas, paintings, great dishes?  Everyone is influenced by everything they’ve experienced.  Maybe Franken directly copied that guy, maybe he never saw him.  I suspect the truth is somewhere between those poles.

  2. And there he is.  

    There was a part in one of his shows where he did the turn to the mirror and self affirm thing.

    1.  I dunno. I could be convinced that guy played a role in the development of Stuart Smalley but to say Stuart was a copy… Many dudes had hair like that back then.

      After watching Stuart Saves His Family, I feel quite certain Al drew largely on personal experience with twelve-step-type programs and the culture of those involved.

      1. You are only seeing clips of a few shows there.  At the the end of at least one of the episodes he turns to a mirror and dose the entire Smalley routine. 

        Blonde guy, public access, effeminate lisp, affirmations…

        1. After watching those clips I’m even less convinced he was the basis of Franken’s Stuart.  That guy doesn’t remind me of him at all.

    2. I watched the clip and even though the public access guy is using some of the same 12 step affirming language, and it sounds like from what you wrote the structure of his show was similar, the public access guy is also good-looking and charismatic. I think what worked about Stuart Smalley was that he was just so pathetic, so not attractive, so desperate to please, and it was funny to think this total loser believed that could affirm himself into being a winner and that others would see him as someone to emulate. 

  3. Your worst meeting or THE worst meeting, Bill? I had one where not one, but two different laptops started on fire in the middle of a presentation. And I’m guessing that there was at least one Broadway show pitched that day on the Titanic. Now that’s a bad meeting.

    1.  No way!  That meeting went fine, the boat ride didn’t.

      Thinking about it, that sinking alone is directly responsible for two Broadway musicals.  If only the Edmond Fitzgerald had had a better agent..

        1.  &*$&, that is brilliant.  I cannot believe I have never seen it before.  That has made my week.

  4. I’m amazed to hear that Lorre read through his mail during an interview. Everything I’ve heard about him is that he was a sweet, wonderful guy, and I love the story of how much he infuriated Karloff on the set of The Raven, a movie which is one of my guiltiest pleasures.

    Oh, wait, I’m thinking of the talented Lorre…

      1. When I met the late Forrest J Ackerman at his wonderful home in LA years ago, he proudly wore the ring Bela Lugosi had given to him. I asked him about Landau’s portrayal of Lugosi in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood biopic.

        Ackerman told me: “In all the time I knew Lugosi I never heard him utter so much as a ‘hell’ or a ‘damn’.” His gravitas conveyed his indignation at seeing Bela portrayed in that fashion.

        From Forry’s mouth to your ears.

    1. Most of those in politics are polarizing figures.  It’s a personality type that is made for that line of work: nice talking, well-connected, usually intelligent polarizers who are willing to eschew the facts to favor opinion.

    2.  I’ve run into Franken and his wife a few times at the grocery store and he’s always nice to people that go up to him. I also have lots of friends in Minnesota politics and haven’t heard bad things about him, unlike the other Senator from Minnesota. Doesn’t mean he isn’t a dick, just that the people in my life who know him don’t talk badly about him.

    3. For not hiring the guy, or for setting up the interview in the first place? As for the latter, I saw no indication that he talked to HF before setting up the interview. If it was after, should he have cancelled the meeting?

    4. That sounds a little bit… attribution bias to me. I mean, this particular story takes place in the middle of a crisis; in all likelihood, so does whatever anecdote you’ve heard.  I’m not sure it’s fair to extrapolate the guy’s normal behavior from things he does under extreme stress — or anyone else’s, really, but in the case of a celebrity I think it’s even more important because the “juicy” stories are so much likelier to reach our ears than the mundane ones.

      Perhaps Al Franken is just a dick when he’s stressed out and can’t bite his tongue, kinda like me, kinda like most of us?

  5. Great read! From experience with entertainment/creative type bosses, it’s never a good idea to take the stand in your own defense if they throw a zinger like, “I hear you’re [difficult to work with].” This (20/20 hindsight) is a trap. They’ve already dug your grave when they say this, and when you protest too much, you just fall in and pull the dirt in after you. Maybe Franken did have the best of intentions. However, neither the devastating news he received pre-meeting or your personal pitch made him decide not to zing you. You never had a chance.

    1. The whole writeup makes a great story, but if we’re getting into the background, my guess would be that Fineman’s motivation is the real question. He’s always struck me as a manipulative and self-serving douchebag. And that’s despite my generally agreeing with most of his writing. Or Franken was using Fineman as the invulnerable reference when actually he was relating the complaint of a comparatively powerless and vulnerable former staffer.

      edit – “franken” not “franklin”. obviously.

      1. This. I was sandbagged thus by a former boss who fired one of my best work buddies. The boss took note of those of us who were upset by his decision. As we left (none fired, just moving on) the boss made it a point of saying, “You did a great job here. Proud of you for moving on. Make sure you use me as a reference.” Then, whenever he was contacted by a prospective employer, he told them we were difficult, substandard, etc. What a devious, evil prick.

          1. Yes, MarkV, it is. However, it’s also hard to prove/prosecute, when to do so would mean convincing/hauling a prospective employer’s rep into court. We all found out because the old boss’s assistant got canned, but signed a “do not disclose agreement” when she left. She’s told us all what he’s done, but won’t/can’t go to court on our behalf. Luckily, we got the word out, so no one uses him as a reference anymore.

          2. It’s the reason that most companies will only give out your dates of employment when asked for a reference.

    2. 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.

      Why do people do this?  I can recall several occasions on which something like this has happened to myself and truly they make me despair.  Hanlon’s razor alone cannot quite cut that deeply.

    3. Thanks for the reminder. I’ll cache “Curious. I’ve heard the same about you.” as an answer.

      1. The correct answer to, “I’ve heard that you’re a screamer,” would be, “I never would have pegged you as a homophobe, Mr. Franken.”

  6. Fuckit. I am going to just say it; It is kind of mean spirited to use someone’s private death of a friend moment to prop up a personal bad meeting anecdote. Especially as the only thing that would really qualify the meeting as “the worst meeting in the history of showbusiness” is what happened to Al Franken. From Bill’s end of things it seems like a fairly standard, albeit shitty, meeting.

    1. “Mean spirited”?!  This was a really great story, and it was REALLY favorable to Franken.  Like, really favorable.  It was also funny.

      I think Franken — a comedian — would really like this story.  Sometimes, the best stories (humourous or not) come from dark places. And that’s okay.

      And, you know, it’s fine if you don’t like this story — but “mean spirited”? HOW? It is in no way mean spirited.

      1. My point wasn’t that it said anything negative about Franken only that, to me, the story wasn’t particularly noteworthy, that it certainly wasn’t the worst meeting in the world and, further, that any interest the story had was derived from being a 1st percent witness to someone learning about the death of a friend. It would have to be a whole lot funnier to transcend that initial moment. As it is, it is just sort of “look at what happened to ME when this dude’s friend died.” And the thing that happened to him was just a workaday crappy meeting.

        1. Stories don’t have to be “noteworthy” to be worth something.  Franken is a comedian and I’m sure he’d really enjoy the spirit of this story.

    2. It stopped being a private death of a friend moment when Franken insisted on having the interview.

      1. …insisted on having the interview…that he had already decided the outcome on. It’s like Franken wasn’t saying “no, I’m just here today, let’s do this interview”, he was saying, “No, I want to cut you loose now – not later”. I imagine showbusiness isn’t as HR regualted as the corportate world, but from my experiences in corporate HR – people do get interviews even though it’s already been decided they aren’t a true candidate. It’s a legal preemptive manuever that demonstrates that there was a job opening and that a variety of candidates were given the opportunity to apply/interview/what have you, so that even though  individual(s) are often times already earmarked for that position, other people were given an opportunity. Again, not likely what happened here, but I’m saying the  “pre-determined interview” is a regular occurance.

  7. Maybe earlier that day he had met with some other person who worked for Newsweek, ended up hiring him because he had decent references, was well-respected by his co-workers, and had a reputation for being even-keeled and easy to work with.  But then he found to his horror that the guy was a total loose cannon, who yelled and screamed at everyone whenever things didn’t go his way.

  8. I’m going to comment on the actual content of this article instead of going on and on and on endlessly about my political opinions, and say that I enjoyed reading it, and watching that video.

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