Maybe Al Frankenwas right when he said on Saturday Night Live that this was going to be the Al Franken Decade. (Yes, him—Al Franken.) Or maybe it’ll just be the Al Franken Year. Having made his first foray into drama as coscripter of When a Man Loves a Woman, the SNL veteran will return to Hollywood with the upcoming Stuart Saves His Family, about Stuart Smalley, the affirmation-spouting TV host Franken plays on the show. And there’s more of a connection between the projects than some might think. Both were inspired by Franken’s experience at meetings of Al-Anon, a 12-step program for friends and relatives of alcoholics.
”You really start to understand people,” says Franken of the gatherings (whose guidelines forbid him to identify publicly the alcoholic in his life). ”You hear things that you don’t want to hear, you don’t need to hear”—he laughs ruefully—”but you do hear people.” Sitting in the April sun in a mid-Manhattan roof garden, he grows earnest. ”I really began to understand about people’s pain and suffering and about how families that look normal aren’t.”
Inspired, Franken, 42 (who lives in New York City with his wife Franni, 42; daughter, Thomasin, 13; and son, Joe, 9), conceived When a Man Loves a Woman. ”I thought it would be cool to try to do something that had both laughter and feeling. And I thought alcoholism would be a good area for that. It’s crazy, it’s just f—ing crazy, and yet really real and poignant.”
So five years ago, Franken and collaborator Ron Bass began work on a dark comedy about an alcoholic and her co-dependent husband that was to star Tom Hanks. Now, 15 drafts and a cast change later, Franken says he found the unfamiliar experience of writing drama educational but not something he’s necessarily eager to do again.
He is more comfortable tackling those issues in character as the endearingly laughable Stuart Smalley, the Richard Simmons of the recovery world. In fact, says the comedian, there’s a lot of Stuart in him. ”I think people who don’t know me real well find that hard to believe. Sometimes if I tell people, ‘I’m afraid that I’m really a fraud,’ or ‘I have a lot of self-doubt,’ they go, ‘Oh, no, you’re kidding.’ I go, ‘No, I’m really honest.”’ The onset of the Al Franken Year seems to surprise him a little bit. But it just goes to show that if you’re good enough and smart enough, doggone it, people may indeed like you.