Franken Occasionaly Misses Immediate Gratification of 'SNL'

By Ellen Gray

It's not easy being up-to-the-minute in Sitcom Land, even if your sitcom's about a news show based in the nation's capital.

It's even harder if you're doing NBC's "Lateline," which reappears tonight after an absence of many months, with 13 new episodes shot during the time when the show was stuck on the network's bench, waiting to be sent back into the game.

"Lateline" co-creator - and co-star - Al Franken calls living through the Starr wars without an outlet to express himself "a mixed blessing."

"A sitcom cannot be as topical as 'Saturday Night Live,' " Franken said yesterday. In the best of circumstances, the turnaround from writing to air is two to three weeks, he said. On "SNL," where Franken spent 15 seasons doing political satire, "the story of the week often didn't get written until Friday," he said.

"I knew going into this that I wasn't doing an up-to-the-minute topical sitcom. I don't think there is such a thing," he said, admitting there'd been weeks in 1998 when he'd wished for the immediate gratification of "SNL."

The goal in Sitcom Land, though, is syndication, with shows on the air for many, many years, and extremely topical humor doesn't hold up, Franken said.

"I knew that 10 years from now, people would remember Monica Lewinsky, but they won't know Kathleen Willey," he said.

Knowing that the shows he was writing wouldn't air for months "imposed a discipline" to keep the stories more universal, he said.

That doesn't mean "Lateline" won't continue to feature famous faces. In tonight's episode, NBC "Late Night" host Conan O'Brien and sidekick Andy Richter visit the "Lateline" set to film a bit with news anchor Pearce McKenzie (Robert Foxworthy). Other upcoming guests include Bob Bennett, the president's personal attorney, radio talk-show host G. Gordon Liddy, pundit William F. Buckley and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Franken said.

Producing new episodes when the show wasn't airing made booking guests a challenge, he said. "It'll be interesting when we're doing the show when the show is on," he said, adding that most of the cameos came about through personal contacts.

"Some had seen it . . . or they trusted me, but to a large extent, I've sort of had to rely on people I know. Even Bill Buckley, I think did it, because I knew Chris Buckley, and Chris really liked the show."

Even name-dropping can be dangerous in television. One of the early episodes of "Lateline" last spring required re-editing after a stray reference to U.S. Rep. Sonny Bono was discovered after Bono's death in a skiing accident.

"So far, we don't refer to Speaker Gingrich" or to anyone who's since died, Franken said. Still, "I should be on the outlook, because the Bono thing almost got past us. It was a small reference and we hadn't really thought of it."

Franken does have a dream guest: "Hillary."

Before or after?

"Before. Or after. Ideally, I'd love to have her on next season," he said. "I really like her."

Franken, who said he first met Mrs. Clinton in 1993 and has spent enough time with her to consider them "friends," said he'd like to showcase her lighter side.

"She's actually a goofy, funny person that you don't see. Some of that's her fault. I think when she's interviewed on TV, she projects herself as kind of lawyerly," he said.

Has he asked her?

"I felt that it would be too presumptuous at this point in the show's life to ask her to do the show. And also, given the events of this year, I thought it would be inappropriate to do it now. But if the show does well and the year ends up like I think it will , maybe next year, it'll be proper to ask her."

Source: Philadelphia Daily News

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