Philly News: Franken Assisting 'SNL' Writers

By Ellen Gray,
The Philadelphia Daily News

"Not to get too corny, but if there was ever a time to hear, 'Live from New York, it's "Saturday Night," ' it's kind of now."

- "Saturday Night Live" player Will Ferrell on "The Late Show with David Letterman" last week.

Expect A few goosebumps.

Like Letterman's comeback and the opening of the New York Stock Exchange, the 27th season premiere of NBC's "Saturday Night Live" tomorrow night is one of those bells that needs to be rung, signaling another return to normal in a city and a country still redefining what normal means.

Expect a few bumps, period.

Live television is always a high-wire act, and in live sketch comedy, the acrobats often work without a net and blindfolded. Occasionally, they even set fire to the tent. With a national audience that seems to be in equal parts eager to laugh and eager to take offense, it's hard to believe "SNL" won't lose its footing once or twice.

Expect a few laughs.

Right now, the writers and performers of television's longest-running sketch comedy show - including Upper Darby's Tina Fey, the show's head writer and "Weekend Update" co-anchor - are holed up in their Rockefeller Center offices, about 70 blocks from Ground Zero, trying to figure out what's funny and what's not in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Don't expect them to ignore the tragedy.

"I'm not ruling anything out," executive producer Lorne Michaels told Inside.com this week. For one thing, he told the New York Times, Fey and Jimmy Fallon will have a "Weekend Update."

"You can't ignore what's happened, "SNL" veteran Al Franken said in a phone interview Wednesday. "The challenges. . .are to do it tastefully, and yet be hysterical," he said.

Franken, who was one of the show's original writers, working there from 1975 to 1980 and again from 1985 to 1995, said he'd "talked to one or two writers who are actually writing stuff [for the show] and kind of talked through some things with them that I think kind of ride the line correctly.

"You can't do anything about the event itself, so it's more about either the media coverage of the event or how people are reacting to life now, that kind of thing," he said. "It's got to be things around the edges. There are plenty of things around the edges."

Franken, who lives with his wife and children in New York, but who was visiting his mother in Minnesota at the time of the attacks, said he recently went to Ground Zero, where he met some firefighters who told him they were ready to see late-night TV "be funny again."

"Believe it or not. . .some of the firemen were pretty funny. It was gallows humor, of course," he said.

One problem for comedy writers in the United States, suggested Time magazine humor columnist Joel Stein, is that gallows humor isn't really a tradition here.

"We're such an optimistic country. We were attacked at Pearl Harbor, but we haven't been invaded since 1812, and we don't have a real gallows sense of humor, like you'd find in Israel," he said.

Stein, whose column has been suspended for the moment, much to his chagrin - "It's time for funny" - said that if he were writing for "SNL" this week, his strategy would be to "attack the periphery immediately."

"There are so many jokes about the telethon that everyone watched. You can make fun of the ticker at the bottom of the screen," he said.

"You can't make fun of the tragedy, you probably can't make fun of [President] Bush right now, except in a very loving way," Stein said.

Does that mean Will Ferrell's Bush impression is off-limits?

"He's not doing it at the moment," Michaels told the Times on Wednesday, adding, "That doesn't mean we won't come up with something."

"Now is not the time to criticize the president," said Franken, an ardent and often outspoken Democrat whose books include "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations." A Bush impression right now probably isn't a good idea, he said. "On the other hand, he's still Bush and it is a comedy show," he added.

Whether or not Ferrell's Bush appears, it would be wise to expect the unexpected, including some unexpected guests.

Actress Reese Witherspoon remains the show's guest host and Alicia Keys - who also performed in last week's "Tribute to Heroes" telethon - its musical guest, but the possibilities for other appearances seem endless (even if next week's scheduled guest host, Ben Stiller, has reportedly canceled).

"I'm sure there are debates going on and will be throughout the week," Franken said. "The temptation might be to bring [New York Mayor] Rudy Giuliani out for the opening or firemen - the second thing might be too much" because while "they're wonderful, and what they did was amazing. . .some people at the show might feel they were using them," he said.

Asked if the show would benefit from the goodwill the rest of the country is feeling toward New York right now, Franken said: "I think so, and I think that the fact that the show is from New York adds a tremendous amount of poignancy and responsibility."

Source: The Philadelphia Daily News


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