If former Saturday Night Live writer Al Franken can be a successful member of the United States Senate from Minnesota, then who’s to say David Letterman couldn’t do the same from his home state of Indiana? He may just need to trim that Santa Claus beard first.
This week, the two men teamed up for a new web series co-produced by Funny or Die and Years of Living Dangerously called “Boiling the Frog” that manages to find a kind of dark humor in catastrophic climate change. Filmed entirely in and around Franken’s Senate offices in Washington, D.C., the six-episode series reveals Letterman as a retired comedian who yearns to have some sort of meaningful effect on the world that he will leave behind to his teenage son. But like Franken, he is nearly incapable of not being funny at all times.
Together, they make the type of rivalrous comedy team who try one-upping each other’s dryly subtle humor at every turn. When Franken shows Letterman his framed montage of “No Joke” headlines from his initial Senate run, Letterman counters by predicting his obituary lede: “Stupid human trick.”
And though Franken is ostensibly the host of the series, it is Letterman asking most of the questions from his position as a “frustrated” and “pessimistic” citizen, watching as the issue of climate change gets worse without many solutions in sight. It’s a similar role that he played when he traveled to India for National Geographic’s Years of Living Dangerously documentary series last year.
“It just seems to me that whoever is the leader in fighting climate change, then becomes the leader of the world,” Letterman tells Franken. “So why aren’t the Republicans motivated by that?”
Franken explains to Letterman that “Siegfried and Roy Koch” are to blame for this conundrum, because his Republican colleagues in Congress “are afraid of them.” Asked by Letterman what the Kochs get out of climate denial, Franken deadpans, “They just want to be able to be secure in their retirement.”
Throughout the series, which consists of episodes that range from four to five minutes in length, Franken and Letterman manage to laugh about some of the darkest forces that control Washington and prevent progress on climate change. It’s the type of gallows humor that may just be necessary to help tackle an issue that feels insurmountable on its face. While Letterman plays the role of ignorant pessimist, Franken eagerly embodies the informed optimist, at one point enlisting his Democratic colleague Sheldon Whitehouse—senator from “Little Rhody,” as Letterman puts it—to add even more detail and context to the discussion.
When the idea of a carbon tax comes up, Letterman says, “I’ve had people explain this to me, I don’t understand it. And I think, OK, probably I’m not the dumbest man in America.”
At that point, Franken cuts him off with the line, “You sell yourself short.” Later, referring to Letterman’s trip to India, the senator adds, “What struck me in that show was you appeared to be so, uh, stupid in it.” After playing a clip in which Letterman learned about India’s troubled electricity infrastructure, Franken asks, “Couldn’t you have just read what they’re doing over there in India and not have to act like you didn’t know it?”
“In this rare instance, I think ignorance was actually a benefit,” Letterman replies. And as Franken explains, this willingness to look “stupid” in the name of actually learning something was a big part of Letterman’s “persona” for much of his late-night career. In Franken’s words, he’s “an everyman who’s inquiring.”
It’s a quality that could be very helpful should Letterman ever decide to follow Franken’s footsteps into politics. Like Franken, he is a familiar figure from a Midwestern state with a great sense of humor and seemingly genuine desire to improve the country and the world. In the age of Trump, however, Letterman may actually come off as far too smart to succeed politically.
Though Letterman says he would be “gone right after” Donald Trump had he been given the same opportunity to interview the then-candidate that Jimmy Fallon squandered just two months before the 2016 election, he does not seem particularly nostalgic about being a late-night host. Even with the nightly deluge of material that has helped hosts like Seth Meyers rise to the height of their comedic abilities, Letterman doesn’t find much value in rehashing his latest atrocities night after night.
“We know there’s something wrong, but what I’m tired of is people, daily, nightly, on all the cable news shows telling us there’s something wrong. I just think we ought to direct our resources and our energies to doing something about it,” Letterman told the Associated Press in a recent interview. “I know there’s trouble in this country and we need a guy who can fix that trouble,” he added. “I wish it was Trump, but it’s not, so let’s just stop whining about what a goon he is and figure out a way to take him aside and put him in a home.”
So far, at least, he has not put himself forward as “the guy who can fix that trouble,” but he does see in Franken a model for moving away from comedy and toward activism, while keeping his sense of humor intact.
“I have such great admiration for you, you have had such a wonderfully successful career in a diametrically opposite field,” Letterman tells Franken later in the series. “Although helping people through comedy and entertainment is certainly valuable.”
“Well, I was a satirist and you [were] a clown, so there’s a difference,” Franken jokes in response, unable to accept the compliment with sincerity.
After telling Franken that he “loves” him, Letterman says, “I am constantly looking for a version of your life where what I do beyond is truly meaningful.” He expanded on this point in his conversation with the Associated Press, saying he finds it “deeply, deeply frustrating” that he is not able to help change the things that plague this country and the world.
“I think Al to a certain extent felt that same frustration,” he said. “He’s figured out a way to do it and it’s been successful. And the guy is super-funny, super-intelligent, and the integrity just seeps out from under his door.”
As a solution, Letterman suggested perhaps hosting another special for National Geographic, but if he wants to have as “meaningful” an impact as Franken has, he may need to set his sights a bit higher. A decade ago, no one could have imagined that the author of Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and other similar books would be a widely respected member of the U.S. Senate with the unique distinction of leading Attorney General Jeff Sessions to possibly perjure himself during his own confirmation hearing.
Letterman may not have gotten the chance to go after President Trump in his role as late-night host, but perhaps someday we will see him do so as an elected leader in Congress. And if he does, you can bet Al Franken will be right there beside him cheering him on.