The Genius of Comedian Will Franken
**In 2004, I published an article (below) in The San Francisco Herald explaining why I thought comedian Will Franken was/is a genius. To this day, he remains the funniest man in the world. (Currently, he’s performing throughout England.)
Click here to watch a brief clip of Franken’s stage show.
Will Franken: A Comedic Genius in the making
17 February 2004 — Recently, at San Francisco’s Punchline Comedy Club, NBC held open auditions for comedians interested in winning a spot on the TV show ‘Last Comic Standing.’ Hundreds of West Coast comics showed up, some camping out overnight to get an early slot. Comedian Will Franken showed up on the day of the tryout. But not to audition.
“I just wanted to witness it, all these predictable idiots lined up for the cattle call,” Franken says. “I just thought it would be funny to see all that awfulness in one place.’
Franken’s stage show is a complete departure from the typical “Let me tell you about my wacky life” patter that saturates comedy clubs across the country. And it’s a measure of the reverence that Bay Area comics have for Franken that two of them actually purchased his live CD, ‘Concert to Benefit the Victims of My Father,’ while waiting in line to audition. Even more revealing about Franken, though, is his typical reluctance to sell CDs to rival comics for fear that they might steal from his act.
Copying him is unlikely though. Franken is much more an actor and performer than a comedian, and when he does spot-on impersonations of a folksy open mic host, or an anti-drug lecturer, he steps inside unique, authentic personas. Instead of delivering one-liners, Franken simply becomes these diverse characters, something that a generic stand-up comic would be hard-pressed to replicate.
“I’m definitely more of an actor than anything else,” explains Franken. “I just happen to act out scenes that people find funny.”
What audiences find so amusing are Franken’s penchant for skewering a wide cross-section of America: wimpy folk singers, authoritarian politicians (the “Imaginary President of the United States of the World”), Berkeley liberals, slam poets, lecherous college professors… And in the fortified bastion of Leftist San Francisco, Franken takes particular delight in mocking political correctness. In one of his more frequent routines, “The Impersonators,” he points to the hypocrisy of comedians making fun of White Trash America while forbidding any commentary on blacks, Latinos, or homosexuals.
“It’s the death of satire,” Franken says ruefully. “Right now is exactly the time when we should be seeing an undercurrent of satirical commentary in this country, but everything is off-limits. And it seems like the most intolerant people live in Berkeley. They’re the ones who should know better.”
Because Franken originally hails from Missouri, he may possess more than the average comedian’s empathy for Middle America. But what informs most of his humor are disconnected references to everyday pop culture. He has often been described as a “human television set”—a reference to his frequent jumping from one scenario to another. But describing his stage show is actually far more difficult.
Franken fills each scene with innumerable non-sequiturs and nods to recent news. And so, a politician railing against terrorism will lament the “recent tragedy of October 38th.” An effusive preacher will cite scripture from the “Book of Joe Pesci.” An STD activist will mourn the loss of his “lover, Thomas J. McClintock.” And a tough-talking football coach will demand “458%” from his team in the “big game against Timothy McVeigh High School.” No matter Franken’s acting skills, it’s his injection of absurd cultural touchstones that most often pushes his humor over the top.