When I first saw Will Franken perform last fall, the best I could come up with on my Daily News blog was this description: "manic brilliance."
Speaking to Franken at length this week over coffee amid the Williamsburg types, I realized the words really do fit this untraditional comedian. First, though, watch this portion of his most recent one-man show, "Grandpa, It’s Not Fitting," which I recorded with Franken’s permission during his Jan. 18, 2008, performance at the UCB Theatre in NYC.
Franken, 34, grew up in rural Sedalia, Missouri, and began his professional career as a teacher of English at Southwest Missouri State University, but he acknowledges he wasn’t the best teacher. He’d much prefer taking the class out on field trips or showing Harold & Maude or listening to The Who. "I was always going to the A/V department," he said. At 24, he decided to up and move to New York City. He’d done an open mic or two in Springfield, Missouri, and felt he was ready for his big break. "I thought I was going to go to Washington Square Park and do what I do and someone would walk past and say, ‘I want you to do that on TV.’"
Instead, he dabbled in horrible theatrical productions, moved to Harlem and taught school there for a year. Discouraged, he moved to Charlotte, N.C., got married, got unmarried, and randomly ended up in San Francisco, where he said he lived out of his car for three months in a Target parking lot.
In 2002, he was walking in Oakland and spotted a sign for an open mic and tried performing again. But he wouldn’t do comedy shows. Franken said he’d go to folk music open mics and coffee houses, sign up on the list and spring his performances on the audiences. Turned out, Bay Area audiences dug him. "San Francisco was extremely good to me," he said.
His comedy has never been conventional, which almost made him a natural finalist for the Andy Kaufman Award — competing in the contest last November at The Comedy Festival in Las Vegas. I saw Frranken hours before the contest and he was in a slight panic. He really wanted to wow the judges and win the $5,000 prize. He rolled the dice on a bit that relied on an audience member and finished just shy of the prize. Months later, he’s more than slightly unhappy about that. "I really needed that $5,000," he said. There’s more of a connection to Kaufman, though. Franken said he’d read about Kaufman’s career and how he didn’t want to do the sitcom, Taxi. "When I read about that as a kid, I wondered: What is he doing? Get on TV! The older I get, I can understand where he was coming from." As potential managers have seen Franken’s one-man show and asked him about his goals, Franken’s reply is a simple one: He wants to do his show, just on TV.
About that show. Yes, you may describe it as one-man sketch comedy, but he packs so many ideas, references and voices into the sketches that you really do need to pay attention throughout. Franken’s not afraid to take on religion, diversity and political correctness. He’ll start off with what looks like an interview with The Beatles and wind up at Burning Man. He’ll begin a scene as a marriage counseling session, bouncing around from wife to husband to therapist, whirling around and imploding the sketch into self-therapy. Sound effects poke fun at sound effects. False starts and stops. A sense that he’s talking to the audience between sketches falls away to reveal he’s already launched headlong into a new sketch already. This SF Weekly article goes to greater lengths to try to deconstruct Franken’s act.
Where does it all come from? Franken said he truly believes there’s a divine nature in art. When he’s not smoking (currently blowing through three packs a day, and that’s just the legit tobacco), he’ll prefer to sit and allow himself to go into a trance, waiting for the voices in his head to emerge as a voice that’ll become a character that’ll enter a scene. And then he’s off and running. Though he began his career with a four-track recorder and obviously records and edits for his podcasts, Franken said he’d rather not write or record, but rather repeat the voices and the material over and over again until it sticks. "I just shove it in my head," he said. Huh? "I’ve got a really strange memory. My head’s like flypaper."
He boldly opened our chat by saying he wanted to debut 60 minutes of brand-new material for SF Sketchfest, where he’ll be this Thursday and Friday (Thursday with The Apple Sisters and Kasper Hauser at the Eureka Theatre, Friday with The Apple Sisters and Kathleen Phillips at the Purple Onion). "I’m reckless, I know," he said. "All I have right now is an interview with the director of Stomp. And I don’t even know where that’s headed."
Related: Listen to Will Franken’s podcast, Things We Did Before Reality, here. Also available on iTunes.