January 25, 2006

Frankensense and Urine

A participatory profile of the West Coast's brightest comedic talent—Will Franken.

David Downs

Some people need to take drugs to get up the nerve to perform. Others get so high on performing, they're a drug unto themselves.

Will Franken
Eric Lister
I fall into the former category, which is why I sit drunk, stoned, and stage-frightened in the crowd of "Good Luck with It," a show by San Francisco's most talented comedian, Will Franken. I had no intention of getting this twisted for a profile assignment, but I should've known something like this would happen, considering who I'm dealing with.

"I need you to play a drug-addicted Jewish teenager," the hulking, 32-year-old, Missouri-born comedian tells me backstage before the show. Franken's almost six-and-a-half-feet tall and could clothesline a bouncer if he wanted to. Dressed in an old brown blazer, jeans, and scuffed brown dress shoes, though, he looks less like a fighter than like a maniacal Oxford professor ready to pop as he nervously gnaws his shoulder-length brown hair.

"Ok, so, yeah, you're the plant. You're basically in the audience and I'm going to call you up like I singled you out of the crowd. Like this. [He makes a point-and-come-here hand gesture with stern eyes.] You have two lines," he says. "The first one is ' And ' "

I repeat them.

"You got it?" he says, rubbing his hands together, eyes aflame.

"No." But I don't say no. Partially because the show's about to start and there's no time to back out, but also because I don't want to mess with the guy's rhythm. I mean, he's completely keyed up for his first show of 2006, and a big gig with Comedy Central looms around the corner.

"Maybe this is the best way to understand Franken, on his level," I think. "Yeah. Drug-addicted Jew. I'm a drug-addicted Jew."

An hour later, sitting among the darkened crowd in Franken's warped land of "Parents of Pick Axe Murdered Children" and orgy-promoting feminism clubs, I have totally forgotten my two little fucking lines.

Stage fright—combined with some Sierra Nevada and weed that I sent in to kill the stage fright—has created near-perfect amnesia. I'm running a fever and my bladder feels like it's brimming with lava. "I'm going to blow his show and the profile," I think. I hold my notepad up to the stage glare, hoping for a glimpse of my terrible handwriting. "This is just like the 7th-grade talent show, Downs. 'Look, he froze! What a maroon!' "

Will Franken
Eric Lister
Things are going a little different for Franken, up on stage. A half-hour into it and he's taken over his audience members' minds. He has them singing, praising Jesus, and laughing at child murder. Characters and scenes, public service announcements and daytime television show segments rise up and fall away. Franken changes roles as fast as putting on a hat, and the effect is so narcotic that you can see why the SF Bay Guardian named him the Best Alternative to Psychedelic Drugs. The fuel of "Good Luck With It" is the disgust of an intellectual raised in a religious small town, combined with the dismay of a religious, small-towner living in a metropolitan Babylon. It's more acting than stand-up, and no race, minority, nor pet cause is safe. It belongs in some London theater and it's way too good for cable TV.

It may end up there, anyway. After three years of trolling the clubs, Franken blew up in 2005, rocketing from the nation's No. 1 comedic launch pad, the Fringe Festival held in New York. His performance earned him a ball-draining piece on the front page of the theater section of the New York Times. Then Comedy Central came calling. The cable channel's director of development slated Franken for a live show January 30 in Los Angeles. The show precedes a private one-hour pitch session to the channel execs for a proposed sketch comedy show. Franken's type of humor may be a stretch for basic cable, but, then again, this is the same channel that tried to give Dave Chappelle piles of money for two more seasons of "I'm Rick James, bitch."

"I've sort of changed my stance on the Chappelle thing," Franken says. "When it first happened all the local comics weren't saying much other than, 'Well, we'll see what happens.' But I was like, 'Fuck Dave Chappelle. He walks away from $50 million while most of us are fighting for scraps!' " Maybe it's the pressure of diluting his 151-proof show into malt liquor for the Comedy Central suits, or the specter of making three seasons' worth of shallow cable-TV jokes, but Franken says he's a lot more humble about what Chappelle might've gone through. "I've since redacted my opinions," he says.

Back in the audience, any of that dissonance is gone. Franken's in control and even I forget to worry as he morphs into a drug-addled D.A.R.E. teacher at a Harlem middle school.

He's agitated and babbling, mad at the students in the crowd for laughing at him when he can't pronounce the word "crack."

Will Franken
Eric Lister





I fumble with my notes and make out something legible just in time.

"Alright, I've had enough," Franken the drug teacher says. "You! Up here! Right now! What's your problem?"

It's my cue, and I'm out of my seat with wiggly knees and pillow feet, knowing only slightly what's happening.

Don't look at the crowd. Repeat the lines in your head and remember your cues. I catch just a glimpse of the shadowed faces as I walk on stage and submit to Franken's scolding.

The moment of truth comes and passes. I don't pee myself or stutter.

I hear laughing, and Franken orders me back to my seat, where I sit back down in the dark.

"You going to be like him?" he asks the crowd. "Addicted to drugs?" He turns to me. "I bet you've been on drugs your whole life, haven't you?"

"Don't you laugh! You want to end up like him? Jewish!? At least, he looks Jewish."

The scene moves on and I can start to hear things other than my heartbeat pounding through my ears. Christ, comedy is hell. How many of us have bombed at parties telling simple jokes, let alone talking for hours and slowly winning over the trust and love of 100 strangers each night? Night after night? You couldn't pay me enough to do it.

Franken, on the other hand, is completely addicted, and that's probably why he's the best.

"I've been depressed like a motherfucker for the last couple weeks. Tonight, I can say that it's because I haven't performed in that long. Thanks so much."

He delivers his final lines in his real voice and mannerisms—a deep, sincere baritone coming from a teddy bear of a dude—and he closes his show to boisterous applause.

The crowd cheers and Franken bows. I want to take some of the credit, but by that point I'm hosing down the nearest urinal like it's R. Kelly's last date.

David Downs is a full time freelancer with Wired magazine and the East Bay Express. He's based in San Francisco and can be reached at Eric Lister is a full-time artist when he's not editing gay pornography and snowboarding. He can be reached at


Related in Gelf

•Keith Huang profiles the most famous pastry MC on the web.

Related on the Web

•Will Franken's website.

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