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Al the Fox Conqueror

"They can dish it out, but they can't take it"

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If Fox's intention in their lawsuit against Al Franken was to break a large, undercooked ostrich egg on its corporate face while pouring streams of golden ducats into Franken's pockets, it carried out its plan to perfection. A judge laughed its trademark-infringement lawsuit (Fox claimed it trademarked the phrase "fair and balanced") out of court -- even adding insult to injury by warning the right-wing media behemoth that its ownership of the phrase it claimed to have spent $61 million developing was extremely dubious. And sales of Franken's book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, soared sky-high on the publicity, hitting #1 on the New York Times bestseller list last week.

All of which must have been bitter wormwood for the popular Fox talk-show host Bill O'Reilly, who many speculated was the moving force behind the now-dropped lawsuit after his notorious May 31 exchange with Franken at the Los Angeles Book Expo. Under Franken's tender ministrations, O'Reilly was reduced to sputtering "Shut up!" and demanding that the gadfly comedian and writer remove O'Reilly's "splotchy" face off the cover of Franken's upcoming book. For the man the Fox complaint called "shrill and unstable" and "not a well-respected voice in American politics," it was all in a day's work. Franken says driving conservatives off the deep end is easy.

"O'Reilly keeps saying I'm a smear artist," he says, "but all I do is just say what they said. . .It's jujitsu. You just use what they do against them. And when you do that, they get mad."

His most recent prank even got the attention of John Ashcroft. Writing on the letterhead of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, where he was a fellow, Franken sent notes to 27 senior Bush administration officials, including the US Attorney General himself, asking each to "share a moment when you were tempted to have sex but were able to overcome your urges." The stories would be used, he told them, in a book about public school abstinence programs called Savin' It!

We talked to Franken about his reaction to the judge's ruling. Speaking by cell phone from a New York airport, Franken talked about being "a cute, cuddly kind of deranged" and the need for liberal talk radio, before sending the interviewer through the luggage X-ray machine.

What was your first reaction upon hearing about the suit? Were you surprised?

I was surprised because they had first threatened to sue about two weeks after the Book Expo dust-up with what's his name, and then they didn't do anything. So I was surprised, but I was also very pleased. I was in Italy, and I'd brought the book The Tipping Point to maybe give me a new perspective on how to promote my book. But I put off reading it for about five or six days because I didn't want to think about my book for at least five or six days. So then I took The Tipping Point to bed and started reading it and it's a great book and about halfway through I start to fall asleep, and I start saying to myself:

"Must think of ... tipping point ... for book ... must ... think of ..." and then fell asleep. And my next conscious moment someone in the house walked in my room and said, "Al? You're being sued by Fox." And it took me about a second and a half, and I looked at them and I said, "Good!" and then I went back to sleep. And then later I went on my e-mail and started reading, and all Team Franken was e-mailing the complaint that I was, let's see, unstable, shrill and unstable ...

"Shrill and unstable" ... "deranged" ... and "a parasite," to be precise.

Right. And what was funny about that was I noticed that it said in the complaint that the press said I was this. And it wasn't until I got back to the US and looked at the complaint that I saw a reference to where it came from, which was the prestigious WashingtonDispatch.com, which boasts on its homepage that if you're an amateur writer you have a much better chance of getting published on their Web site than on any other Web site. So that's where they got that.

So are you shrill and deranged?

I'm deranged, but I don't think I'm shrill. I think I'm the kind of deranged that's kind of cute and cuddly. Like the Danny DeVito character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. [Laughter.]

Are you happy with the judge's decision? This has brought you so much publicity that I wonder if part of you doesn't wish Fox had appealed instead of dropping the suit.

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