Stuart Smalley is a fictional character invented and performed by comedian and satirist (and later United States Senator from Minnesota) Al Franken. The character originated on the television show Saturday Night Live, in a mock self-help show called "Daily Affirmation With Stuart Smalley." It first aired on SNL's February 9, 1991 episode hosted by Kevin Bacon. Stuart is Franken's middle name. Franken has stated that his "going to Al-Anon meetings inspired [the character] Stuart [Smalley]".
Stuart participates in many (sometimes fictional) programs, not limited to Overeaters Anonymous, Children of Alcoholic Parents Anonymous, and Children of Rageaholic Parents Anonymous. He is an effeminate man with a perfectly coiffed bleached-blond hairdo, who regularly wears a yellow button down shirt with a powder blue cardigan.
It is frequently hinted that Stuart may be gay, but his sexual orientation is never clearly stated. All his romantic partners have names which could be male or female, like Dale, Chris, or Merle. His father gripes, "You'd drink too if you had Liberace for a son."
Within the context of the show, Stuart is quick to point out that he is not a licensed therapist but relies instead upon the credibility of his own experiences as a non professional. His guests are very often celebrities; however, Smalley is seemingly unaware of his guests' fame as he never uses their full names so as to "protect (their) anonymity."
Other guests who appeared were his family members, such as Macaulay Culkin playing his nephew or Roseanne Barr playing his sister, who suffers from battered wife syndrome. One Canadian relative named Leon Smalley and played by Kiefer Sutherland also had a show called "Today's Meditation", which became a big hit in Canada. Although he is clearly a copycat of Stuart, Leon does seem more self-confident on his show, which could be a reason for his greater success.
The character was popular enough to spawn a 1992 novel, I'm Good Enough, I'm Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!: Daily Affirmations With Stuart Smalley. The book keeps in line with the concept of the character, and is presented (tongue-in-cheek) as a legitimate day-to-day affirmation book. Each page is dated and the reader is "supposed" to follow through as if they were actually seeking help. Naturally, however, things go wrong in the writing process, and thus the affirmations branch off into Stuart's own commentary about what a hard time he is having writing it, etc. He also discusses his past relationship with ex-significant-other Dale, "the Rageaholic".
An audiobook was also released, You're Good Enough, You're Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like You. The content of this audio book was completely different from the printed one, but followed through on the same gag. The tapes played guided visualizations meant to help the listener relax and focus; however, Stuart makes a vow at the beginning not to make any edits or corrections in the recording process because "I'm a perfectionist and if I start making changes, I'll never stop." As such it is full of humorous errors, including one gag in which Stuart tells his listeners who are driving to work to "close their eyes and envision..." something. (As such, there is a warning label on the box that says, "Do not listen while driving," a joke that doesn't make sense until one has actually listened to the tape.)
As the character's popularity increased, a film was released called Stuart Saves His Family. It chronicled the life Stuart leads and his relationship with a very dysfunctional family. His alcoholic father and enabling mother, overweight sister and equally alcoholic brother call upon him when an aunt dies. He is asked to oversee the sale of her home, bringing much-needed money to all of the family. At the same time, his public access self-help show is canceled. Naturally, things go awry, and he must learn to deal with himself and his own life before he can attempt to help others. While many critics praised the film, including Gene Siskel (who awarded the film 3.5 stars out of four, in his print review) and Roger Ebert, the film was financially unsuccessful.
The character effectively disappeared after the box-office failure of the film and Franken's exit from Saturday Night Live, save one appearance where Smalley, bitter over the failure of the movie, refused to finish his affirmation, excoriated his viewers for not watching, and openly wept. At one point in that skit, Smalley (in reference to the film, its glowing reviews, and the film that beat it) commented: "But you didn't want 'funny' and 'poignant'. You wanted 'Dumb....and Dumber....and Dumber....and Dumber'!" In 2002, Franken reprised the Smalley character again when Al Gore hosted, in which he mentioned that his father was still an alcoholic.
The character also showed up from time to time on The Al Franken Show. Later, after Franken made a bid for a United States Senate seat that ended in success but also in controversy - he would not be officially declared the winner, and therefore under Minnesota law could not be seated, until a full eight months after the election itself - he would be dubbed "Senator Stuart Smalley" by critics and fans alike.
The character is known for a number of catchphrases, many of which are chosen not just for comic effect, but to play on a perceived tendency of the self-help movement to talk and think in psychobabble. Some, such as the phrase "stinkin' thinkin'", are taken from common 12-step slogans.
- "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me."
- "That's just stinkin' thinkin!"
- "You're should-ing all over yourself."
- "Denial ain't just a river in Egypt!"
- "I am a worthy human being."
- "...and that's...okay."
- "Trace it, face it, and erase it."
- "I don't know what I'm doing. They're gonna cancel the show. I'm gonna die homeless and penniless and twenty pounds overweight and no one will ever love me."
- "I'm in a shame spiral."
- "You're only as sick as your secrets."
- "Compare and despair."
- "You need a checkup from the neckup."
- "I am a human being, not a human doing."
- "Pee-wee Herman: There but for the grace of God go I."
- "It’s easier to put on slippers than to carpet the whole world."
- Al Franken, NNDB.com
- Al Franken interview: Stuart Smalley Born From Al-Anon Meetings
- New York Times: Stuart Saves His Family (1995)
- Franken In, Bunning Out: Senate as Second Act;... and an SNL comic show there's life after stardom
- Miami New Times: Al Franken Finally Wins, Karma Makes Up For 2000 Florida Election Fiasco
- Stuart Saves His Country: An interview with Al Franken and Stuart Smalley