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Starring Al Franken (as Himself)

Can a comic turned candidate convince voters he's ready for prime time?

Starring Al Franken (as Himself)
Photo by Mike McGregor

(page 1 of 3)

THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE a campaign stop. But there are no babies to be kissed, no Marines to salute. No brass bands. No American flags. Only beakers, petri dishes, and scientists packed into a classroom at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. In other words: nerd central.

¶ At a long lab table, Al Franken sits up, straight as a slide rule, as a couple dozen graduate students present their research on alternatives to fossil fuels. He has two pens in his shirt pocket and a third he uses to take voluminous notes. He asks thoughtful, pointed questions, like those students everyone hated back in college. Mostly, he listens. He is—in a word rarely used to describe politicians or Al Franken—quiet. ¶ This is a former comedian, after all (or satirist, as he likes to say). A man who once wore a satellite dish on his head; who impersonated former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to his face; who gave the finger to U.S. troops in Iraq while dressed as Saddam Hussein (they appeared to love it); who once described Senator Norm Coleman, long before either man had reason to believe they’d be facing off on the November ballot, as President George W. Bush’s “butt boy.”

Sure, he cracks a few jokes at the U event (“So what you’re saying is,” he asks in mock surprise, “don’t give billions in tax subsidies to oil companies, but put that money into research?”), but mostly he sounds like a junior professor—like he’s gunning for tenure, not office. As the meeting comes to a close, instead of offering some cutting remarks, instead of slicing up his ideological foes with satire the way he once did in the vituperative books and speeches that arguably catapulted him here—into the most remarkable Senate race in the nation—he asks, with apparently genuine interest, if he could be sent a copy of everyone’s PowerPoint presentations.

“I’m running for office,” Franken says by way of greeting these days, shaking hands and slapping backs on the campaign trail. “I used to be in show business.” It’s meant to clarify: That was then, this is now.

But who is Al Franken now? It’s been 13 years since he left Saturday Night Live. About a dozen since his best-selling Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot instantly endeared him to Democrats. Nearly three since he and his wife, Franni, returned to his home state from New York and began exploring a run against Coleman. Three years of potlucks, spaghetti feeds, and small-town party meetings, where, by all accounts, he won over the right people and navigated the arcane Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party nomination process to become their anointed Senate candidate last month.

He probably couldn’t have picked a better year to run against Coleman, a career politician who will face the prospect of being associated with an unpopular president presiding over an unpopular war amid a terrible economy. But having never served in public office, Franken has had to explain himself solely through his less-than-common life experiences. It’s a challenge that is hardly unprecedented in politics, of course. Everyone from Ronald Reagan to Arnold Schwarzenegger has had to overcome similar obstacles. Yet it’s a task that can be particularly tricky in this state. “To run as a celebrity in Minnesota, you have to thread a needle,” says Bill Hillsman, who created the political ads that boosted Paul Wellstone and Jesse Ventura to victory. “People get tired of you, they don’t want you to be too big. If you’re too big for your britches, then Minnesotans like to take you down a peg.” Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College, agrees: “It’s a balancing act for Franken. He can’t appear to be on Qualludes or something, nor can he let it all fly.”

But it can be done, says Schier. After all, Minnesotans have already voted for such nontraditional candidates as Wellstone and Ventura (though it should be noted that Jesse, in a three way race, won office with 37 percent of the vote). Voters are no less likely to favor a former funnyman like Franken. It just depends on how he pitches himself. “People here are willing to accept eccentricity—Ventura and Wellstone had their share of eccentricities—so long as the candidate isn’t being fake, isn’t playing games with them,” says Schier. “That’s the challenge for Al Franken. The real Al Franken has to become apparent to Minnesotans in a way that they approve.”

It’s a challenge Franken still seems to be struggling with. As he tries to define himself with voters, does he play up his sense of humor, or play it down? Does he reveal, as at the U of M event, his inner geek? Or does he try to live up to the smart alek persona people expect?

Whether he can win in November may well depend on how astutely he draws these lines: between his past and present, between his public and private selves. Can he work within the system while inspiring the same fervor he did as one of its most compelling critics? Can he convince voters to take him seriously without being funny? Can he win, in other words, by being Al Franken—only a little less so?

At the Ramada in Albert Lea, local Democrats are gathering for their county convention, some suited up, others in overalls and hunting jackets. They set out homemade cookies, slap on stickers supporting their favorite candidate, and greet each other like the familiar faces they are. “Is Lonesome Bob in the room?” the emcee asks at one point, tracking down a delegate (he is). It’s been a rough year for the region, with factory jobs fleeing, local boys bogged down in Iraq, and a sinking sense that the Bush administration couldn’t care less. Many of the most upset folks seem to be Franken supporters.

“This town is totally hopeless,” says a large, garrulous man in a jean jacket and goatee. “Lot of people don’t have the cha-ching.” He lost a good-paying job at a local plant and now sells furniture at Slumberland. Coleman, he says, is a “Bush lap-dog—just the mention of his name gets my blood boiling.” Franken, he says, seems unlikely to sell out, more likely to speak out. “It makes your eyes mist, makes you proud of your country.”

“You gotta be making noise,” says a fellow Franken supporter, “get some feathers ruffled.” Adds her friend: “There are two kinds of people in America today: those who are full of hope and those who are full of fear.” Franken, these women believe, fears nothing.

Franken arrives, hugs the intern handing out his campaign material, and strides to the podium. At 57, he looks less like Stuart Smalley, the hapless self-help guru he played on SNL, and more like one of Smalley’s better pupils: confident and a bit barrel-like, his arms swinging at his sides.

He’s introduced with a pun bad enough to make even a non-comic wince: “I’d like to think his name stands for Albert Lea Franken,” the emcee says. Franken—though his name is actually Alan—is gracious. Albert Lea, after all, is a sort of hometown for him. He moved here from the New York City area, he reminds the crowd, with his parents and older brother, Owen, when he was 4. His father opened a quilting factory here. Two years later, the business failed and the family moved to the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park, where his father, who had never graduated from high school, found work as a printing salesman and his mother became a real-estate agent. When Franken recounts this slice of family history, it’s a strategic move—countering the carpetbagger notion by laying his middle-class Minnesota cards on the table—yet also so straightforward that you wonder if he’ll slyly turn toward a camera and bellow, “Live from New York!”

But soon the old acid leaks out. “I wrote a book called Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot,” he says, spitting out fat like a hunk of gristle. “I’m not afraid of Bush,” he declares, “I’m not even afraid of Dick Cheney.” (Yeah, but you didn’t go hunting with him, someone shouts.) “And I’m sure the hell not afraid of Norm Coleman.” In an era when most candidates are loathe to even mention their opponent by name, it’s a reminder that politics is personal to Franken—these are real people deciding our fate—which hardly seems revelatory until you realize how few other politicians actually talk like this.

Franken’s pitch is appealingly simple: get the bad guys out, get the good guy in, and things will inevitably improve. “It amazes me that a man can be in his fifties and have such idealism,” former Nixon speechwriter Ben Stein, whom Franken debated a few years back, once said. This almost child-like forthrightness, however, is driven by deeper desires, says Katherine Lanpher, Franken’s former radio co-host: “He really, truly burns with this fever to make the world a better place.”

Franken’s opponents say his style is too simple, too personal. “It’s hard to see how somebody who seems to detest the people who disagree with him will work with them [in Washington],” says Ron Carey, chair of the Republican Party of Minnesota. But for many Democrats, such directness is the essence of Franken’s promise and appeal. What if all it took was someone unimpressed by business as usual and unimpaired by politeness? What if it really was that easy?

In 1957, the Soviets sent the first satellite into space, but they might as well have been aiming it straight at 6-year-old Al Franken for all the impact it had on him. “We were Sputnik kids,” Franken says of his brother and himself, science and math nuts in the era of Erector Sets and chemistry kits. Joe and Phoebe Franken encouraged their boys’ academic interests, and though Owen went to public school, it was decided that if the family could swing it, they would send Al to the elite Blake School in Hopkins, where his talents could be more closely cultivated. Owen wound up attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Al, too, might have become a mathematician, a chemist, or an astronaut if he hadn’t found the world, even as a child, so pathetically hilarious.

As a second-grader, Franken couldn’t stomach the cutesy “I’m a little teapot” show that his female classmates staged, and organized some boys to satirize it in a sketch of their own—his first parody—which left the girls in tears. Franken had absorbed the humor his father loved, all the classic Jewish comedians of the era on television: Jack Benny, Henny Youngman, Buddy Hackett. Until recently, Franken would tell one of Hackett’s jokes at rallies, parties, even on A Prairie Home Companion, despite the punch line involving a certain male organ. (In the Franken documentary God Spoke, he appears surprised when he’s advised to lay off the joke if he runs for office.) In his stump speeches now, he often channels Youngman with this line: “We’ve been married 32 years,” he says of his wife, Franni, “many of them happy.”

Franken’s father also endowed Al with his political instincts. Joe Franken had been a staunch Republican, right through Roosevelt and Kennedy—until 1964, when the Republican presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater, opposed the Civil Rights Act. A card-carrying member of the NAACP, the elder Franken told Al that no Jew could ever stomach such a stance.

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