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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

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At Blake, Franken combined his political and comic interests in theatrical collaborations with his friend Tom Davis, creating such satirical songs as a mock Ku Klux Klan march called Superpatrioticanticatholicsegregatious (“Even though we’re idiots, we claim to be sagacious”). Franken’s mom eventually brought the boys to Dudley Riggs’s Brave New Workshop, the sketch-comedy theater in Minneapolis, and had them informally audition with skits and a home movie featuring Davis as Superman.

Riggs was among the progenitors of improvisational comedy and his space was among the area’s first bohemian coffee shops, drawing beatniks and other countercultural types. Police occasionally raided the joint. The theater was still controversial when Franken and Davis arrived in the late 1960s. “Anytime we opened a show with anything political in it, we got a brick through the window, so the windows kept getting smaller and smaller,” says Riggs. Franken, sporting a ferocious wit and a Jim Morrison–like mop of hair, seemed right at home.

Though he headed to Harvard University on a scholarship in 1969, Franken returned home on breaks to perform with Davis at the BNW, and Riggs soon arranged college tours. It was on one such tour that the duo lingered in Los Angeles, crashing at the apartment of Pat Proft, a fellow Workshop alum who went on to co-write the Naked Gun films. Proft remembers an evening stroll with Franken through a down-and-out L.A. neighborhood and encountering a guy walking “about five Doberman pinschers. They were rough, these dogs. And Al whispered, ‘Let’s attack him.’ We laughed so hard. He’s fearless.”

Franken had graduated cum laude in social relations and behavioral sciences by then—though an aptitude test suggested a career in camp counseling or jazz (despite the fact that he doesn’t play an instrument). “I said that’s pretty much pointing to comedy,” Franken jokes. He and Davis were performing at the fledgling Comedy Store club in L.A., about to give up and continue the tour Riggs had arranged, when Lorne Michaels called them to New York—on the basis of others’ recommendations—to become writers on a new show: Saturday Night Live. They were the only cast writers Michaels hadn’t personally met—and the youngest.

Franken made his name in comedy thanks to SNL, winning five Emmys for television writing and producing. But in many ways, he has remained that Sputnik kid, a stout believer in American ingenuity, in our ability to conquer space, the Soviets, and any other barrier through brains and willpower. “We’re a country that responded to Sputnik with science,” he says, “and when we responded we came up with all this good stuff—transistors, hard plastics….” He trails off, lost in a mixture of memory and indignation. James Norton, a producer with The Al Franken Show on Air America, says the nostalgia fuels Franken’s politics: “He’s really angry and passionate about what happened to the America he loves.”

At Saturday Night Live, Franken was no Will Ferrell, running around in short shorts or going for the cheap laugh, even if he did once appear in his skivvies and a Mr. Arkansas sash (he still had his wrestler’s build then). His comedy was gentler and more directed—Stuart Smalley was both lovable and a caricature of the self-help craze. Over time, though, as the Republican right became the dominant wing of the party, he became more political and more devastated. It wasn’t Republicans in general that Franken minded—he wrote many of his political sketches with Jim Downey, a comedy writer he’s described as conservative but “not a knee-jerk conservative.... We kept each other honest.” It was the religious right that troubled Franken, and his shift from satire to politics corresponded, not coincidentally, with the remarkable rise of social conservatives in the ’80s and ’90s. He created a Pat Robertson impersonation portraying the Christian Coalition founder as an irreverent hypocrite, and he soon came to covet the anchor role of the Weekend Update segment, where he would have been able to comment on current events. In 1995, having been passed over for the job—his NBC bosses had judged that his comedy had become too political—Franken left the show.

Around the same time, the so-called Republican Revolution had swept dozens of conservatives into Congress, but something about their ascent looked funny to Franken—not ha-ha funny, Watergate funny. Franken, then as now, was convinced that most Americans hadn’t suddenly and dramatically lurched rightward. Instead, he came to believe that conservatives had been laying the groundwork—by playing up divisive issues and twisting the facts—to assert their agenda ever since Goldwater’s fateful loss in 1964. “Al is exceptionally astute at seeing inconsistencies in political policy and the like,” says his old mentor, Dudley Riggs. “If he succeeds in the Senate, it’s first of all because he’s very smart. But he’s also able to see through the bullshit pretty well.”

Franken zeroed in on those he considered to be media apologists for the right. In Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, he stripped the plus-size pants off the radio ranter to reveal multiple marriages, a former reliance on government handouts, and other hypocrisies behind the right’s “family values” platform. He used the sort of in-your-face language that matched what he saw as the right’s scurrilousness. The book was a huge success, and Franken became a hero to legions of demoralized Democrats.

Even after the Limbaugh book, Franken was better known for his comedy than as a political figure. But in 2002, he was pulled back into politics by the death of his friend Paul Wellstone. Or rather, he was pulled in by the reaction of conservative pundits who promoted the idea that the raucous memorial service held for the senator and other victims of his plane crash was staged to rally Democrats. Then, just a few months into his term, Coleman, who may have benefited at the polls from the memorial backlash, said he was “a 99 percent improvement over Paul Wellstone.”

That was the turning point for Franken. Over the next three years, he would write two more exposés, host the marquee show of the new left-leaning Air America radio network, and return to Minnesota to explore a run against Coleman. “He saw the fact that the [backlash] was a part of Coleman’s victory as an example of why the truth matters,” says Ben Wikler, a former member of Team Franken, the Harvard University students who, in 2003, helped Franken research his book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. “It was personal to Al, a blow against how he thinks politics should be done.”

“I’ve never been in a physical fight,” says Franken. “But my dad did say, ‘If you stand up to bullies they usually back down.’” Franken pushed back relentlessly the way he knew best—through satire—bolstering those who felt, as he did, that the post–September 11 political dialogue had been hijacked by Republicans. “The year 2003 was kind of a dark time for many progressives,” says Jeff Blodgett, executive director of the Wellstone Action political-training organization. “Franken came along at a time when a lot of people were lying on the floor curled up in the fetal position. He helped pick people up and dust them off and get them focused on creating change.”

Franken’s critics, however, say his results hardly justified his means, accusing him of employing the same factual selectivity in making his points as those he criticizes. Franken, for instance, rebutted the notion of a liberal bias in the media with a study finding that Al Gore was negatively portrayed more often than Bush during the 2000 presidential race, but the study covered only the debates, before and after which Gore fared better, claims Alan Skorski, a conservative political media consultant in Washington and author of Pants on Fire: How Al Franken Lies, Smears and Deceives. Franken also defended Bill Clinton’s record on fighting terror, Skorski says, with selective information from news articles that, in general, condemned Clinton’s response.

Franken’s former researchers for his books and radio show, however, claim their boss was scrupulous to a fault. “Al was extremely academic, into facts and figures, sometimes to the detriment of the entertainment,” says Norton of the radio show. “It sometimes sounded like shock-jock radio—but with the facts checked. He’d want to know where the numbers came from. ‘Don’t tell me what I want to hear to win an argument,’ he’d say.”

His critics have had more success making an issue of his temper, suggesting that Franken has occasionally blurred the line between righteous anger and just plain anger. In retrospect, 2003 to 2005 might now be called Franken’s angry years, punctuated by blistering confrontations with FOX News host Bill O’Reilly, columnist Ann Coulter, and other right-wing propagators—who arguably were asking for it—along with moments of pure rage. “I’ve witnessed his temper,” says Skorski. Once, at a convention for conservative activists, right-wing radio-show host Michael Medved was supposed to interview Franken. When Franken learned that Medved had invited John O’Neill—leader of the Swift Boat veterans’ campaign against John Kerry and a “disgrace,” according to Franken—to join them for an impromptu debate, Franken knocked over his chair and “went ballistic,” Skorski says. “He apologized, but he does get angry.”

Norton allows that Franken would occasionally boil over in the office: “Al has sometimes blown his stack, particularly at stupidity.” But “his anger never got in the way of getting the job done. It was a non-issue.” Wikler says, “There’s a certain kind of pundit or politician who views it all as a game, as tactics—Al doesn’t have much patience for that. I think it’s an asset: He’s a very sweet guy, but somebody who doesn’t see it as a game. He takes this stuff personally.”

Franken admits that he can lose his temper, but says his anger has been very specifically directed. “I’ll plead guilty to being angry at people who don’t support our troops, for instance,” by claiming that criticism of the way the war has been conducted is unpatriotic. “And I don’t just get angry—I try to do something about it.” He recounts how he used his radio show to push for helmet liners, reducing the chances of brain trauma for soldiers. “Coleman says such criticism is bringing down troop morale. My response is: ‘Get proper helmet liners!’ And yeah, I get mad about that.”

Franken comes by his reactions honestly, says his brother, Owen, a photographer now living in Paris. “He gets teary-eyed emotional about these things, and he gets really angry and he has to watch that. He does yell at people, and I think he’s getting better about that. Wellstone got angry about things. It comes from the heart, really.”

Franken’s irritation sometimes leads him to take unusually direct action. In 2003, for example, he gathered top journalists from the New York Times, the New Yorker, and other publications at his Manhattan home for a meet-and-greet with John Kerry because he felt the presidential candidate would come across better in a smaller setting. And in 2004, Franken subdued a heckler at a Howard Dean rally by tackling the guy’s legs (“That was, like, really dumb,” he said later).

Those who know Franken aren’t surprised at all by such straightforward responses. Courtesy, pride, propriety—Franken has occasionally pushed these aside when they precluded what he felt needed to be done. “When no one else was going to do anything about something,” says Owen of his brother, “he’d decide that he would.”

 

The Franken townhouse, in downtown Minneapolis, is as much of a staging ground as living quarters these days, with laptops lining the dining-room table and campaign staff readying the candidate like a pit crew. “Wheels up in five minutes,” Franken is warned—time to head to another campaign stop. Franni, in her ubiquitous Twins shirt, lays out his suit. The couple met at a Harvard mixer, and their first 13 dates “were disastrous,” Franni says, only half-kidding, a series of bad movies and ill-conceived outings. Yet they’ve been a tight team ever since. Before Franken ended his radio show, on the day he announced his candidacy in early 2007, Franni kept tabs—file folders, actually—on the most conservative media personalities; she still listens to Limbaugh to stay abreast of his viewpoints. Raised by her father on Social Security survivor’s benefits and G.I. loans, the story of her childhood is a staple of Franken’s stump speech, having reinforced his belief in government’s role as an advocate for those who need one.

The living room offers little indication of Franken’s previous career. The walls are filled with family photos (their Harvard-grad daughter, Thomasin, a former teacher in the Bronx, now works on the campaign; their son, Joe, recently graduated from Princeton University with a degree in mechanical engineering), and the bookshelves are stocked with political and history tomes. “He’s obsessed with information,” says Norton. Wikler describes Franken in his radio years as an inveterate newshound: “Al was getting four or five newspapers a day, he’d carry [news articles] in his wallet he wanted to show you.”


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