He’s Not Joking

Al Franken’s political future—and maybe Democratic dominance of the Senate—depends on his ability to keep a (mostly) straight face between now and November.

Photograph by Steve Pyke

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Video: "He's Not Joking"

A retrospective of Al Franken's journey from Saturday Night Live performer to Democratic Senate hopeful

Late one Friday night in February, exactly one year to the day after embarking on an unlikely campaign for the U.S. Senate, Al Franken is lying on the floor of his Minneapolis townhouse, moaning. The detritus of a long evening is spread out around him: the video camera, lighting equipment, and MacBook used to create the funny fund-raising video he has just finished shooting. The entourage of disheveled, tech-savvy 20-somethings who staff his campaign are splayed across couches and chairs. There are piles of Franken for Senate buttons and bumper stickers, and a flattened pink box of Franken Berry breakfast cereal that was briefly considered as a prop but rejected, to Franken’s evident disappointment. He once did a skit on Saturday Night Live that involved his threatening to sue the makers of the monster-themed sugar cereal for appropriating his name and likeness. (Indeed, the Franken Berry monster bears a striking resemblance to the 56-year-old comedian: same wide face, broad goofy grin, and owlish eyes. Franken insists, furthermore, that the twin lumps atop the monster’s head are a virtual replica of his rear end.) But running for the Senate is serious business, so the monster had to go.

Until now, the evening has afforded Candidate Al the rare luxury of goofing off as Comedian Al. A practice run-through of the script’s “hard ask” for money prompted a raised hand and a query: “What’s my motivation?” Where the script encouraged viewers to grab a bumper sticker, Franken deadpanned, “Remember—if you put one on your car, don’t cut anyone off.” A brief debate ensued over whether buttons, too, should feature in the video, until Franken’s professional dignity asserted itself. “I don’t want this to be a prop act,” he protested, and added, with a grin, “I’m not Carrot Top.”

The video now in the can, Franken’s fun has ended. He is on the floor moaning because he’s dreading what comes next. Beneath the Franken Berry box lies a manila folder containing the biographies and phone numbers of dozens of local luminaries he must call or write before turning in for the night. This is the unglamorous, unfunny reality of running for public office that has consumed much of his past year—the endless series of bean feeds, spaghetti dinners, precinct meetings, obscure county fairs, and phone calls that constitute true political organizing. It’s why so many celebrities who muse about running for this or that rarely follow through. But tonight, as he does practically every night, Franken eventually picks himself up, plops himself down at the dining-room table, and reaches for the phone.

No candidate this year has attracted anything like the curiosity Al Franken has, because no one quite like him has ever seriously pursued high office. (Jesse Ventura, the pro wrestler elected governor of Minnesota 10 years ago, essentially ran on a lark.) His career as a satirist—as a writer and performer on Saturday Night Live, as the author of best-selling polemics like Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations, as the voice of the liberal radio network Air America—is famously outrageous, and promises to be both boon and burden to his political career. “When I first heard he was running,” says Lawrence Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota, “I thought it was a book project.” That’s a fair supposition. Franken wrote a satirical novel, Why Not Me?, in which he ran for president on a single-issue platform—eliminating ATM fees—and won.

But as reports of Franken’s doings began filtering in from around the state, Jacobs and other skeptics began to realize they were wrong. Over the past year, Franken has quietly built a grassroots organization that helped him raise more money than any other challenger in the country and erase what began as a 22-point deficit to the Republican incumbent, Norm Coleman. Franken was considered a long shot for his party’s nomination. But by January, he had not only pulled well ahead of his Democratic rivals but had nosed ahead of Coleman, too. Here’s the punch line: he did it not through his comedy but through old-fashioned shoe-leather politicking.

Coleman may be the Senate’s most vulnerable incumbent. He was narrowly elected in 2002 in a state that has since swung decidedly to the left. For many Democrats in Minnesota and across the country, the race has poignancy, because Coleman’s seat belonged to Paul Wellstone, a liberal icon who was killed in a plane crash a few weeks before the 2002 election. Franken and Wellstone were close friends, so along with the political factors, a powerful emotional element is at work.

Yet Franken was far from the establishment choice to challenge Coleman, and his success has caused consternation among some Democrats in Washington. (On the day he announced, the Republican state party distributed a press release highlighting his contention that “Republican politicians are shameless dicks.”) Franken’s comedic career has brought him fame and connections that are valuable: Hollywood has provided an important source of campaign money. But it has also produced a trove of controversial jokes and statements that Republicans assume will make him an easy target if, as expected, he wins the Democratic nomination on June 7. No matter what happens, Minnesota’s Senate race should be a spectacle like few others—with potentially important effects.

Franken’s significance to Democrats stems not just from the opportunity to gain a seat in the Senate. Minnesota is a crucial swing state in the presidential race, and its governor, Tim Pawlenty, is a likely choice to become John McCain’s running mate. So a strong Democratic Senate candidate is a necessary bulwark. If November’s elections are anything like the wave that swept Democrats into office in 2006, the party will stand not only to regain the presidency but also possibly to win a veto-proof majority in the Senate. For that to happen, however, it will almost certainly need to carry Minnesota. So for Democrats, an awful lot is riding on Al Franken and the open question of whether a funny guy can play the straight man.

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Joshua Green is an Atlantic senior editor.

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