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.

Minnesota’s Democratic nominee will eventually be decided at the state convention after a rolling series of caucuses much like the presidential caucuses in Iowa—only infinitely more complicated and dragged out across many months. Our two-car caravan pressed onward to Isanti County, an hour north of Minneapolis, hoping to arrive in time to participate in this curious ritual.

The crowd in the community center for what officially was a “walking sub-caucus” couldn’t have looked more different from the one we’d just left. About 200 residents, most of them working-class and many of them elderly, mingled with the three candidates and their staffs in a giant scrum. Franken’s long days on the trail have helped him with this audience. He has won the endorsement of 13 labor unions, from the United Auto Workers to the teachers’ union. Franken pinballed from voter to voter, trying to make the sell. The precinct captain announced that voters had 10 minutes to assemble themselves behind a candidate. Then he would “freeze the floor,” as in a game of musical chairs, and record the tally. Campaign staffers tore around the room herding and enticing supporters, occasionally leaping up on chairs and looking around for a quick count in a way that made them resemble prairie dogs.

If Franken employs a campaign worker who looks old enough to have gone through this process before, I didn’t meet one. But some of his staffers, anticipating the confusion the caucus process creates, had made a step-by-step instructional video on how to caucus and posted it on YouTube for both young voters and other volunteers. The lessons seemed to pay off. Franken won an easy plurality and walked away with the most pledged delegates—another small step closer to the nomination. As the sun began to set, Gums pulled the SUV around and we all set off on a celebratory quest for Franken’s favorite dessert, raspberry pie.

Franken has become a good enough campaigner that it’s easy to lose sight of just how audacious a move he’s trying to make. A little more than a year ago, he was playing radio characters like “Liam the Loose-Boweled Leprechaun”; a year hence, he could be a sitting U.S. senator. It’s enough to make Bill O’Reilly’s head explode. But Franken doesn’t see it this way. “A satirist looks at a situation and sees the inconsistencies and hypocrisies, and he cuts through the baloney and gets to the truth,” he often says when confronted by skeptics. “I think that’s pretty good training for the Senate, don’t you?”

After pie in a roadside restaurant, we talked about his political aspirations. It became clear that what most of mankind views as a giant leap Franken regards as a small step, the logical progression of his life’s work. His political activism has long coexisted with his comedy career, at times uneasily. He was raised in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park by a moderate-Republican father who was a card-carrying member of the NAACP. Franken says he got interested in politics at age 12 or 13, during the civil-rights movement. “We’d watch the news after dinner,” he told me, “and my dad would point to the TV when they were putting hoses on demonstrators in the South, and he’d say, ‘That’s wrong. No Jew can be for that.’” When Barry Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act, Franken’s father became a Democrat.

Al Franken, too, became a Democrat, though one whose defining experiences came a bit later. “When I started doing satire in high school, a lot of it was about Vietnam and Nixon,” he said. His first big success at Saturday Night Live was a Nixon’s-final-days sketch during the show’s inaugural season. (Franken’s fixation remains intact: a “Nixon bathroom” in his Minneapolis townhouse is covered with Nixon memorabilia, including a letter to Franken declining an invitation to appear on Saturday Night Live.)

Though he says he has always been engaged, Franken’s political activism was not nearly as visible then as it is now. “At SNL we never felt like we had a political ax to grind,” he said. “We felt the show shouldn’t have just one political viewpoint.” He jumped from satirizing politics to participating in it when he stumped for Wellstone’s first Senate race, in 1990. Franken does modify his humor when the occasion demands it: his lines on the campaign trail and for the troops on USO tours generally lack the political barbs he’s famous for (“I’ve had five MREs so far, and none of them has developed an exit strategy”). But he is far better-known for his outspokenness.

Franken’s departure from SNL, in 1995, coincided with the Republican ascendance in Washington. He recalls taking tremendous offense at the effort to unwind the social safety net that had rescued his wife’s family, among others, and he found an outlet in book writing. “I was trying to take on these guys, and no one else was doing it.”

One oddity about Franken is that he views the form of his involvement in politics—satire—as almost incidental to the fact that he is so involved, and believes that the importance of his best-selling books is not that they made him more rich and famous but that they sounded a clarion at a time when the Democratic Party was foundering. “I think a large part of being a leader is speaking out,” he told me, “and I think I have a way of framing and talking about things that is persuasive and makes people understand them and the stakes. So when I talk about this new progressive movement, I see myself as having been one of the leaders of this for quite a while with my books, with my radio show, and now as a candidate. Being someone who’s out front leading the charge is something I’ve been doing for a long time.”

This is not a widely held view of Franken. I think the uneasy dissonance that often seems to surround him in the media and even on the campaign trail stems from the fact that most people, especially reporters, know him purely through his comedy, and are not always prepared to recognize the man in full. The bleeding-heart sincerity and conviction that can move him to tears on the campaign trail when he is speaking about wounded soldiers or ailing citizens are unexpected attributes (and therefore hard to process) in a comedian—especially one who delights in silliness as much as Franken does.

In the past, this sincerity has often taken the form of aggressive, and occasionally reckless, behavior. At the 2003 BookExpo America convention in Los Angeles, Franken appeared on a panel with Bill O’Reilly to promote his book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, whose cover art included O’Reilly’s angry mug. Franken hijacked the discussion and turned it into a brutally personal attack on O’Reilly that was broadcast nationally on C-SPAN. The unexpectedness of the assault (at a book fair!), and Franken’s sheer ferocity, were unsettling. The following year, he went further. At a rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, on the eve of the Democratic primary, a heckler disrupted Howard Dean. Franken, a former high-school wrestler, was standing nearby and took matters into his own hands, lunging at the man and pulling him down by the knees in front of a startled national press corps. Rather than let it go, Franken engaged in prolonged bickering with several right-leaning media outlets over how the incident was portrayed.

Like the O’Reilly showdown, disposing of the heckler amplified Franken’s political celebrity by another order of magnitude and cemented his status as a hero to the disaffected left. For many Minnesotans I spoke with on the campaign trail, this remains a large part of his appeal. But if he wins the Democratic nomination, his short fuse will become a liability. It is already shaping up to be the Republicans’ main line of attack.

Franken professes to understand this. “The first day I announced, they had a press conference calling me angry,” he told me. “It hasn’t changed much: angry, negative, name-calling, that I’m a Hollywood elitist. And then there’s just a lot of taking my jokes out of context and putting them through the ‘de-humorizer.’ It’s a machine they’ve developed.” He lets out a big laugh.

But the matter is far from settled. “There are some pretty interesting questions about the nature of the fit,” Lawrence Jacobs, the University of Minnesota professor, says. “He has a way about him that’s kind of brash and slightly out of control. You can say that Ventura and Wellstone had that makeup in certain respects. But it was less about them personally, and they were able to project that as a political message. With Franken, a lot of that brashness, it’s almost as if he needs to be the center of attention.”

And, of course, he always has been. The common thread running through Franken’s various career incarnations—comedian, author, radio personality—is that each has rewarded the impulsive, unbridled responses that are his signature talent. He is funny, smart, and quick-witted, and probably would not have succeeded to the degree he has if he possessed the instinctive caution and self-control that all good politicians eventually must develop.

If Franken makes it to the Senate, he’ll likely inherit the role that once belonged to his friend Paul Wellstone: the outspoken conscience of his party, who keeps pushing even when everybody else wants to give up. It’s a role he’s been prepping for all his life. But first he’ll have to pass a big audition—one that’s a bit of a cosmic joke. Even if Franken’s outrageous antics and heartfelt activist passion have gotten him this far, his fate in November very likely rests on whether, in the face of inevitable attacks, he can contain them.

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Joshua Green is an Atlantic senior editor.

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