'It Was Clearly Intended to Be Funny but Wasn't'

Al Franken’s apology—in response to the accusation that he groped a woman—deployed, in part, a "joke" defense often used to explain misbehavior.

Senator Al Franken (D-MN) watches the Supreme Court nominee judge Neil Gorsuch testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 21, 2017.
Joshua Roberts / Reuters

The picture the radio host Leeann Tweeden included with her story about Al Franken, U.S. Senator from Minnesota, kissing and groping her without her consent on a 2006 USO tour is straightforwardly damning. Tweeden, wearing a helmet and a flak jacket, sits sleeping on a plane during a 36-hour trip from Afghanistan to Los Angeles. Franken (at the time a radio-show host, famed for his years working on Saturday Night Live) looms over her, his arms outstretched, grabbing at her breasts, his faced turned and grinning at the camera. “I couldn’t believe it. He groped me, without my consent, while I was asleep,” Tweeden wrote. “I felt ... embarrassed. Belittled. Humiliated.”

Franken responded quickly with an initial statement on the matter. “As to the photo, it was clearly intended to be funny but wasn’t,” he said. “I shouldn’t have done it.” Before being elected to the Senate, Franken was best known as a comedian, and at the USO show he performed at with Tweeden, he wrote a sketch that Tweeden said was designed to get the two to kiss onstage. He insisted on “rehearsing” beforehand, and despite Tweeden’s protests, Franken forcibly kissed her anyway, she said. As in the case of the photo, Franken was using his comedy as a smokescreen, but beyond that, he’s now using it as cover for his apology. He can’t refute Tweeden’s report of groping, given the picture, but he’s insisting that “humor” adds some sort of valuable context to it.

I was just kidding is often a defense offered onstage by stand-up comedians who have, in some way, pushed past performance into something more threatening or upsetting. When Daniel Tosh heckled an audience member with a menacing monologue about how it’d be “funny” if she “got raped by, like, five guys right now,” he claimed afterwards that he was trying to weaponize the “awful things in the world” by making jokes about them. The joy of comedy, after all, is that you can make light of anything, right? But that defense falls flat when a “joke” is targeted to harass, degrade, or even assault a particular person or group—in such cases, “comedy” becomes an excuse to abuse an imbalanced power dynamic. Franken, with all his years in the comedy community, could lay claim to knowing what was funny and what wasn’t, and could plausibly pressure Tweeden into kissing him as a form of unnecessary “rehearsal.”

In a statement, Franken disagreed with her account without providing specifics, saying only, “I certainly don’t remember the rehearsal for the skit in the same way, but I send my sincerest apologies to Leeann.” Franken has been criticized for sexist humor (in a much less severe sense) when he first ran for Senate in 2008. Then, an article he wrote for Playboy in 2000 titled “Porn-o-Rama” came under fire for its explicit content (in it, he fantasized in explicit detail about visiting a fictional futuristic sex institute).

He was also critiqued for a series of rape jokes he made about the journalist Lesley Stahl that were reported in a 1995 New York magazine piece about Saturday Night Live. Suggesting lines for a sketch, Franken said at a script meeting: “And, ‘I give the pills to Lesley Stahl. Then, when Lesley’s passed out, I take her to the closet and rape her.’ Or, ‘That’s why you never see Lesley until February.’ Or, ‘When she passes out, I put her in various positions and take pictures of her.’” At first, Franken refused to apologize for what he considered “his job,” that is, writing humorous content. As he later recounted in his autobiography, he said he was sorry, but considered the apology a little white lie.

It was meant to be funny has been used as the defense for supposedly ironic racism that more often than not feels like button-pressing that’s meant to be emptily offensive. It’s been used to justify “telling it like it is” in ways that work to silence women. And, of course, it’s been used since time immemorial as cover for “goosing” (or whatever other euphemism you might think of) and grabbing people without their consent. Perhaps Franken’s defense could fall into this category—that he was mocking such casual sexism, that he was just pretending to be a thoughtless pig, perhaps for the benefit of giggling onlookers.

In practice, it’s hard to tell the difference. Franken has long positioned himself as a paragon of virtue in the comedy world, the long-married (42 years now) straight-arrow who worked at SNL at the height of its debauchery and never thought of straying from his marriage. The picture Tweeden provided flies in the face of all that. Would Franken claim he was mocking his own penchant for creepiness? As with so many “jokes” about this kind of behavior, it seems there’s no daylight between mockery and the real thing.

Shortly after the revelations broke, Franken offered a second, longer statement that was more contrite but didn’t break from his underlying defense. “I don’t know what was in my head when I took that picture, and it doesn’t matter,” he said. “There’s no excuse. I look at it now and I feel disgusted with myself. … Coming from the world of comedy, I’ve told and written a lot of jokes that I once thought were funny but later came to realize were just plain offensive. But the intentions behind my actions aren’t the point at all.”

Regarding his intentions, he’s right—one’s mindset when making a joke is not a catch-all defense if it harms or offends. But even as he more directly reckons with his actions, Franken is still failing to distinguish between writing a bad joke and the physical forms of assault he’s accused of here. It was meant to be funny is a flimsy excuse at the best of times. Here, it feels like nothing less than delusion.