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.

The next morning, I returned to the townhouse to meet Franken for a day on the campaign trail. Out front waiting for me was his campaign manager, Andy Barr, a 24-year-old who began researching and writing for him as a Harvard undergraduate, and his driver, Brian Heenan, a student volunteer Franken has nicknamed “Gums” for reasons no one can quite remember. Barr went upstairs to rouse the candidate, leaving Gums and me to browse the pictures of Franken’s two grown kids, Joe and Thomasin, and the hundreds of political and history titles crammed onto bookshelves and stacked in piles throughout the unprepossessing house. Franken is thought of almost exclusively as a comedian and satirist, but he is a ferocious policy wonk as well. (He is good friends with Norm Ornstein, a professionally certified wonk at the American Enterprise Institute.) The O’Franken Factor, the Air America show he left to run for the Senate, was known for its high-spirited skewering of Republicans. But amid the Bush-bashing and O’Reilly-baiting, it often featured serious authors and experts on everything from Iraq to Social Security to Medicare.

“Gums!” Franken exclaimed when he bounded down the stairs a little while later. “You’re wearing a tie. You’re the best-dressed campaign worker I’ve ever seen.” Gums accepted the ribbing with the pleased, awkward smile I came to recognize as part of a running dialogue between the two.

After a rundown of the day’s schedule and a short game of find-Al’s-missing-cell-phone, Team Franken piled into the campaign’s hybrid SUV and left me to retrieve my rental car. To project a more senatorial air, Franken is trying hard to watch what he says, and his staff has placed him in a kind of protective custody: journalists are not allowed to ride along, as is standard campaign practice, lest they overhear and report an undignified remark. So I spent most of my day chasing Gums across Minnesota.

Our first stop was the St. Paul headquarters of Acorn, an advocacy group for low- and moderate-income families, where a handful of volunteers, reporters, and the three Democratic Senate hopefuls were squeezed into the tiny walk-up offices for what was billed as a press conference. Franken’s rivals were Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, a tall, retiring professor from nearby University of St. Thomas, and Mike Ciresi, a small, dapper, and very rich partner in a large Minneapolis law firm (who dropped out of the race several weeks later). The candidates were invited to deliver short speeches. Franken got right to the point about what he wants to do in Washington: help bring about universal health care, climate-change legislation, “energy independence,” and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Though his rivals delivered similar party-line remarks, it didn’t take long to see why he tends to outshine them. A practiced improviser, Franken spotted an official from the Children’s Defense Fund. “I notice you’re not using your old slogan, ‘Leave No Child Behind,’” he said, drawing chuckles. “Maybe that’s been besmirched in some way?” Before long, the center of gravity in the room had shifted palpably toward Franken.

Much of the energy behind Franken’s campaign comes from his broad and enthusiastic support among young voters. We arrived next at the Minnesota Young DFL convention, an annual gathering of the state’s young Democrats (the state party is known as the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party) being held in a giant union hall on the outskirts of St. Paul, which was to culminate in a straw poll. (Franken won easily.) If Franken was not exactly mobbed by well-wishers when he walked in the door, that was because so many of the state’s young Democrats had already met him, and many were volunteering for the campaign. Instead he was greeted by a steady stream of college students, in pairs or small groups, many of whom he knew by name. When his turn came to address the audience, Franken jogged to the front of the room, took the microphone, and began by quoting Wellstone: “The future belongs to those who are passionate and work hard.”

Franken’s speeches typically combine three elements: knocking Bush and Coleman, reciting the standard Democratic litany, and attempting to inspire a movement. “Many of you were 11 years old when George Bush was elected,” he told the crowd. “You don’t remember having a president who was articulate or that the federal government can actually work with. You don’t remember when America was respected in the world.” This drew laughter and cheering, though Franken did not look like he was joking. He spoke about his wife of 32 years, Franni, and how after her father died, when she was an infant, her mother worked and also relied on Social Security and Pell grants to raise and educate five children. “Conservatives always talk about pulling yourself up by the bootstraps,” he said. “Well, first you need the boots. I think the government’s job is to give people the boots.” He segued into the need for universal health care, energy independence, and withdrawal from Iraq, and then pivoted, importuning the crowd to rise up and join him, using language drawn from other recent insurgents including Barack Obama and Howard Dean: “This is an amazing time, this is our time, and we can do it. We’re a people-powered machine. This is gonna be a fun race. We’re going to take Norm Coleman down. I will beat him … We are building a movement, and we’re going to change America.”

Though his talk of change and building a movement echoes Obama’s, Franken’s appeal is altogether different. He doesn’t seek to unite Republicans and Democrats, as Obama does, but rather to draw sharp contrasts, as Dean did, in a style of chesty confrontation. I watched the speech with a young Navy officer and Iraq veteran named Tim Wellman Jr., who was wearing the military equivalent of a letterman’s jacket, embroidered with his dates of service and where he’d deployed, with a couple of Franken stickers slapped on. Though it doesn’t get nearly the attention his political activism does, Franken was participating in USO tours long before it was fashionable among Democrats, and has kept it up with trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, despite his opposition to the war (though he did not initially oppose it). I asked Wellman what drew him to Franken. “He brings a clear vision of right and wrong,” he said. “He’s been very strong about confronting Republicans on their own issues, like strength and war.” Other Democrats in the audience said much the same thing.

Among other things, the 2008 election will test Franken’s political worldview—and that view, if it proves to be correct, could sweep him and many other Democrats into office. Toward the back of the room, looking slightly older than the rest of the crowd, Brian Melendez, the state Democratic chairman, was abuzz about the Minnesota presidential caucuses that had taken place a week earlier. He outlined their importance to the fall election. “The largest turnout we’ve ever had in a Democratic caucus,” he told me, “was about 75,000 or 80,000 people in 1968, when two home-state favorites, Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy, were on the ballot. Last week, we had 213,000 people turn out, and the Republicans had about 70,000.” A similar turnout in November would certainly bode well for Franken.

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.