When the former "Saturday Night Live" writer and cast member Al Franken disclosed his plans to run for the US Senate in 2007, he had already been advised to check his humor at the door. Throughout his bitterly contested race against Minnesota incumbent Norm Coleman, Franken, as he put it, sacrificed The Funny.
On election night in 2008, Coleman, a Republican, led by 215 votes. Franken contested the results. After two months of recounts and six months of legal challenges, Franken won by 312 votes out of 2.9 million ballots cast.
With that, the Democrat best known for playing the cloying self-help guru Stuart Smalley became a United States Senator. He won a second term in 2014 by capturing 54 percent of the vote.
And as for the long-lost character trait Franken refers to as The Funny? It’s back at full strength in Giant of the Senate, a memoir of the comedian’s rise to "SNL" and his later, unexpected move into politics. The joke starts on the jacket, where Franken reclines in dapper portrait form, resting a hand on a globe with a roaring fire and regal book-strewn mantle in the background. Political obsessives will also get a chuckle from the title, a winking riff on LBJ biographer Robert Caro’s “Master of the Senate.”
In the first chapter of “Giant of the Senate,” he proclaims, “I was born in the house I built myself with my own two hands.” Next paragraph: “I’m sorry. That’s not true. I got that from my official Senate website. We really should change that.”
It may surprise some to learn that Franken and George W. Bush shared a warm exchange after Bush left office.
During a recent interview with The Monitor, Franken discussed why it's important to make friends across the aisle, his recent decision to break a date with Bill Maher’s HBO show, why he admires Barack Obama despite getting no campaign help from him. Following are excerpts.
On the “Sophistry” chapter describing his relations with Republican colleagues.
I wrote the chapter to kind of talk about [his "toxic relationship" with fellow senator and Texas Republican Ted Cruz as] the exception to the rule. And the rule is that colleagues really make an attempt to get along with each other. That’s really the only way to get things done, certain basic things. Your word has to be good.... I ... talk about making my friends with my other colleagues, other Republican colleagues and getting legislation done.
Bonding over odd things. Pat Roberts [a Republican from Kansas] is a big Jack Benny fan. Orrin Hatch [a Utah Republican] and I wrote a country song together. The basic thing is you’ve got to sort of be straight with each other.
On his assertions in the book about not apologizing for comedy bits while canceling an appearance on Bill Maher’s “Real Time” after Maher used a racial slur in a joke:
Well, people in Minnesota were really bothered by [Maher's language] and I took that into consideration. And what he said was just unacceptable.
I think they got a professor [Georgetown University’s Michael Eric Dyson, a prominent writer and commentator on racial issues] – I would have been the first person on the show [since Maher made his offensive joke on June 2; Dyson appeared June 9 in Franken’s place.]
That’s a better way to start the show.
On what he thinks of journalist Masha Gessen saying Democrats have become excessive in their embrace of conspiracy theories regarding Trump and Russia:
I think that people should be very careful. We have a special prosecutor now and he’s a special prosecutor that everyone trusts [former FBI director Robert Mueller] on both sides of the aisle. [They] trust not only his integrity, but his ability to do this job. And I think we have to go where the facts take us.
Looking at the way the Trump administration – the president himself, but also [former national security adviser Michael] Flynn, the attorney general [Jeff Sessions], and the president’s son-in-law [Jared Kushner] – have acted, they don’t seem to have acted like people who have nothing to hide.
On the importance of political satire:
I think satire has its own value. People like to laugh and they like to get a perspective on things.
I’m not sure "Saturday Night Live"’s job is to take down the presidency. In the book, I write about how we really felt our job was not to have a bias, but it was to do well-observed comedy that rewarded people who knew stuff [about politics] but didn’t punish you for not knowing things.
On his admiration for Obama despite the Obama campaign’s refusal to help Franken in his 2008 Senate race and subsequent losses of Democratic majorities in Congress and numerous legislatures:
I think that [current Republican Senate majority leader] Mitch McConnell and Republicans in general, especially in the Senate, and after they took the House in 2010, acted in a very irresponsible manner.
I think Obama has said, “If I were Lincoln or Roosevelt, I might have done a better job.” And I agree. The timing of this Great Recession [was different]. By the time FDR came in, they had had the Great Depression for four years and people were just saying, “Do anything.”
And Obama came in right at the early stages [of the recession] and 800,000 people were losing their jobs and the Tea Party was created.
I don’t blame Obama for that. The stimulus program was a jobs program and it did reverse where we were going, but it takes a while for a stimulus program to kick in. But our economy did better than Europe’s did. And I also think the Affordable Care Act was an achievement – there are weaknesses in it we should address, we shouldn’t be doing what the House did [this year]. We have 20 million more people covered [under Obamacare].
I think he helped when he could [in elections]. You saw him help Hillary [Clinton] tremendously. There were times where his help wasn’t in certain places wanted – after Hillary lost, my critique of his not showing up in Minnesota, my critique of that has kind of changed. Because now I just realize, hmm, the role of the person at the top of the ticket is just to win. I’m very, very happy he won [two terms].