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Don't Laugh

During the Bush years, satire was one of the Democrats’ most potent weapons. But Al Franken’s earnest—sometimes tearful—campaign for senator raises the question: Can politics and comedy co-exist?

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Al Franken looks sort of like a cartoon bullfrog. He has substantial jowls and wears large round spectacles and stands slightly pitched forward with his butt up and out, as if at any moment he might make a little cartoon leap forward. Only it would be in slow motion, because there’s a drowsiness to Franken’s physicality. His lips appear particularly animated—the way he holds his mouth is often half of what makes his jokes funny. For example, a few months ago, when Franken was on the Late Show, he said to David Letterman, “Technically, what I have always done is satire. What you do is comedy. I’m more of a satirist; you are a … clown.” And then he set his mouth in his froggy, that’s-just-the-way-it-is deadpan, and everyone laughed.

This was Franken’s answer to Letterman’s asking, “Are you able to be funny anymore, or can you not be funny anymore?,” now that Franken is running in Minnesota for the U.S. Senate. The real answer, of course, is yes and no. To some extent, Franken can’t really help but be funny—he’s just drawn that way. And he’s not exactly trying to drain the humor from his being for this campaign, which would be stupid, because politicians need to be entertaining. But not too entertaining.

Today, Franken is giving his stump speech in front of maybe 300 students at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. It’s his wife Franni’s birthday, and Franken calls her up to the stage for a kiss and hands her a bouquet. The Frankens are an unusually affectionate couple and have been together since Franken’s first week at Harvard, when he went to a mixer at Simmons College and met his bride-to-be. In Why Not Me?, Franken’s 1999 best seller, a record of his fictional campaign for president, he writes, “Franni Franken is not just my wife, not just the mother of my children, not just the woman who cleans my house—she’s also my best friend. By that I mean we have sex together. But after the sex, we often have a conversation. That’s what makes us not just friends but best friends.”

Now that Franken is running for real, he talks about his wife’s Dickensian childhood. “Sometimes they didn’t have enough food on the table; sometimes they’d turn off the heat,” Franken says, standing at the podium. “And this was in Portland, Maine, where it’s cold, but not quite as cold as here.” This gets a light, knowing murmur, as usual. As he always does on the campaign trail, Franken tells this rapt throng of co-eds the tale of how Franni’s father died in a car crash when she was 17 months old, leaving her mother, a grocery-store clerk, with five kids to raise. “They made it because of Pell grants and Social Security survivor benefits,” Franken says. “And my mother-in-law and every one of those five kids became a productive member of society. Conservatives like to say that people need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and I agree that’s a great idea, but first you gotta have … the boots.” This always, always, gets a laugh—a little gust of positivity (and relief) that Franken then channels like so: “The government gave my wife’s family the boots. That’s what progressives like me think the government is there to do.”

If, say, John Kerry told this boots bit, it wouldn’t be funny at all. It would be hokey (if not deadly). But when these words come out of Franken’s cartoon lips, which he has used for so many years to make a joke out of hokeyness, it becomes silly, amusing, effective.

Still, it’s odd how some of his old jokes are no longer jokes, exactly, in this new context. This rally opened with a slideshow (accompanied by Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al”) of Franken in various candidate poses: shaking hands with students; sitting with his son, Joe, and their late family dog Kirby in front of the television watching a Vikings game (all three wearing helmets); Franken grinning with a photogenic golden retriever. Such tableaux were once the stuff of his satire. In Why Not Me? there’s a photo of Franken, the fake presidential candidate, standing in the woods with his foot on a tree stump next to a photogenic golden retriever.

Recently, a reporter asked if Franken wanted to write up a funny list of tips for Stephen Colbert, who has fake-announced his intention to fake-run for president. But the Franken campaign said absolutely not; that’s the last thing he’d want to do. Because there’s nothing funny about being a senator. (Try to say that with a straight face.)


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