“No, no,” he says, shaking his jowls. “I’m okay; it’s just she’s talking about Kirby and she’s talking about my dad. So. My dad was a Republican, and he voted for Herbert Hoover,” which cracks Franken up. His father, who never graduated from high school and came to Minnesota from New Jersey to try to start an outpost of his father-in-law’s quilting business, became a Democrat when Barry Goldwater failed to support the Civil Rights Act. “We’d watch the news during dinner, and there’d be demonstrations where they would put dogs on the demonstrators and fire hoses, and my dad would say, ‘That’s wrong. No Jew can be for that.’” Franken laughs. “That’s it. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and said we’re gonna lose the South for a generation—and it’s turned out he lost it for at least two or three generations—well, he did gain my dad. And then my dad turned against the war in Vietnam and Johnson and became like an antiwar demonstrator. And my brother became a photographer for the McCarthy campaign.”
There is a room down the hall they call “the Nixon bathroom,” where several of Owen Franken’s photographs of Nixon waving as he boards the helicopter on his last day in office hang next to a framed copy of Nixon’s letter of resignation to Henry Kissinger. There’s also a copy of a letter Elvis wrote to Nixon on American Airlines stationery that hangs above the toilet. “My favorite is ‘I have done an in-depth study of drug abuse,’ ” says Franken, and laughs, reading from the Elvis letter. “And look: ‘I have a personal gift for you which I would like to present to you and you can accept it or I will keep it for you until you can take it.’ And it was a gun! And Elvis brought it to the White House!”
Franken always had political aspirations. He ran for seventh-grade class president on the slogan “Never spit in the face of a man unless his mustache is on fire.” “I remember in eighth grade, in 1964, we were in some social-studies class together and Al would give weekly reports on what was going on in the campaign,” says Dave Griffin. “Not too many eighth-graders were interested in what was going on in politics.”
“I thought of maybe being a politician, but I sort of gave it up when I went into comedy,” Franken says and laughs his loud laugh. When Franken came to New York in 1975 to write for Saturday Night Live, he had long hair and colleagues like Gilda Radner and Chevy Chase. Any dreams of entering politics would have been far too square to admit. “It would be like majoring in economics in college,” Franken says. “It was that kind of Hey, mister businessman, have you hugged your child today? mentality,” Franken says, dropping his voice into hippie-speak. “But I never was really anyone who saw himself as hip at all. I thought being hip was actually antithetical to being funny.”
I ask him if his colleague John Belushi wasn’t both hip and funny.
“Yeah,” says Franken. “He was. And the show was hip and funny to some extent, but I didn’t embrace that side of the show.” He grins. “I never liked our being hip.”
This is important for him to project, because one thing Minnesotans tell Franken’s pollsters is that he’s “Hollywood,” despite the fact that Franken hasn’t lived in L.A. since 1975. But whatever: L.A., New York, tomato, tomahto. Franken has to convince people he’s not cool.
In fact, all Franken’s most famous characters were entirely square, a play, in a way, on the midwestern sensibility he now needs to embody. In addition to Stuart Smalley, he was a hapless reporter (the one-man mobile broadcasting unit)—he even did Senator Paul Simon in a bow tie.
But the party’s almost over—at least the Democratic Party as the party of humor. Steven Colbert’s presidential run is less funny than it should be—and if a Democrat wins, he’ll have to find a whole new shtick. It’s like the end of Animal House when you find out that Boon and Katy get divorced and John Belushi becomes … a senator. Everyone has to grow up some time, except maybe in politics, where you are free to play footsie in the men’s bathroom or the D.A. on Law & Order. Perhaps Al Franken will fit in there—if he’s not too serious for the part.