Don’t Laugh

Photo: Chris Buck

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.)

Franken in one of his Saturday Night Live drags. Photo: Owen Franken/Corbis

Minnesotans have a special relationship to carbohydrates. At the annual Bruce Vento spaghetti dinner in Oakdale, the meal consists of two kinds of pasta, and bread sticks, and they serve dinner rolls. The main attraction is the keynote speech by state mascot Garrison Keillor, but first comes an auction of pies and cakes to raise money for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. Mike Ciresi, who is Al Franken’s chief rival for the endorsement of the DFL, does some gallant bidding for Franni Franken’s apple pie, but ultimately it slips through his fingers. Ciresi’s wife, Ann, is a more ardent competitor, though, and there is a lot of whooping among the 600 or so Democrats gathered here at the Oakdale Prom Center when Mrs. Ciresi and Mrs. Franken get in a bidding war over a triple-layer cake. After six or seven rounds, Franken stops putting her hand up, and the dessert goes to Anne Ciresi for $325. Al Franken grins, faces his table, and says, “Well, we win again!” Then he goes to the men’s room and misses being acknowledged by the emcee.

Almost every speaker makes reference to Paul Wellstone, the progressive Minnesota senator who died in a plane crash with his wife and daughter eleven days before the midterm elections in 2002. His seat went to Republican Norm Coleman, and five months after Wellstone’s death, Coleman infamously told the Capitol Hill newsletter Roll Call that he was a “99 percent improvement” over his predecessor. A day later, he apologized, explaining that he had meant a 99 percent improvement in terms of supporting the Bush White House—“which is the truth!,” Franken likes to say.

Al Franken was close friends with Paul Wellstone; they got to know each other when Franken donated his comedic services to Wellstone’s campaigns. Now that Franken is himself running against Norm Coleman, he makes reference to the Roll Call incident every chance he gets. He can’t stand Norm Coleman, and seems to believe Coleman’s assumption of the Wellstone seat is a kind of sacrilege. At one point in the Vento dinner, all the elected officials and candidates present stand up and introduce themselves: “Mark Ritchie, secretary of state.” “I’m Senator Amy Klobuchar.” But when it’s Franken’s turn, he doesn’t say what he’s running for and he doesn’t mention Mike Ciresi (or any of his other opponents for the DFL’s endorsement). He says, with intensity, “I’m Al Franken, and I’m gonna take down Norm Coleman.”

Coleman’s devotion to the Bush agenda has served as a significant impetus for Franken to attempt a transformation from funny progressive spokesman to viable political candidate, which is no small challenge. As the host of his own show on Air America for three years and the author of a string of best sellers, Franken was able to combine the comedic talents that landed him on the inaugural staff of Saturday Night Live with his liberal zeal unproblematically. He could call right-wingers “fuckheads,” as he did in the 2006 documentary Al Franken: God Spoke; he could title a chapter of his book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them “I Bitch-Slap Bernie Goldberg.” But as a candidate, he has to sound normal, earnest, grown-up—he has to remember to say, “That’s off the record” after he says, “Fuck him!”

As it turns out, sounding wonkish is not much of a problem. Inside the satirist was always a know-it-all trying to bore his way out. His 26-year-old press secretary, Jess McIntosh, tells me she “worries” sometimes that “he can be serious to a fault.” (But that, of course, is exactly what the Franken campaign is hoping voters will see: the Harvard brain behind the showbiz wit.) And somewhat surprisingly for a comedian who pioneered SNL’s subversive humor and got famous playing the mawkish self-help guru Stuart Smalley (who would stare in the mirror and assure himself, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”), Franken can be very, very earnest.

I got a ride back to my hotel after the Vento dinner from a young Franken campaign staffer, a senior at Macalester College. He told me about an event that had taken place earlier that day at his school, at which he’d introduced Franken by saying that Franken’s book Lies inspired him to go into politics. “Al teared up,” he tells me. I say that’s pretty impressive and suggest that he must have a way with words to get a veteran comedian who’s been sued by Fox and called a “vile human being” by Bill O’Reilly to cry in public. The young man gives me a funny look. “Al’s very in touch with his emotions.”

On one of his numerous, much-remarked-upon USO tours. Photo: Owen Franken/USO/AP

The next day, Franken is in sneakers and jeans before a student group at Minnesota Community Technical College, talking about the seven USO tours he’s been on to Iraq and Afghanistan. “These soldiers are my kid’s age,” Franken says to the students.

Ann Coulter, an antagonist of Franken’s to whom he devotes two chapters in Lies (titled “Ann Coulter: Nutcase” and “You Know Who I Don’t Like? Ann Coulter”), once remarked at an event with Franken in Connecticut that she won “the bet on whether it would take Al Franken more than or less than five minutes to mention his USO tours.” And yet, when he talks about the troops for the millionth time to this group, Franken has tears behind his glasses.

“Al’s going to have to be real careful about that stuff; he does wear his emotions really close to the front,” says Dave Griffin, Franken’s best friend since they attended junior high school together in St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis. “I’ve been at I don’t know how many speeches where he’s teared up, and I go, ‘Aw, come on!’ When Al sees my parents, he often gets choked up because they remind him of his parents”—who are both deceased—“so he told them, ‘Walt and Carol, you can’t come to any of my events.’ ” But that is not nearly enough to insulate Franken from the force of his own feelings. “It’s funny,” Griffin continues, “because he is a hard-edged comedian and has taken shots I’d never be able to take, but then he’s very sentimental.”

This used to be the charge against the left in general: that we’re all bleeding-heart, bellyaching babies—the people who brought you humorless feminists and Ralph Nader. But during the Bush years, Democrats have come to own funny. Our political discourse has been dominated by the hilarity of The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and the Franken canon, while the right’s most prominent spokespeople—Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, Dick Cheney—wouldn’t know funny if it sat on their faces. Republicans have become the outraged and the aggrieved, the touchy and the unamused. Power corrupted even their sense of humor.

“I’ve been at I don’t know how many speeches where he’s teared up,” says a childhood friend. “He wears his emotions real close to the front. He’s gonna have to be careful about that stuff.”

Another transformation seems to be happening to Franken on the campaign trail. In the past, he’s often been portrayed as an angry grouch, and indeed his books are as depressing as they are funny in their meticulous detailing of America’s woes. But all this exposure to the youth of today—and media consultants—has had an uplifting effect on Franken. “A lot of the kids I was talking to, the freshmen were like 11 years old when Bush became president, and they don’t remember having a president who was articulate; they don’t remember that the federal government actually could work; they don’t remember when America was a really well-respected country,” Franken tells me later. “And I felt my job was to tell them, No, no, no! We used to be the leader of the world and we can be again! We’re the country that went to the moon and we’re the country that beat Fascism and Communism and rebuilt Europe and we’re the country that’s mapped the human genome and we’re the country that had enough juice left over to invent the Internet and rock and roll, you know? I mean, we’re a great country! So I found myself sort of cheerleading. I was giving not just them but myself a pep talk. Sometimes I say the reason I’m running is my dad’s generation was the Greatest Generation, and I just don’t want ours to be the Worst Generation.” He laughs his bullfrog laugh. “I wanna actually be able to look at my kids and say I tried my damnedest to get us up to the Mediocre Generation. I really did everything I could.”

Franken is generally not as far left as you might imagine the author of Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot to be. Initially, he was in favor of the Iraq war, and for the most part, he’s moderate and has been an avid supporter of centrist Democrats like Kerry and the Clintons. “Al keeps running around the state saying he’s going to be the heir to Wellstone,” says Bill Hillsman, a political consultant based in Minneapolis who worked on Wellstone’s first two campaigns as well as Ralph Nader’s presidential run and Jesse Ventura’s successful bid for governor of Minnesota. “But Al is basically a DLC Democrat. He’s throwing in right now with the Wellstone people,” many of whom Franken has hired for this campaign, “and they’re pushing him to be more liberal than he is. I see this tension between Al’s real political views and the views he’s espoused out there.” In other words, the comedian is seen as being too much of a politician. Hillsman says that his success with Wellstone and Ventura was based largely on their appearance of authenticity, which convinced enough independent voters in Minnesota to elect those candidates over Republican rivals. “In ’96, we had money to do research, and we found out that Paul [Wellstone]’s swing vote was the Perot vote”—Perot got 24 percent of the vote in Minnesota in ’92—“and these are people who disagreed with Paul on almost every issue. As one guy memorably put it, ‘I don’t agree with him, but I think he’s honest, I think he’s got integrity, and I think we ought to have at least one of those sons of bitches in Congress.’ I don’t think people think that about Al. They think it’s much more contrived. He needs to be who he is and stop letting people try to make him into somebody else.”

Franken carbs up at a campaign event. Photo: Chris Buck

The Franken campaign, of course, thinks it is effectively using the Al-ness of Al. His solicitation letters are marked, “Urgent Gram.” He sends thank-you notes that say things like, “Thanks for coming to my event. I thought I was awesome. Also I appreciated your money. Polls are looking up, things are going great, also didn’t you think I was pretty terrific? I’ve got this in the bag. I’m pretty sure we could quit now and win. Love, Al.” It’s a fine line—Franken has to simultaneously show voters he’s serious while staying true to the Franken brand he has developed over 30 years in the public eye.

“I don’t do a lot of watching what I say, frankly,” Franken says. He is sitting in the den of the Minneapolis apartment he bought in 2005 when he decided to leave New York City, his home since the seventies, and return to Minnesota to investigate a run for the Senate. “Just like when I was on radio: In radio or on live television, there’s things you can say and things you can’t say, and it becomes second nature. But I don’t really censor myself. Well, you know, the stupidest censor thing I had to weigh was, I was in New Ulm, Minnesota, to do a Senate district dinner, so I do it in this park where they have a statue to Herman the German. Now, Herman the German was an actual historical figure.” He waits a beat. “I guess.” And then he gives me a big laugh. “They told me he was, like, a Hun or something, and there’s this beautiful statue there to Herman the German. So I just thought of the dumbest joke, which was I grew up in St. Louis Park—which is the most Jewish suburb of Minneapolis, and by that I mean 25 or 30 percent Jewish, but in Minnesota that’s a lot of Jews. Yeah. So I thought of this joke saying, ‘Well, you have Herman the German, and I grew up in St. Louis Park, where we have a statue of Stu the Jew.’ Okay. Dumb joke, almost really not worth doing, except it’s not worth not doing, except that I saw that there was a Coleman tracker there, a guy taping me, and I’m going, like, okay, what are they going to do with it? Are they going to say that I’m somehow suggesting that New Ulm is anti-Semitic? What are they gonna do with this?” Franken lets fly another major laugh, which happens quite a bit. “I just thought that was a funny one. I thought that was the silliest decision to have to make … and I made it. I think I made the right decision, frankly, I think I did, and that’s why … I’m the clear front-runner today.” He punctuates this joke with his froggy, that’s-just-the-way-it-is lips. (In the primary, though no independent polling exists, he’s running far ahead of his opponent in fund-raising and endorsements. The most recent Rasmussen poll has him five points behind Coleman—not a bad place for a challenger.)

Franken’s campaign may be a sign that the party’s almost over—that is, the Democratic Party as the party of comedy. Colbert’s presidential run is less funny than it should be.

Franken shifts positions and pulls his wallet out of his back pocket and throws it on the coffee table next to a wooden bowl full of fake cherries Franni bought at Target. It’s all chewed up—the work, he says, of the late Kirby, the dog pictured in the Vikings helmet in the campaign slideshow and also framed on the wall in this room. “Now I don’t want to get rid of it, because Kirby did this,” he says, looking at the gnawed wallet. “Because we had to put Kirby down about a month ago. It was awful. He was only 8. He had cancer in his leg, in his bone, and at any minute his bone could shatter. And so I would have cut his leg off—I’ve seen some very happy three-legged dogs—but it had metastasized, so we had to put him down, and it was just awful. You know, it’s the whole family being with Kirby and hugging him while he’s being injected, and it’s the worst.” Franken’s voice is cracking a little. “Let’s not bring it up anymore, because I get upset,” he says, wiping his eyes. “I get really … boy, that was a terrible day. That was a terrible weekend. Really tough. George Carlin once said that anytime you buy a dog you’re buying a tragedy.” He laughs but he has to wipe his eyes again, and again he asks that we move on to another topic, so I ask about what kind of politics he was raised with.

“Great. You go from my dog to my parents. Gimme a second. Sheesh.” Franken takes his glasses off, and Franni comes in and wipes his eyes with her thumbs. She holds his face in her hands and says, “Why don’t you excuse yourself for a minute?”

“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.

Don’t Laugh