Why Not Al?

Al Franken says his book isn’t a prelude to a presidential campaign, but the American people can hope, right?

Sen. Al Franken
Sen. Al Franken in New York City on May 20.

Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Vulture Festival

Al Franken is currently serving his second term as a U.S. senator for the state of Minnesota, but you know what? He used to be a comedian! As approximately 4,000 headline writers have said about Franken’s political career: “No joke!” In his new book, Al Franken, Giant of the Senate, Franken explains that he’s getting pretty sick of no joke. “I imagine that all the writers of all these headlines,” Franken writes after reproducing a half-dozen, “were very pleased with themselves.”

Franken summons heroic forbearance on this subject, good-naturedly quipping that some dolt will probably use no joke as the headline in his obituary. But the rest of us are under no obligation to smile weakly at such witlessness. To judge by the reception to Giant of the Senate so far, there’s still only one idea that some political journalists can get through their heads: Al Franken is a senator, but he used to be a comedian! Franken’s gimlet questioning of Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos during her confirmation hearing, on top of strong performances at other hearings, has fired up enthusiasm for him as a 2020 presidential candidate in some quarters, but plenty still think his past brands him as unserious. (Franken himself unequivocally disavows any presidential ambitions.) He’s earned a reputation for hard work and close attention to the needs of the people of Minnesota, who the first time around elected him by the narrowest margin—a mere 312 votes—in the history of the Senate, then returned him to office with a handsome cushion of 10 points in 2014. Franken is also the author of a series of best-selling books that fact-check the claims of such right-wing propagandists as Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. He’s funny, but he’s a lot more than that.

Giant of the Senate doesn’t present itself as a campaign autobiography by a presidential hopeful, although despite Franken’s demurrals some readers will take it that way. What’s far stranger than the fact that a former Saturday Night Live cast member now serves in the upper house of Congress is that Giant isn’t Franken’s first political memoir. In 1999, Franken published Why Not Me? The Inside Story of the Making and Unmaking of the Franken Presidency, a parody that, in 2017, looks bizarrely prophetic and suggests just how difficult it has become to separate satire from reality in the age of Trump.

In Why Not Me, a narcissistic and profoundly unqualified entertainment personality ends up in the White House due to a confluence of luck, violent intimidation, the endorsement of C-list celebrities, and a shady campaign focused on drumming up populist fury. Fictional Franken predicates his campaign on the deregulation of retail banking (quietly) and the abolishing of ATM fees (noisily); he’s generously funded by the insurance industry but successfully demonizes his primary opponent, Al Gore, for being in the pocket of big banking interests. “Franken” drives his staff to distraction by making unkeepable promises because “I am spontaneous and act on instinct” and lectures them on the importance of “loyalty.” A headline reporting the descent of the GOP convention into chaos includes the line “Franken Describes Situation as ‘Sad.’ ”

“Al Franken” is elected, but negative reactions to his inauguration plunge him into such a funk that he refuses to leave the bedroom where he broods, poring over his bad press. He becomes so emotionally unstable that he attacks a foreign leader; the Joint Congressional Committee on the President’s Mood Swings is convened. Finally, “Franken’s” indiscreet campaign diary comes to light, revealing lavish violations of campaign finance laws and patronage of prostitutes. He is impeached and arrested 144 days after taking office. At the time, reviewers called this scenario “preposterous.”

Reading Giant of the Senate close on the heels of Why Not Me? is a disorienting experience in which reality and comedy intertwine. Franken based the satire in Why Not Me? on his actual biography. With Giant of the Senate, the absurd veneer of the earlier book gets peeled back to reveal the more staid facts about, for example, Franken’s father’s early business failures. But certain jokes Franken made in Why Not Me?—like the one about only using cocaine during the early years at Saturday Night Live to keep himself alert enough to make sure everyone else wasn’t overdoing it—are repeated almost exactly in Giant of the Senate. Furthermore, there are spookily prescient twists. Franken’s wife of 42 years, Franni, saves his fictional presidential campaign by heroically rescuing a drowning man; years later the real Franni pulled Franken’s Minnesota primary campaign out of a bad patch by doing a TV spot where she spoke candidly about how her husband stood by her when she struggled to control her alcohol abuse.

That bad patch was the result of a spate of blog posts disseminated by Franken’s Republican opponent in the 2008 election, Norm Coleman. They focused on two incidents from Franken’s comedic past. The first was a 2000 humor piece commissioned by Playboy, in which Franken recounts a (fictional) visit to a “think tank” specializing in pornographic virtual reality. The second was a 1995 story in New York about SNL, in which, during a late-night brainstorming session, Franken is described pitching an ending to a sketch about 60 Minutes humorist Andy Rooney that would have Rooney running amok on drugs and raping co-host Lesley Stahl in a closet. “Understand,” Franken writes, “that I was not intending for this extremely dark joke to be aired on American television. It was a joke ‘for the room’ suggesting a direction for the turn”—that is, toward the extreme. But few things are harder to explain to outsiders than “the culture of a comedy rewrite table at two in the morning.” (The final version of the sketch had Rooney sedating Mike Wallace and photographing him nude.)

In Giant of the Senate, Franken includes the many drafts of the statement he made about this controversy at his state party convention. “All campaign long,” he writes, “I’d avoided apologizing for things I’d said or written because it felt like doing so would mean apologizing for everything I’d done over 40 years in comedy. … To say I was sorry for writing a joke was to sell out my career, to sell out who I’d been my entire life.” Ultimately, he and his staff came up with an apology that didn’t quite repudiate his past. (“It kills me that things I said and wrote sent a message to some of my friends in this room and people in this state that they can’t count on me to be a champion for women …”) But it’s notable that this crisis hinged not on anything Franken ever did or claimed to do, or even on anything Franken said or wrote in earnest. It was a fight about comedy, specifically satire, and its peculiar, unstable relationship to reality.

Satire always has some grounding in the truth—otherwise, it wouldn’t be satire. A Modest Proposal works not because Jonathan Swift believed it was a good idea to turn Irish babies into dinners; it works because readers believed that Ireland’s British rulers just might be heartless enough to entertain the idea themselves. But every satire ever produced has been taken seriously by someone. Often that’s because some reader is too unsophisticated or literal-minded to spot the giveaways. (On the internet, this is known as Poe’s law.) But in Franken’s case, opponents who knew he was kidding deliberately presented his comedic writings as serious; in Giant of the Senate he refers to this move as running things through “the DeHumorizer™,” something his staff has learned to do pre-emptively to all his public statements because “even after all this, my instinct is still to at least try and go for the joke.”

Yet the GOP smear campaign wouldn’t have made any headway if some Minnesota voters (mostly older women) didn’t find Franken’s humor questionable; parodying pornography in Playboy suggests a complicated relationship to material many people think should be anathematized. (And besides, anyone who hadn’t read at least some pornography would not have gotten his jokes.) Others find rape too horrifying a subject to incorporate into any bit, even theoretically. Very few of us have been at a comedy rewrite table at 2 a.m. Humor like Franken’s doesn’t work unless the audience shares some of the comedian’s cultural context, and to those who don’t get it, the clubbiness of it all can seem exclusionary, even (gasp!) elitist.

What saved Franken from sinking under the weight of all these complications wasn’t his intelligence or his wit, but his Midwestern-ness. He grew up in Minnesota and clearly loves it. Minnesotans supported his beloved mentor, the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, even when Wellstone was the only incumbent senator up for election to come out against the Iraq war, a war that, at the time, most Minnesotans supported. Franken often jokes about being Jewish, but he never jokes about being Minnesotan.

During his first term, Franken happily abided by the oft-quoted advice of a former Clinton aide, to be “a work horse not a show horse,” a strategy that aligns with the Midwestern aversion to being a “tall poppy.” He kept a low profile, listened more than he talked, showed up for every committee meeting, and made ceaseless efforts to form friendships across the aisle. He is funny, but he can also be nice, the Midwesterner’s secret weapon and the wellspring of Franken’s greatest comedic tool: his exquisite deadpan. Often mocked for their self-deferential politeness, Midwesterners can weaponize niceness with a mastery that surpasses even that of genteel Southern ladies. They have a reputation for earnestness, but Franken knows how to bend this into a lethal irony. Nowhere is this in better evidence than in Franken’s legendary smackdown of Bill O’Reilly when the two men spoke on a panel at a booksellers’ convention in 2003.

Franken presented evidence that O’Reilly had falsely boasted that Inside Edition, a tabloid TV show on which O’Reilly worked, had won two Peabody Awards. In the video of the discussion, Franken does this politely, even with deference: “I called Bill, and you were really nice. You called me back.” But it’s the sort of politeness that veils a persistent and dogged hostility. (I’m not one myself, but every Midwesterner I’ve shown this clip to finds it deliciously hilarious.) And OK, yes, O’Reilly finally blew his top and called Franken an idiot, and the whole thing degenerated into a shouting match, but up until that point, the exchange is a thing of beauty because as long as no one is yelling, actual information can be imparted. It’s impossible to watch Franken do this without contemplating how he’d handle a far more exalted blowhard.

What once might have hobbled Franken politically—the persistent “funny man” label, his histories of recreational drug use and show business, the fact that as a comedian he has written and said many things that are not actually true and that he did not really mean—seem a lot less insurmountable since November. If the nation can elect as president an erratic, confabulating reality-TV show personality with no governmental experience and a past shadier than a redwood forest, then why the hell not the guy who once played Stuart Smalley?

Of course, Franken’s constituents like him for more than a political persona that deftly bridges the gap between the heartland and coastal cosmopolitanism. As the late David Carr once pointed out, Minnesota politics can be odd, but the state has a solid track record when it comes to selecting competent leaders. Carr found Franken “remarkably skilled at retail politics,” and Franken himself writes that he likes people and is willing to learn from just about anyone. Giant of the Senate offers a respectable list of meat-and-potatoes accomplishments for a junior senator, including bipartisan measures designed to benefit veterans and children in foster care, as well as plainspoken explanations for why some of Franken’s other initiatives didn’t come off. Among other things, Giant is a fine depiction of what the Senate is like as a workplace. (Ted Cruz is the toxic co-worker everybody hates, and Franken spearheaded the U.S. Senate’s first secret Santa gift exchange.) Giant of the Senate may be far more sincere than Why Not Me?, but its ridiculous title and cover photo of Franken posing self-importantly next to a globe before a crackling fire are reassuring. They suggest that, even if reality keeps raising the bar, Franken hasn’t surrendered satire entirely. He says he won’t run, but maybe he doesn’t really mean it.

Al Franken, Giant of the Senate by Al Franken. Twelve.

Read all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.