Brow Beat

Comedians Know to Play to the Room. Al Franken Should’ve Known Better.

Al Franken and Leann Tweeden entertain soldiers in December 2006 at Forward Operating Base Marez in Mosul, Iraq.

Creighton Holub/US Army via Getty Images

For a few brief and shining months, I thought there was a decent chance America might soon elect a comedian—an intentional one, that is—to the highest office in the land. What possessed me?

Al Franken’s Giant of the Senate, that’s what.* In that memoir, published earlier this year, Franken recapped a political career he’d already imagined as a satirical fantasia in 1999’s Why Not Me? The big joke behind the earlier, fake memoir was the idea that a former Saturday Night Live writer and performer could ever be taken seriously enough to be elected to anything. In Giant of the Senate, his real political memoir, Franken’s quest to be seen as sincere, informed, and competent, rather than just a funny guy, seemed to have been achieved. Now, accused by radio personality Leeann Tweeden of forcing an open-mouthed kiss on her during a rehearsal for a USO performance and presented with a photo in which Franken posed with his hands over Tweeden’s breasts while she slept, the senator from Minnesota has had to insist that on this particular occasion, which occurred in 2006, he was only kidding.

It doesn’t matter—as Franken, to his credit, now seems to realize—whether the photo portrays an actual grope or a near-grope. The joke was at Tweeden’s expense, a tedious unfunny entry in the long, long catalog of humor based on the idea that sex in any form is an advantage men seize over women, at women’s expense. That seems to have been a theme of Franken’s USO appearances with Tweeden, as well: him leering at her in order to win laughs from servicemen. It looks like the servicemen found this antique, Bob Hope-style shtick funny, but humor is notoriously dependent on context. That’s the problem with humor, as Franken found out during his campaign.

As he recounts in Giant of the Senate, Franken’s 2008 political opponent tried to discredit him in the eyes of Minnesota voters by dredging up an old New York magazine piece on Saturday Night Live. The piece featured a description of a late-night brainstorming session in the writers’ room in which Franken, among others, suggested increasingly outlandish and extreme ways to wind up a sketch parodying 60 Minutes. One of Franken’s scenarios featured Lesley Stahl being drugged, dragged into a closet, and raped by Andy Rooney. “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.” It was an uphill struggle persuading his constituents that the joke was part of “the culture of a comedy rewrite table at two in the morning,” and not a reflection of Franken’s attitudes toward women.

However, the final version of the sketch involved Rooney sedating Mike Wallace and photographing him nude, a form of humiliation unsettlingly close to what Franken did to Tweeden. In another clip that’s surfaced, apparently from a 2000 roast of Rob Reiner, Franken jokingly recounts Reiner being sexually molested (as well as beaten) by his father, Carl. While it’s absurd to interpret this riff as condoning such crimes, the concept of sex as a form of dominance, exploitation, and humiliation wasn’t exactly rare in Franken’s work; it was (and in some quarters still is) part of being an edgy comedian. It’s a way of winning the laughing appreciation of a predominantly male audience who shares that view of sex, just as Franken’s cheesy ogling of Tweeden pandered to the troops watching the USO show. Every joke is meant for one room or another, some group of people with a particular set of values whose approval the joker hopes to gain. But once that joke gets out of the room, all bets are off. The problem with rooms, after all, is all the people they exclude.

There has always been a mean streak in Franken’s humor, and while in the Senate he became a stout champion of the people of Minnesota, surely it cannot be entirely scrubbed out of his personality. I loved his 2003 appearance at a book convention with Bill O’Reilly, in which he humiliated O’Reilly and took great pleasure in doing so. Not all humor comes at other people’s expense, but a lot of it does. Almost all humor is transgressive to some extent, and all of Franken’s entertainment career was spent catering to the kind of audience who gets an extra thrill out of the idea that someone else (so often a woman!) would be outraged by whatever the comic has just said or done. What the photo Franken took with the sleeping Tweeden depicts is a man desperate for the laughter and camaraderie of such an audience, and that desperation is one of the ugliest things about it. Just because you find yourself in a room doesn’t mean you need to go for the laugh.

*Correction, Nov. 16, 2017: This article originally misidentified Al Franken’s 2017 autobiography as Master of the Senate. Franken’s book is titled Giant of the Senate. Master of the Senate is a biography of Lyndon B. Johnson by Robert A. Caro.