Dialogues

Al Franken’s First Official Joke?

Al Franken has finally told a joke as a senator. During his questioning of Sonia Sotomayor, he mentioned that she was a Perry Mason fan. She said that’s what led her to be a prosecutor. Funny, he said, because the prosecutor never won in that series. Later, he returned to ask the judge to name the one case that Mason lost. She couldn’t name it. “Didn’t the White House prepare you,” he asked? (The episode, according to the White House, was “The Deadly Verdict,” though it’s not clear that Mason lost only one case.)

This was a highlight for several reasons. The hearings have been plodding and frustrating. Senators aren’t asking very interesting questions, and the judge isn’t providing very interesting answers. Of course, the definition of the word interesting—like the word wise, to choose a random adjective—is relative. For example, I’d like to know which of the sitting conservative justices she’d least like to go up against in an argument. Or, I’d like to know the one case she got totally wrong and why.

Franken’s quip was also notable because it was a non-baseball-related joke. There has been a lot of baseball chatter at these hearings. Sotomayor helped end the baseball strike and she’s a Yankees fan, and for these two sins she has been forced to engage in lots of tension-cutting (or perhaps tension-creating) jokes about baseball. If there were any remaining gender or ethnic barriers to engaging in this kind of banter, they have been broken.

Finally, Franken’s little witticism—buried at the end of his series of questions about Net neutrality, abortion, voting rights, and other serious issues—was notable because there’s been a pent-up tension surrounding Franken. He’s had to be serious almost since he announced he was running for the Senate. Then, after finally being sworn in, he’s had to show that he didn’t come to just tell jokes. On the day he met his Democratic colleagues for their weekly lunch, Sen. Chuck Schumer emerged from the meeting and reiterated several times that there were no jokestold. (In fairness to Schumer, he had to repeat because reporters kept asking: Were there any jokes?) During Franken’s opening statement, the most popular comment (at least judging from my inbox and Twitter feed) was something along the lines of, “This Saturday Night Live skit isn’t very funny.” Now that he’s finally made a quip, we can all stop waiting for him to be funny.

Click here to launch the Sotomayor Stopwatch.