Can Al Franken Be a Funny Senator?

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After years of minimizing his comedy career’s relevance to his political work, the senator uses his latest book to try out some new material.After years of minimizing his comedy career’s relevance to his political work, the senator uses his latest book to try out some new material.CreditPHOTOGRAPH BY TOM WILLIAMS / CQ ROLL CALL VIA AP

Senator Al Franken, of Minnesota, hates headlines that say “no joke.” He was subjected to a perhaps unprecedented run of them back when he was running for office for the first time, in 2008. “No Joke: Franken Announces Senate Bid,” “No Joke: Franken Wins DFL Nomination,” “No Joke: Franken Wins Recount.” There were fewer “no joke” headlines in 2014, when he ran for, and easily won, reëlection. Now he’s a second-term senator, still a progressive with unapologetically partisan views, but one eager to explain the new friendships he’s struck up with some of the most conservative members of the Senate, such as Pat Roberts, of Kansas, and Jeff Sessions, of Alabama, who is now the Attorney General and whose wife once knit a blanket for Franken’s grandson.

Franken is also a member of a minority party facing a hostile and in many ways baffling new President. In his new book, “Al Franken, Giant of the Senate,” Franken recalls his first Senate race, when, to his frustration, old jokes from his comedy career were resurfaced, out of context, by political opponents. Franken notes, too, how, during the Presidential campaign, Trump’s words—unfunny, offensive, untrue—didn’t hurt him with voters the way they would have hurt most politicians. It’s not a new observation, but the book begs the reader to consider that, while Trump was elected President even after the release of a recording in which he talked about grabbing women “by the pussy,” Franken’s own Senate campaign worried about whether an old “Saturday Night Live” joke about Anne Frank—“I think a bad Hanukkah gift for Anne Frank would have been a drum set”—might be a real issue with voters.

“Trump, in a way, is sui generis,” Franken told me this week, backstage at the 92nd Street Y, where he’d just been interviewed by his old friend David Letterman. “The phenomenon of him in this last election is something we’ve never seen before. And we’re all just upset and confused by it as much as anything else.” Much of Franken’s book is concerned with messaging—with what he has and hasn’t been allowed to say as a politician. And, after years of minimizing his comedy career’s relevance to his political work, and of trying to avoid being labelled “Senator Yuk-Yuk,” he uses the book to try out some new material on issues such as health care, education, and civil rights. When deployed onstage with Letterman, the same bits got laughs.

Onstage and in the book, Franken imagines, fifty years from now, his grandchildren coming to him to explain his environmental record: “Grandpa, you were a senator and you knew there was climate change. Why didn’t you do anything? Also, why are you still alive? You’re a hundred and sixteen years old!” He shares anecdotes of Republicans being funny—or at least the politician’s version of funny—such as Lindsey Graham’s advice on vacationing in Puerto Rico: “Do two fund-raisers: one with the folks for statehood, one with the folks against statehood, they never talk to each other.” (Franken describes bumping into Graham, whom he calls the funniest Republican in the Senate, during the Republican Presidential primaries, when Graham’s hard-luck campaign was floundering. “Lindsey, if I were voting in the Republican primaries, I’d vote for you,” Franken tells him. Graham immediately replied, “That’s my problem.”) He is earnest about trying to improve the lives of his constituents, but also honest about the thrills that come with power: grilling witnesses at hearings is a pleasure. “Maybe I wasn’t allowed to be funny anymore,” Franken writes. “But I could still let my id out once in a while by eviscerating some right-wing jerk.”

What can a Senator gain by being more funny? Every Democrat in Washington at the moment is concerned about the Party’s ability to speak to voters. Franken credits Republicans for having a simple, disciplined communications strategy. “Our bumper stickers always end with ‘continued on next bumper sticker,’ ” he writes. But Franken has relatively little advice to give the Party at large. He, too, is sui generis. Nobody wants Chuck Schumer to start telling more jokes. “I don’t think we’ve ever had someone who wrote satirical books be a senator,” he said, stopping to laugh at himself. “So I thought that’d be interesting to people.” Books written by sitting senators automatically prompt questions about Presidential ambitions. Onstage, Letterman brought up the topic. No, the answer came back, he wasn’t running for President. Letterman also asked about the proceeds from the book—weren’t those going to a campaign war chest of some kind? “Oh, no,” Franken said. “Remember about those grandchildren?” Then he paused for laughter.