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Sen. Al Franken On Comedy, Trump And The 'Curdling' Of Washington

Sen. Al Franken's previous books include <em>The Truth</em> and <em>Lies and The Lying Liars Who Tell Them</em>.
Owen Franken
Sen. Al Franken's previous books include The Truth and Lies and The Lying Liars Who Tell Them.

Minnesota Sen. Al Franken has the distinction of being the only former Saturday Night Live cast member to serve in the U.S. Senate. It's a singular career trajectory, but it's also not particularly surprising given Franken's deep interest in politics and comedy.

It all started in high school, when Franken began writing satire with his friend (and later SNL writing partner) Tom Davis.

"One of the first things we wrote was a local newscast the night of the day of World War III," Franken says. "It was ... 'Well, it happened. World War III. The stock market closed today — for good.' "

Franken was a writer and cast member on SNL from its inception in 1975, and he performed off and on until 1995. Throughout it all, Franken maintained his interest in politics, and in 2008, he won a seat in the Senate.

Despite his penchant for humor, the Democratic senator is quick to note that his gut reaction to the Trump administration isn't levity — and that his colleagues on both sides of the aisle feel similarly.

"It's clear that this guy is outside the norm in many ways," Franken says of the president. "That rightly frightens and makes nervous all of us."

Franken looks back on his life in comedy and politics in his new memoir, facetiously titled, Al Franken: Giant of the Senate.

Interview Highlights

On having to prove himself as a senator before he could be funny again

What happened was the first time out I won by 312 votes. Percentage-wise, the narrowest margin ever in the history of Senate elections. ... The campaign had been pretty ugly. And they had used a lot of material that I had written or said during my 35, 40 years as a comedian and put it through ... the "de-humorizor," which would take all the irony and context out of anything I had said and come out ... being very offensive.

So I had to prove to people that I was serious, and that I was serious about doing this job for the people of Minnesota. ... [Sen.] Paul Wellstone, who held the seat before me ... said that politics is not about power, it's not about money, it's not about winning for the sake of winning; it's about improving people's lives. And so I set out to prove that; that that's what I was doing. It wasn't until I won six years later by a very comfortable margin that I said, "OK, I can be funny again."

On asking Attorney General Jeff Sessions about possible ties to Russia during his confirmation hearing

I was basically saying, "Would you recuse yourself if you were attorney general and it turned out the Trump campaign was under investigation for this?" And he pivoted. I think that he didn't want to talk about whether he would recuse himself, and so I think he pivoted to the answer he had prepared, saying, "I did not have any contact with the Russians," which of course turned out not to be true. ...

He was under oath, so that's a problem. ... Once it came out that he did have contact with [Sergey] Kislyak, the ambassador, he then did recuse himself, which was kind of the point of my question.

Because he recused himself, Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, was able to appoint a special prosecutor, Bob Mueller, who is a very good prosecutor.

I was accused by [Sen.] Chuck Grassley, who I admire a lot, who was the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, of asking [Sessions] a "gotcha" question, but actually he asked himself the gotcha question. ... His invented question was, "Have you had contact with the Russians?" And he answered it falsely.

But people give me tremendous credit for all of this. And it's like "Franken knew exactly what he was doing! He was playing three-dimensional chess. He's obviously four moves ahead of everybody else!" No, I was just asking him, "Would you recuse yourself?" I think he pivoted to not answer that question.

On his wife Franni's decision to open up about her struggle with alcoholism in an ad that aired during the 2008 Senate race

During the campaign when they were just dumping on me right and left and making me out to be a horrible person, Franni just got mad and said, "I'm going to do an ad about this." And it was a beautiful, beautiful ad, and [Sen.] Chuck Schumer who was the head of the DSCC, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, he was paying very, very close attention to the campaign, he said he cried too, but he said, "This is the ad that's winning it for you."

Like two days after the ad first aired, we had a debate in a big gymnasium and ... when Franni entered the gymnasium she got a standing ovation. Because in this ad she said something that was, "How can a mother of two such beautiful children be an alcoholic?" and it spoke to the shame. There was an anchorwoman who tweeted, "This is the best political ad I've ever seen, because it actually could help people." She was speaking to the special shame that women alcoholics tend to have when they're moms, and I know that dads have that, too.

On how Sen. Mitch McConnell would filibuster to slow things down in Congress

I write about what I call the "curdling" of Washington, which was that Mitch chose basically to filibuster pretty much everything and to slow things down. ... He'd filibuster somebody, and we'd get 60 votes for cloture and we'd have to wait 30 hours of debate until we could vote — these are the rules — and then we'd have a vote on a judge and the judge would get voted 99 to 1, or 99-0 or something like that.

So they were filibustering things that they were not against, and they were filibustering things where, to overcome the filibuster, you have to take a lot of time. ... It made it hard to get things done, but McConnell wanted to deprive Obama of achievements, and that's how he did it. It really did sour things very badly, and we still live with that.

On his version of the serenity prayer

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot legislate, the courage to legislate the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference, and the patience to explain that difference to my donors. ... It is exactly true.

On trying to bring his humor into calling donors

I have little things, like I have a thing where I'll call someone's office and I'll go, "Hi this is Al Franken calling for Mr. Meyers."

And I go, "Uh huh. Will his checkbook be out of town?" And that gets a laugh, and sometimes it gets me money.

Radio producers Sam Briger and Mooj Zadie and Web producers Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper contributed to this story.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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