From 30 Rock to Capitol Hill: On “Al Franken, Giant of the Senate”

In his book about Rush Limbaugh, Franken had satirized the Republicans’ desire to balance the budget on the backs of the elderly and their complaint that NASA was underfunded by suggesting that “[e]very Sunday [they should] put an elderly (or terminally-ill person) in a rocket, fire it over the Snake River, and put it on pay-per-view. No one in the administration, and few leading Republicans, take issue with the president’s lies. Back in the office, with the door closed, Littman bellowed, “Never give the staff credit. “Alternative facts” have now given way to obvious and deliberate falsehoods. Worse, we, the public and the media, are becoming used to it. First, candidate Franken had to learn to “pivot,” which means “not answer questions.” When a reporter asks, “You trail Norm Coleman by twenty points. “During SNL’s life span,” writes Franken,
the show has been at its best when there’s been an equilibrium between the writing staff and the cast. After the debate was over, Franken spoke again, but briefly, emphasizing the need to raise money for his uphill campaign, again without mentioning the presidential race. Never. ¤
Darryl Holter is a historian, entrepreneur, musician, and owner of an independent bookstore. After a year or more of asking donors for money, eating rubbery chicken, attending bean feeds, and learning about turkeys and farming and Native American pow-wows, Franken was ready to take on Norm Coleman, the Republican who had captured the Senate seat after Wellstone’s death. Franken spends a good number of pages on how he functions as a United States senator, offering inside information and providing us with useful tips. The recount was completed in January and declared Franken the winner. But in later chapters of the book, written toward the end of the 2016 campaign, Franken frets about more serious lapses in truthfulness, or even blatant disregard for evident truths. While Franken’s political commentary offered a potentially new direction for his comedic talents, and he was chosen to headline the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in 1994, his politics (“my bleeding liberal heart on my sleeve”) prevented him from getting the SNL job he most wanted: anchoring the “Weekend Update” segment. This new reality makes Franken’s interesting stories of how he forced his Republican colleagues to confront the truth and pass an amendment or change a vote all the more important. We raised something like $5,000, not counting the rented TV and the empty liquor cabinet. The ad became the topic of political conversation in Minnesota and pushed Franken back into striking distance. Promise. The narrative is simple enough: Franken’s happy childhood in a barely middle-class Jewish family; his switch from public school to a private day school for wealthy families; his early love of comedy, which blossomed in high school in tandem with that of a fellow student, Tom Davis (who would later join him on the writing staff of Saturday Night Live); his going off to Harvard and meeting his wife Franni at a freshman mixer; his being recruited by Lorne Michaels to join the initial SNL team; his writing six books; and, finally, his running an uphill campaign against an incumbent Republican senator and winning, after a lengthy recount and a ruling by the Minnesota Supreme Court, by a mere 312 votes in 2008. His campaign manager told him to stop telling jokes, but he had a hard time following that advice. Democrats complain, but that isn’t really news anymore. It wasn’t really an important matter, but it had puzzled me ever since. But then I received an email blast from the Obama campaign inviting me (and hundreds of others) to “Watch the Obama-McCain Debate with Al Franken” — guess where? As someone who has seen most if not all SNL shows, in real time or in reruns, I enjoyed the inside information about the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players” — Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, Garrett Morris, Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtin, John Belushi, and all the others. “And of course, we were all of a very tender age. And in 1987 I met with Illinois Senator Paul Simon, an early candidate for the 1988 presidential race, and he gave me a very readable yet wonky little book called Let’s Put America Back to Work, chock-full of good ideas that, like Simon’s campaign, never saw the light of day. The correct answer is: “When I go around our state, Minnesotans don’t talk about polls. How can you get DFLers to support you for the endorsement if you’re so far behind?” Franken’s natural instinct would be to try to answer the question. But mostly had sex. We learn interesting things about Chuck Schumer, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, but also Jeff Sessions, Ted Cruz, and Lindsey Graham. But I decided to read Al Franken’s new book, not because he is arguably the funniest senator around, or because his book remains on The New York Times best seller list, or because we grew up in the same neighborhood on the southwest edge of Minneapolis, Minnesota. All of them with Franni.”
In 1992, Franken anchored a series of TV specials on Comedy Central covering the Democratic and Republican conventions. The revenues go straight into reducing the debt.” Coleman’s campaign took this little joke and turned it into a widely run television ad: “Franken Plan to Reduce Debt: Blast the Elderly in Rockets over Snake River and Put it On Pay-for-View.” Similar ads drawn from Franken’s skits and taken completely out of context — on subjects like rape, pornography, bestiality, and other controversial topics — successfully raised red flags for Minnesota voters, and Franken’s virtual tie with Coleman quickly evaporated. Franken tells how it all worked, and presumably works to this day. She prepared a simple but emotionally powerful ad that was so successful that Chuck Schumer said it made him cry and told Franken it would win the election for him. Unlike the broadcast network coverage, which devoted only two hours a night, Indecision ’92 offered four hours of coverage and featured a wide variety of guests, including Christopher Hitchens, Molly Ivins, Norm Ornstein, Calvin Trillin, and Roger Ailes (“Yes, Roger Ailes, who actually was very funny and who, as far as I know, did not sexually molest anyone during the two hours he was with us”). When the cast dominates, we see popular recurring characters beaten into the ground. This benefited him financially, but he had been bitten by the political bug and began endorsing candidates and getting more involved in electoral contests. Franken picked up his books and his jokes and joined the lecture circuit. When the writers dominate, there’s a lot of interesting stuff that the audience doesn’t find all that interesting or all that funny. Sessions and Cruz in particular were skewered by this approach. The actors pushed back with their own ideas and their own self-created characters, setting up a competitive, chaotic environment of clashing egos, often enhanced by prohibited substances. We rented a big-screen TV and put it in the backyard as the crowd filled the first floor of the house, the backyard, and the driveway. “Not many will come. In the late summer of 2008, I received a call from one of my political friends: “Darryl, we are putting together a fundraiser for Al Franken in LA and we wondered if you could help. I read none of them but, to be fair, I also neglected to read books by the Clintons. Prior to the debate, Franken spoke briefly about his campaign without mentioning anything about Obama or what we were about to see. The tragic death of his friend, Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, who perished along with this wife and daughter in a plane crash a few weeks before his reelection in 2002, led Franken to consider running as a candidate himself. Nine months into the Trump administration we understand only too clearly what Franken was concerned about when he quickly completed his book a few weeks after Trump’s electoral victory. He has taught history at the University of Wisconsin and UCLA and is an adjunct professor at USC. Indecision ’92 called the election for Bill Clinton several hours before the networks did. They all overcame early obstacles and family tragedies that would have stymied others and had somehow climbed to the verge of the presidency. After what we went through, Al wrote two beautiful movies, and he wrote them because he wanted to help people. Then he was gone. With Franken in free fall, his wife Franni came to the rescue. And they’re used in rehabs all over the country. I guess I was surprised that SNL was as “live” as it was. Franni looked straight into the eyes of Minnesota voters:
How could a mother of two fabulous, healthy children be an alcoholic? The answer came in Franken’s book. You can’t deliver.” Franken nodded. During the week the writers pushed their ideas to the group. Anything. My home! The Al Franken I know stood by me through thick and thin — so I know he’ll always come through for Minnesota. Seven months after the votes were cast, the Minnesota Supreme Court turned down Coleman’s appeal and the election was over. I wondered why Franken, instead of grabbing onto Obama’s political coattails, seemed rather cool toward our presidential candidate. I thought this might mean rescheduling the Franken event. SEPTEMBER 15, 2017
I NEVER READ BOOKS written by politicians. Only a fraction of the material made it to the end of the week, and even less survived the final cut, which, amazingly, was made by Michaels only an hour or so before the curtain opened at 30 Rock. And I did receive an answer. NEVER!”
Franken’s account is peppered with many funny stories and commentaries about the politicians we read about in the papers. I personally had 227 sexual encounters during my fifteen years at SNL. Franken was congenial and fun to talk to, but I was too busy hosting an army of thirsty Democrats who really like to drink beer and wine when they watch political debates. The lies are so numerous and frequent that no one seems to pay any attention. With his wife Franni and his two children, Franken moved back to Minnesota and set up a political action committee to help other Democrats in the off-year elections of 2006. We should pay more attention to Franken, and to Tim Snyder, whose best-selling manifesto On Tyranny urges, “Believe in truth. Franken seemed to be leading by a few hundred votes when Coleman went on television to proclaim himself the winner and suggested that Franken concede. I don’t remember how many Republicans vied for the 2016 nomination (16?), but I’m sure each one of them wrote, or hired someone to write, a book about themselves, with predictable narratives. On the face of it, this is a typical “onward and upward” story, but Franken delivers it with his irrepressible, self-deprecating Minnesota brand of ironic humor, spicing it up by skewering people like Ted Cruz and Rush Limbaugh with their own statements, laying out the absurdity of much of today’s conservative agenda, and projecting a common-sense, progressive approach to politics and policy. Telling falsehoods to the public is the new normal. But Minnesota law calls for an automatic recount if the election is within one-half a percent. Then the well-funded Coleman team set up a $15-million opposition research project to comb through all of Franken’s books, speeches, and SNL skits to find jokes, satiric statements, and other things that could be used against the comedian-turned-politician. About 200 Obama supporters converged to watch the debate with Al Franken. Kennedy in junior high. A few days later, I learned that the first debate between Obama and John McCain was scheduled for the same Saturday evening. Probably 10 or 15 at the most.” I agreed, and “an intimate evening with Al Franken” was set for a Saturday a week away. People had sex and fell in love. After 15 years as a writer and creator of characters like Stuart Smalley, Franken left the show and wrote his second book, Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot: and Other Observations, which quickly advanced to number one on The New York Times list. Then came election night. Franken would study Republican position papers and ask his staff to fact-check them; if factual errors emerged, he would bring them to light in the course of committee hearings. What was the relation between Franken’s campaign and Obama’s campaign? The transition from comedian-lecturer to politician was not without its problems. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom.”
I decided to review Franken’s book because I hoped it could answer a question that had bothered me since the summer of 2008. No, I read it in search of an answer to a question that had eluded me for nearly a decade. This already seems like a narrative from a time that has passed. While Franken was conducting his frantic and up-and-down race for the Senate in 2008, another senator was waging a very sophisticated and well-organized campaign to become president. Joe Biden met with Franken in the West Wing and explained the key to his 40 years of success: “Never promise anything you can’t deliver. When I was struggling with my recovery, Al stood right by my side and he stood up for me. I read Profiles in Courage by John F. Next question: “Well, do you think you could host it at your home?” I asked how many were expected to attend. Franni sat on her couch in the living room for an interview in which she told a story that hadn’t been shared with anyone publicly — how she, with Franken’s support, had overcome a serious problem with alcoholism. But you will have to read it yourself to learn the answer. We know you are from Minnesota.” It seemed like a good idea and so I agreed. “Putting on a live ninety-minute comedy show week after week can be thrilling, and it can be painfully stressful,” writes Franken. Coleman went to court to try to overturn the results. They talk about their kids’ education, and how they’re worried that they’ll go bankrupt if someone in their family gets sick.” Perhaps the biggest and earliest challenge for Franken was to find a way to curtail his comedic skills, so that Minnesota’s generally straight-laced voters could begin to take him seriously. After the narrowest of narrow wins in 2008, Franken soared to reelection victory in 2014 while Democrats across the country were swept out of office. The ad was pure Minnesota. Wrong! Hillary Clinton’s advice was also useful: “Simply put: Be a workhorse, not a showhorse.” When Franken introduced an amendment to a defense bill based on the advice of his staff and saw it adopted on a 70-30 vote (over the objections of Jeff Sessions), he was asked by the press how he had got the idea: “My chief of staff, Drew Littman, came up with it,” Franken answered. No, let me take that back. Franken writes that his parents taught him that honesty is the best policy, and while politicians often dissemble or dodge and shift the conversation to what they want to talk about, this fact-checking is pretty much standard procedure.