Al Franken was more prepared than you might think to run successfully for the U.S. Senate in 2008. Being a senator is serious business, and Franken had just spent 35 years not being funny. The challenge he faced was this: After years of trying to be funny and failing, could he at long last try not to be funny, and succeed?
On the strength of Al Franken: Giant of the Senate, Franken is not-funnier than ever. A book written by a sitting senator who is actually a professional writer, and not only a professional writer but a professional comedy writer, is a delectable prospect. The pickings must be so easy in the Capitol you’d think that for a former Saturday Night Live comic to write about it would be like LeBron James going one-on-one with Angela Lansbury. Yet when the Frankenhumor goes on a rampage, here is what happens:
Throughout this volume, whenever you see a very mild oath like “Fiddlesticks!” (or some gentle name-calling like “numbskull” or “dimwit” . . .) followed by the letters “USS” in superscript, that means I’ve replaced something far more plainspoken with a less offensive phrase or expression. The “USS” stands for United States Senate, the body in which I now serve. I feel I have a duty to both my colleagues and my constituents to make at least a token effort to preserve its dignity and decorum. I wish I could say the same for that dunderheadUSS Ted Cruz.
Franken takes this limp stick of comedy celery and tries to make a buffet out of it, returning to the mild-imprecation-and-superscript gag again and again and again. The first time he comes up with anything funny, we’re on page 294, and Cruz is again the (big, fat) target: He’s “the guy in your office who snitches to corporate about your March Madness pool and microwaves fish in the office kitchen. He’s the Dwight Schrute of the Senate.”
If there were 300 lines as good as that one, the book would actually count as a funny memoir rather than what it is, which is a work as clever as your average book of knock-knock jokes interrupted by the odd explanation of cloture votes or continuing resolutions. Some passages sound as if Franken began by asking, “Siri, what are some of the most boring political clichés?” and transcribed the results. “We need to create more prosperity,” he writes, “and do it in a way where everybody gets to prosper. Which means we need to invest in our infrastructure, and in research and development, and in innovative technologies, and in our workforce, and, most of all, in our kids.” No, there is no punch line to follow. This is the kind of insomnia cure that turns up in ghostwritten political books that haven’t even been read by their purported authors, but writing is Franken’s profession. This is supposed to be a real book, not a lump of campaign cellulose.
Though almost nothing Franken comes up with is funny, the memoir nevertheless contains a lot of wit. This is because it quotes a lot of Republicans. When Lindsey Graham was running for president, and was about 15th out of 17, Franken told him, “I’d vote for you.” Graham shot back, “That’s my problem.” Non-comedy writers speaking off the cuff invariably prove funnier than Franken is on the cuff. At a dinner with senators and their spouses, Stephanie Johanns, wife of former GOP senator Mike Johanns of Nebraska, recalled glad-handing on the hustings, where one is forever confronted with a parade of new people and sometimes can’t keep everyone straight. She “turned around,” says Franken, “and saw a woman whom she knew, but couldn’t place. Stephanie said, ‘I knew I knew this woman, and I panicked. Then I figured out who she was and said, “Oh — hi, Mom!”’” When Franken tells Mitch McConnell his speeches are okay when he isn’t advancing the cause of evil, the Kentuckian fires back, “I like the evil ones better.”
Franken is at times funny when he doesn’t mean to be: He says he bonded with working men on the Iron Range because “I was a member of four unions myself: the Writers Guild, the Screen Actors Guild, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and the Directors Guild.” Al, Cesar Chavez you ain’t.
Longtime SNL viewers know that most episodes are like an album by a middling rock band — not the Beatles, more like Foo Fighters. You expect one or two good songs, and a lot of filler. Franken was a master of filler, starring in the segments buried deep in the show when the audience was falling asleep or turning off the TV. His long-running Stuart Smalley character was the sawdust in the SNL hot dog, an insufferably fragile little fussbudget in a baby-blue sweater who spouted the least-infectious would-be catchphrase except for David Letterman’s “They pelted us with rocks and garbage”: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” Franken would exclaim. There was 90 minutes of airtime to fill. Not everything could be genius. Franken is proud of Stuart to this day — “My most popular character on the show,” he says, a bit of relativism to rank beside “the smartest Transformers movie ever” — and allows that his longtime writing partner, Tom Davis, after whom he named not his son but his daughter, Thomasin Davis Franken, “hated Stuart.”
When Franken’s friend and SNL mentor Lorne Michaels inexplicably agreed to produce the movie Stuart Saves His Family, one of the most unfortunate of the dozen SNL spinoff movies, it grossed $912,000 in 1995. Without having the rest of the SNL talent around, here is the kind of thing Franken comes up with. Of Republican Norm Coleman, whom Franken unseated to capture his Senate seat, the current senator writes, “Poor Norm . . . came to court every day and sat somberly at his lawyers’ table, looking somewhat like a husband on trial for murdering his wife.” Franken complains, with some justification, about how in his race against Coleman many things he had said in jest were run through the “de-humorizer” and framed as actual policy proposals. But Franken is badly in need of a humorizer, someone funny to rewrite his terrible jokes.
The history of politically inexperienced, personally repellent third-rate television personalities with anger issues who managed to parlay their fame into high office does not begin with Donald Trump. Beating Norm Coleman by 312 votes, Franken was amazingly fortunate to get where he is. He benefited from the excitement surrounding Barack Obama (who, Franken says, appeared to be avoiding him on his visits to the state), he profited from a last-minute scandal that hurt Coleman . . . and he had an alcoholic wife.
No, really: He devotes a chapter to bragging about leveraging the drinking problem of his wife, Franni — a problem that had never before been made public — into a TV commercial that aired in October 2008. “There is no question,” the senator says, “that I would have lost the election if Franni had not made that spot.” In the commercial, Franni said: “When I was struggling with my recovery, Al stood right by my side and he stood up for me. After what we went through, Al wrote two beautiful movies, and he wrote them because he wanted to help people.” One of the two movies Mrs. Franken was citing is the Meg Ryan drinking drama When a Man Loves a Woman. The other film was Stuart Saves His Family, the SNL spinoff about the achingly unfunny addiction-and-recovery guru. Franken’s impending final victory helped nudge Arlen Specter, who weeks earlier had said he wanted Coleman to win, to join the Democrats and provide their 59th vote, with Franken delivering the 60th, without either of which Obamacare would have died. That Stuart Saves His Family was alluded to in a tide-turning ad in a historic race has to rank among the dumbest things ever to happen in American history.
Franken boasted that, upon appointment as a fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center at the Kennedy School, his main interest was setting the students to work researching his next book: Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. This title shares the quintessential Franken-joke characteristics of being labored and self-satisfied rather than witty. (Curious, Al: Did you pay those students at least minimum wage?) Example of a joke from Lies: Former George W. Bush foreign-policy adviser Richard Armitage “bolted from the hearing room, knocking over veteran reporter Helen Thomas, breaking her hip and jaw.” See the funny there? Nor do I. Franken had to append a footnote to the paperback edition explaining that this was a joke. Is there a more established rule of comedy than “A joke you have to explain is a failure”?
Franken is rather vague when it comes to his own failings. He says obliquely, “In that debate, the one in the gymnasium, Norm brought up my ‘assault’ on the protester in Manchester, New Hampshire.” Wait, what? This is all Franken has to share about the time he went up to a heckler at a 2004 Howard Dean rally and, getting down on the floor, lunged and grabbed the man around the knees? Franken did this in front of a New York Times profiler whom he tried to talk into joining him (“I think the two of us can get him out. You want to do it?”). Franken was at the time a 52-year-old man. Right after the incident, he bragged: “I was a wrestler [in high school] so I used a wrestling move.” The judgment here isn’t great. Also, assault is a crime. And the media, except for a few right-leaning outlets, all but ignored the incident — indeed, the Times itself never did a separate story on the matter, content to let a digression in a nearly 8,000-word profile suffice. The media declined to revisit the matter even when Franken ran for the Senate. Imagine if President Trump had assaulted a heckler just four years before he was elected. Do you think the media might have reminded us all of that? The episode in which now-congressman Greg Gianforte assaulted a reporter reminds us that physical violence is still a very big no-no — when Republicans do it.
On a visit with the Lake Superior Chippewa, Franken stumbled across these insights: “A recent study on sovereignty . . . concluded that tribes who govern themselves do better than those dictated to by the federal government. . . . One of the first things I learned about Indians is that they don’t expect much from politicians. . . . Conditions in Indian country in terms of education, infrastructure, housing, and health care are still by and large disgraceful.” Yes, and who runs all that stuff? In the federally managed paradise of Indian land, where Washington dominates decision-making, everyone knows the results are catastrophic. Franken, who invariably votes for more federal control of everything, lacks the wit to develop this thought a step or two further, as he does when he complains about the skyrocketing cost of higher education while taking no notice of the federal spending that just happened to skyrocket concurrently.
Franken may have taken an unusual road to the Senate, but the book proves that as a political being he is typical of a party that thinks people misunderstand rather than mistrust its never-ending promise to make the rich pay for everybody else’s stuff. “Democrats,” Franken claims, “always have a disadvantage in messaging — not because we’re idiots, but because we have complex ideas and, sometimes, a hard time explaining them succinctly. Our bumper stickers always end with ‘continued on next bumper sticker.’” Franken is not only as unfunny as his pathetic alter ego, Stuart — he’s just as naïve.