Al Franken is a U.S. Senator?


As a nation, we value freedom, independence, and most importantly, validation. Though we claim to want qualified leaders, deep down we really just want them to be cool. Sure, we could prove our superiority to other countries through strong, thoughtful policy, but it’s easier and more fun if we just shove a cool, down-to-earth guy in their faces. This tendency may not be as bad as it seems.

Yes, we seem to have a long tradition of electing respected officials based on characteristics that shouldn’t really be that important. We elected John F. Kennedy because, on television, he looked more handsome and exciting than crotchety old Richard Nixon. We chose George W. Bush because he seemed fun to bring to a bar. I feel this qualification is important in electing someone to be on your local community basketball team, but not for being leader of the Free World. Or maybe, we elected him because, well, Kerry and Gore were snores.

Santi Slade / Kitsch Artist
Santi Slade / Kitsch Artist

Sometimes coolness-based voting ends up working; Bill Clinton, for example, played the saxophone and saved the economy. In many ways, personality foreshadows a leader’s success in office. A well-presented persona can indicate a well put-together individual capable of commanding respect. Ronald Reagan was an actor (and not even a very good one) before we elected him President. Now he is considered one of the greatest leaders of all time, evidenced by the fact that no one has been able to shut up about him for the last 30 years. California even allowed Arnold Schwarzenegger to become governor. The Terminator was in charge of the most populous state in the country. Given the Governator’s ineffective policies, gaping deficit, and secret-love-child scandal, he may not be the best example.

One of the most surprising political success stories of the past few years, however, is comedian-turned-senator Al Franken of Minnesota. A hard-core Democrat, Franken has spoken in favor of Supreme Court justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, and staunchly supported the Affordable Care Act, even having proposed successful amendments to the bill. In his two years in office, he has earned the respect of colleagues and constituents alike. In fact, Franken has received more respect and less scrutiny than countless politicians from more traditional backgrounds.

I didn’t think much of any of this until I started reading Tom Shales’ Live From New York, a hefty hard-cover book comprised of interviews with almost everyone who has ever been involved in Saturday Night Live since its inception in 1975. Al Franken was involved with the show pretty much from the beginning, when it was merely an idea in the head of executive producer Lorne Michaels. For those of you who don’t know much about Al Franken, this may be a good read for you. I guarantee you, the more you read it, the more surprised you’ll be that this fascinating man was ever seriously elected.

According to the book, Al Franken and his writing partner, Tom Davis, were two of the original rookie writers on Saturday Night Live during its formative years. They, like the rest of the seventies cast and writers, were rebellious, living out stereotypes of the time through big hair, a stick-it-to-the-man attitude, and of course, copious amounts of cocaine.

“I only did cocaine to stay awake and to make sure nobody else did too much cocaine.” Franken joked. “That was the only reason I ever did it. Heh-heh.”

Considering the scandals the press has fabricated over politicians having smoked marijuana through the years, it is fairly shocking that Franken was elected after saying things like this. Yet no one seems to care (as they shouldn’t).

Franken became famous for the “Franken and Davis Show” sketches, written with Tom Davis. These sketches were arguably the strangest and edgiest parts of each show, and were often the most conceptual and offensive segments of SNL. They would often end by saying, “Brought to you by the International Communist Party—working for you, in Africa!” One famous 1975 sketch involved gay couples announcing their secret relationships to their wives. Considering that homosexuality was still legally considered a shameful mental disorder just two years earlier, this was cutting-edge television. Now, all of a sudden, homosexuality was viable material for discussion on a broadcast television show. That’s pretty groundbreaking considering this was before you could really even say the word “bitch” on television. Franken did not exactly play by the book, but his cleverness allowed him to contribute to changing the standards of media/television while innovating and pushing the boundaries of social issues.

Despite his brilliance, Franken was a notorious loose cannon. In his most famous bit from those first years, he appeared on a Weekend Update segment in 1979, with a piece called “Limo for a Lame-o,” about then NBC President Fred Silverman. Franken called Silverman a “total unequivocal failure” and mocked him for owning a limo (which Franken felt he, as a comedy star, deserved more). Unsurprisingly, this put into motion Silverman’s idea to get rid of both Franken and Lorne Michaels before the 1980 season. Whether Franken’s brazenness in the face of authority is a valuable quality in a leader, it is undoubtedly a rare quality these days.

When Shales asked Franken about his career leading up to Saturday Night Live, Franken discussed the scarcity of comedy jobs in the seventies.

“I think Sonny and Cher was on, which was a piece of shit,” he said. Few political figures could get away with this, and we’re lucky Franken was able to emerge from this period.

By reading this book, I’ve gotten a real sense of Franken as a person. In one chapter, he and Tom Davis recall the day Franken introduced his new baby daughter (the “first SNL baby,” as he calls her) to the staff. At the baby shower organized by famous cast member Gilda Radner, Franken was supposed to carry in the baby. Instead, he bought a doll of the same size and walked in with it, immediately starting to beat the doll up and slam it on the floor, pretending to kill it. Shortly thereafter, his sister-in-law arrived with the real baby.

“I’m telling you, Al did shit like that,” Davis said. “I love him for it.” The takeaway here is that Franken is first and foremost a comedian, and, like anyone that makes a living off humor, he will do whatever it takes for a laugh. The other takeaway is that Franken is kind of an asshole, but nonetheless entertaining and smart.

Franken returned to the show in 1985 and stayed through the mid-nineties. He was even a semi-cast member, penning and performing the famous character “Stuart Smalley,” an effeminate self-help specialist of ambiguous sexual orientation. You may recognize Stuart from the movie he inspired, Stuart Saves his Family. And if you do, you should probably tell Al Franken, because you are one of the 12 people who saw that movie.

Stuart’s catchphrase was, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” He also was famous for saying things like, “That’s just stinkin’ thinkin!” and, “You’re should-ing all over yourself.”

When you think about it, Franken has carried these values to his political career. Franken got to where he is because, doggone it, people like him! He goes against the grain and is not afraid to say what he thinks. He is not about politics as usual, and he wants to get his message out there, whatever it takes. He took down the head of NBC without batting an eye. He’s like that smart, witty, intimidating guy in college who always makes you feel dumb when you talk to him. We all hate that guy, but we admire him too. Most importantly, we listen to him. And Franken still carries his old reputation. In 2010, when Senator Mitch McConnell spoke out against Elena Kagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court, Franken sat behind him and made mocking faces and hand gestures.         McConnell retorted with, “This isn’t Saturday Night Live, Al.”

Well, maybe the political scene is actually becoming kind of like Saturday Night Live. Is that really so bad? Comedy has become a pretty political field with figures like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Bill Maher rising to positions of fame and national influence. As much as I like to spew about wanting supremely qualified candidates only, I’m not immune to the cool guy syndrome. If Jon Stewart ran for office, I’d have a hard time voting for anyone else.

It’s pretty absurd to think of some famous comedians going into politics. Think about someone like Louis CK, whose celebrity comes from lines like, “suck a bag of dicks.” And yet, with so many comedians now doing political humor, it’s becoming more and more feasible. And there isn’t really a way these people can be much more ridiculous than some of the trained politicians we have out there now. Fellow Minnesotan Michele Bachmann once claimed that, “there isn’t even one study that can be produced that shows that carbon dioxide is a harmful gas,” yet she still enjoys a seat in the House of Representatives. Apparently fact-checking isn’t necessary in politics.

What is interesting about comedians in particular is their consistent intelligence. It takes a lot of cleverness and logic to craft a great joke, sketch, or script. Not just anyone can do it. Working on a show like Saturday Night Live, in particular, takes a lot of discipline. A lot of the skills we want in politicians are skills required of comedians. After all, half of politics is just acting, right? Maybe that’s why Reagan was so successful.

Really, what comedians do is get at something very innate and real about the way people interact, and they expand these interactions to make us aware of them. They make us laugh because they understand the world in a way that most people don’t, or at least in a way that most people don’t recognize. They make us realize things about ourselves that we had never considered before. This requires a pretty high level of cognition and observation. If someone can do this, who’s to say they can’t do politics? Maybe the political and comedic worlds aren’t really that far apart to begin with. Comedy can be smart, and politics can be funny. Franken may be onto something.

Franken has been a senator now for two years. People were surprised that he was elected. People were surprised he ran in the first place. but after all, enough people voted for him that he was able to get to where he is now. No one ever expected Franken to get this position. And yet here he is, two years in, getting things done.

Perhaps we shouldn’t fear valuing politicians for their entertainment value or relatability—but that’s not to say we shouldn’t be smart about it. It’s a risky game, voting for people because we secretly want to hang out with them. Franken is clearly a difficult guy, and he may not have the background for the job. Maybe, at heart, he is too much of a comedian, prioritizing getting laughs or making scenes. But if someone is smart enough to trick us into buying him as a comedian-turned-senator, maybe we should listen to what he has to say.

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