Politics

Must-Reads of 2017: Al Franken's Comedy Turns Tragic

The words look the same. The meanings have changed.

The best-selling author.

Photographer: SOPA Images/Getty Images

Books are still oddly built to last. In an age of tweets and other ephemera, they’re the third little piggy’s brick-and-mortar house, withstanding the gale-force winds of a digital wolf that has already wrecked whole neighborhoods built of less sturdy stuff.

Yet even when the frame endures – the glossy cover, the laudatory blurbs, the author’s face, smiling or serious, beckoning the reader to come hither – a book’s insides can be blown to smithereens.

That’s what happened to Senator Al Franken’s latest book. He had another winner this year. As recently as a few weeks ago the House of Franken was still buttressed by the strong reviews and robust sales of “Al Franken, Giant of the Senate.” Then came the wind.

I never read Franken’s book, which is surely the best approach. My wife and I listened to it, read by Franken himself, on a long drive through the middle of the country. Franken is a lifelong ham, and his reading is engagingly, often charmingly, hammy. He doesn’t just describe his relationships with other senators, he plays the parts, including a pretty good rendition of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell smothering the English language somewhere in the vicinity of his Adam’s apple. But the tenor of Franken’s voice is also a pretty good guide to his enthusiasms. His own jokes are paramount.

Much of the book is devoted to the trouble those jokes caused Franken when, in 2008, he made a bumpy transition from comedy to politics. It’s hard to think of a worse campaign bio than 15 years as a writer at "Saturday Night Live." The only question for such a candidate is whether there is anyone left to offend. It turns out that nearly a decade after Franken’s first Senate run, and a couple years after a relatively easy re-election, the answer is yes.

On Nov. 16, Los Angeles radio host Leeann Tweeden accused Franken of forcibly kissing her during a 2006 USO tour during which they entertained troops abroad. The charge was punctuated by a photo of Franken, mugging for the camera, either pretending to grope or actually groping Tweeden’s breasts on a flight back to the U.S. Since then, six other women have made claims of improper behavior against Franken, though none accompanied by such graphic illustration.

In the wake of the allegations, and Franken’s various apologies, the words in “Giant of the Senate” haven’t changed. But their meaning, in some instances, and the chummy feel they once generated, have been blown clean off the page.

Franken said earlier this year that he would not run for president. But the book seemed like a pretty clever prebuttal of likely political attacks in the event he changed his mind. It took old controversies, instances in which Franken’s comedy career had wedged itself precariously into the open spaces of his political ambitions, and smartly framed them in a way that some future press secretary of some future campaign would be able to point to and say, “Oh, that old story? Al explained all that in the book. I’ll send you the page.”

It seems that won’t be necessary. Instead, old concerns have acquired new shadows in the light of recent events. An SNL rape joke about Lesley Stahl was never funny. (“I was just doing my job,” Franken explained, citing the anything-goes of the writer’s room.) The joke never aired. But for a politician accused of grabbing butts and bosoms, it’s a joke guaranteed never to die. 

And that satirical story Franken authored for Playboy magazine, which he titled “Porn-o-Rama”? The universe does not contain enough context for a U.S. senator to both grope women and satirize porn.

There is also the matter of Franken’s wife, Franni. He met her his first week at Harvard University, and they’ve pretty much been together since. While his SNL compatriots went wild with sex and drugs, Franken said he tempered the latter with a monogamous dose of the former. He credited Franni with saving his 2008 campaign when she appeared in a 30-second TV ad explaining how her husband had stood by her through the throes of alcoholism.

The domestic story seems a little shakier now, while my own wife’s remark, uttered lackadaisically somewhere around Shawnee, Oklahoma, that Franken spoke suspiciously much about his spouse, seems more ominous.

Franken understands that his public office is not a trifle. In the Senate, he wrote, he waged a valiant campaign to strangle his jokes lest they strangle him.

“I could be funny in the office, but only with members of staff, not in meetings with visitors,” he wrote. “It was also okay to be funny on the floor with my colleagues, as long as I wasn’t loud enough to be picked up by the C-SPAN microphones. And, for God’s sake, no physical humor!”

“Physical humor” is among the phrases in the book that produce a different effect now, as if a role written for Buster Keaton was inexplicably given to Peter Lorre. 

Another unforeseen transition is the subject of the book’s conclusion. Franken turns his attention to a president who was once casually unthinkable, then suddenly undeniable. The author speaks of rallying resistance, and laying the groundwork for a better day. It’s one of many signals that Franken intends to be a factor in the nation’s future. But Franken is realistic enough to acknowledge the obstacles. “This is going to suck for a while,” he wrote. 

That line holds up pretty well.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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