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Why Al Franken couldn’t outrun his past

In 2008, we were asked to believe that Franken knew the difference between comedy and politics. In retrospect, we may have focused too much on his grasp of politics and too little on his grasp of comedy.

Sen. Al Franken: “I’ve told and written a lot of jokes that I once thought were funny but later came to realize were just plain offensive.”
MinnPost photo by Jana Freiband

In Al Franken’s townhouse, in downtown Minneapolis, there is a bathroom dedicated to America’s most scandalous politician. Franken calls it the Nixon bathroom. It’s decorated with the iconic image of Richard Nixon defiantly flashing the victory sign on his last day as president, and a copy of Nixon’s terse resignation letter — at 11 words, about 1,300 fewer than Franken used in his resignation speech last Thursday. It’s a darkly comic reminder of the hubris that can lead a man to flush his career, as it were, down the toilet.

That this decor might one day become ironic would never have occurred to Franken in 2008, when he won a seat in the U.S. Senate. Though he had spent most of his life as a professional comedian, humiliating himself and others, nothing about that gig had so far proved disqualifying for the one he was about to take on.

In August 2007, a few months after he’d jumped into the race, Franken was accused of exercising too enthusiastically. The accusers were a couple of young women, who told City Pages that Franken would shout “Go, Al!” and shake his sweat-soaked towel in his mouth, like a dog, while working out in his condo building’s gym. “I swear he was doing it just to get a rise out of me,” one of the women said.

Franken’s campaign manager dismissed it as a “light-hearted story” that “doesn’t sound like him.” 

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The following May, just before the DFL’s endorsing convention, another story broke, this time about an article that Franken had written for Playboy magazine. Franken’s campaign defended the piece, which mused about “firm but ample breasts” and the “Minnesota Institute of Titology,” as satire. But Rep. Betty McCollum (who recently backed an investigation of Franken) called his writing “completely unacceptable” and advised the DFL to drop him.

New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, now the minority leader in the Senate, told McCollum to back off. Franken went to Harvard, after all, and could rattle off the critical details of seemingly any policy issue. He was smart enough, he was good enough, and doggone it, people liked him — he would be great for fundraising.

Franken, we were asked to believe, knew the difference between comedy and politics. And now he was trading one for the other — a clean break. In retrospect, we may have focused too much on his grasp of politics and too little on his grasp of comedy.

‘Intended to be funny’

Comedy, as a rule, is transgressive. In a 2014 article in The Atlantic called “The Dark Psychology of Being a Good Comedian,” a professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder’s Humor Research Lab — which sounds like something Franken made up — describes the best comedy as containing “something wrong, unsettling, and threatening.” He calls these moments “violations.”

Franken, who once wrote a rape joke for “Saturday Night Live,” spent years practicing such violations. He kept his head down during his first term in the Senate, but eventually he couldn’t resist his comedic urges. With the rise of Trump and his rogue’s gallery of supporting players — Cabinet members that Franken calls numbskulls, dimwits, and dunderheads — he dropped the muzzle altogether.

His wry takedowns of Rick Perry, Betsy DeVos, and other Cabinet members made him a liberal hero and were inevitably described on progressive news sites as “totally destroying,” “obliterating,” or “humiliating.” But his resurgent comedy wasn’t limited to policy.

In October, a month before he was first accused of sexual misconduct, Franken arrived late to a Senate hearing on drug pricing and was out of breath when he took the mic for questioning. “Excuse me,” he said, and then imitated the heavy breathing of a pervert. “Actually, I didn’t run back,” he joked, “this is just such an exciting hearing.”

Comedy, of course, is rarely an end in itself. It’s a form of control. The Humor Research folks give the example of tickling, in which you have total control of your victim, almost in a state of paralysis — a kind of “benign violation,” assuming the victim has consented.

When I first wrote about Franken, in 2008, an associate of Franken’s warned me that he would try to control the conversation. He tells the jokes, not you, she said. Banter with him and he’ll cut you down: “You don’t make small talk with Al Franken.”

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It’s unclear whether Franken’s instinct for violations led him to grope or kiss all of the women now accusing him. He has rejected some of the claims and remembers others differently. But he explained the first incident to surface, in which he was photographed pretending to grab a sleeping woman’s breasts, as “clearly intended to be funny.” His seventh accuser claimed he tried to forcibly kiss her, saying “It’s my right as an entertainer.”

Franken eventually apologized to his constituents, if not his accusers, for much of his comedy. “I’ve told and written a lot of jokes that I once thought were funny but later came to realize were just plain offensive,” he said last month. “I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to come to terms with that.” But by then his career was already circling the commode. 

In the memoir he put out this summer, “Al Franken, Giant of the Senate,” Franken acknowledges that he has a problem. “My long, easily decontextualized history of metacomedy,” he writes, is a liability. He wishes he had a “Re-Humorizer” that would explain why all his seemingly abhorrent comedy is actually funny. The porn piece. Even the rape joke.

Because in the end, he admits, “I can’t help it. Even after all this, my instinct is still to at least try and go for the joke. Even when it’s probably a really bad idea.”

Tim Gihring, a former editor of Minnesota Monthly, wrote one of the first major profiles of Al Franken during his initial run for Senate, in 2008.