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Why Al Franken couldn’t outrun his past

MinnPost photo by Jana Freiband
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.”

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.” 

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.”

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.

Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Karl Belgum on 12/14/2017 - 10:05 am.

    Franken can’t outrun Minnesota

    The revolution, like Saturn, devours its young. Apparently it is still true today. How much we liberals like to judge, point fingers, hold ourselves up on our high horse. Forgiveness is is seen as weakness, vindictiveness is strength. Do you not see it? We are in danger of becoming something less than human. Once liberalism meant the spirit of concern for your neighbor. Now it means being the house on the block with that mean couple inside that all the kids avoid. The same chilly self-righteousness that drove Al Franken out of the Senate is a big part of what drove the rest of the country into the arms of Donald Trump. Folks, it is just plain unattractive. We need to wake up and run ourselves through the re-humanizer. Leaving Al in the senate would have fostered a debate about the difference between gross humor and sexual predation. It would have helped us explore the distinctions between the two and maybe we would have learned something on both fronts. They are both negative. But they are not the same. It would have been a useful discussion. But no, there goes the bath water, and oops there goes the baby. So congratulations Minnesota liberals. You are strong in your convictions. You are always right. And you have become the kind of folks people change seats to avoid sitting next to.

    • Submitted by Matt Touchette on 12/14/2017 - 03:02 pm.

      Why blame Minnesota?

      I would argue that the DFL had more to do with his resignation than Minnesota voters.

      That said, the your argument as aimed at the whole of the DFL, if not just a portion of MN voters, is still valid (I think similar arguments could be made about Republicans).

    • Submitted by Tim Smith on 12/14/2017 - 03:09 pm.

      and stay off our lawn!

      you are so right, live by the PC and identity politics sword and you know the rest…

    • Submitted by John Webster on 12/15/2017 - 09:54 am.

      Kudos to Karl

      Karl, you wrote exactly what I’ve thought for several years: modern liberalism is now dominated by sanctimonious preeners who are analogous to religious fundamentalists. Their endless assertions of moral superiority grate on those of us who see the world in shades of grey, not black and white, pure good vs. pure evil.

      Character is destiny, and Franken’s humiliation doesn’t surprise anyone who long ago saw him as a repulsive person, political ideology aside. He groped women – likely dozens – because as a famous, wealthy celebrity he felt entitled to whatever he wanted, including women who wouldn’t want him – a non-partisan failing of many men.

      Nevertheless, I oppose his resignation, because it’s an over-harsh punishment for the crime. His Democratic colleagues are forcing him out for purely expedient reasons. An ideological clone will replace him, Democrats can now claim the higher moral ground (falsely), and they can, and have already, turned their sights on their ultimate target: Trump

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/14/2017 - 10:10 am.

    Comedy…

    Comedy was not Franken’s problem, he didn’t have to resign because he started being funny again. It wasn’t his comic past that caught up to him, it was his boorish treatment of women, which was never funny.

    Does anyone remember the name of the guy Democrat’s wanted to run instead of Franken? Franken won two elections, and he served well in the Senate. Those who disparaged him may put some freudenshade on display, but if they’d had their way Norm Coleman would likely have been our Senator.

    I’m not sure why Franken and the Democrats fumbled this so badly, but those who didn’t think Franken (or other liberals) could win elections haven’t earned the right to say: “I told you so”. Specially when these self same people are the one’s who told us Hillary Clinton’s “past” could be easily outrun when they put her on the ballot.

  3. Submitted by Joe Perkinton on 12/14/2017 - 11:23 am.

    come on

    Tim and to the puritan sanctimonious Dems, get over yourselves and get a sense of humor. Sen Franken can be a crass parodist, but should still be in the Senate.

  4. Submitted by Ted Dau on 12/14/2017 - 11:32 am.

    It’s a sham

    Reading this article makes me realize just how ridiculous this has all become. I’ll never forgive Democrats for this. When we elect a senator, we don’t elect them to be subjected to what politicians out of New York consider acceptable behavior. So if we elect a Democrat and haven’t dug through every aspect of their behavior over the last 50 years they may be systematically expelled from the Senate?

    No. I will vote Republican just to teach New York Democrats a lesson. Al Franken should not resign.

    • Submitted by Bill Willy on 12/14/2017 - 01:33 pm.

      As someone said the other day, “That’ll show ’em!”

      Before you vote Republican or decide to make some kind of personal political statement over this kind of stuff, be sure to think long, hard and clearly about things like

      — The current president

      — The current congress

      — The Repeal and Replace plan

      — The “new and improved” (not to mention “Biggest In History”) trickle-down tax bill, the effects of which we will ALL be experiencing all too soon, barring some unforeseeable near-miracle of legislative derailment

      — The last Republican president, his trickle-down tax cuts, the “Great Recession” and what that “abstract concept” (to many) cost millions of people in (real as it gets) terms of their jobs, their health insurance, their retirement plans, life savings, foreclosed upon homes, their health, their “diminished quality of life,” etc.

      — The $3 to $6 TRILLION (and your household’s $75,000 share of that) spent on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that have left hundreds of thousands of innocent dead people in it’s wake and millions of surviving people homeless, nationless, rootless and on the refugee move, shattered and hoping they MAY be able to make it to someplace where they might be able to rebuild their lives to some point of semi-normalcy before they die of old age in a totally foreign country.

      Things like that. You know the drill. If you think anything anyone did in relation to Al Franken’s situation is worth casting a vote for those who cast votes (in congress) for things like the above (day in and day out) it’s your right. But be sure you’re clear on what it is you’d be voting for with your vote against.

      • Submitted by Ted Dau on 12/14/2017 - 02:28 pm.

        I hate Trump. And there’s not much that could keep me from voting against him, except this. I’m never going to let ambitious New Yorkers tell me my vote does not count.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/15/2017 - 08:27 am.

      Not just a sham…

      It’s a sham of a mockery of two shams of a mockery of a sham!

  5. Submitted by Howard Salute on 12/14/2017 - 12:42 pm.

    A lot of people pay $12 million for doing nothing wrong.

    Medtronic admitted no wrongdoing when it agreed to settle a lawsuit for $12 million dollars and Brian Lambert noted “A lot of people pay $12 million for doing nothing wrong”.

    Similarly, a lot of Senators resign their seats for doing nothing wrong.

  6. Submitted by Bill Willy on 12/14/2017 - 02:05 pm.

    Before

    Thanks for writing this piece.

    I say that because I wasn’t clear on how much was known about Al Franken’s “behavior” prior to his being elected the first time (because I wasn’t paying much attention to that aspect of things at the time and haven’t read or heard much about that in relation to what’s happening now). Your piece is great when it comes to pointing out that the core of the things he’s been forced to resign over were no secret before he was elected . . . That’s what I suspected from the little bit I’ve heard, but your account makes it clear.

    I’ve been interested in that from the perspective of the second “key component” in the president’s defense of his pre-election behavior.

    His first defense is the blanket dismissal of all his accusers as liars and money or publicity seeking trash bag losers he never would’ve so much as looked at on a dare. (“Not my types. Believe me. I mean, just look at them. Not my types.”).

    His backup defense for the harder to blow off stuff (in print and on tape all over the place) is, “The voters knew and they have spoken, case closed,” as if that’s in the Constitution somewhere.

    No big thing, but I’m glad to know that “everyone in Minnesota was aware of Al Franken’s behavior toward women before they voted for him” (everyone but me, of course). But, when it came to his having to leave office (rightly or wrongly) that didn’t mean beans and goes to show (“Precedent, your Honor . . . Precedent!”) it doesn’t mean anything more when it comes to the president.

  7. Submitted by Patrick Tice on 12/14/2017 - 02:23 pm.

    Well, I guess

    …Betty McCollum was right.

    • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 12/16/2017 - 07:06 pm.

      McCollum was right. And she

      McCollum was right.

      And she was put in her place by the DFL, forced to recant and be quiet. Which, considering all the posturing Democrats are doing around their supposed respect for women is a real irony I suspect she has taken note of.

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