A candid conversation with the Minnesota senator about the state of political discourse, unfunny colleagues, and why everyone hates a certain senator from Texas.
The conventional way to go about having a midlife crisis is to abruptly abandon your distinguished career in some well-respected occupation to go start a Phish cover band. Or learn to paint. Or indulge whatever other long-held dream you’ve dutifully repressed for your entire adult life. (Whether you also make the requisite sports car purchase depends in large part on how lucrative that first job was.) Al Franken, though, took the opposite approach: After spending more than two decades as a comedian best known for his work as a writer and performer on Saturday Night Live, Franken launched a second career as a progressive political activist that culminated in his election to the United States Senate, where he has represented his home state of Minnesota since 2008.
As you might expect, the occasionally-sharp edges of Franken’s tenure in comedy played a memorably outsized role in his election bid. One of Franken’s political heroes was the legendary Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone, who was tragically killed in a plane crash in November 2002. In his new book, Al Franken: Giant of the Senate, Franken details that among his motivations for running were astoundingly tone-deaf comments made by Wellstone’s Republican successor, Norm Coleman, who told a reporter less than six months after Wellstone’s death, “To be very blunt, and God watch over Paul’s soul, I am a 99 percent improvement over Paul Wellstone.”
The ugly campaign that ensued between the two men, even by 2016 standards, got very, very personal. Coleman’s team dug up crude essays and off-color jokes written by Franken in his previous life and portrayed him as a disrespectful misogynist, nearly torpedoing Franken’s bid and making big-name Democrats across the country very skittish about throwing their support behind the candidate. Although Coleman held a slight edge over Franken on Election Day, the razor-thin margin—215 votes out of nearly 3 million cast—were close enough to trigger an automatic statewide recount, and after that agonizing process and a legal challenge had run their course, Franken was declared the winner by a mere 312 votes. He handily won re-election in 2014, and he is still believed to be the first senator in American history to participate in an honest-to-God Senate Judiciary Committee hearing after portrayinga senator on a nationally-televised sketch comedy show.
Although he has eschewed comedy for most of his Senate career, Franken of late has gradually trotted out more of the trademark dry wit and biting sarcasm that made him famous. He made reference to his previous line of work while criticizing Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch about Gorsuch’s controversial “frozen truck driver” opinion (“I had a career in identifying absurdity. And this is absurd”), and during Jeff Sessions’ Attorney General confirmation hearings, when Franken learned that Texas senator Ted Cruz had disparaged Franken on the Senate floor in Franken’s absence and grotesquely misrepresented a witness’ testimony before the Judiciary Committee, Franken held nothing back.
Giant of the Senate recounts the genesis of the Franken-Cruz acrimony, as the author goes into great detail explaining why his Texas colleague is “an absolutely toxic coworker” and “the Dwight Schrute of the Senate.” The book’s most interesting sections, though, come when Franken candidly discusses his SNL career, since he spent his first eight years in office keeping his head down and his public comments mostly joke-free. (This is probably the only political memoir you’ll read this summer with a footnote that begins, “A few words about farting.”) I recently spoke with Senator Franken about his rather unusual résumé, the proliferation of bad jokes in the Senate, and the role of comedy in politics today—and, of course, to try and figure out why everyone hates Ted Cruz so damn much.
GQ: You’ve studiously avoided discussing your comedy career during most of your time in the Senate, and you haven’t published a book since 2005, a full three years before you were elected to the Senate 2008. Why start now?
Al Franken: Well, I only got to the Senate after a bitter, hotly-contested election that I won by… the smallest margin in history. [laughs] It was an ugly campaign, and part of the ugliness was the other side taking everything I had ever said in comedy and removing all the context and irony, and making it seem just horrible. After all that, I wanted to prove to the people of Minnesota that I was in the Senate for serious reasons. I didn’t want to take anything away from that.
So I worked. I worked on legislation to help veterans. I worked to ensure that employees who’d been sexually assaulted at work could get their day in court, even if their employment agreement included a mandatory arbitration contract. I worked on common-sense features of the Affordable Care Act that originated in Minnesota. Everything I did was about trying to show people that I was there for the reason I said I was there, which was to improve people’s lives in Minnesota.
Eventually, I got the sense that people understood what I was doing and accepted me as a senator. And after I won reelection in 2014 by a substantial margin, even in a very bad year for Democrats, I said “Okay, I can now ease up a little bit.” [laughs]
I wrote the book in part to answer the question I get asked more often than any other, which is, “Is being a United States senator as much fun as working on Saturday Night Live?” And the answer, of course, is no. Why would it be!? But it’s the best job I’ve ever had, because I get try to improve people’s lives, and I get to achieve that every once in awhile, too. There’s nothing more satisfying than that.
Especially after the election of President Trump, why do you think irreverence or crudeness is no longer the candidacy killer that it almost was for you?
That’s a question I ask myself. Obviously, things have changed in the last eight years. I got raked over the coals for some things that I wrote that weren’t nearly as bad as things he said he did! [laughs] I don’t know the answer. I think part of it is that there has been a coarsening of dialogue in political discourse. And I think that Donald Trump might be a somewhat unique case, too. I hope so. I hope so.
Do you ever get the sense that people in politics—colleagues, constituents, staff, media, whoever you’re talking to—feel pressure to be funny around you?
Oh, yeah! When I first got to the Senate, there was one colleague—I won’t say who he is, and he’s actually a good friend now. But for the first week or so, he just kept trying to be funny around me. And finally I just said to him, “Listen, just because I’m a comedian, that doesn’t make you funny.” He got it, and he laughed. But then, a few days later, we’re at a caucus lunch, and [then-Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid summed up the stimulus package by saying that we voted for the largest middle-class tax cut in history. And this guy leaned over to me and said, “Yeah, I get thanked for that every day.”
And I laughed really hard. And he was puzzled. “I thought I wasn’t funny,” he said. No, no: You’re not funny when you try to be funny. [laughs] And that was very funny, because when the Bush tax cuts went into effect, middle-class taxpayers got a check in the mail, signed by President George W. Bush himself. Ours, though, came every two weeks in your paycheck for most people. When they got it, they probably didn’t even notice it.
Why go after Ted Cruz in the book? You cite Cruz’s breach of protocol in 2015 when he publicly attacked Mitch McConnell, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I doubt you’ve waited two years to avenge the Republican Senate Majority Leader in your memoir. What makes you speak out now, and what do you think makes Cruz such a target?
He is the exception that proves the rule! I don’t do that with any other colleague, but I felt justified in doing it because he violated Senate protocol so egregiously [in attacking McConnell]. Every word in that chapter is true, and he continues to do it! During the Sessions confirmation hearings [for Attorney General], Sessions, in his written answers to the Judiciary Committee, named four civil rights cases as among the ten most important cases in which he was “actively engaged” as a prosecutor. And he had not been involved in them! The three guys who did work on those cases wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post saying so.
Sessions did submit an addendum to his questionnaire to kind of downplay the extent to which he said he was “personally engaged,” but he was still not honest. I went after him hard on that, and then Cruz came on after me and really lied, saying that the witness against Sessions had had to “recant” his testimony and is a “known liar.” It was thoroughly dishonest. It was all sophistry.
Here’s something I’ve wondered about him: Do you think Cruz is self-aware? Do you think he’s just an inherently noxious human, or do you think his act is a strategy of some kind?
That’s a good question. I don’t know the whole answer to that. I think he must be aware of what he’s doing. I mean, if you look at what he did while defending Sessions, he had to knowingly be misleading everybody. I just think that somewhere along the line, he decided that that was okay. [laughs] You sound like you’re a person like me, who doesn’t think that anyone can be really bad—that there’s no such thing as a bad person! He’s either fooling himself, or he thinks it’s justified—I don’t know. But he does this all the time… There’s a reason that so many people have had this reaction to him.
Humor in politics was in the news recently when Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy said that their exchange about President Trump being on Putin’s payroll was an “attempt at humor.” You seem qualified to address this. Does that sound like a joke? Is that something that they should be joking about?
Oh yeah! But they were kidding on the square. People do that all the time. I couldn’t understand why everyone analyzing it was saying something like, “Well, either he was joking, or he meant it.” No! He was joking, and he meant it! That’s what kidding on the square is.
You quote Dana Carvey in your book, who told you that there’s no reason to be a comedian unless you have to be a comedian. Is the same true with politics? Are politicians people who have to be politicians?
Yes, but I think there are also people who got into politics like I did. I didn’t have to be a politician, you know what I mean? For me, it was a series of events: Paul [Wellstone]’s death, and Coleman saying that he had been a “99 percent improvement” over Paul. I didn’t feel like I had to do this. I wanted to take Paul’s seat back, and I thought I might be the best guy to do it, and I had an emotional connection to that task. But over time, it became less about that and more about what Paul always talked about, which is that politics is about improving people’s lives. I think there are people in politics who have to be politicians. But certainly not me.
Ted Cruz responded to your Carnival cruise joke that’s been making the rounds by calling you “obnoxious” and saying that you’re just trying to sell books. Is he right about that?
Uh, no. [laughs] No to both. That’s not why I wrote that chapter. I wrote that chapter because I felt it was something that people should know about.
Maybe, I don’t know, Texans in 2018?
Yeah, that would be good for them to understand and get a better grip on.