The first Al Franken book I read (he has done seven) was Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot: And Other Observations, his 1996 effortless takedown of right-wing political figures Pat Buchanan, Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, and others. It was great fun, as was my other prior Franken read: Lies: And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, written in 2003, where he further savages the conservative movement. Like all sophisticated (as opposed to slapstick) humorists, Al is skilled at showing the absurdity of situations, not to mention the pomposity of people, which makes him funny.
I have always assumed that talented comedians are not only highly intelligent but uniquely perceptive people. They often see what others overlook. Comedians—professional or amateur—who deal in political humor have a special place in my world, because government and politics can be insufferably dull, stilled, and stuffy. While countless comedians have strong political views, and several from Johnny Carson to David Letterman and Stephen Colbert have provided political commentary by employing humor that has influenced voters, rare has been the professional comedian who has entered the political arena.
Pat Paulsen ran for president in 1968, 1972, 1980, 1988, 1992, and 1996, but it was less than a serious effort. Paulsen’s bids were about as serious as Gracie Allen’s 1940 run for president on the Surprise Party ticket, her mascot was a kangaroo, with the slogan: “It’s in the bag.” Similarly, Roseanne Barr announced a presidential bid in 2012, her bumper sticker made her intentions clear: “Finally a President Who Can’t Get the Maid Pregnant.”
It was in 1988 the comedic half of Sonny and Cher became the mayor of Palm Springs, CA, and in 1994 he won a congressional seat representing Palm Springs in the US House of Representatives, where he served until killed in a skiing accident. Salvatore Phillip “Sonny” Bono was a serious Member of Congress, and notwithstanding the fact he was not an attorney, he sat on the Judiciary Committee, where his common-sense ideas often earned the praise of his attorney colleagues.
It is not an easy transition from the comedy end of show business to politics, and I met Alan Stuart “Al” Franken during his transition, after he had departed from his fifteen-year career as a writer and actor on Saturday Night Live and had become the flagship program on Air America Radio. Air America Radio had been created to fill the void of progressive and liberal talk radio and compete with conservative talk radio. Before it failed, I did Al’s show twice, once from New York City (where Air America had dumpy offices suggesting they had been seriously underfunded) to much nicer offices in Al’s native Minneapolis, where he broadcast his show from the 28th floor of the historic Foshy Tower.
Because I believe good comedians can provide distinct insights into our political systems, and I was curious as to how Al completed his transition into winning his seat in the US Senate, I looked forward to reading his new book about those experiences—Al Franken, Giant of the Senate. He does not disappoint. This is the reason he has remained on the New York Times bestseller list for weeks. I am not going to give away any spoilers, rather I am going to share a few reasons this book is important and should not be overlooked. (And I have no relationship with Al whatsoever, so this is simply a gratuitous endorsement of his book.)
- To know Al Franken even slightly is to understand he has an irrepressible personality, that much of his humor is merely an extension of who he is and how he thinks, so it was a true challenge for him to tone down his humor as a candidate. He understood he might not get elected if voters thought they were sending a “jokester” to Washington. His explanation of his being subject to his Republican opponent’s “DeHumorizer” is hilarious. If it was a difficult experience to live, the book had to be a hell of a lot of fun to write about it all after the fact, after dodging the bullets devoid of their humor. For example, the GOP took him to task for a joke he suggested at a 2AM Saturday Night Live script writing session that involved raping Leslie Stahl, and an essay he had written on the future of pornography for Playboy magazine, Porn-O-Rama.
- Notwithstanding the very slow support from Democratic leaders of the US Senate, Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer, Franken explains the nut and bolts of winning a Senate race against an incumbent Republican, and how difficult it is to be an honest candidate against a dishonest candidate. Because Al is “whip-smart,” he even admitted he had graduated from Harvard, and one of his best campaign commercials was narrated by his fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Molin.
- After a painfully slow recount, deliberately protracted by the Republicans to avoid giving the newly elected Barack Obama all the votes he needed, Al wins. His explanations of the processes of the Senate are terrific, for he is truly one of the workers in the Senate: he prepares for committee meetings, clearly makes friends easily, and has taken on his new job with great responsibility. Reading about how he found his footing and made friends with his colleagues is also informative and entertaining. He finds the Republican with the best sense of humor to be Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas (which is surprising), and the funniest GOP senator is Lindsey Graham of South Carolina (not a total surprise). Franken does a terrific job explaining complex issues the Senate faces and one of the best explanations of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) I have read.
- Franken saves some of the best material for last. His interactions with Texas Senator Ted Cruz document why Cruz is the least liked senator by his colleagues. Notwithstanding senatorial courtesy, in reporting true events Franken eviscerates Cruz, who is every bit the jerkUSS* he appears. *(Franken does not employ off-color language except when essential, rather he offers substitute words with “USS” in superscript for those words unbecoming a US Senator.)
The book’s title was clearly intended as a pun, but fact of the matter, Al Franken has become one of the giants of the United States Senate, and he has shown he can do the serious work of the Senate, occasionally with appropriate touches of comedy. He is good at both.