The Chronicle Interviews Al Franken

Minnesota's junior senator stops in for a brief chat

By snagging U.S. senator, comedian, actor, author, and skilled satirist Al Franken for this year’s Texas Tribune festival, the online media outlet gave audiences a defining headline act. In his bestselling memoir Giant of the Senate, the Minnesota native reveals how he transitioned from Saturday Night Live star and author to a leading Democratic figure on Capitol Hill, with wit, candor, and a bevy of footnotes. The Chronicle caught up with Franken for a few minutes on Friday to talk about winning over voters during a Senate run, the right-wing media, and yes, Ted Cruz’s “awfulness.”

U.S. Sen. Al Franken during his conversation with Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith on Friday (photo by Jana Birchum)

AC: In your latest book you write about the struggle to be taken seriously as a politician after spending most of your career as a comic actor and writer. Can you talk about that struggle and how you overcame it?

AF: I’d always been a policy wonk. What we found in focus groups when I started running was that people don’t necessarily think funny people are smart [chuckles], but they did like the fact that I had written books. And oddly enough they liked the fact I went to Harvard, which I thought would be something bad.

AC: Because they would see that as elitist?

AF: Yeah, yeah exactly. But it turned out to be good. But my opponent [Norm Coleman] emphasized my comedic side by putting everything I had written or said through a $15 million machine called the DeHumorizer, built with very sophisticated Israeli technology to take the context, the irony, and the hyperbole out to make it look like something very offensive. So overcoming that was a challenge.

AC: Like sending seniors into space? [In Chapter 9 of his book, Franken recounts how his opponent decontextualized satire he’d written about putting rockets full of elderly people on pay-per-view to reduce the national debt in order to smear him. Franken was poking fun at the GOP’s “willingness” to balance the budget “on the backs of the elderly.”]

AF: Yeah, right. When you do satire you use irony; you use hyperbole, and ambiguity. What I learned is that you can’t litigate comedy. You can’t go “No, no. Let me explain why that was funny.” [chuckles] That doesn’t work. When you’re explaining, you’re losing. It was a rough campaign; I won by a very narrow margin, just 312 votes. But I won my re-election handily, which freed me up, in part, to write the book.

AC: So you were able to beat the DeHumorizer and gained the trust of voters who might be skeptical of your comedic background with the fact that you wrote books and went to Harvard? Anything else that helped you beat the machine?

AF: I had a radio show [Air America], and I think that people liked that it was very public policy oriented. I’ve also been married a long time [chuckles]. The thing about being in show business is that people think you have a trophy wife who is 20 years younger than you. I do have a trophy wife, but she’s only like five months younger than me. In October, we’ll have been married for almost 42 years.

AC: Well, congratulations.

AF: Thank you.

AC: We talked about how being a comic was used against you. But how has being a comedian helped you in your political career? What kinds of lessons have you taken from the comic world and brought into the Senate?

AF: A lot, actually. I’m good in hearings because setting up a joke is like setting up a point. Especially in these hearings during the Trump administration with [Education Secretary] Betsy DeVos; or [Health Secretary] Tom Price; or [Supreme Court Justice] Neil Gorsuch; or Attorney General Sessions. I used some of those skills learned as a satirist comedian.

AC: You’ve written a lot of criticism about the right-wing media and Fox News. Do you attribute that type of media to the rise of Donald Trump?

AF: Oh, sure. And I write about it in my new book. I wrote books like Lies and Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right – and Fox sued me, by the way. Bill O’Reilly sued me, and I won. It was just a simple misunderstanding. He did not understand that satire is protected speech even if the object of satire doesn’t get it.

AC: Any comment on where Bill O’Reilly is now?

AF: I haven’t seen his show lately. [chuckles] Okay, where were we?

AC: On Trump’s rise and right-wing media.

AF: Right. So I also wrote Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations, and that was a lot about lying too. I was focused on right-wing radio, right-wing cable TV, and there’s also obviously been the internet which I wasn’t writing about because I was busy focused on other things like running for office. But for some reason all these things have made lying seem okay. I’m not sure if people thought what Trump was saying was like a movie where you take a true story and just embellish it a lot and change it and then it’s more entertaining, it’s more interesting. So, lying just became okay, and his supporters would say just don’t take him literally, don’t take him seriously. I half understand that and half go, “No, no. You have to be able to back up what you say.” And that’s something I took very literally from my parents.

AC: That you believe people will be genuine?

AF: No, I don’t believe they will be, but I want and expect them to be for me to give them my trust at all [chuckles].

AC: This next question is for our Austin readers. We’re a progressive city smack dab in the middle of a very conservative and right-wing state. Do you have any advice for progressives on the ground trying to make a difference?

AF: I’m not an expert on Texas politics, but I can say that politics is as much about the day-to-day organizing as it is about the poetic. And if you ignore the basics, you’re going to lose. It’s a lot about doing the work. From what I’ve seen from Texas, there are some changes going on and some movement here, and I don’t know what Trump’s favorable ratings here are but I think they might be lower than they were on Election Day.

AC: I sure hope so. You devote a whole chapter of your book to Texas Republican U.S. Senator Ted Cruz. So how awful is he really?

AF: He is the exception to the rule. Really to get anything done in the Senate you have to be collegial. You have to be trusted, and your word has to be good. I tell a very odd story about how he bizarrely denied saying something that he had said to me [chuckles], and some other things he had said and done on the Judiciary Committee, which we’re on together. It’s like he’s a toxic co-worker in many ways. He’s like the guy in the office who microwaves fish for lunch. He’s like the Dwight Schrute of the Senate. And I say in the book what you should know about Ted Cruz is that I probably like Ted Cruz more than most of my colleagues – and I hate Ted Cruz.

AC: Do you believe he is a sociopath?

AF: I’m not qualified to make that assessment.

AC: Switching gears to something you’ve probably been getting asked a lot lately: Do you have any aspirations to run for president in 2020?

AF: No [chuckles]. I think the president of the United States should be someone who wants to be president. That should be one of the qualifications.

AC: What are some of the things that surprised you most about working in the Senate or about D.C. politics in general?

AF: There’s less open debate than there should be, or than I expected. Also, usually when you give a speech on the floor of the Senate there’s no other senators there. There’s a tight camera shot of you in the Senate chamber, but it’s mostly only you. One thing I learned in comedy is that if you tell a joke and there’s no laughter then everyone just assumed your joke bombed. That’s why you can’t tell a joke on the Senate floor – no one’s there to laugh.

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