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The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Comedian or politician? It's complicated with Al Franken

By Alex Park

Speaking with Al Franken, one gets the impression that he likes to laugh at you. No, not in a really out loud kind of way (at least most of the time), but in a more subtle version of the kind of way he talks about his rivals, GOP candidates and anyone else inside the Beltway who doesn’t vote Blue. It’s the kind of laugh that gets under your skin, as if he likes to have you annoyed with yourself.

“Are you still considering running for the Senate,” I asked, meeting him at the end of the stage in Kagin Commons following his closing speech at the Democratic rally.

“Yeah,” he said.

“Is that official now?”

“You asked me a question, which was ‘are you considering running for the Senate?’ and I said ‘yes,'” he said, laughing hysterically. “It’s official that I’m considering it.”

February 2006 marked the beginning of The Mac Weekly’s on-again off-again fling with Al Franken–an incident, which, in its own right, serves to demonstrate both the uniqueness of his style and one reason why some have trouble taking the comedian-turned-politician seriously.

Following a speech in Minneapolis, Franken sat down to an interview with then Managing Editor Matt Stone. On the table were several topics, including the role of money within the Democratic Party, an issue brought to light by the Abramoff scandal, which was at its height at the time of the interview.

The interview was a bomb. Franken maintained staunch support for all Democrats, citing evidence that came off as suspect at first and turned out to be completely wrong by the time the interview was published. They weren’t all “lying lies,” to borrow a phrase from his first book, but at the very least it came off as incompetence on Franken’s part.

The Right-Wing Blogosphere had a field day.

“Franken Takes on Interviewer, Lacks Facts,” read a headline the following day on radio pundit Brian Maloney’s blog, Radio Equalizer (and you thought no one but you reads The Mac Weekly). Maloney and others praised Stone for exhibiting the kind of journalistic integrity not seen in print media for years, standing in shear defiance of the perverted incursions of the “nasty bear” himself.

“I just think it’s amusing that Franken didn’t know what anybody who reads the news does,” one of the 21 comments on the Radio Equalizer piece read. Claiming to be a Mac alumnus, another commentator on the ultra-conservative blog, Free Republic said “I’m sure the school’s liberal reputation is what made [Franken] agree to do the interview in the first place, and then he was shocked when they had real questions for him …”

Currently, Franken is at the height of his political celebrity. With three books to his name, all of them bestsellers, and a documentary titled “God Spoke,” about his transition into politics, Franken has demonstrated that he knows very well how to work the liberal end of the gray zone between politics and entertainment while even making serious, often successful, ventures into straight politics.

Last fall saw the launch of Franken’s Midwest Values PAC, a formidable fund raising organization that caters exclusively to Minnesota Democrats in tight races.

Norm Coleman, the GOP senator whom Franken may challenge in 2008, has complained that the PAC’s source of revenue so far has come from celebrities Franken knew through his previous line of work.

“Hollywood values aren’t Midwest,” Coleman said in a recent interview with the Star Tribune, “and the money isn’t Midwest.”

But money talks, and whether it be Hollywood, Minnesota or Washington, the language is universal. With no prior fundraising experience on Franken’s part, MVP has already funneled more than $800,000 to candidates, easily making it one of the top five PAC’s in the state.

If Franken does choose to run for Senate, legally he will not be able to use funds from Midwest Values. But Democrats who benefit from his help this term will probably be willing to return the favor anyway.

“The fact that I’m not an office holder or candidate made it sort of like we were going into uncharted waters for the PAC,” Franken said. “But we’ve done incredibly well.”

But even after his recent ventures into straight politics, Franken has remained true to his comedic roots. Sunday’s appearance showed him comfortably in range of both roles of sarcastic pundit and political actor. Wearing a blue blazer and blue jeans, he talked seriously about removing Republicans from office, but loaded his speech with jokes about Rush Limbaugh’s pills and Sean Hannity’s ego just the same.

He ridiculed GOP congressmen for their choice of words as much as he criticized them for their legislative agendas, playing the issues like a xylophone, tapping one and then other, lightly, but just enough to make them sing.

Of gay marriage he relayed an anecdote about a conversation with Newt Gingrich.

“I said Newt, wouldn’t you want a gay couple to have the same kind of happiness that you had with your first wife?”

On the topic of religion in politics, he said that if you take out all the parts in the bible about helping other people, “you’ll have a box just big enough to fit Rush Limbaugh’s drugs.”

So far, it’s a strategy that keeps things running with a foot safely in both worlds of entertainment and politics. It’s not too jocular, but not too serious, either. It even gets the audience to laugh a little.

Nonetheless, with a still looming 2008 Senate bid and a few other big-name projects to his name, “real questions” (and real backlash) are the sort of thing Franken may be getting a lot more of.

Right now, Franken is still in charge of the nationally syndicated Air America Radio network. Barely two years old, the network, which was troubled with financial woes from its inception, is said to be in decline with rumors about the network’s inevitable bankruptcy circulating.

Nonetheless, if Franken has his way, he will probably trade the radio job for a Senate seat, anyway.

The tagline for God Spoke is “Taking America back one laugh at a time,” which almost suits its preview throughout. That is, until the end, when the music cuts, Franken drops his grin for a second and we witness him announce to an audience of a few hundred people that he’s considering a 2008 Senate run against Minnesota’s Norm Coleman.

Immediately after, a clip shows Franken suggesting that if he opts to run, he “would be the only New York Jew in the race who grew up in Minnesota.”

On Sunday I asked nonchalantly if that meant he considered himself a New York Jew as well as a Minnesotan. “That was a joke,” he said, laughing hysterically once more.

Looking back, it would have been reasonable to assume that beforehand. But if Al Franken is going to save America, it’s also fair to ask for help, or at least directions, in making the gray zone between politics and entertainment he’s mapped out for himself more defined for potential supporters in the voting population.

After all, can the Senate be taken the same way he’s chosen to save America until now, one laugh at a time?

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