Senator Al Franken is joking. Spotting a Guardian reporter, he thinks of the former Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte’s body slam of the Guardian’s Ben Jacobs, and cannot resist the quip. Having surgically removed his funny bone and gone serious, Franken is allowing himself to be funny again.
On a recent visit to South St Paul Farmers’ Market in his home state of Minnesota, the comedian-turned-politician sports a purple Vikings NFL hat and starts by buying green beans for $3 and zucchini for $2, digging into his wallet to pay 27-year-old Ming Yang. As he moves to the next vegetable stall, she admits she is unaware of his previous career. “I only know what he’s done as a politician,” she says.
Also among the rain-soaked gathering is Lisa Kleven, 51, wearing a “Franken 2020” T-shirt she had made that morning. Yes, she explains, she would like him to run for president: “I’m so fed up listening to bad, ugly politics from Donald Trump and I think Al has been doing a good job holding people to account in the Senate. There was talk of people worrying that he was a comedian, but he’s a good guy with honesty and integrity.”
In many ways, Franken embodies the spirit of a time in which comedy is political and politics are comical. He got his break as a writer and performer on Saturday Night Live (SNL) in 1975 when Gerald Ford was president. He left in 1980, then had a second spell from 1985 to 1995, and was twice a guest performer at the White House correspondents’ dinner. SNL’s lampooning of politicians such as George W Bush and Sarah Palin has long struck a nerve, but it has truly become part of the national conversation in the current era, for example with Alec Baldwin’s pastiche of Trump and Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer.
When Franken, talk radio host and author of Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, ran for US Senate in 2008, Republicans inevitably stripped his jokes of context and tried to weaponise them. But Franken showed his run was no stunt.
Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, recalls: “He was really smart. He really got to know the state, he showed up, he built a real campaign organisation. He showed he was committed and willing to learn and follow direction. He became a really infuriating guy. Let’s say I interview a thousand politicians in a year: he was easily the most boring.”
Boring worked. The Democrat won by 312 votes after a legal battle that dragged on for eight months.
And boring continued. As he chronicles in his book Giant of the Senate, described by the Washington Post’s James Hohmann as “the most candid memoir I can recall by a sitting senator”, Franken reckoned he had to prove himself as “a workhorse and not a show horse”. He seldom spoke to reporters. He recalls committee hearings where his “devil” was sitting on shoulder, urging him to tell a risque joke, and his “angel” was on the other, pleading with him not to. The angel usually won.
But re-elected with room to spare in 2014, Franken has felt able to cut loose somewhat and juggle the roles of well briefed straight man – his sharp questions have rattled Betsy DeVos and Jeff Sessions – with a cautious return to court jester.
The senator who tours the farmers’ market, then sits at the Black Sheep Coffee Cafe for an interview, is affable, down to earth and bursts out laughing as readily as breathing. He has evidently left what he calls the DeHumorizer – an imaginary $15m machine built with Israeli technology – behind in Washington.
Well, almost. “There are certain jokes that I don’t tell,” he says. “There always will be. The culture of comedy is there’s just a category of jokes, what is the worst thing you can say? That is literally like a large segment [laughs] of comedy from comedians and that should not be in your quiver as a senator. ‘I’m now going to say the worst thing I can say.’”
Some of the most trenchant skewering of Trump has come from SNL and the satirists Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Samantha Bee and Trevor Noah. Some critics have blamed them for deepening divisions: the Atlantic suggested that “sneering hosts have alienated conservatives and made liberals smug”, while the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote that Bee embodied “the rapid colonization of new cultural territory by an ascendant social liberalism”.
Franken recalls of his SNL days: “When I was writing the satire on the show, we really didn’t think that we had a political point of view to project. It’s almost impossible with Trump not to do, ‘This guy is something that we’ve never seen before.’ He’s a guy who will lie, a guy who is completely undisciplined, a guy who won’t know anything, who doesn’t have the discipline or interest to learn public policy. I think laughter is good. There’s tremendous anxiety among people who are like-minded.”
He recently made the haunting observation that he has never seen Trump laugh and rejects the suggestion that the president – host of The Apprentice, fleeting wrestler, carnival barker – and himself are two sides of the same showbiz coin. “I understand there’s a thread of that but I couldn’t think of someone as more different than me and also kind of, a little bit, resent the idea that he’s an entertainer because yeah, reality television is a form of entertainment, but so is a human cannonball. Rodeo clown is in entertainment. A Barbra Streisand impersonator is in entertainment.”