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Al Franken's SNL Return: Only A Liability If He Makes It One

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Here's the real headline from this weekend's "Saturday Night Live": What the hell is Al Franken thinking? By now you may have heard that Franken had a hand in the concept for this weekend's cold open, a tart, smart sketch skewering John McCain's slippery relationship with truth in political advertising. On Saturday, the Politico reported that the idea for the sketch originated with Franken. (Video of sketch below.) Here's the backstory:

A Franken campaign aide said the candidate had been taping an ad earlier in the week and had wondered out loud how McCain could include the disclaimer candidates are required to include in their commercials — "I'm John McCain, and I approved this message" — when his spots were so "over the top."

Later that day, Franken talked to Michaels about topics unrelated to the show and mentioned his thought but did not suggest a sketch.

However, Michaels talked to Meyers about Franken's idea and the current writer, believing there was a funny sketch there, called his predecessor and they discussed it further.

Meyers then wrote it up.

Voila! A sketch is born. So what's the problem? As I see it, this is terrific political satire from a longtime political satirist who long ago learned to call bullshit on shifty pols. McCain's ads ARE over the top. They DO misrepresent facts, to the point of outright lies. He IS knowingly endorsing them. He's running for Presidnet. Franken is running for Senate. So he shouldn't speak out?

Apparently not. Per Politico, he's been falling all over himself to apologize for his SNL sins, over a satirical piece he'd written for Playboy in 2000 — and, more damaging, a New York article on SNL from 1995 that came to light, detailing the writing process and Franken and some writers suggesting jokes involving rape for a sketch. Per Politico:

Faced with a groundswell of criticism, Franken distanced himself from his past work as a comedian. In June, he apologized for some of his more controversial comedy routines when he accepted his party's endorsement.

"For 35 years I was a writer. I wrote a lot of jokes. Some of them weren't funny. Some of them weren't appropriate. Some of them were downright offensive. I understand that. And I understand that the people of Minnesota deserve a senator who won't say things that will make you feel uncomfortable," Franken said in his nomination speech.

That's a watered-down version of Franken's initial statement, which I vastly prefer:

"I'm proud of my career as a satirist, which doesn't mean every joke I've ever told was funny, or, indeed, appropriate. I understand and regret that people have been legitimately offended by some of the things I've written.

"In real life, though, I've been married for 32 years. Franni and I are proud of our son and daughter. I respect women in both my personal and professional life. And I will work incredibly hard to represent them in the Senate -- something (GOP incumbent) Norm Coleman hasn't been doing for the last six years."

Where, exactly, is the shame in that? Franken got his start at SNL, was known for his sharp political mind — something he took to the next level over the years, unleashing it on the right and attacking people like Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly in numerous books in the name of upholding a standard of truth. He also did the same on Air America, attempting to give voice to the Dems during a rather voiceless time. This is how someone grows from a young scrappy comic into a concerned, thoughtful candidate who has seen too much by now to allow someone like Norm Coleman to have another term.

That's the narrative. That's what makes him a viable candidate. Take out the sharp political satire and all that's left is Stuart Smalley.

Instead of backpedaling on all this, Franken should be OWNING his skill in smart, righteous political satire — especially in a campaign where political humor has made its mark for being precisely that. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert aren't the most trusted men in America for nothing. SNL didn't go from being pilloried in the pages of Entertainment Weekly (Grade: D+) to magazine covers, Emmy nominations, record-high ratings and blockbuster internet traffic because they were afraid to throw some elbows.

This isn't a coincidence, and it comes down to a bedrock principle of comedy: Truth. It's funny if it rings true, if it finds a truth and lays it bare. That's why the McCain campaign ad opener hit the mark on Saturday night — because it was the stinging, scathing truth. McCain is running for president and spewing out-and-out lies about himself, his running mate and his opponent, betting that the American people won't know the difference. Franken, a candidate for office on the opposite ticket, should be hailed for calling him on it, and vowing to serve Minnesota with exactly those principles of truth-telling and bullshit-calling going forward. He should not be apologizing.

Speaking of not apologizing: No one at SNL should be apologizing for hitting McCain here. Yesterday Chris Cillizza observed that "SNL Swipes at McCain (Again)" after last week hitting mile-wide target Sarah Palin with Tina Fey's great impression. Cillizza pointed out that McCain had taken it on the chin "for the second straight week." True indeed — but let's not forget what was in the actual news this week and last, nor that Obama was taking all the hits when SNL came back from the writer's strike...nor that they then landed a few punches on Hillary ("my supporters are racist"). They didn't have any shot to take at McCain back then other than being old. This time, they did.

Okay, off soapbox! Apparently there was more to SNL this weekend, although between the Emmys last night and the fact that it was, well, a pretty forgettable episode, I'm sure you've already moved on. If you haven't, here are some more videos from the show to enjoy, including a digital short featuring Gossip Girl's Blake Lively, who was, alas, wasted in the weakest digital short in memory. Below is the McCain sketch that opened this week's show, in case you have no idea what I've been talking about. Otherwise, my scintillating live-twitter commentary starts here.

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Image via FishbowlNY, from back when Al Franken only had little things like taxes to worry about.