From Stand-Up Comic to Stand-Up Guy: The Long, Strange Trip of Al Franken

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I called Senator Al Franken last night to discuss a matter of crucial national importance: his beloved Minnesota Twins had just defeated the Detroit Tigers in an epic one-game playoff. Senator Franken (D-Minn)'s position was clear, eloquent, and unequivocal: second-baseman Nick Punto's game-saving throw to home plate to nip the go-ahead run in the top of the 12th was, he confided to this correspondent, "fantastic." It was only after he'd boldly gone on the record concerning this vital subject that we got around to discussing his latest piece of legislation. It was something he spoke of with an even more fiery passion than Nick Punto's throw--and, as they say, therein lies a story.

I won't pretend any kind of objectivity here; I've known Al for nearly thirty years. The 1980s: heady days in New York City. Al was in the full bloom of his Saturday Night Live career, and I was a writer in transition from the page to the screen, and we bonded over a love for sports (he's an annoyingly good athlete, and I ripped my knee up when he faked right and went left in a racquetball game) and for the mid-American surrealism of Bob and Ray. What intrigued me right away was the schism between Franken's comic persona on SNL--"the Al Franken decade," etc., which earned shock-laughs by its celebration of the naked ego unleashed--and his thoughtful, sober, and sometimes (to me, a hard-core leftist) his maddeningly sensible political views. When I was sixteen, I became Abbie Hoffman's protege in rebellion, and I still wanted to tear down the temple walls with bare hands; Al, despite being a Grateful Dead fanatic, felt politically closer to Hubert Humphrey, and wanted to refine the architecture.

But even so, and even then, he had a unique ability to translate his beliefs into immediate action: once, when Henry Kissinger personally called the SNL offices to request tickets to the show, Al happened to pick up the phone, and curtly informed the ex-Secretary of State that his request would not be honored. When Kissinger -- indignant at the slight -- asked why he couldn't score the tickets, Al calmly replied: "Because of the bombing of Cambodia."

As with so many Franken anecdotes, it provokes that shock-laugh: but it's also a token of bone-deep commitment, a sense of justice as palpable and strong as a heartbeat.

In the years to come, that fusion of comedy and social conscience would produce best-selling books and lucrative speaking gigs -- a career that would satiate most people, and slow them down. But while he carved out a special niche in American culture -- and bewildered me by becoming friends (or at least friendly) with people like Tom DeLay -- it became clear that he was beginning to dream of becoming a real-life politician.

It seemed utterly insane.

The show-biz types who've made that transition -- take Schwarzenegger or Jesse Ventura, for example -- first created a persona of raw power on the screen or in the wrestling-ring, then rode that synthetic, commanding, larger-than-life persona into a political sphere that worships power as a primal force. Even Reagan gave off -- at least to much of the American electorate--a vibe of hushed, Father-Knows-Best inner strength. But the comedian is, by his very nature, an outsider and a gadfly -- qualities unlikely to inspire that warm, gooey, He-Can-Protect-Me-from-Bad-Things-in-the-Dark confidence that lets us flip our brains to the default positon -- Off, of course -- and pull a lever for them in the voting booth. No; Al would dare to present himself to America not as larger-than-life, but as life-sized--and, incredibly, to win that way.

If it was ridiculous to think he could get nominated to succeed his dear friend Paul Wellstone as Senator, it was pure madness to think he could win in an actual election. But even when the national Republican artillery was rolled out in dazzling battalions in support of incumbent Norm Coleman, he did it.

Which brings us to Franken's new piece of legislation.

Following an initial bill that was inspired in its clarity and simplicity--providing funds to train service-dogs for injured war vets -- Franken took up the cause of Jamie Leigh Jones, a 19-yr-old employee of defense contractor KBR, stationed in Iraq, who was gang raped by her co-workers and imprisoned in a shipping container when she tried to report the crime.

Jones' father and congressman had to fight to get her safely returned to the United States, but once she was home, she learned a fine-print clause in her KBR contract banned her from taking her case to court; instead she would be forced into an "arbitration" process that would be run by ... KBR itself.

This is the kind of case that leaves so many of us with a loser's choice between hatred and despair.

But thanks to the astonishing career-shift that Franken has completed -- and, he insists on pointing out, with the help of his gifted and tireless staff -- he was able yesterday to sit on the Senate floor as that august body passed an an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill that will ban the practice of committing employees to arbitration in the case of assault. Jamie Lee Jones herself sat watching, along with Al's wife Franni, as the roll was called. And though, amazingly enough, 38 Republican senators voted against the gang-rape victim and for the multi-billion-dollar contractor (health care parable, anyone?) the amendment passed. Jones wept in the gallery. We can only hope that sometime soon the execs at KBR will weep a little too.

So in one way it's been a tremendous journey from Saturday Night Live to the Senate floor, from dissing Kissinger to defending veterans, from Gilda Radner to Jamie Lee Jones; but in another way it's simply the graceful trajectory of one man's conscience.

"I love this country," Franken says. "But you have to love your country like an adult loves somebody, not like a child loves its Mommy. And right-wing Republicans tend to love America like a child loves its Mommy, where everything Mommy does is okay. But adult love means you're not in denial, and you want the loved one to be the best they can be."

Well said, Senator. And congratulations on the Twins.