Al Franken on humor in a politically "grim" time

Before, Al Franken was a cast member on "Saturday Night Live." These days he is a United States Senator on Capitol Hill -- which makes him fair game for some Questions-and-Answers. Here is Chip Reid: 

As they crossed the bridge to confirmation, many of President Donald Trump's nominees had to get past some pointed questions from the junior Senator from Minnesota.

"It surprises me that you don't know this issue," Al Franken said to Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos. "You said that student debt has increased by 1,000 percent?"

"980 percent in eight years," DeVos said.

"That's just not so," Franken said. [It actually increased 118 percent during that time.]

And those questions are getting Al Franken noticed.

Franken: "In some cases. Not necessarily the ones you listed."|
Jeff Sessions: "Look, it was 30 years ago, and my memory was of this nature and my memory was my support for those cases."
Franken: "Your 'memory.' ... You don't sound like you personally handled cases that you said you personally ..."
Sessions: "Well, I was on a radio interview without any records and that was my memory at the time."

"It's your grilling of Jeff Sessions and your grilling of DeVos and some others that have people talking," Reid said. "There's buzz about you running for president."

"Right. Look, I've always been tough in hearings. I do my homework. This is the first time I've had nominations from a Republican president, and I thought some of the people that he nominated were not right for the job."

Franken: "If there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?"
Sessions: "Senator Franken, I'm not aware of any of those activities."

But occasionally the hearings brought back memories of what made Al Franken a household name in the first place:

Franken: "Did you enjoy meeting me?"
Rick Perry: "I hope you're as much fun up on that dais as you were on your couch."
Franken: "Well …"
Perry: "May I rephrase that?"
Franken: "Please! Oh my lord."
Perry: "Well, I think we've found our 'Saturday Night Live' soundbite."

Yes, it's never too far from the conversation: Franken's past on "Saturday Night Live." And lately he's been coming to grips with the tension between politics and comedy.

"When I first came to the Senate, I had to be very careful not to be funny," he smiled.

"Yeah, you were very careful," Reid said. "In fact, I was covering the Senate at that time, and I thought, 'This guy was so funny on 'Saturday Night Live.' And now he's not. He's not just not funny; he's grim."

"Well, I wasn't grim. There were some grim things happening. But they're not as grim as now!"

"Is it hard not to be funny?"

"Yes," Franken laughed.

He learned the perils of funny during his first Senate campaign in 2008.  Supporters of his opponent, Norm Coleman, combed through the Franken comedy vault for material for their ads.

"If you're a comedian or a comedy writer, they take everything you wrote or said and put it through a very expensive machine called the Dehumorizer," Franken said. "This was built with Russian technology. And what it does is, it takes all the context out of any joke you've ever written and comes out as just offensive!"

He writes about the Dehumorizer in his new book, "Giant of the Senate."

As for his campaign in that first Senate run … he says it was a serious ad that turned the tide, an ad featuring his wife, Franni.

Al Franken (D-MN) "Franni" by WilsonResearchStrat on YouTube

"I insisted that they allow me to do an ad in which I revealed that I'm an alcoholic," Franni told Reid. "I really was mad at the content of the opposing ads that didn't portray Al as the person I knew."

"The Al Franken I know stood by me through thick and thin. So I know he'll always come through for Minnesotans."

Franken said, "Look, if it hadn't been for that ad, I would have lost."

"Really? You're confident of that?" Reid asked.

"Oh, God, yeah. The thing about Franni is, Minnesotans are wary of people in show business -- as well they should be. I don't know what they expected of me -- to have, you know, a trophy wife 20 years younger than me? And I have a trophy wife, but she's only about six months younger than me!"

"Thank you, honey," Franni said.

"You're welcome!"

Franken says Franni and his staff have spent the last few years trying to keep him on the straight-man-and-narrow path, even when it concerns his grandchildren.

When asked if his grandkids are impressed by the fact that he's a U.S. Senator," Franken said of the infant, "I think you can tell!  

"When he was born, I decided it'd be funny if he called me Senator instead of Grandpa. But my staff nixed it. I said, 'It's funny!' And they go, 'No.'"

As the inheritor of the liberal tradition of Minnesota Senators like Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Paul Wellstone, Franken is eager to go into the weeds on policy, whether searching for the right words for a speech about equal access to the Internet, or serving his constituents a breakfast of warm porridge and global warming.

"I have three grandchildren," he said to his audience. "I don't want them in 50 years saying, 'Grandpa, you were a Senator, you knew climate change was happening, why didn't you do anything about it?'  And also 'Why are you alive?' 'Cause I'd be 116!"

Franken has been a dogged critic of the Trump Administration, and was out front in calling for a special prosecutor to investigate the administration's ties to Russia.

"So this is a typical headline these days: 'Republicans near total exasperation,'" Reid said.

"Yeah. Well, that's today," Franken said. "Tomorrow will be, 'Republicans at total exasperation.'"

"So if the Republicans are near total exasperation, where are the Democrats?"

"Oh, we reached total exasperation a long time ago!"


Senator Al Franken with correspondent Chip Reid.

CBS News

And so as Democrats look to 2020, Franken's name has popped up on some Oval Office short-lists.  "President Franken":  It's like something that could be on "Saturday Night Live," where he declared the 1980s to be the "Al Franken Decade."

"And now it's the Al Franken Millennium," he said.


"Well, could you have been four decades off? Could the 2020's be the Al Franken Decade?"

"They could be where I'm a Senator supporting a great president. That would be fun!"

If Franken ever does run for president, one headline you may see is: "Al Franken Declared Winner and That's No Joke" -- a joke used over the years by many news headline writers (including, full disclosure, at CBS).

Al Franken may not know what his future holds.  But it's pretty clear that he'll never outlive funny.

And what future headline does he foresee?

"'Al Franken, former three-term Minnesota Senator, dead at 103.' No joke.' That's what we're going to see."

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