Almost everyone I know feels bad about Al Franken. The former comedian and Saturday Night Live writer was emerging as one of the strongest Democratic voices in the U.S. Senate when he was forced to resign, in December 2017, amid a #MeToo scandal. It was sparked by a silly comedian’s prank — a photo of Franken pretending to grab the breasts of a sleeping colleague during a USO tour — and bolstered by allegations (never investigated) from several women of his aggressive sexual behavior. But it came at just the wrong time — at the peak of the post-Harvey Weinstein reckoning — and the clamor from fellow Democrats that gave him the bum’s rush now seems rash, unfair, and self-defeating.
So what’s an ex-comic-turned-ex-U.S. senator supposed to do for his next act? After a long period of recovery, in which Franken says he struggled with depression, he’s back doing comedy — on a nationwide tour that included several dates in New York City, where I caught him one night last week at the City Winery.
It was not your usual comedy-club evening. For one thing, the audience was probably the oldest I’ve ever seen at a comedy club: instead of twentysomethings on dates, it was mostly baby-boomers like myself, out to cheer for a fallen hero, imagine what might have been, and maybe get a little morale boost. Some were even older; I believe it’s the first time in a comedy club that I’ve seen someone in a walker.
Franken opened strong. “Anybody here from out of state?” he asked, parroting the usual icebreaker for club comics trying to engage the crowd; then, after a well-timed pause, “for an abortion?”
He did impressions of former colleagues like Susan Collins and Bernie Sanders, and pounced on one of his favorite targets, Ted Cruz. “I actually liked Ted Cruz more than most of my colleagues,” Franken said. “And I hate Ted Cruz.” He seemed to be unloading jokes he had saved up for the past couple of years — skewering the Trump administration, for instance, for its utter failure to coordinate a national response in the early days of the pandemic, instead fobbing the job off on the states. It was as if, Franken quipped, FDR had responded to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor with a dismissive “This is kind of Hawaii’s problem.”
Watching Franken on stage reminded me how thoroughly the political and comedy worlds have merged in the last few years. Not just because the country elected a clownish reality-show huckster as President, but the way comedians like Bill Maher, Seth Meyers, and Stephen Colbert have responded with pointed and increasingly partisan political commentary. Franken sort of pioneered that trend, with his early books like Lies and the Lying Liars That Tell Them (2004), which remains a brilliant takedown of an earlier (post-9/11) generation of Republican prevaricators. Has anyone thought of giving him a TV show? Samantha Bee’s spot just opened up.
Franken, probably wisely, did not engage with the particulars of his ouster from the Senate. “I’m mad at my former colleagues,” he acknowledged. “But I’m still a Democrat.” He closed with a rather stirring tribute to the achievements of America’s postwar welfare state, and a plea for people to get involved, at a time when our democracy is “at a precipice.” At the end he got a standing ovation. Even from the guy in the walker.