Minnesota Sen. Al Franken’s new memoir, “Al Franken: Giant of the Senate,” is both seriously informative and very funny. But after just a few pages it became surprisingly personal for me, affecting the way I reacted as a reader.

I share his politics, but not his spirit.

Franken and I both grew up in the Midwest at roughly the same time. Franken is from St. Louis Park, which he describes as the Jewish Minneapolis suburb.  I grew up in a similar one-bathroom, two-bedroom house in the Jewish neighborhood in Milwaukee.

The Coen Brothers are from Franken’s neighborhood. Gene Wilder came from mine.

Minnesota Sen. Al Franken is intelligent, funny and surprisingly hopeful about progressive politics.


Franken was spot-on funny by the time he was 9. Tom Davis, his comedy-writing partner in high school, remained his partner for most of the rest of Franken’s career in comedy, including at “Saturday Night Live,” where Franken developed his most famous character, Stuart Smalley.

I was also kind of a comedic kid.  When I was 8, my best friend told me I should become a comedy writer. 

But most significantly, at different times both Franken and I knew Paul Wellstone, the wonderfully inspirational senator from Minnesota who died in a plane crash during his 2002 re-election campaign.

I first met Wellstone before he was famous when we were both young faculty members at midwestern liberal arts colleges. Later I briefly taught with him at Carleton College in Minnesota.

Wellstone was the most inspirational, admirable and honest politician — wait, make that individual — I have ever met.

But that’s where Franken’s life and mine parted. At least in part because of his admiration for Wellstone, Franken made a dramatic career change from satirist to senator. He now occupies Wellstone’s old Senate seat. 

Franken left SNL because he wanted to use comedy to influence politics instead of using his political knowledge to inform comedy. He wanted people not just to laugh but also to be energized.

He wanted to build on Paul Wellstone’s great contribution: “the way he inspired others to take action (and) taught them to be effective and gave them the confidence to stand up and shout about what they believed in.”

“Giant of the Senate” is dedicated to Wellstone and his wife, Sheila, who also died in the crash.

As for me, I went from being a political scientist to being a … political scientist. No change or shouting for me.  And no comedy.

A political scientist — dispassionate, above the fray, deeply skeptical, with not a moment’s interest in running for office ever.

It was a decent day job, but nothing I was passionate about. Not exactly wasted days and wasted nights.  Just… you know.

I sure wish I’d tried to make an Al-Franken-in-reverse career change from politics to satire.

Franken has become a very successful senator in the best Trump resistance progressive tradition. He has done so in old-fashioned ways that will probably surprise many Trump-haters.

This is Franken describing the way a good senator should function: be a workhorse not a show horse; go to all your hearings. Start early and work late. Respect your colleagues even if you disagree with them, and bust their chops on major issues. 

This could be Dan Inouye talking. Or for that matter, Brian Schatz.

John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama were more show-horsey. So is Ted Cruz.

Franken takes Cruz apart in a way that makes Donald Trump’s Republican primary attacks on that Texas senator seem like the Boy Scout oath.

Franken’s criticism doesn’t stem from the differences in their political views. 

He can’t stand Cruz, nor it appears can virtually anyone else in the Senate, because Cruz is worse than a show horse. He’s a show horses’ ass — a shamelessly lying, self-aggrandizing legislative deviant who does not abide by Senate norms. 

Franken left “Saturday Night Live” because he wanted to use comedy to influence politics instead of using his political knowledge to inform comedy. He wanted people not just to laugh but also to be energized.

So Franken, a guy Fox News sued (unsuccessfully) for co-opting the term “fair and balanced” in one of his previous book titles, is a strong advocate of — get this, fellow liberals — bipartisanship.

He’s under no illusions. Franken says compromise is not going to happen on any major policy issue. But he has successfully worked together with Republicans on other issues.

Also a key part of the Inouye-Schatz playbook.

Franken uses humor to cement his workhorse reputation. But using humor is a tricky business for a politician in our oh-so-sensitive political age. 

It is especially hard for a skilled craftsman like Franken because he is a comedy purist. Good comedians or satirists can’t worry about crossing a line, he says. There is no line that can’t be crossed.

In the memoir it is pretty clear that he still believes this and grumbles about having to accept that in politics there are indeed uncrossable lines. Bye bye, irony.

He calls this humor mitigation process “dehumorizng.” His staff does a lot of this, sending him a note during a committee hearing saying,”Al, you’re being an asshole,” or censoring his communications. 

Like a happy birthday note he wrote to Sen. Inouye:

“Dear Danny. I hope when I’m your age I’m just like you — healthy with two good arms. Oh wait! Sincerely, Al.”

He knew his “dehumorizing” staff would not allow him to send it. Franken also said that Inouye would have gotten a kick out of the note because the late senator had a great sense of humor.

(An aside: Would you rather have Al Franken say you have a great sense of humor or have your name on the marquee of a decrepit, inefficient airport?)

Franken thinks that resistance to Trump is working. Paul Wellstone would be proud.

I wish I could conjure up Franken’s passion for progressive politics and optimism about changing the country.  But I can’t. Reading the book, I laughed lot and learned a lot. But I was not energized.

I have become even more distant, aloof and skeptical, with lots of irony but no answers.

My position is more the fictional Stuart Smalley than the real Al Franken. To paraphrase a letter Stuart gets from a fan, “Dear Senator Franken, your book gave me the courage to feel my feelings, and to feel my feelings about my feelings, and my feelings about my feelings about my feelings.”

I sure don’t feel good about how I feel. As Smalley once said about himself, “I’m in a shame spiral.”

That’s my problem. It’s not Franken’s. I passionately hope he is right.

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