The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Al Franken has a new comedy tour. His targets? Former Senate colleagues.

Former senator Al Franken kicked off his 15-city standup tour Saturday at the Academy of Music in Northampton, Mass. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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NORTHAMPTON, Mass. — For more than eight years in the Senate, Al Franken largely stifled the funny, as though he coexisted with a powerful alter ego in desperate need of submission: Senator Franken and "Saturday Night Live" Al. He had to watch everything he said. He dared to be dull.

No longer. Now, everything is political roadkill for his new comedy tour.

The recovering politician visited this bucolic college town Saturday to launch “The Only Former U.S. Senator Currently on Tour Tour,” which pokes fun at several of Franken’s former colleagues. Actually, make that many.

This is his first extended stand-up stint since he resigned from the U.S. Senate in January 2018 after several women accused him of groping during photo sessions and inappropriate kissing, allegations he has vigorously denied. If he no longer sits in Congress, if he did not receive the due process that he sorely wishes he had, why, Franken can bite the hands that once amicably slapped his back.

“I have the freedom to do many things. It’s very hard as a Senator to do a comedy tour,” he said in an interview a few days before the show. A previous tour ended early because of covid.

Unlike the Senate, Franken is bipartisan in his targets. Republicans such as Mitch McConnell, Chuck Grassley, Lindsey Graham and former member Tom Coburn are mocked, occasionally drubbed. Also, fellow Democrats Bernie Sanders, Dianne Feinstein and Charles Schumer.

But mostly, Ted Cruz.

What wife shtick was for Henny Youngman and drug humor for Robin Williams, the Texas Republican is for Franken. He can deliver a tight five minutes.

“I like Ted Cruz more than most of my colleagues like Ted Cruz. And I really hate Ted Cruz,” Franken, 70, told the nearly sold-out crowd at the 803-seat Academy of Music, which listed decidedly toward fans who were old enough to enjoy the initial years of “Saturday Night Live” live.

For those fluent in the Frankenverse, this is a joke that he tells so often it’s emblazoned on online merch, a mug or pint glass for $20 each. Franken’s finest Cruz bit, his chef’s kiss, involves fellow Minnesota Democrat Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a luxury ocean liner and an unprintable bodily function. It rarely fails to kill.

The 15-city tour draws largely from Franken’s years in Congress and the greatest hits from his 2017 memoir “Giant of the Senate.” The SNL years are dispensed with swiftly.

Two years ago, Franken told the New Yorker that he “absolutely” regretted his resignation. Today, what does he miss about the Senate? Almost everything.

“The job is so friggin’ great,” he said onstage.

Fans wish he was still there. “I think he got railroaded,” Mark Thompson, a newly retired teacher of 33 years from Ware, Mass., said before the show. “I think we all should be rewarded with due process.”

“I think he’s a cool guy all around. He does comedy and politics, my two favorite things,” said Levi Armstrong, 16, of Northampton. “The terms that he left on are distasteful. I feel bad for him.” If Franken made no mention during the act of his former squash opponent, New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, the first senator to call for his resignation, admirers did unbidden. Said Lyn Nolan, 69, of Springfield, a social services counselor, “I don’t care for her at all.”

During his Senate tenure, staff comic-sat Franken, employing what was dubbed “The DeHumorizer” to defuse temptations to lampoon colleagues and the absurdity of politics. Clearly, from the act, there were plenty. He learned to restrain his raucous cackle, a semi-seismic rattle that might cause clocks to stop. Instead, he embraced the gray-flannel solemnity of Washington.

Now, he is free to go Full Schlump, in worn jeans and newish sneakers, and play his beloved Grateful Dead to welcome audiences. He can swear like a sailor — or, more precisely, a comic — and call Cruz any invective he wishes.

Franken’s stand-up routine is probably the only one to include a bit about Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a live rendering of the United States map from memory on a blank paper and an impersonation of McConnell.

“I’ve never heard anyone do a Mitch. But I do a pretty good Mitch,” Franken said in the interview, slowing his speech to the velocity of an impaired turtle.

In 2010, Franken had to apologize for his mockery of McConnell (eye roll, gesticulating) during the Kentucky Republican’s speech opposing Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. Franken even delivered a handwritten note because that’s what gentlefolk of the Senate do. Now, apologies are unnecessary.

In the show Saturday, he divulged that Feinstein told him that because he previously worked in comedy, “when you first came here, I thought you were going to be stupid.” (The California Democrat’s office declined to comment.)

He shared a profoundly blue joke, not one of his own, about Willie Nelson and a specific sex act that cracked up Cruz and Utah Republican Mike Lee (“Ted’s only friend in the Senate”) but that Schumer failed to fully comprehend, deconstructing it to the point of absurdity.

Did he slam former president Donald Trump? Indeed, but not nearly as much as Cruz or the minority leader: “Mitch McConnell has systematically ruined the Senate.”

Franken’s fall was brisk. It began with accusations by broadcaster host Leeann Tweeden that “he kissed and groped me without my consent” on a USO tour, followed by allegations from half a dozen women, some anonymous. Nearly three dozen senators closed ranks, including many in his party, and called for him to step down. It was three weeks from the first accusation to the resignation announcement.

Why Democrats decided Franken had to go

Toward the end of his set, Franken addressed his departure quickly but creatively, in a bit involving the pandemic, dimmed lights and a prop that leaves little question as to how he feels about his colleagues’ actions.

He also answered audience questions from handout cards, but if any mentioned those final days, Franken did not answer them. His public stance: See me, standing before you. I’ve moved on.

Consider the improbable, singular history of Al Franken, the only comedian to go from impersonating a senator (the late Illinois Democrat Paul Simon, on SNL) grilling a Supreme Court nominee to doing the real thing.

Born in New York City, childhood in Minnesota. Harvard. Original writer and performer on “Saturday Night Live,” famously as angora-clad 12-stepper Stuart Smalley. (Stuart is Franken’s middle name.) Fifteen seasons, five Emmys. Co-writer of “When a Man Loves a Woman,” a romantic drama about alcoholism, a tribute to his wife of now 46 years, Franni, who has long been in recovery. Host on liberal radio network Air America. Author, four books topping bestseller lists, almost all lampooning conservatives. Senate candidate in 2008. Winner by 312 votes. Swearing in delayed to July 2009, after recount and court challenges. Member of the Judiciary Committee, though not a lawyer. Reelection in 2014. Resignation in 2018. Political podcast. Return to comedy.

What do you do with a problem like Al Franken?

On his weekly show, currently No. 15 on Apple’s politics podcast list (right below Cruz’s “Verdict” podcast), he interviews journalists, fellow liberals and former Senate colleagues.

“Every once in a while, I’m funny on the podcast,” he said, “and, every once in a while, I’m serious on the tour.”

Franken is still capable of generating news. Last week, he told a Massachusetts outlet that, when it comes to running for office again, “I’m keeping my options open.”

Would he care to elaborate, given that both Minnesota senators, Klobuchar and his replacement, Tina Smith, are Democrats?

“I’ve just said it all along. It wasn’t anything new,” he told The Washington Post, offering a master class in equivocation. “And it’s a pretty neutral thing.”

So, Al Franken, still a politician — but pretty savvy at generating tour publicity.

“I miss making a difference in the ways that I could,” he said. Specifically, he didn’t get to grill Trump’s Supreme Court nominees Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. A former member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, he missed working on pandemic issues. He would have asked more members of Trump’s administration to appear before the committee to challenge them on their response to the crisis.

“I don’t think I would have let my colleagues get away with some of the bull they were spouting in hearings,” he said. “I enjoyed sparring with some of my colleagues who were lazy, unknowledgeable, but, more than anything, just toed the party line or appealed to their base.”

Franken’s close friend, the congressional scholar Norman Ornstein, said, “This tour is all part of figuring out what you do for the next stage of life.” Was he worried that Franken might face new criticism about the harassment allegations? “Of course, you’re going to be judged. He’s used to that at every phase of his life.”

Franken practiced the show at a Queens comedy club Wednesday. He was reminded that it was the beginning of the Jewish calendar’s holiest holiday.

“I’m asking God forgiveness that I’m sorry I’m entertaining people on Yom Kippur,” he said.

Franken is a pronounced extrovert, someone who derives pleasure from being around other people. The resignation placed him in purgatory.

“It got pretty dark,” he told the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer in 2019. “I became clinically depressed. I wasn’t a hundred percent cognitively. I needed medication.”

Now, he quibbles with “depressed.” He told The Post: “I don’t know if I said it, but anyway, yeah, it was a shock. I mean, look, it was just a shocking thing to have happen.”

His former deputy chief of staff Ed Shelleby recalled that “the day he did his speech on the Senate floor, a bunch of his staffers were there, and almost all of us were crying. He’s a crier. But he wasn’t crying, and that worried me.”

The New Yorker story was a vindication of sorts, noting that seven (and eventually nine) senators publicly regretted their decision to call on him to resign. It became the basis, in part, for a brief rehabilitation tour on late-night television, though it also led to additional criticism, including from The Post’s Monica Hesse. “I think it’s possible, though it depresses me to say it, that what Al Franken allegedly did would have merely been considered boorish until fairly recently,” she wrote, adding: “It should have been considered harassment all along.”

Friends report that Franken is doing much better. The podcast allows him to discuss political issues. He remains close with former Senate staffers, who joined him to celebrate turning 70 in May. Earlier this year, he left Washington and moved back to Manhattan to be closer to his son and two of his four grandchildren.

Even though his show is often caustic, he ended the evening with some hope. On Saturday, an audience member asked, “Can comedy be a bridge for the political divide in America?”

Franken gazed at the audience, and shrugged. “Why do you think I’m doing this tour?”

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