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Transcript: “Capehart” with Al Franken

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MR. CAPEHART: Good afternoon. I’m Jonathan Capehart, opinion writer for The Washington Post. Welcome to the Capehart podcast on Washington Post Live. As I said, I am Jonathan Capehart.

My guest today was made famous by his role as a writer and performer on "Saturday Night Live" for three decades. But he turned his political activism into a political career, serving as a United States senator from the great state of Minnesota for 10 years. It is his time in that august chamber that provides the comedic fodder for his "The Only Former U.S. Senator Currently on Tour" tour. He is Al Franken.

Senator Franken, welcome to "Capehart" and Washington Post Live.

MR. FRANKEN: Well, thank you, Jonathan, for inviting me.

MR. CAPEHART: And a reminder to our audience, we want you to join our conversation, so please tweet your questions and comments to the handle @PostLive.

So, Senator Franken, as I do with anyone who has had the guts to run for elective office and ask people to vote for them, I always use their titles, whether they are current or former, but would you mind if I call you Al?

MR. FRANKEN: Uh, yes. No.

MR. CAPEHART: You wouldn't?

[Laughter]

MR. FRANKEN: Your producer asked me before, and I said, "Call me Al."

MR. CAPEHART: Well, okay. All right, Al. So what inspired--

MR. FRANKEN: --[unclear] very well.

MR. CAPEHART: No, no. They did. I just wanted the audience to know, because they told me--

MR. FRANKEN: You can all me anything, pretty much.

MR. CAPEHART: So Al, what inspired the "Only Former U.S. Senator Currently On Tour" tour?

MR. FRANKEN: What inspires me now?

MR. CAPEHART: Well, what inspired you to do it?

MR. FRANKEN: Well, what inspired me to do the tour?

MR. CAPEHART: Yeah.

MR. FRANKEN: Oh, okay. I love comedy. That's where I started. I actually never really did a single standup tour. I used to comedy with Tom Davis, who we went to high school together and we were two of the original SNL writers. We did 15 seasons there, not 3 decades, but we did it over 2 decades. We left for 5 and came back.

So Tom and I toured as a team, but I've been a big fan of really great standups all my life, and, you know, people--there's a million of them. But people like Carlin and, you know, Lenny Bruce, and Richard Pryor, all those people, and I really admire great standups.

MR. CAPEHART: You know, I do too.

MR. FRANKEN: And I started working out at a place called the Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village about a year ago, and just trying to get my chops going, and then went on tour in September. I did 15 cities. I did D.C. I did the Warren Theater down there. And I am about to go on and do 16 more cities starting in a week or so.

MR. CAPEHART: Wow. I love the fact that you went back to go to--you said the Comedy Cellar--

MR. FRANKEN: Yeah.

MR. CAPEHART: --to get your chops back. Did it take you longer than you expected to get your chops back?

MR. FRANKEN: Oddly, no, but, I mean, I don't even know if it was chops back, because I had really not done a single. But, you know, I've been public speaking for a long time, and I have been, you know--so no, it was actually fun right away. And I had actually, before the pandemic, gone on the road a little bit, and that was more--a little bit of a different format, more of speech-answering questions kind of thing. But this was really, I just seriously said, okay, you are going to do standup, Al. Let's see if you can do that.

MR. CAPEHART: So then, Al, what material do you cover in this show, and how are you folding the stranger-than-fiction current events into your comedy?

MR. FRANKEN: Well first of all it's comedy, and so, you know, people shouldn't come expecting a lot of, you know, just commentary. I am trying to honor standup comedy. So it's about laughs. But I do talk a lot about what's going on now in this country in terms of our governance. I think you are going to be asking me about the Senate and stuff like that. I do talk a lot about the people I served with and what that was like, and also, of course, about some of the conflicts that we're seeing right now. So it's a mix of stuff.

MR. CAPEHART: All right. Well, let's just talk about it. So who do you talk about in your tour? Like who really gets broiled?

MR. FRANKEN: Cruz. I have a thing called the Ted Cruz section of the show, because there's so much to say. Yeah, I have always said about Ted is that I probably like Ted Cruz more than most of my colleague like Ted Cruz, and I hate Ted Cruz. So I just explain why, and I talk about--I tell a number of stories and they're all pretty unbelievable.

There is a reason people don't like him. I mean, Lindsey Graham said if someone killed Ted Cruz on the floor and they had a trial in the Senate no one would convict them.

MR. CAPEHART: Right.

MR. FRANKEN: You know, and he's kind of right. So I tell some pretty interesting stories about Ted.

MR. CAPEHART: And I knew this, that Ted Cruz takes up a lot of time in your set, in your tour, but who do you broil who most folks wouldn't think you would make a joke about them?

MR. FRANKEN: Well, I do joke about some of my Democratic colleagues, but it's nothing, nothing like Ted.

MR. CAPEHART: Well, nothing like Ted Cruz.

MR. FRANKEN: It's more affectionate kind of stuff about them. I mean, you know, I talk about Bernie having to--you know, I've known Bernie for a long time. I campaigned for him when he was in the House. And, you know, he's sort of had the same stump speech for 30 years, which is [affecting], "This country is run by the millionaires and billionaires." And then I talk about the time he--it turns out he's a millionaire, because he sold a number of best-sellers, not number one New York Times best-sellers like I have. And it was just his time, having to adjust from, "This country is run by the mill--billionaires and multi-billionaires." You know, and it was just having him try not to say millionaires. You know, remember he had that heart attack in November, in the beginning of the 2020 cycle, and a lot of people would say to me, "Well, oh well, I sit for Bernie, and I guess --." Are you kidding? I said, "Bernie has more energy than anyone I know," and I said, "Remember Cheney? He had like 12 heart attacks during the Bush administration, and he had three artificial hearts, two of which rejected him." So there you go.

MR. CAPEHART: [Laughs] Hey, Al, you got me to snort there, in public.

MR. FRANKEN: Hey, that kind of snorting is fine in public.

MR. CAPEHART: As you well know, the intersection of comedy and politics can be fraught. Do you think we are overly sensitive today when it comes to some comedy or all comedy? Are we taking comedy too seriously?

MR. FRANKEN: Yeah. I mean, yes, people are way too sensitive about everything, and it's a problem. And what I think is kind of funny is Republicans complain about woke, and now they're going to actually make it possible for parents to sue teachers in Florida--this is what DeSantis wants to do--for making a child feel discomfort.

MR. CAPEHART: Oh yeah.

MR. FRANKEN: So you can't basically--I mean this is obviously about critical race theory, which is not taught in K through 12 and it's not taught in college. It's taught in law school. And it's just--it's treating our kids--it's going to make it impossible to teach kids in Florida, which is a disservice to kids. You know, when I was growing up, when I was in school, I had right-wing teachers, I had left-wing teachers, I had teachers who were racist and anti-Semitic, I had great teachers. I could tell the difference. I could deal with it. And, you know, also have to be able to talk about the stuff, and I think people are just afraid to talk about things now. And it's on both sides. It goes both ways, obviously.

MR. CAPEHART: You know, on that Florida bill, I wrote a column on Tuesday about the discomfort bill and how idiotic it is, and they are trying to bubble-wrap kids from being challenged about our nation's history.

But let's move from comedy and talk about the situation that Whoopi Goldberg is in. You recently came out in defense of Whoopi, who--

MR. FRANKEN: It wasn't exactly--it certainly wasn't in defense of what she said. I just said that she--I think she didn't really understand--she basically said that she didn't think, you know, the Holocaust was about race, and of course, of course, of course the Nazis believed my people were a race, that Jews are a race. And this is actually part of, if you look at what critical race theory is, it says that race is sort of a social phenomenon. It's what people impose on it.

So, you know, in this country Italians were once not white-white--you know what I mean?--and now they are. And so all this is sort of in our heads, and I think that Whoopi got confused, and it was a dumb or ignorant thing to say. But I think she genuinely was apologetic, and I had no problem with what they did at The View or ABC. Two weeks off is a fine thing, I think. I don't know what the policy has been in the past on things like that.

MR. CAPEHART: Right. So you agree with what ABC did in terms of suspending Whoopi Goldberg. I am wondering if you have any concern about what that kind of suspension--

MR. FRANKEN: [Audio distortion] I would have been fine if they didn't. I know they had someone from the ADL on, the head of the ADL on. I think that was a really good thing. And so I was just saying I don't know what their policy has been when a host or other people on the show have made that kind of mistake.

MR. CAPEHART: Mm-hmm. You know, I don't know if you know this about me but I went to Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.

MR. FRANKEN: Oh really?

MR. CAPEHART: Yes.

MR. FRANKEN: Great school.

MR. CAPEHART: It's a fabulous school, and I see you have Mr. Wellstone behind you, and Paul Wellstone, the late senator from Minnesota, was one of my political science professors. That was my major.

MR. FRANKEN: He was amazing, wasn't he?

MR. CAPEHART: He really was.

MR. FRANKEN: Yeah. He--the reason I ran for the Senate was Paul, because Paul died in a plane crash, as you know, in 2002, and just about two weeks before that election, and Coleman ended up winning it. I won't get into some of the stuff that happened right before it in terms of the memorial funeral for him, service for him, and how that was mischaracterized. But Norm Coleman, a few months after being in the Senate, was interviewed by Roll Call and said that he was a 99 percent improvement over Paul Wellstone. And that's when I said, "Who the hell is going to run against this guy?" And that got into my head and then I ended up clobbering him by 312 votes.

MR. CAPEHART: Right. And it took a while to certify that election, which happened in November 2008, and it was certified in, what, June of 2009?

MR. FRANKEN: Yeah, right at the end of June. Now I actually won the recount in January. I won the recount in time to be seated. The Republicans didn't want me there because I ended up being the 60th vote, so they did everything they could to stop me from getting there.

MR. CAPEHART: Right. So Al, I have to ask you about, you know, what led to you leaving the Senate. And it's been four years since you resigned. In 2019, seven current and former senators told The New Yorker that they regretted forcing you out of office. You have also said that you regret resigning. Why?

MR. FRANKEN: Well, I think those seven--now there are nine of them--I have had two since publicly apologize, which is unusual, you know, to get nine senators publicly apologizing for something. They didn't give me--they made it impossible for me to get due process. And I think if you read in the New Yorker--I don't know, did you read the New Yorker article?

MR. CAPEHART: I did not read The New Yorker article.

MR. FRANKEN: Okay. Well, I would hope people would who are interested in this, because it puts a lot of perspective on it. No one investigated this. No one at The Washington Post investigated it. No one at The New York Times investigated. No one did any investigation of this at all. And I had 36 of my colleagues demand that I leave, and I didn't get due process, and it was a pretty awful experience for me and my family.

And Jane Mayer, whom you know, right--

MR. CAPEHART: Mm-hmm.

MR. FRANKEN: --one of the great investigative reporters in our country, actually did an investigation. And one of the people who apologized since was Dick Durbin, and he apologized as soon as he read the article. And people who are interested in this, like yourself, really should read that.

MR. CAPEHART: Okay. I will do that. Of course, we are talking about your resignation over allegations of sexual harassment. I want to read something that feminist author Laura Kipnis said about the 2017 #MeToo fallout that, quote, "There was failed distinction making and political expediency and the impossibility of sorting motives from facts. That's what's starting to get unraveled now."

I'd love your thoughts about how you are unraveling the #MeToo movement, and how this shaped your life the last four years.

MR. FRANKEN: I don't want to spend a lot of time on this, because it's very complicated. But let's say that that's pretty accurate, and that I--you know, this is very, very difficult for me and for my family, and, you know, I do appreciate the nine who have come to me and apologized. Those are public. I've had others apologize to me and won't go public.

And they--I think a lot of people come up to me all the time and say, "That was ridiculous," and, you know, I don't want to discuss it here, right now. How's that?

MR. CAPEHART: That's fine. That's fine. All I do is ask questions. You can answer them or not answer them.

Now, of course, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was the one who led that effort to get you to leave the Senate. You recently said that you would not run for Gillibrand's seat in the Senate. But this leads to a Twitter question that came in, that asks, "Are you going to run again?" Do you have it in your bones or in your blood to jump back into the political arena and run for elective office again?

MR. FRANKEN: I don't know. I certainly loved my time in the Senate. I loved the job. I got a lot done. I was able to accomplish things I couldn't accomplish anywhere else, I don't think. So yeah, it would be tempting to try to do that again.

MR. CAPEHART: Mm-hmm. At some point.

MR. FRANKEN: Yeah.

MR. CAPEHART: Perhaps.

MR. FRANKEN: I'm only 70, so I've got--let's see. Grassley's running for reelection.

[Laughter]

MR. CAPEHART: So you've got all the time in the world--

MR. FRANKEN: I do.

MR. CAPEHART: --to run again.

MR. FRANKEN: You know that when someone is 87 and they won't stand up--even though he denounced Trump early on, then he hugged him on the stage--you know that if he won't kind of go down on principle at 87 he's not going to do it at probably any other time.

MR. CAPEHART: So we've gotten to my list of questions here that was getting into political stuff. We talked about the discomfort bill in Florida. You jumped ahead on that. But, you know, you're a former politico. What grade would you give President Biden?

MR. FRANKEN: I think grading people is kind of silly. Asking the question, perfectly valid.

MR. CAPEHART: Okay. All right. So you're not going to answer the question. So don't grade him. What do you think of how he's done so far? It's been a year and a month.

MR. FRANKEN: Well, he's had some ups and downs. What I hope is, is that by November he'll have accomplished a lot of things, including a lot of the elements of Build Back Better. Because I think that there's been a little bit of a disservice, and it's been all around, in terms of, especially in the media, of instead of--I think the Washington media does this a lot, which is it gets into inside baseball and horse race and doesn't cover the content of these bills.

So what I would suggest now for the Senate is for Chuck Schumer and for the rest of my Democratic colleagues and former colleagues there is to put the elements of Build Back Better onto the floor, at least the ones that Manchin and Sinema at least would consider backing. For example, Manchin has said he is for expanded pre-K, universal pre-K. That would be a great thing. Americans would be for that. You put that on the floor, Americans want that, and if Republicans vote against it, if we don't get 60 votes, we put it in a reconciliation package. But at least Americans know what we're fighting for.

The same on extending--or subsidies for childcare. That would be wildly popular. You know, in Europe the average country subsidizes the average kid $14,000 for childcare, and in the United States we do $500. $500. And that would be wildly popular. It would also make sure that people could go to work, that moms could go to work or dads could go to work, and actually would help maybe bring down a little bit of the inflation on salaries and wages, because more people would be able to go out into the workforce.

There's a whole bunch of stuff like this. Getting costs down on prescription drugs, on insulin, on child tax credit. My God. If you put that out there--and I don't understand why we just don't put one after the other out there so the American people can see what the elements of this are, because if they did, we could pass this stuff. And I wish it had been done sooner. I wish that some of this stuff, people could see the results of it before November. But I think people will see what Democrats are for, and it would help us a lot in November.

MR. CAPEHART: So Al, you know, they say that times flies when you're having fun, and time has flown. We've got maybe about three minutes left.

MR. FRANKEN: I wasn't having fun. Now I am. Okay.

[Laughter]

MR. CAPEHART: All right. So Al, the last question is another Twitter question that has come in from Miriam E. Tucker [phonetic]. She asks a question that was going to be my final question, and I think a lot of people are wondering, and it is this: "Al, has there been discussion of you hosting SNL or possibly even returning to the cast?" And then I have another one.

MR. FRANKEN: I [audio distortion] in the cast. I was a featured player. I was there for so long that people, in their brains, think I was a cast member, but I was what was called a featured player. And so I don't think that's going to happen. I think that I'm too old to be a cast member now. And also they have a pretty big cast, and a pretty good cast. So, you know, yeah, I don't think that's in the cards.

MR. CAPEHART: All right. And here is the final question. Her question didn't go where I thought it was going, but this one does. Before your tour kicked off you said that you wanted your audience--no, not that one. There are rumors--this is the question. There are rumors about Lorne Michaels retiring. Lorne Michaels, the legendary and long-time executive producer of Saturday Night Live. Would you want to go back to Saturday Night Live as executive producer?

MR. FRANKEN: I don't think so. That's a very--that might be a pretty hard and thankless job, taking Lorne's shoes at this point. And I also think there are other people probably who have been doing that and have been around that. You know, Seth Myers, although he probably wouldn't want to do it because he's got his own great show. But there are people that are working there now, in some capacity as producers. So that's not--I don't think that's in the cards either.

MR. CAPEHART: But if they came to you and said, "Hey, we'd like to have a discussion," would you take that meeting?

MR. FRANKEN: I'd say, "Come on. [Audio distortion] What are we talking about, guys?" I'm probably the only one that could do it. Yeah, I'd have a different negotiating posture than I just had, and I would ask you not to let that out, let people see that. Is this live?

MR. CAPEHART: Yeah. Well, we'll cut that part out.

MR. FRANKEN: [Unclear] there on that negotiation.

MR. CAPEHART: Well, Al, thank you. Former Senator from Minnesota, now on your "The Only Former U.S. Senator Currently on Tour" tour. Thank you so much for coming to Capehart on Washington Post Live.

MR. FRANKEN: Oh, well thank you. Thank you, Jonathan.

MR. CAPEHART: And I should say you have your own podcast as well, "The Al Franken Podcast."

And thank you for joining us. To check out what interviews we have coming up head to WashingtonPostLive.com. Once again, I’m Jonathan Capehart, opinion write for The Washington Post. Thanks for watching “Capehart” on Washington Post Live.

[End recorded session]

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