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Published: Sunday, 7/6/2008

Funny guy Franken could soon be senator

ST. PAUL, Minn. - So it's come to this. You can spend the better part of an hour with Al Franken and hardly laugh at all.

Mr. Franken is, of course, one of the funnier men of our time, a Saturday Night Live veteran and the author of a number of books whose titles alone likely made you laugh (Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right), though not enough to make you actually read them. Now he is running for the Senate and, suddenly, with the onetime funny guy in possession of the Democratic endorsement for the seat held by Sen. Norm Coleman, his political prospects are no laughing matter.

Regardless of where you stand in the cultural wars (or the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq), you may concede that it might be healthy for the country to have a Democrat in the Senate with a decent sense of humor. There are few funny people in that cave of winds, and the last two genuinely witty ones, Alan Simpson of Wyoming and Bob Dole of Kansas, were resolutely Republican.

But right now Mr. Franken is deadly serious - about health care, Iraq, the economy, and the power of the big drug, auto, and energy companies.

His campaign is serious too. He could win. And though many a serious point has been made in jest - consult Will Rogers, for example, and his remark that he wasn't a member of any organized political party, just a Democrat - Mr. Franken is not running as a joke, to tell a joke, or to be a joke. He wants to be a senator like Ted Kennedy or, to be more precise and geographically relevant, like Hubert H. Humphrey.

Mr. Franken's is a Minnesota story, and by that I do not mean to suggest that the state that once elected a wrestler who favored a pink boa to the governor's office is especially fertile ground to elect someone closely identified with Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update. It's that Mr. Franken's political identity was created in the old progressive Democratic-Farmer-Labor crucible that made Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, and Walter Mondale national figures and liberal icons.

But it was a fourth Minnesota Democrat, the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, who may have had the greatest effect on the party's 2008 Senate candidate. Mr. Wellstone died in a plane crash during his re-election campaign in late October, 2002, a moment of immense shock and emotional power for Minnesota liberals, and when Mr. Franken returned to the state for an event saluting a book of Wellstone photographs, he found himself deeply moved - and surprisingly vulnerable to entreaties that he himself should run for the seat.

"For me it's a natural progression in my career," he said during a recent noon hour in his campaign headquarters in a small strip mall here. The candidate was wearing jeans and a salmon cotton shirt. He is smaller than he appears on television, and yet his head, shaped much like an organic seedless watermelon, seems outsized. He combs his hair back, and the reverse-bang effect that creates is about two, maybe three, inches high.

"I know that this is not what people think. I've been doing comedy and satire my whole life. In '95 when I left Saturday Night Live I started writing, pointedly, about the Gingrich revolution and the rise of talk radio and how it changed the civility of discourse."

Then he took to the airwaves himself, with a radio show on AirAmerica, and his listeners discovered an Al Franken who was more a serious guy than a wiseguy. (This part of the conversation, deep in Minnesota's tuna hot-dish casserole belt, produced the only funny line of our entire session: "The funny-to-serious ratio was smaller than the tuna-to-noodle ratio.")

He clearly liked the new persona. Now he is taking it on the road.

Even so, he is known as a comedian and his rivals are throwing back some of his funnier and cruder lines at him, recently resurrecting a 2000 Playboy column called "Porn-o-Rama!" This sort of thing is a disadvantage for anyone in the creative arts, for as a gubernatorial and presidential candidate it was no advantage for Ronald Reagan to have to defend his role in Bedtime for Bonzo, just as it will not be pretty to see Sen. James Webb of Virginia defending the sex scenes in his novels should he become the Democrats' vice-presidential nominee this summer.

"Obviously I've written stuff they're going to use against me," he says. "I did comedy for 35 to 40 years. I started in high school. Most of what I did was really funny, I think. [Here begins a cascade of belly laughs.] So much of it is part of the public record. Have I told some jokes that were not funny? You bet. Have I told jokes that are offensive to some people? Sure. But they're not representative of my work."

The jokes and comedy routines began in St. Louis Park, the Minneapolis suburb where Mr. Franken, now 57, grew up. There he wasted endless hours on mindless television, plus the Dick Van Dyke, Carol Burnett, Danny Kaye, Alan King, and other shows. Buddy Hackett was a particular favorite. Mr. Franken was marked by all of them, but also by Wendell Anderson.

Mr. Anderson is all but forgotten outside Minnesota, but 35 years ago he was on the cover of Time magazine, the poster child of innovative progressivism (plus, particularly important in Minnesota, a member of the 1956 U.S. Olympic hockey team). Mr. Anderson's greatest legacy is his overhaul of the state's education and finance system. It is known in state lore as the Minnesota Miracle of 1971.

What Mr. Franken is trying to pull off is the Minnesota Miracle of 2008. Right now he's within the margin of error of doing it.



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