Al Franken Blends Satire and Political Commentary at Flynn Show | Performing Arts | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Al Franken Blends Satire and Political Commentary at Flynn Show


Published September 19, 2022 at 1:51 p.m.

Al Franken at the Flynn - RICK LEVINSON
  • Rick Levinson
  • Al Franken at the Flynn
The truth is that Al Franken had no business ever being in the United States Senate. Expecting the comedian to be a serious public policy maker in what’s frequently called the world’s most deliberative body was as absurd as thinking a hyperactive five-year-old boy would sit still in class, hands folded, and not launch paper airplanes. As much as he tried to be statesmanlike during his almost nine-year Senate tenure, Franken couldn’t help himself. In reality, many members on both sides of the aisle, earnest people like Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), egged him on to tell jokes.

Even though some fellow senators (and presidents) were/are an even bigger joke, Franken was never able to thread the needle between serious and silly — serving on the Judiciary Committee, he noted “I‘m not a lawyer, but I played one in a sketch!”

That inability, as well as his failure to be fully embraced as a member of the Senate's elite club, would ultimately be his undoing and hastened his resignation, under pressure, after a term and a half in 2017, pummeled by allegations of sexual misconduct.

In his 90-minute comedy show at the Flynn Main Stage in Burlington on Friday, Franken made clear that he regrets stepping down and still harbors resentment for Democratic colleagues who he said abandoned him and threw him under the #MeToo political bus.

Despite a whiff of bitterness and a touch of melancholy, the guy is still damn funny. His timing and delivery on Friday were pitch-perfect. Mixing satire and political commentary throughout, the 71-year-old “Saturday Night Live” alum, radio host and New York Times best-selling author reeled off a ton of laugh-out-loud jokes — some crude, many at the expense of his former colleagues. His impressions of Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) were dead on; Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), mmm, not so much.

He won applause from the audience of 700 right from the start. Franken acted perplexed by his total hatred for right-wingers like Fox News host Tucker Carlson when compared to the truly evil acts of autocratic Russian president Vladimir Putin and his invasion of Ukraine.

“When you think about it, what has Tucker done?” Franken mused. “Has he targeted civilians with cluster bombs? No, Tucker hasn’t done that. Has he given medals to Russian soldiers who’ve committed atrocities? No, not Tucker. Has he bombed maternity wards in children’s hospitals? No. And yet I so (expletive) hate the guy!”

He immediately pivoted to praise Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a “fellow courageous Jewish comedian” who also went into politics.
Franken told funny stories about growing up as a rare Jew in suburban Minnesota and his ignorance about agricultural issues in a Midwest state as dominated by farming as Vermont. The audience winced — as did his staff, presumably — as he related his cringeworthy experiences from the campaign trail and during his nine years in office.

“Don’t be funny,” his staffers would repeatedly implore, advice that Franken's impulsive core could hardly abide any more successfully than a bull can casually waltz through a china shop.

Fortunately, he said, enough Minnesotans understood irony and satire for him to beat incumbent Republican Norm Coleman in 2008 in a “landslide” win of 312 votes out of 3 million cast, one of the closest elections in U.S. Senate history. (Coleman’s list of defeats deserves its own punchline given his prior loss for governor to Jesse Ventura, a professional wrestler.)

After assuming office, Franken’s staff continued to beg him to lay off the humor, advice he reluctantly agreed he should follow “but didn’t really internalize.” Staff stopped him when he penned a birthday card to a constituent turning 110 years old with a note encouraging her: “Dear Ruth, you have a bright future.”

Al Franken at the Flynn - RICK LEVINSON
  • Rick Levinson
  • Al Franken at the Flynn
They also put the brakes on when he sought to issue a statement condemning Justice Antonin Scalia's dissent in a Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage as "very gay."

Franken never fully won over his Senate colleagues, nor could he restrain himself enough to gain the insider status that might have saved him from being pushed out. He recalled a breakfast in the ornate Senate dining room with senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), where he queried the Oklahoma Republican and obstetrician/gynecologist whether “to be a doctor in Oklahoma, do you have to have any formal education?”

After Coburn, whose nickname was “Dr. No” for opposing almost all federal funding, blew up, Franken told the audience he replied: “Tom, that was a joke. And then I explained what jokes were. No reaction. And then he taught me how to deliver breech twins,” Franken said, demonstrating that it’s done “with just a little flick of the wrist.”

Franken easily won reelection in 2014 but resigned in late 2017 under mounting pressure after allegations from eight women of groping and unwanted touching. The fatal blow came after the release of an infamous photo taken in 2006 — before he was elected — with his hands hovering over the breasts of a female broadcaster while touring with the USO entertaining troops overseas. The woman, Leeann Tweeden, is asleep on a cargo plane in military garb, including a flak jacket, as a grinning Franken mugs for the camera and pretends to grope her. She also accused him of an unwanted forcible kiss while rehearsing a skit.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) was one of seven senators who told the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer of regrets for pushing Franken to resign before holding an Ethics Committee hearing. Leahy called it “one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made” in more than four decades in office.
Franken briefly touched on the scandal using a dummy named Petey. He spoke through the wooden figure in a self-mocking attempt at ventriloquism — Franken and Petey both wore masks. Petey squeaked about “how badly you were treated by your Democratic colleagues,” and the crowd roared in support.

“Now Petey, people are going to think I put you up to this,” Franken said.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Petey responded. Then, “OK, you might have.”

Franken ejected Petey when the puppet started coughing after his mask was removed, but Franken had his opening to add in his own voice: “I was kind of screwed by my Democratic colleagues.”

He then explained why he’d remained a loyal Democrat, listing all the government programs that had allowed his wife and her family to survive and receive education after her father died when she was 18 months old. It was a moment where Franken was at his most serious and best.

The show’s ending fell flat when he and a returning Petey encouraged the audience to support Democratic candidates with a profanity-laced message that just wasn’t funny and — given the importance of the midterm elections and with 2024 just around the corner — would have been more effective with the serious tone his staff so desperately sought.

Related Locations

  • Flynn Main Stage