Al Franken on Serving in the U.S. Senate, Working on 'Saturday Night Live' and His New Tour | Comedy | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Al Franken on Serving in the U.S. Senate, Working on 'Saturday Night Live' and His New Tour

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Published February 16, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Left: Al Franken campaigning for Sue Minter at Nectar's in Burlington in 2016 - FILE: TERRI HALLENBECK; COURTESY
  • File: Terri Hallenbeck; Courtesy
  • Left: Al Franken campaigning for Sue Minter at Nectar's in Burlington in 2016

Al Franken has a résumé unlike that of any other former U.S. senator. The 70-year-old comedian-turned-politician-turned-pundit was an original writer on "Saturday Night Live." He spent 15 seasons on the hit NBC show before winning a Minnesota Senate seat in 2009. He resigned from the Senate in 2018 after several allegations of past sexual misconduct. However, some who called for Franken's resignation at the time later came to regret it. Citing a lack of due process, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) later said that urging Franken to resign was "one of the biggest mistakes I've made."

Since leaving the Senate, Franken has launched a successful podcast focused on the politics and public affairs of today. "The Al Franken Podcast" has featured guests such as Michelle Obama, Chris Rock and, most recently, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), serving on the January 6 Select Committee.

Franken has also embarked on a tour combining his political experience with his comedy, fittingly billed as "The Only Former U.S. Senator Currently on Tour Tour." The former senator rang up Seven Days to chat about the show, which hits Burlington's Flynn Main Stage on March 5, as well as the state of the union and whether he'll ever run for office again.

SEVEN DAYS: Hi, Al. Thanks for taking the time to talk.

AL FRANKEN: Well, thank you. See? Now we're both on the same ground.

SD: We're both so thanked.

AF: [Laughing] Finally!

SD: How's life back on the road? I imagine touring is very different these days.

AF: Yeah, we did have two shows in northern California postponed because of Omicron, but we rescheduled those. I'm hitting Pennsylvania and New York next week. I'm so eager; I love doing this show.

SD: It seems like you're getting some thoughts off your chest about your former colleagues in the Senate.

AF: Yes. A lot of the show is about my time in the Senate and talking about some of my colleagues.

For my first term, I was trying to show people I was serious. I won very narrowly, so I had to prove that I was there to do the job. I think I did that.

Once I got reelected by a very big margin, I felt freer and could joke with my colleagues, but, well, I found a lot of them had little to no sense of humor. Some senators didn't understand what a joke actually was.

SD: They didn't think it was funny or didn't understand the actual joke?

AF: Tom Coburn from Oklahoma did not know what a joke was. My first interactions with Tom weren't good. He's a very right-wing guy, and we were on the Judiciary Committee together. So after the first few times didn't go well, I said, "Let me take you to lunch." He said, "Breakfast." Fine. We go to breakfast. I just want us to have a good time and talk about families and careers. I say, "You're a doctor. Let me ask you this: To be a doctor in Oklahoma, do you need to have any formal education?" He just got really mad. I had to clarify it was a joke.

So I talk a bit in my show about the difficulty of being in a body where a lot of people are humor challenged.

SD: Are you concerned about some of your former colleagues hearing you trash them onstage?

AF: Not really, though I'd be really happy if Ted Cruz heard what I said about him. But I do a lot of people. I do a pretty good Bernie Sanders. "This country is run by the millionaires and the billionaires!" [imitating Sanders]

Senator Paul Simon and Franken in 1991 - COURTESY OF JAMIE  HOWREN/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
  • Courtesy Of Jamie Howren/Library Of Congress
  • Senator Paul Simon and Franken in 1991

SD: That's a pretty accurate Bernie. If you rip on Phish and Ben & Jerry's, too, you'll have the Vermont trifecta of sore spots.

AF: I was actually up in Burlington in 2006 for a Bernie fundraiser when he was first running for Senate, so, you know, my impression is a pretty affectionate rip. As for Phish, well, I'm a Deadhead. I like Trey [Anastasio], and I've seen Phish at Madison Square Garden, but, yeah, I'm a Deadhead. I play them for my walk-in music a lot, though I play a lot of stuff. Los Lobos, too.

SD: These are strange days. As a satirist, are you ever concerned that things might be too stressful to make fun of? I recall the "South Park" guys talking about how hard it's been to write jokes because satire has become reality.

AF: Well, satire deals with stressful stuff. That's what I've always done. There's a balance, for sure. I wrote a lot of the political satire on "SNL" when I was there. Very often it was just fun and silly, but sometimes it was pointed.

When Dana [Carvey] did George H.W. Bush, he was so funny that ["SNL" writer] Jim Downey had to tell him between dress and air, "Don't get so many laughs because we're losing the through line." I don't think anyone has ever said that to a comedian: Don't get so many laughs? But it was true, and Dana knew exactly what we were talking about.

Satire can be influential, like George Carlin and Richard Pryor, or Lenny Bruce. I really admire those guys.

SD: Speaking of comedians with podcasts and the state of satire, what do you make of Joe Rogan and the controversy surrounding him these days?

AF: Look, he's very popular, and I can imagine that's for a reason. I don't want to say too much, because I haven't listened to his podcast — maybe I should. But I think it's incredibly irresponsible to put out some of that misinformation.

In my act, I talk about the 20 percent or so of Americans who refuse to be vaccinated. I say that the No. 1 cause of death in America right now is Tucker Carlson. I've updated it to say maybe it's actually Joe Rogan.

I guess he's very compelling, but I think he's been irresponsible. You're entitled to your own opinion, but you're not entitled to your own facts. That sort of thing has just gotten out of control now.

SD: You're talking about the GOP's stance on the January 6 insurrection?

AF: Among other things. I think it's a tough time to be an American right now. Obviously, the pandemic. But we have an entire political party invested in a big lie. It's absolutely a huge, clear lie, and everyone knows it. My former Republican colleagues, they know it. They know it's a lie. But they're afraid of their own voters, because it's Trump's party now.

Look at this stuff about critical race theory ... CRT isn't taught in K-12. It's actually only taught in law schools, and not many at that. It's a very serious, multidisciplinary study about how our society has [institutionalized] systemic racism. It's in our economics, our laws and our culture.

Gov. [Ron] DeSantis down in Florida, he has a law now that if a teacher makes a kid uncomfortable, the kid's parents can sue the teacher. How do you teach American history if any parent can sue a teacher? It's insane. But the fact is, no one teaches CRT. People don't even know what it is.

SD: Sounds like you have plenty left in the tank for a fight. Are you thinking about getting back into politics?

AF: I don't know. I'm young; I'm only 70. I'd say I have a good 40 years left. Maybe I'll run for president when I'm 102. I'll serve eight years and then drop dead.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Al Franken performs on Saturday, March 5, 8 p.m., at the Flynn Main Stage in Burlington. $48.50-69.50. flynnvt.org

The original print version of this article was headlined "Doggone It, People Like Him | Al Franken on serving in the U.S. Senate, working on "Saturday Night Live" and his new tour"