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From senator to stand-up: Al Franken comes to Dallas for the laughs

Sen. Al Franken addressing the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia in 2016
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Shutterstock
Senator Al Franken addressing the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia in 2016

He's in town accepting the Dallas Video Association's Ernie Kovacs Award, named for the pioneering TV comic.

Former Senator Al Franken actually remembers seeing Ernie Kovacs' comedy on TV — when he was very young in the late '50s, early '60s.

Kovacs' onscreen antics anticipated such later performers as Monty Python. He even did "fake" newscasts much like "Saturday Night Live"'s Weekend Update.

That kind of humor left an impression.

"One of the things I liked about Ernie Kovacs," Franken said, "is that he's just taking great joy in what he's doing. I was talking to Conan O'Brien about this. And when you're doing stuff as a comedian, the best stuff you do is the stuff you're doing to amuse yourself. You know, people always ask me, what was your favorite thing on "SNL"? And it was always three in the morning on Tuesday night when you were writing the show and literally rolling on the floor laughing.

"And what I love about Kovacs is he's playing with this medium when it is brand new. And he's just having a gas."

Franken's ongoing tour -- called The Only Former U. S. Senator Currently on Tour Tour -- actually began last year. But it got held up because of COVID. Now he's traveled to more than 30 cities — including Dallas last October, when he performed at the Majestic Theatre.

But before he embarked on his current marathon of appearances and performance dates, when was the last time Franken actually did stand-up?

"Well, that's a good question," he said. He noted that he and his former partner, Tom Davis — of Franken and Davis — actually started in stand-up when they both were in high school. They were part of the original staff of comedy writer-performers for "Saturday Night Live," and when producer Lorne Michaels in 1980 left for five years, they did too, and went back to the stage.

Al Franken at New York's Comedy Cellar 2022
Al Franken YouTube
Before he launched his comedy tour — The Only U.S. Senator Currently on Tour Tour — Franken tried out material at New York's Comedy Cellar

But the past several years, Franken said, people would mostly "book me for speeches. And as I was standing at the podium, holding a script, doing the speeches, I realized that, 'Well, most of this is funny.' And I hadn't done stand-up! And I love stand-up comedy."

Then, in 2021, he and his wife Franni Bryson moved to New York City to be near their grandchildren.

"So I just started going to the Comedy Cellar down in Greenwich Village and started working on an act, and now I'm touring it. And so the answer to the question is really I hadn't done [stand-up]. Except a little bit."

Franken is an Emmy-winning and a "New York Times"-bestselling comic author (including "Al Franken, Giant of the Senate" — which is about his unlikely but successful campaign for Congress). When it comes to humor, Franken's made the distinction between a clown — not meant negatively, but a term for a performer like David Letterman, who is perfectly willing to act silly to get a laugh – and a satirist like himself, who uses humor to make people think.

But does he really? As with many late-night comedy hosts these days (Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, John Oliver), most of Franken's audience probably is already of the same political mind as he is when they take their seats — essentially liberal.

So is he really changing people's thinking?

giant of the senate.jpg
Hachettte Audio
Al Franken's bestselling account of his election victory -- after an eight-month-long recount.

"Yeah, no. I mean, people have asked me as I tour, 'What have you learned about the country?' And I say, 'Oh, nothing -- see, because my audience is there to see me.'
"So it's completely different than being a senator where you're going all around your state, you're talking to everyone. You're meeting everyone. One day, you're talking to the children's hospital and the next day you're talking to the rural electric co-ops. You learn a hell of a lot.

"But touring?" he said with a laugh. "You don't learn a thing."

Franken resigned from the Senate in 2017, after several allegations of sexual misconduct that began with a conservative talk-radio host and grew from there. He apologized but also denied them.

He cited Jane Meyer's investigative piece for "The New Yorker" in 2019, which found discrepancies in the allegations. And in recent years, a number of Franken's former Senate colleagues — and political columnists — have seriously reconsidered the fact that a Senate Ethics Committee investigation was never pursued, which Franken had specificially requested.

"Yeah," Franken said. "I deserved due process and I didn't get it. And that's why so many of my colleagues have apologized."

After all that, does he still miss the Senate?

"Yep."

Why?

"'Cuz you can get stuff done there for people."

Even with all the wearying partisan gridlock that's stymied both politicians and the American public?

"You still can. You still can. Look, look what they just did," he said, referring to President Biden's recent omnibus. It addressed healthcare issues such prescription costs and targeted more money than anyone's spent before to battle climate change.

But that bill passed the Senate without a single Republican vote. Not exactly the image of a "can-do" institution pitching in together to get things done.

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Amazon
Some of Al Franken's merchandise as lit up social media, notably this coffee mug.

"So you do little, bipartisan things," Franken said, things "that people don't necessarily talk about or see" — but which can still affect lives.

When his stand-up tour began last year, "The New York Times" labeled it his "comeback through comedy." But if it is the start of a political comeback, Franken is certainly burning a lot of bridges by poking fun at his former Congressional colleagues, including both Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer.

But his favorite target undoubtedly remains Texas Senator Ted Cruz. His quip about liking Cruz more than his fellow senators even famously appears on some of his merchandise, including a coffee mug.

So why him — in particular?

"He's very smart," Franken said. "But I'm just always puzzled by his lack of self-awareness in terms of the way he comes off. Oddly, y'know, I have said about Cruz that I probably like Ted Cruz more than most of my colleagues, but I hate him.

"And the reason I like Ted is that he fancies himself a fan of comedy. And every once in a while, he'd come up to me and he'd have a joke that he wrote and he'd want to run it by me."

Franken laughed and stopped himself. "I tell that story in my show. It's a … And I don't want to give you my show, so --"

So we'll just have to catch Franken sometime doing his stand-up.

Al Franken appears Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Texas Theatre to accept the Dallas VideoFest's Ernie Kovacs Award.

Got a tip? Email Jerome Weeks at jweeks@kera.org. You can follow him on Twitter @dazeandweex.

Art&Seek is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gift today. Thank you.

Jerome Weeks is the Art&Seek producer-reporter for KERA. A professional critic for more than two decades, he was the book columnist for The Dallas Morning News for ten years and the paper’s theater critic for ten years before that. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, American Theatre and Men’s Vogue magazines.