Last month, the comedian Al Franken went on The Late Show with David Letterman and said something outrageous.
"George H.W. Bush, the president's father, was the head of the C.I.A., and he has said that outing a C.I.A. agent is treason," Franken said, referring to the Valerie Plame leak case.
"It is treason, yes," said Letterman.
"And so basically," said Franken, "what it looks like is going to happen is that Libby and Karl Rove are going to be executed."
The audience laughed. Letterman said, "What? What! Really?"
"Yeah," said Franken. "And I don't know how I feel about it, because I'm basically against the death penalty — but they are going to be executed, it looks like."
Predictably, the routine led to a headline on The Drudge Report, and some right-wing bloggers reacted as if someone had peed on a poster of Ronald Reagan:
"So, to our friendly liberals out there, I ask you, where is your outrage? Where are your comments expressing shock and disdain and insulting Franken's mother?" posted one.
But Franken said he was happy with his performance on the show and unaware of any blogger backlash.
"It went great," he said later by phone. "I've had nothing but great reaction to it."
Comedians perform bits, and Franken was so pleased with his that he did the same shtick again, this time for the benefit of an even more Middle American crowd: viewers of the Today show. It's a constituency that he might be aiming to reach more often in the future. Franken recently announced that he's uprooting his life on Manhattan's Upper West Side and moving himself (and his wife) to Minneapolis to pursue a career in politics, including a possible run for a 2008 Senate seat in Minnesota, where he grew up.
But his appearance on Letterman's show raises the question of how the still very blunt, idiosyncratic and rant-prone Franken will make the transition to the typically staid and earnest world of state government, and whether he will change politics or politics will change him.
After spending 15 years with Saturday Night Live, Franken set about transforming himself from Stuart Smalley into a political pundit and then into a politician. The campaign began with the writing of several best-selling books, including Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot in 1996, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them in 2003, and his new volume of political satire, called The Truth (with Jokes), as well as hosting a day-time radio talk show on Air America for over a year and becoming a regular at political and fund-raising events.
Franken said that he was tired of shouting from the sidelines in politics. "Minnesota, when I was young, was a very blue state, a very progressive state," he said. "It's got to be a battleground state. I grew up there, my parents lived there until they died, so I was always back. And I like Minnesota."
On a recent afternoon, Franken, 54, was leaning back in his chair with his feet up on his desk, gnawing on a toothpick.
It was a short commercial break during The Al Franken Show, and he had scarfed down his lunch, as he does every afternoon. This time, it was an Atkins-y tray of broiled salmon and broccoli. A long-haired woman darted over with some powder and a brush and dusted his face and ran her fingers through his thick hair, puffing it up just so; the show was, until Oct. 28, broadcast on the Sundance Channel.
He cast his toothpick aside. Showtime.
"Welcome back to The Al Franken Show," his booming voice breathed into the microphone. "If you're not terrified of avian bird flu, that might mean you already have it. ..."
Up close, Franken has a comic-book face, big meaty hands and twinkling eyes magnified by his glasses, with thick, girlish eyelashes that Dita Von Teese would probably pay for. His mouth, his eyes, his whole face looks elastic and larger than life, either molded by or perfectly suited to exaggerated expressions of emotion. There's a touch of prickliness to him, as though a bark, a snap, a joke, a loud guffaw could jump out at you at any moment. Indeed, he has the stocky build of another former wrestler-politician and unpredictable public speaker, Howard Dean.
His potential 2008 bid to become a Minnesota senator began in the cavernous Manhattan studio where The Al Franken Show is produced. (In fact, a lawyer looks over every receipt that Franken and his staff submit for every expense, to ensure that Air America's resources are not being mixed up with Franken's political activity.) During a commercial break midway through a segment that Franken was doing on rapacious pharmaceutical companies, a young man in jeans, sneakers and a black hooded sweatshirt shuffled into the studio, his hands shoved deep into his pockets.
"You sound like your head is just so full of facts and you want to get them out there," the young man said to Franken. "But it sounds good. Next time, try paraphrasing back to him — say, 'So you said .... '" Then he shuffled away.
The kid who had offered performance feedback to the radio personality was Andy Barr, 22, who was recently plucked from Harvard to work as a researcher on Franken's radio show. Franken's projects tend to rely heavily on Harvard boys; Franken is a graduate himself, and 14 Harvard students were involved in researching his previous book during the semester he spent as a fellow at the college's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. Billy Kimball, 46, Franken's longtime producer; Ben Wikler, 24, a producer-writer for the show; and Barr all come from behind the same Ivy curtain. The three help Franken write most of his jokes. (And both Andy and Ben appear in an ad for Franken's new book now playing on Amazon.com, in which he knees a "right-wing jerk" in the groin and smashes a stool over his back.) In the future, Barr's main job will be to head Franken's burgeoning political operation, the Midwest Values Political Action Committee, which will allow Franken to support candidates in the 2006 election cycle.
"Later this fall, we're going to be building relationships with fund-raisers and people who make the machinery of a political organization go," Barr said of his role with the P.A.C. "Also building relationships with other parts of the progressive community. That sounds like a euphemism for 'We're looking for donors,' but people aren't just pulling out a checkbook. This fall is about building a resource base and a base of ideas for once we really get going in Minnesota."
At some point, after living in Minnesota for a while and seeing the 2006 election through, Franken will decide whether or not to run himself in 2008 (against the Republican Senator Norm Coleman, who won the seat that opened up after Senator Paul Wellstone's tragic death in 2002).
"What I'm doing now is really about getting active in Minnesota for the 2006 cycle," Franken said in his office after his show, between chomps of broccoli. But would Franken have a better platform as a Minnesota senator than he does right now as a celebrity talk-show host?
"That's part of the calculus. I don't know; it depends. My No. 1 priority is the show, but if I am gonna run for Senate, I do have to do the things you have to do to run for Senate. And you know, the sooner I get back home, the better."
Celebrity politics — especially Democratic celebrity politics — are nothing new. Franken himself co-starred in John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign with Susan Sarandon, Michael Moore, Ben Affleck and Glenn Close, among others.
But four years later, he's the only one likely to be running for office. And though Minnesota is resolutely a blue state, it's also the American Midwest and prone to wild swings. Star quality has succeeded before — look at the election of pro wrestler Jesse Ventura to the Minnesota governor's mansion in 1998. But if Ventura's campaign was a success, his governorship was questionable.
"I think it's very early to make an assessment," said Jeff Blodgett, the executive director of Wellstone Action and the man who ran Wellstone's Senate campaigns, when asked to evaluate Franken's Senatorial prospects. "Al Franken is a very important figure in the resurgence of the progressive movement, both in Minnesota and nationally. He's really helped people climb up off the floor and feel like they can take on the conservatives again. People like him here, love what he's done with the show, and they love the book. Whether or not he's a candidate, most people aren't looking at him in that regard yet."
It's not always clear Franken looks at himself that way yet, either. His appearance — campaign stop? — on Letterman's show on Oct. 21 was a case in point.
"I think there are certain things that are not appropriate for someone who is running for Senate and who is a senator," Franken had said before the Letterman episode. "I don't think it's that many. But you know, the areas that I'm thinking of in humor are irony, and dark humor, and those are places where you have to be careful — and I'm sure I'll continue to use both, and it'll be a learning process."
During his performance on Today, Franken came across as refreshingly blunt ("They lied to us," he said about the Iraq war) and very un-politician-like, which is sure to be a blessing and a curse. When asked whether it's possible to navigate a Senate campaign without resorting to the deception and compromises that seem to drive him crazy in professional politicians, he said, "I think you can make compromises without lying."
"I can raise money in ways that other people can't, by entertaining them," he also said. "You know, people want to meet me, and ... you know, I'll just do shows. I'll just go on tour."
But in addition to being funny, Franken is known for losing his temper and flying off the handle — his notoriety (and book sales) were built up through a series of high-profile feuds and crusades, spats and tiffs, with Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and the right-wing press, which can overshadow his feelings on the underlying issues.
In a profile of the comedian in The New York Times Magazine, Paul Begala was quoted as saying that politicians need thick skins in order to succeed. "I think so, yeah," Franken said when the remark was mentioned. But did Franken have the hide to run for public office?
"I think it's probably not thick enough," he said. "But I think it'll get thicker real quick."
"Sensitive," however, was an adjective he wouldn't cop to. And yet he has a reputation in certain circles for getting upset at people who write about him. In particular, he has had an ongoing, one-sided battle with a New York Post reporter who, Franken said, misrepresented the way he helped to eject a heckler from a Howard Dean rally in New Hampshire in 2004. The reporter, Vincent Morris, wrote that Franken "body-slammed" the protester, while Franken said he merely grabbed his legs and removed them from the ground.
Still, he believes he can handle the intense media attention of a Senate campaign.
"I guess so? We'll see. I think so," he said, leaning back and picking his teeth with his fork. "My wife's a good influence. 'Cause she's always telling me, you know, 'They're trying to bait you honey.' And so I gotta remember that. And it's funny — I tell myself all the time, 'Don't let people bait you.' And then I get mad at somebody."
Right now, he's mad at Washington. There's not enough oversight in Congress; there is still no program of universal health care, no plan for finding renewable energy sources or stemming nuclear proliferation. On the matter of the Iraq war, which he supported early on along with other liberal hawks, he now says: "I got duped by Colin Powell. I feel awful, but I'll also say that they couldn't have run this war worse."
In fact, Franken has been involved for some time with the U.S.O., which arranges for entertainers to travel overseas to perform and lift the morale of American servicemen and women. Franken is about to go to Baghdad for the second time. When he went last year, he fashioned a garbage-can lid into a flak jacket and wore it onstage to spoof the lack of armor that the troops were dealing with. Franken said it was important for him to go, because he never served himself. When he spoke about visiting the troops, he entered back into that weepy, amusing, vaguely shocking zone he often slides into — ever the entertainer.
"They love it. Yeah, they are so grateful when anyone comes over. You can just walk out there and take a crap on the stage and they'd love it," he said, suddenly chuckling loudly. "'Hey, he came over and took a crap!'"
This story appeared originally in The New York Observer.