Al Franken Is A Big Fat Candidate... Maybe

Air America's outspoken pundit tests the political waters.

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.