A few weeks ago, Al Franken — former senator representing the great state of Minnesota, author of four New York Times bestselling books and "Saturday Night Live" alum — found himself sloshing through several inches of water in the basement of a packed New York City comedy club.
He had been in the middle of a stand-up routine, trying out material for his 15-city comedy tour (including a two-show stop at Minneapolis' Pantages Theatre on Oct. 2). Next thing he knew, the place was flooding with the remnants of Hurricane Ida.
"I went, 'OK, everybody, run for your lives!' " Franken recalled. "I had visions of 'Titanic.' "
A native Minnesotan, Franken had come prepared, with boots and an umbrella. So he took the subway as far as it would go and then walked the rest of the way home, as if taking a page from "Stars – They're Just Like Us."
The following evening, the club reopened. And there was Franken, back at the mic.
In some ways, the episode reflects Franken's current state.
In late 2017, after multiple women alleged Franken had inappropriately touched or kissed them, his Democratic colleagues all but forced his resignation from the Senate. Lying low for a period, Franken waded through feelings of anger, melancholy and regret.
And then he returned to the public eye.
In May 2019, he launched the weekly "Al Franken Podcast," on which he's interviewed former colleagues about everything from antitrust legislation to corporatist jurisprudence. All of it in signature Franken style: with a spoonful of humor to make the wonky stuff go down.
But his just-launched nationwide tour will be the brightest limelight cast on Franken since his departure from public office.
As he takes the stage, the question isn't whether Franken, 70, is still funny. (See: The one about the congratulatory note Franken penned, as one of his first duties as a U.S. senator, to Ruth Anderson of Marshall, Minn., on the occasion of her 110th birthday: "Dear Ruth, You have a bright future.")
What remains to be seen is how Franken will write his next chapter. How he'll use his influence as an entertainer and advocate to create political change. And how far open the door remains on a possible return to elected office.
Between MN and NYC
In recent months, Franken's been splitting his time between Minnesota and New York City, where his son's family lives. Zooming from the East Coast for a recent interview, Franken, in a navy polo shirt and his trademark tortoiseshell glasses, was framed by a bookcase with a Paul Wellstone nameplate resting on a shelf. Smoothing the awkwardness of a brief technical glitch, Franken cut off the interview's first question to joke, "I'm sorry, but we've run out of time."
Franken spent much of the summer testing out material in New York comedy clubs, performing several nights a week, except for a trip to Minnesota. "It's part of the work, it's part of the discipline, and you want to try things out," he said.
Most days, Franken says, he gets up early, makes himself a cup of coffee and starts writing — a recent editorial on how Medicaid expansion has been a boon to rural Minnesota, for example.
He prepares for his podcast by doing a lot of reading, keeping up with the latest on everything from voting rights to climate change. And he remains active in politics.
Franken has contributed from his well funded PAC and raised additional funds to support progressive candidates and causes, from local DFLers to Georgia Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, whose wins flipped control of the U.S. Senate.
The rest of his time is filled by regular-person stuff, like workouts and making dinner (linguine and clam sauce is his specialty) and spending time with family. He calls his lifestyle "very grandchild-centric" (early in the pandemic, Franken and his wife, Franni, formed a bubble with their daughter, Thomasin, and her family, until they moved to Los Angeles last year). "And then there's just goofing around," Franken said, referring to things like watching the Vikings with his son.
Though Franken is low-key enough to do his own grocery shopping, his public persona remains a powerful one. Roughly 100,000 people download each podcast. He has nearly a million followers on both Facebook and Twitter, all of whom he can rally for a cause.
For example, when the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe opened its new Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig school in 2018 (as a senator, Franken had tirelessly advocated to replace its dilapidated former building), he asked his followers to help fill the library. Fans from as far away as Japan donated more than $80,000 and 10,000 books.
"It was like a wedding registry except instead of a nonstick cupcake pan, you've got 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' " Franken explained.
Without Franken's help, school librarian Laurie Jo Villwock said, she never could have garnered so many resources so quickly. "I wouldn't have even tried," she explained, noting the community's high poverty rate.
She said that students who helped catalog the books marveled at how donations came from around the globe. "It made students know people out there really cared," Villwock said.
To understand Franken's next chapter, it helps to look at his previous ones. While his activities may, at first, seem disparate, Franken sees a throughline between satirist and senator.
"A lot of people think, 'Oh, he's had all these different kinds of jobs,' " he said, listing his various roles, from comedy writer to statesman. "And to me, in a way, it's just been one job, which is communicating what I want to communicate. And comedy is one way to do it. ... Obviously, the emphasis is different when you're a senator than when you're on a TV show."
Franken pegs his Democratic destiny to his father's abandonment of the Republican Party after Barry Goldwater voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Franken recalls watching news coverage of Southern sheriffs siccing dogs on demonstrators and attacking them with fire hoses and billy clubs. His father pointed to the TV and said, "No Jew can be for that."
He said his father also was very funny, and the two loved watching comedians on TV. This spurred Franken to perform his own sketches at his St. Louis Park elementary school. In high school, he was taking the stage at Dudley Riggs' pioneering Brave New Workshop.
Yet Franken felt pressured to pursue a more somber profession. After Sputnik's launch, his parents sat him and his brother down and implored them to study math and science, to help America beat the Soviets. "I thought that was a lot of pressure to put on a 6-year-old," Franken quipped.
In college, at Harvard, Franken majored in science until a crisis of confidence led him to the counselor's office, at the suggestion of his then-girlfriend-now-wife. He took the Minnesota Multiphasic Psychological Inventory, which suggested the profession he was least suited for was scientist. It deemed him most suited to be a camp counselor or a jazz musician.
"I'd never been to camp, and I'd never played an instrument, so that told me: comedian," Franken explained.
Return to the stage
In late 2019, Franken had already begun his return to the stage. The pandemic ground his tour to a halt, but it's hard for a lifelong performer to put down the mic. "I think anybody who's a comedy performer will tell you that it's a big part of you," Franken said.
Those anticipating this fall's Only Former U.S. Senator Currently on Tour tour — Sen. Amy Klobuchar among them: "I know I join many others when I say I'm happy he's back on tour and look forward to seeing a show" — can expect to laugh, as well as reflect, Franken said.
"It will be fun, also thoughtful once or twice," he said. "Learning is one part of it, but also kind of just processing something in a way that I think is helpful for people."
In testing out his material, Franken said he was pleased to find people appreciated both his mockery of Sen. Ted Cruz's lying about his vacation to Cancun amid Texas' power crisis ("I probably like Ted Cruz more than most of my colleagues like Ted Cruz. And I hate Ted Cruz!") and an informative corollary about the helpful things a senator can do, being on the ground after a disaster.
"That stuff isn't particularly funny, but what I found was that people were really interested in it," Franken said.
As fans fill rooms around the country (one Minneapolis show already is sold out), they'll be joined by an elephant: What about the sexual misconduct allegations?
Nearly four years and much media ink later, disagreement remains as to whether Franken's losing his Senate seat was an appropriate consequence for his actions.
There's more consensus around the idea that behaviors attributed to Franken, while concerning, weren't nearly as serious as those leveled at other public figures. (One New York Times columnist described Franken's list of allegations, compared with others unleashed by the MeToo movement, as "appalling but pretty minor league.")
When it comes to accusations of sexual misconduct that fall short of assault, we don't have a good metric to distinguishing their severity. Nor a process to address how far Franken should have fallen from grace. What, beyond a heartfelt apology, is his path toward redemption?
When asked to reflect on the allegations, Franken repeated what he's said before: "If I offended anyone, that was never my intention. But I'm sorry if I did."
He was, however, quick to note that nine former colleagues among roughly three dozen who called for his resignation have publicly apologized for not giving him due process. (Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who led the call for resignation, has continued to stand by her original statement: "I believe it would be better for our country if he sent a clear message that any kind of mistreatment of women in our society isn't acceptable by stepping aside to let someone else serve.")
"What I want to do is go forward in a dignified way and show by the way I live my life, my example, who I am," Franken said.
And so he continues to seek the spotlight, despite the scrutiny it brings.
"He could have laid low and done nothing, but that's not him," Franken's daughter, Thomasin, said. She cites her father's belief in government's ability to help people as his motivation to advocate for change. He saw the power of government through his work as a senator, Thomasin said, but also, on a personal level, in the way his wife's mother raised five children as a young widow, with the help of Social Security survivor benefits.
"With politics, you can be cynical about it, or you can find it really boring," Thomasin said. "But the fact of the matter — and something that he deeply knows — is that there's so much opportunity to do good, and that's incredibly important to him and will be no matter what."
Franken has said publicly that he's keeping his options open for a future run for office.
But re-election would be an uphill battle, for several reasons, said Prof. Cynthia Rugeley, head of the political science department at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Some Democratic voters haven't forgiven his transgressions. Every time another politician is leveled with sexual misconduct allegations, Franken's name seems to come up.
And, perhaps the biggest hurdle: What office, in Minnesota, would he seek?
Still, Franken remains a smart, funny, credible voice in politics, which has proved effective in drawing an audience, Rugeley said. His lighthearted humor can animate discussions of dry issues, which, if brought up by many politicians, could put an audience to sleep.
"If I talked about antitrust, nobody'd tune in," she said. "But when Al Franken does, they do. And part of it is his reputation as a senator, as a serious statesman. Another is his reputation as somebody who's pretty clever and witty."
Rugeley noted how Franken's ability to spur conversations about serious issues, to persuade listeners and move them to action could lead to an impactful next chapter outside of elected office.
"In some ways, he could be even more effective because he does have access to a following," Rugeley said. "What I find interesting about it is that he seems to be writing it himself."
Rachel Hutton • 612-673-4569