When Al Franken produced a 1992 “Saturday Night Live Presidential Bash,” he fired off a letter to a man he’d been skewering for years - Richard Nixon - in the hope that one of his favorite political punching bags would bestow a personal appearance on the show.
Nixon’s office declined, and Franken gleefully framed the reply as a trophy of sorts in his long comic battle against what he considers the forces of political darkness.
The rejection letter took its rightful place in an odd, ironic tribute to liberals’ favorite Vietnam-era villain - a bathroom in Franken’s elegant Minneapolis townhome filled with Nixon memorabilia.
The “Nixon bathroom” is a curious window into the mind of a man who zeroes in on foes with an unnerving intensity, an abrasive sense of humor and, yes, a bit of obsession.
“Al never does anything halfway,” said Tom Borman, a Minneapolis attorney and Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party honcho who has known Franken most of his life. “When he commits to something, he commits completely.”
After a lifetime in comedy, Franken is fully joined in the roughest, costliest and most prominent U.S. Senate contest in the country. To do it, he uprooted a 30-year life in New York City, returning to his childhood home of Minnesota to build a political organization from the ground up. He has defended himself against two years of searing Republican attacks, some of them on mishandled tax payments, and fought back members of his own party to win a tough endorsement contest and a primary that saw fellow Democrats calling him a carpetbagger and worse.
U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., who has since endorsed Franken, at one point called his earlier writings, including a sexually explicit satire for Playboy magazine, “radioactive” and expressed concern that Franken’s past work posed “a serious political problem.”
“He will have the voting record of Paul Wellstone, but he won’t have the style, the finesse, the panache of Paul Wellstone,” said Sarah Janecek, Republican publisher of Politics in Minnesota. “Every indication we’ve gotten from Al Franken and the campaign is that it’s no-holds-barred against the Republicans. That’s not what people want anymore.”
Slowly, Franken has won over most DFL doubters, fueled by a crusading sense that he has embarked on a mission to fight a conservative establishment he believes has too often gone unanswered since the days of Nixon.
Yet this chortling scourge of what he has called right-wing “idiots” - to use one of his more publishable epithets - is, in private life, an almost shockingly conventional family man who can turn weepy at the slightest provocation.
“Are you going to do the two-dimensional cartoon or try to do what everyone else has failed (to do) - the whole person?” demanded Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant when asked about Franken, his longtime friend.
“Because if you’re going for the whole person, good luck.”
From the time he left “SNL” in 1995, Franken appears to have been determined to single-handedly extinguish the stereotype of wimpy liberal eggheads. He has practiced a muscular brand of liberalism that punches hard, then expresses surprise that anyone could be hurt.
“Al has a very strong streak of sarcasm in him,” said childhood friend David Griffin, a pediatrician in Minneapolis. While he is “funny and good-hearted,” Griffin said, Franken has also always felt a compulsion to “point out stupidity and injustice when he sees it.”
“What I do is jujitsu,” Franken says. “They (Republicans) say something ridiculous and I subject them to scorn and ridicule.”
He has called Republicans “shameless dicks” (and much more), challenged Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on legal ethics and physically tackled a heckler at a Howard Dean rally in New Hampshire in 2004. (For that intervention, he likes to note, “the mayor gave me the key to the city.”)
Yet to spend time with Franken is to realize there are no simple sketches of him. He can be, alternately, charming, prickly, engaging, off-putting, smart, goofy and tearfully sentimental at the mention of the death of his dog - and that’s all within a single visit.
Friends say the Franken they know is upbeat and compassionate, with a knack for turning chance meetings into lifelong friendships.
“If you’re in trouble, there’s no better friend to have,” said Oliphant, who credits Franken with helping him through a difficult recovery from a brain aneurysm a few years ago.
Married to Franni Bryson Franken for 32 years, the television star and best-selling author has a home life that has long been something straight out of a 1960s sitcom. For much of it, Dad was the funny guy/breadwinner, Mom the patient, eye-rolling, apron-clad foil, whipping up homemade banana cream pies for him and their two children, Thomasin and Joe, who now often accompany their parents on the campaign trail.
Last month the Frankens celebrated the 39th anniversary of the day they met at a college mixer.
Reed-thin, quick-moving and usually smiling, Franni chattily confides that the couple once bought up every Nixon hand towel offered at the Nixon library and parceled them out as housewarming gifts. Why? “It’s humor and politics,” she said, a mischievous look in her eye. “We’ve always had a passion for politics. The very first time Al asked me out we walked the (Boston) Freedom Trail. That’s just us.”
Born in New York, Franken moved to Minnesota at age 4 when his father, Joseph Franken, tried to run a quilting factory in Austin. The elder Franken failed at that venture, eventually moving his family to a two-bedroom house in St. Louis Park, where he took a job as a print salesman. As Alan and brother Owen got a little older, his mother, Phoebe Franken, worked as a real estate agent.
The boys shared a bedroom and money could be tight, but, Franken said, “I felt like the luckiest kid in the world.” When Owen managed to get a scholarship to MIT, Al urged his parents to switch him from public school to Blake, an elite private school.
At home, Franken was learning political lessons from his father, who left the Republican Party as the Democrats became the champions of civil rights. Watching civil rights demonstrators in the South being beaten and hosed, Joseph Franken told his son: “No Jew can be for that.”
From the time Franken ran for seventh-grade class president with the slogan “Never spit in a man’s face unless his mustache is on fire,” some blend of politics and humor appeared to be his destiny. When he met up with future best friend and partner Tom Davis while at Blake, comic chemistry came bubbling out.
The duo got their big break from local theater impresario Dudley Riggs, who hired them while they were still in high school to perform at his Brave New Workshop in the early 1970s.
“Al was always good at exposing vice, folly, in a funny way,” Riggs said.
After graduating from Harvard, Franken headed west with Davis, where the duo began popping up regularly on the fringes of Los Angeles’ standup scene.
That’s where they caught the eye of Lorne Michaels, who was starting a cutting-edge, live, late-night comedy show featuring the Not Ready for Prime Time Players. Franken and Davis failed to make the cut for performers but signed on as “Saturday Night Live” apprentice writers, sharing a single weekly salary of $350.
“SNL,” which soon earned must-see status, appeared to have a loopy, tossed-off ease. But the preparation work was hard, the competition for air time fierce. Accustomed to being the smartest, funniest guy in the room, Franken found himself challenged by a roomful of what would become legendary talents.
“Those are some of the most fun times I’ve had,” Franken said. “Rolling around the floor at 2 or 3 in the morning, laughing.”
Franken left the show for good in 1995. Casting about for a new direction, he saw Republicans ascending in Washington and on talk radio, and seized on a new mission: He would be the left’s counter to the right and, as usual, take it right to the top. “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big, Fat Idiot” was published in 1996 and instantly earned him plaudits on the left, hated status on the right and a perch at the top of the New York Times bestseller list.
When the Fox Network sued Franken over his second political satire, “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them,” lawyers in the company’s court complaint called him “a parasite” who “appears to be shrill and unstable. His views lack any serious depth or insight.” The company lost the lawsuit, and Franken wound up with his second bestseller.
Franken’s serious political work actually dates to 1988, when he hit the campaign trail as a celebrity surrogate for Michael Dukakis. By 2004, as self-appointed talker for the progressive left, Franken took a higher profile documented in the “behind-the-scenes” film “Al Franken: God Spoke,” which tracks his travails around the country during the Bush-Kerry contest.
At one point in the film, Franken addresses a group of pasty-faced, shirt-sleeved salespeople who are expected to sell airtime for his latest venture, a loose network of left-wing radio stations he calls Air America. When one asks him to describe the concept, he obliges in blunt fashion:
“It’s about answering these f—-heads. They don’t know a thing. Sean Hannity doesn’t know a thing. It’s about time somebody fought back.”
The notion that he might have to be that “somebody” in an even more direct way had begun for Franken, his friends say, after the death of his friend, U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, 13 days before the 2002 election.
“That was the beginning for him,” said Norm Ornstein, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute who has known Franken for more than 20 years. “Not right away, but you could see it building.”
When the newly elected Sen. Norm Coleman publicly proclaimed himself a “99 percent improvement over Paul Wellstone,” Franken did a slow burn, his friends say.
Over time, Riggs said, Franken “saw that this man (Wellstone) doing a lot of good things was gone and no one was taking up the cudgel in quite the same way. He knew he had the name, the money and the connections to take this on.”
It was at a 2003 book launch for a friend who had published a book on Wellstone that Franken began to think seriously about doing something more in politics than lobbing counterattacks from the sidelines.
“It was really my first time talking about Paul since his death,” Franken said. “I gave a pretty emotional speech and someone said I should think about running.”
Routinely labeled “angry Al Franken” by the Republican opposition, Franken often replies not with a denial but an explanation.
“Sometimes they (Republicans) say I get angry and I plead guilty,” he said. “I get angry at the way our troops are treated and about the people who are so gung-ho for the war trivializing the danger they (troops) were in. Not giving proper armor, real support, proper medical treatment when they came home. Those things really make me angry. It makes me angry when ... we were deliberately misled into this war.”
But friends say anger, righteous or not, is far from central in Franken’s personality.
Childhood friend Griffin said Franken is simply someone who “wears his emotions on his sleeve.”
Indeed, Franken’s laugh is an explosive guffaw that bursts forth easily. Often enough, his own jokes provoke it, but in truth it takes little to make him laugh.
Equally, when he recalls his father, his USO visits to troops in Iraq or the recent death of his dog, Franken’s nose reddens and his eyes well with tears.
However visceral his motives, Franken started his new life in politics methodically by creating a political action committee - Midwest Values PAC - that would fan out across Minnesota and elsewhere, raising money for DFLers in the 2006 election.
From there, Franken slid smoothly into stumping the state for his own prospects, with a fresh network of contacts who could introduce him at every bean feed in every Senate district.
Franni, sometimes seeming more comfortable with the glad-handing than the candidate, worked the crowds with fresh-baked pies to auction off for the local party coffers.
But as Franken gathered support the opposition, too, was busy, as Republican operatives amassed quotes, film clips and other unexploded ordnance from the lifetime of salvos Franken has fired at their side.
What Franken saw as a career to be proud of, Republicans saw as an arsenal to defeat him with his own weapons.
But the jump from comedy to politics is a difficult one, said Don Fowler, former head of the Democratic National Committee, who sat next to Franken at a Bill Clinton fundraiser 14 years ago and has remained a friend since. Franken “plays the fool sometimes, but he’s smart as can be,” Fowler said.
But he added: “I can name you a number of entertainers who got elected - but I can’t name you a comedian who’s made that leap and there’s a reason for that. There’s a preconceived notion that they’re foolish. It’s easier to think of Laurence Olivier as a serious politician (than) Red Skelton.”
Franken, who has publicly if grudgingly acknowledged going “too far” at times in his career, visibly struggles to understand the problem.
“The whole point was irony,” Franken mused about his work, pushing around the last of a spaghetti dinner at his house as he talked to a reporter. “A lot of what I’ve written was meant ironically.”
But, he acknowledged, “I was doing it with maximum effect for the satire and not with an eye toward running for office in 15 years.”
So how ironic is it that opponents now are using his irony to discredit his Senate run?
“It’s not ironic at all,” Franken said, a serious set to his face.
Then, suddenly, he tilted his head back and laughed.