Frankenheit 9/11

Yesterday Al Franken phoned the Democratic members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation to announce that he is running for the 2008 Democratic Senate nomination against Republican incumbent Norm Coleman. The press reports such as this AP story usually refer to Franken as a comedian, though he hasn’t been funny since the expiration of the Al Franken Decade in 1990.

I’ve written a lot about Franken here. I covered Franken’s appearance as the featured speaker at a June 2005 Minneapolis Democratic fundraising event and anticipated his Senate candidacy in “Saturday Night Live with Al Franken.” I had been invited by a Democratic press officer to cover the event and ended up sitting next to David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times, who was the only other reporter in attendance. Franken liked my take on his Minneapolis appearance so much that he read it on his late Air America radio show.

Our New Haven correspondent covered Franken giving the nearly identical speech as the September 2005 Dean’s Lecture at Yale Law School in “Friday Night Live with Al Franken.” I compiled most of our previous posts on Franken in “A former fan’s notes,” to which Paul appended the comment: “Franken would be very much at home in the Senate, but will find it difficult, over the course of a long campaign, to persuade voters he’s the kind of guy they should send there.

Can Franken’s long career in show business be reconciled with a career in politics? In the oral history of Saturday Night Live assembled by James Miller and Tom Shales, Franken talks (pages 119-120) about using cocaine while pulling all nighters writing for the show: “I only did cocaine to stay awake to make sure nobody else did too much cocaine. That was the only reason I ever did it. Heh heh.”

Franken was discussing his cocaine use during his first stint writing for the show from 1976-1980, a relatively long time ago. The jocular attitude he expressed toward his drug use would have occurred in his comments for the book (published in 2002), considerably more recently.

I last wrote about Franken in my review of the documentary “Al Franken: God Spoke,” directed by Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus, who also made the far superior “War Room.” The film will come in handy for anyone trying to get a fix on Franken as a candidate for high office:

What kind of a documentary is “God Spoke”? To a great extent it feels like a 90-minute vanity production cum campaign video, geared to promote Franken’s apparent candidacy for the Senate seat currently held by Norm Coleman. In that respect, however, the film closes on an extremely sour note. Franken is at the wheel of his car driving from the airport in Minneapolis and musing on some advice given to him by Minneapolis attorney Tom Borman. In an early scene in the film, Franken is seen telling his favorite joke (from Buddy Hackett) before a Minneapolis audience. The final scene shows Franken reflecting on Borman’s statement that Borman’s parents (wisely) thought Franken should stop telling that joke at political appearances. Franken is incredulous and unhappy about the advice.

Whereas “The War Room” portrayed the inside of a successful presidential campaign, “God Spoke” appears to be a study in failure, though no one seems to know it. The film opens with Franken promoting Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them before an appreciative audience, but thereafter it’s mostly downhill with Air America. “God Spoke” portrays Franken’s involvement with the debut of the liberal radio network, Franken’s coverage of the 2004 Democratic and Republican conventions in 2004, Franken’s campaigning for John Kerry, Franken’s disappointment on election day, Franken’s announcement that he’s thinking about running against Norm Coleman and Franken’s related move from New York back to Minneapolis.


Doob and Hegedus nevertheless seem to work hard to portray Franken in a flattering light, but ninety minutes with Franken is about eighty minutes too much. Franken does not wear well; he comes across as a boor and a profoundly ugly man. Doob and Hegedus have blundered into the truth, though I can’t for the life of me imagine why they think an audience would want to pay to see it.

The film was an incredible bomb. I think my observations about the film have some bearing on Franken’s candidacy as well, and there will be no shortage of Democrats competing with him for the nomination. Whether his long planned run against Senator Coleman makes it to opening day or not, his candidacy may prove more entertaining than any of his other post-SNL ventures.

UPDATE: Howard Mortman notes the same passage in the Miller-Shales SNL oral history that I do.

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