A New York State of Mind

Al Franken is the comedian who hasn’t been funny since the expiration of the Al Franken Decade in 1990. He is also the Democratic candidate who moved back to Minnesota after 40 years away to take on Minnesota’s incumbent Republican Senator Norm Coleman. It’s an interersting race that is the subject of Russell Berman’s New York Sun article “‘New York City’ problem dogs Franken campaign.”

The “New York City problem” to which the headline refers includes Franken’s comedic work and legal compliance issues. Berman notes that, although Franken secured the Democratic opposition relatively easily, his problems were just beginning:

First came the disclosure that he faced $25,000 in penalties for failing to pay workers’ compensation for the corporation he had set up in his name in New York. Then, following a story broken by a Republican blogger, Mr. Franken in April announced that he was paying $70,000 in back taxes and penalties to 17 states. He attributed the error to his longtime accountant, saying he had overpaid the same amount in taxes to New York and Minnesota.

All the while, Mr. Franken continued to be dogged by off-color jokes and writings from his career as a satirist. In particular, Republicans pounced on a sexually explicit parody he wrote for Playboy, titled “Porn-O-Rama.” Also unearthed was a 1995 article from New York magazine, which reported that Mr. Franken once proposed a joke for “SNL” about raping the “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl.

Franken thinks he’s quite a funny guy. When John Hinderaker appeared on Franken’s Air America program ostensibly to talk about our dustup with a Star Tribune columnist, Franken limited his interrogation of John to my assertion that he hasn’t been funny for a long time. To no avail, John allowed that he himself was unfamiliar with Franken’s work, but his son thought Franken was funny.

Reading Berman’s article, it occurs to me that Franken’s failure to take off as a candidate so far may be attributable to a New York aspect of Franken apart from his comedic work and tax problems. He has something of a New York state of mind. Franken is a hard edged character who is a jerk. This quality has come through to some extent in the coverage of his candidacy.

One interesting footnote on the race bears on the Senate seat for which Franken is contending. My friend Rudy Boschwitz defeated former Minnesota Governor Wendell Anderson for the seat in 1978. Boschwitz immigrated to the United States from Germany as a young boy. He grew up in New Rochelle, New York, and attended law school at New York University. He went into business in Minnesota and has become one of Minnesota’s legendary entrepreneurs, returning to his Minnesota business when he left the Senate in January 1991. I believe that Rudy was the first Jew elected to statewide office in Minnesota.

Rudy was narrowly defeated by Paul Wellstone in 1990. Wellstone was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in Arlington, Virginia. Wellstone moved to Minnesota in 1969 to teach at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Wellstone too was Jewish.

Ten days before election day in 2002, Wellstone died tragically in a plane crash with his wife on his way to attend a funeral. Democrats named Walter Mondale to take Wellstone’s place on the ballot. In the backlash to the over the top Wellstone memorial televised on C-SPAN, Norm Coleman narrowly defeated Mondale to take the seat.

As Berman notes, Coleman too is from New York. He moved to Minnesota after law school and went to work in the office of the Minnesota Attorney General. He had a political bug that moved him to run for office, winning election as the mayor of St. Paul as a prolife Democrat. Serving as mayor for eight years, he may have been the best mayor St. Paul ever had. He held the line on taxes and helped revivify St. Paul’s downtown. Senator Coleman is also Jewish.

Al Franken moved back to Minnesota last year to run for office. Like Coleman, Franken is Jewish. Minnesotans have proved welcoming and cosmopolitan in evaluating the candidates for the Senate seat Franken is seeking. Judging the race so far, however, one would have to conclude that Franken is a poor fit with Minnesota voters. Franken cannot conceal that he is not a nice guy, and Minnesotans are genuinely nice people. I think that more than anything has held Franken back so far.

I have previously taken long looks at Franken in several posts including “Saturday Night Live with Al Franken,” “A former fan’s notes” and “Frankenheit 9/11.” I also profiled Rudy Boschwitz in the Standard column “The ambassador nobody knows.”

JOHN adds: Comedians are stereotypically angry people. Franken is no longer funny, but he’s still angry; it’s hard to say about what. The photo below shows the real Al Franken, belligerent to the point of near-violence. It was taken during an altercation with Laura Ingraham’s producer at the RNC in New York in 2004:

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