Al Franken's time: Can a comedian conquer the US senate?

He's waged a personal war against America's most outspoken shock-jock, earned the scorn of George Bush, and lampooned right-wing politics in a string of hard-hitting bestsellers. So when comedian Al Franken became a Democratic Party candidate for the US Senate, many thought he was having a laugh. How wrong they all were...David Usborne joins him on the campaign trail
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Things are looking up for Al Franken, the former television comedian, political satirist and author, who has repackaged himself as a no-joke politician running as a Democrat for the US Senate in Minnesota, the state he mostly grew up in but hasn't seen much of in adult life. His campaign has just availed itself of a new car. It is a hybrid (well, of course), but, believe me, it goes like a rocket.

Possibly this is because the car they already call the Frankenmobile has not yet been weighed down by the campaign bumper-stickers that would otherwise identify the stocky, middle-aged man, with round glasses and an unruly greying thatch, in the front passenger seat. His aides, none of whom seem far beyond the legal voting age, inform me that they just haven't got round to decorating it yet.

That was a shame for the journalists trying to tail him across much of southern Minnesota and get an early look at what will surely be one of the most closely watched congressional races in America this year. Nor did it help that Franken, like every good candidate, found it impossible to extricate himself from each campaign stop when he was supposed to and that it was up to his driver, Chris, to make up for lost time en route to the next one. Franken is a high-value political commodity nowadays. Driving him at 90mph and executing high-speed U-turns across interstate divides is probably a very bad idea.

We briefly discuss the import of what he is attempting when Chris remembers that he has forgotten his first duty of the day – filling the tank with newly expensive petrol. We careen into a BP station that announces itself as "The Go-pher Stop", presumably after the prairie dogs in the cornfields that have been blurring past me. Minnesota is one of the handful of states where the Democrats see some real hope of unseating Republican Senate incumbents. Franken had better not mess up here, in other words, if his party is to secure a working majority in the Senate after November. "I am very well aware," he nods gravely, stretching his curi-ously short legs. "Thanks for putting the extra burden on my shoulders."

The time for second thoughts or regrets has long since passed. Franken, just turned 57, was entertaining troops in Afghanistan when he sent word back to his wife of more than 30 years, Franni, and their two adult children, that he was going to take the leap and run for the Senate. Franken is a preternaturally smart fellow and he surely knew then that his decision would trigger not a little surprise – and that there had been jokes delivered and skits performed over the years since he graduated from Harvard and joined Saturday Night Live, a weekly sketch-show on NBC, that might come back to haunt him.

And indeed, on the day he declared in February 2007, the state Republican Party, gearing up to defend its first-term senator, Norman Coleman, issued a release recalling Franken's assertion some years before that "Republican politicians are shameless dicks". (I later ask him whether he would include Coleman, who has closely identified himself with George Bush, in this category, but he declines to say.)

In recent weeks, while most of the national media were fixated on the nomination contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, it only got worse for Franken. He stumbled from one flap to another as the opposition unearthed snippets from Franken's mouth or pen that, in isolation at least, seemed gravely politically incorrect. Among their juiciest and potentially most damaging discoveries were comments he made to New York Magazine in 1995 about a never-performed but apparently much discussed SNL skit about rape (it doesn't get much worse) as well as an erotic fantasy piece penned in 2000 for Playboy called "Porn-o-Rama", featuring himself engaging in sex acts with both machines and humans. And on top of that there were the various personal-taxation cock-ups he apparently stumbled into.

As for those surprised at his running for office, Franken says they should not be. "To me it makes perfect sense," he explains in an interview after our cross-country marathon. "I have always been sort of a political junkie and my comedy was often about political satire."

Franken was recruited to SNL as one of its first writers when it launched in 1975, and he remained there, writing and performing for five years. He took a brief break before returning for a 10-year stint from 1985 until 1995. SNL addicts will recall his relentless skewering of the conservative tele-evangelist Pat Robertson, as well as his recurring role as the nutty self-help guru Stuart Smalley. It was as Smalley that Franken interviewed former Vice-President Al Gore in 2002 when Gore guest-hosted the show. Demonstrating that he remains a Franken fan, Gore endorsed him in his Senate bid this month.

Post-1995, Franken began wearing his liberal, Republicans-are-dicks, colours far more overtly, writing a series of books skewering the ascendant conservative revolution of former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich and talk-show host Rush Limbaugh. Three became top best-sellers, notably Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look At the Right. "They're satirical, but they tell the truth," he said. "I took on the Gingrich revolution when no one else was doing it." Added to the canon in 1999 was an especially silly – and now especially resonant – book about himself running to be president of the United States. His platform consisted solely of a pledge to lower cash-machine fees; but, once in office, President Franken goes crackers.

That he really couldn't shut up about politics became most obvious in 2004 when he signed up to host a show on Air America, a talk-radio network conceived precisely to counter the influence of Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and other conservative broadcasters. He stayed for three years. "At the time, the country was going downhill in so many ways and it seemed perfectly logical for me to do it," he explains now.

All of this means that Franken is, more or less, famous, at least to those of his generation and a bit younger. This brings a big upside today – the advantage of name recognition. You need only spend a few minutes with him on the trail to see its magic effect. He may be running for office for the first time, but if the celebrity status of a politician is measured by how many voters take cameras along to their events in the hope of getting a picture with the candidate, then Franken is a minor rock star.

"I just shook hands with Al Franken!" squeals a young women on the main street of Northfield, the third town on our cross-state safari. Indeed, she just had. Whether she also knew he was running for office is another question.

Less visible – so far, at least – is the support he is getting from his Hollywood chums, many of whom have quietly donated the maximum allowable sums to his campaign. According to just-released Federal Election Commission numbers, those weighing in to help him have included former SNL co-star Dan Aykroyd and the show's founder, Lorne Michaels. Other notables showering him with dollars range from Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, George Clooney, Meg Ryan (Ryan starred in the 1994 film When a Man Loves a Woman, which Franken co-wrote) to Alec Baldwin and Rosie O'Donnell. Ask his staff whether there are any thoughts of joint campaign appearances with any of these obvious A-listers and they are coy, except to reveal plans for a rally in Duluth, in the state's far north, shortly, with singer Bonnie Raitt.

But Franken, with his vaguely brainbox manner, cannot afford to seem aloof from Minnesota voters. Thus, our first rendezvous last week was at Trumbles, a family restaurant on the main street leading out of Albert Lea, a town with light industry and surrounding farmland close to the Iowa border, where Franken lived for four years as a child. The eatery, with its fizzy-drink machines and pale coffee, is not even half-full, but Franken has an easy, even earthy way of chatting with almost everyone inside, waitresses included. When the patrons aren't peppering him with questions on such issues as petrol prices, the place of unions in the workplace and the possibility of tapping local pig manure for energy, he finally gets out the story he has clearly been bursting to tell: how his father brought the family to this town and set up a quilting factory because he spotted that it was on a main East-West railway route. "Well, yes, it went through, but it didn't actually stop here," he concludes. "My Dad was a terrible businessman."

Albert Lea is the first stop on the last day of a four-day tour that has taken in every corner of the very large state, in the wake of the annual convention of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (as Democrats in Minnesota call themselves) which saw Franken formally anointed as the candidate to challenge Senator Coleman in November. He won the convention's support by unanimous consent on the first ballot, defeating a well-respected university professor named Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer.

While few observers ever believed the party nomination would not be his, Franken himself admits there were some dark moments. He says as much to a table of women eating French toast and bacon (with lots of syrup). "I suddenly realised in politics, there are a lot of politics involved," he sighed. Franken punctuates any joke, or near-joke, with a mule-like rolling laugh – a comedian's knee-jerk self-protection just in case no one else gets it. But with Franken, they always do.

The attacks against Franken mostly did not come first from the Republicans themselves, but rather a small community of conservative bloggers, notably the author of "Minnesota Democrats Exposed", Michael Brodkorb. His research into Franken turned up the stories about the rape sketch – it involved a female member of the reporting team at 60 Minutes (the Sunday-night political current affairs programme on CBS) – and the fantasy sex article in Playboy. He also alerted the state to another potential scandal, centring on revelations that Franken owed $70,000 in unpaid taxes to 17 different states. Franken was able to claim that the non-payments of tax had not been deliberate but had been the fault of his accountants.

But the stuff about rape and sex seemed, for a while, like it might stick. It also heightened fears among Democrats that in the one state where they stood a real chance of capturing an additional Senate seat, they had been landed with a candidate with far too much baggage for comfort. Baggage makes for an easy target – and who knows what else is still lurking out there from Franken's long career of fun-poking? Reasonably, there is also nervousness about what Franken might say down the way. "You have my vote," a woman says in Northfield. "But do me a favour. No more articles."

In other words, if Franken wasn't fully aware of these risks at the start of his campaign, he is now. In the run-up to the convention, he got flak not just from Republicans, but from inside his own party, including US Representative Betty McCollum. Being taken to task by her, he told me, was especially unsettling for him. "I regret that I gave people who are my friends, and people in the party, maybe some reason to believe that I wasn't going to fight for them and all Minnesotans," he tells me. "I'm sorry for that because that's not me, because I am a husband and I have been married to Franni for 31 years, and I'm a dad." He said more or less the same to the delegates at the convention. "I understand that the people of Minnesota deserve a senator who won't say things that make them feel uncomfortable."

Does this mean that it will not be the real Al Franken Minnesotans get to see, but a tongue-restrained version? "No," is his quick reply. "What you see on the campaign trail is me. It's easy being me," he says, but adds: "I do have a self-censor, everybody does, or at least most who are not pathological do." And most of those turning up to hear him on this early summer day seem already to have forgiven whatever he may have said in the past. "I have no fear about Al having been a satirist," says Anne Maple, 50, a school volunteer-aide in Northfield. "They will try to bring up stuff and present it out of context. But I think Al's going to take those things head-on. He knows what's going on in this country."

What is true is that, in spite of the bumps of recent weeks, Franken has not lost his sense of fun, and showing it does not necessarily mean entering the political danger-zone. If his decision to seek office seems unorthodox, so do some of his campaigning moments. Practising in Northfield what his staff calls "mainstreeting" – pottering past shops talking to passers-by – he ducks into an artist's supply shop, The Sketchy Artist, and asks for a blank sheet of paper. Thereupon he shows off a talent that either speaks of patriotism or is completely pointless. For 10 minutes he draws free-hand a map of the United States, with every border between every 48 of the contiguous states traced in painstaking detail.

"I am the only one the world who can do that," he brags with self-satisfaction. "I don't do Hawaii and Alaska because they weren't states when I was a kid, I refuse to do them." (These omissions would never do, he admits, were he ever to run for president). A shopper asks his advice on buying The Encyclopedia of Immaturity for her teenage niece. "Yes," he says, but adds: "Just don't buy it for me. I don't need that."

Franken has the ability to make the blandest of statements amusing. At an end-of-day rally for a couple of hundred supporters in a Minneapolis union hall, his wife and his daughter, Thomasin, at his side, he opens his speech by recalling his four-day, multi-town trek around and about the state – up to this town, down to that one, and across to the other and so on and so on. There is something about his timing and the rubberised quality of his lips that has the room rolling in the aisles over nothing.

So can the funnyman be serious enough to land himself in the highest legislative chamber in the land? He certainly thinks so, and there is no mistaking his earnestness. The endorsement by the party convention has given him new confidence, and he thinks he has a good case against Coleman. Tying him to George Bush works well with every crowd. Bush will soon be gone and his "enablers" must go too, he argues, "and Norm Coleman is on the top of that list".

His stump speech usually includes recalling giving an address to students on a college campus, who were 11 when Bush took office. "They don't know that the president can be articulate. They don't know that government is even supposed to work. Saddest of all, they don't remember a time when this was the most respected country in the world."

Looking from the outside into America, it would be tempting to think that Franken's bid for office would be doomed on at least two counts. He is a comedian with a record of politically incorrect jokes and, worse, he is an unabashed liberal, who wants universal healthcare and a bigger role for unions. Yet Minnesota may be the only place it could happen. Franken is driven in part by a desire to reclaim for the Democrats the seat that used to be held by Paul Wellstone, a liberal icon who was killed in a plane crash just weeks before the 2002 elections. (Coleman won the election by a whisker.) And don't forget it was Minnesota that once elected a former professional wrestler, Jesse Ventura, as its governor.

If he can be kept safe on the road, it is perfectly possible that Franken, currently neck-and-neck with Coleman in the polls, can pull this off. In that event, the Senate will have as a new member a guy from Minnesota who will be as much fun to be around as he will be tediously serious about the issues.