by by Bess Kalb

illustration by by Bess Kalb

In the cocktail lounge of the liberally chandeliered Washington Renaissance Hotel two nights before Barack Obama's inauguration, Al Franken takes a straw from his scotch glass, points it at John Cusack and starts to yell. The room's politicos hurry by avoiding eye contact. There he is, the nebbish loudmouth of liberal talk radio, a man who spent the 70s behind closed doors in Belushi-era SNL, discussing his Senatorial agenda with a posterboy of the Hollywood elite. Were he to witness it, Bill O'Reilly would need an EpiPen to the thigh.

Before any attempt to make sense of Franken's run, it's important to note that the GOP-incited hullabaloo surrounding the validity of Franken's election is, at press time, nonsense. While Franken's opponent Norm Coleman has spent his waking hours since November 4 demanding an absentee ballot recount (occupying the Minnesota Supreme Court with his bylaw-waving legal team in a manner that may qualify as a civilly disobedient Lawyer-In), a series of rulings have solidified Franken's victory. On January 6, Coleman filed a suit contesting the outcome of a recount that determined Franken had won. On February 13, judges lowered the number of eligible absentee ballots from 4,800 to 3,300, further squashing Coleman's chances to pull ahead. Coleman appealed, cried "equal protection," and the court, again, ruled against him. The election is Franken's.
As jarring as his presence was to the politicians at the Renaissance party, there's perhaps some larger evolutionary drift that would find the notion of Senator-Elect Franken wholly predictable, unremarkable even. In an era when Stephen Colbert is awarded a Peabody alongside ABC News's Bob Woodruff, and Tina Fey's cutesy wink can shake the foundation of the Republican ticket, the distinction between political discourse and political satire has grown increasingly meaningless.
In growing numbers, Americans are turning to satirists to understand the things that take place in reality. According to a 2004 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, 21 percent of people ages 18 to 29 cited The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live as primary sources of presidential campaign news. Solidifying the credibility factor, a 2007 Pew Research survey found that compared to viewers of more traditional news programs, viewers of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report have the highest knowledge of national and international affairs with 54 percent fulfilling "high knowledge" criteria versus the national average of 35 percent.
Al Franken's election is a celebration of the subversive truth in satire's message. In an August 2008 New York Times article, Michiko Kakutani, arbiter of all definitive opinions everywhere, eloquently explained that political satire will save us by "speaking truth to power in blunt, sometimes profane language, while using satire and playful looniness to ensure that political analysis never becomes solemn or pretentious."
The satirist's ability to hurl truth bombs at walls of power was demonstrated in full force at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Dinner when Stephen Colbert stood within spitting distance of President Bush and spent 24 minutes wickedly praising him for his accomplishments: "He stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers, and rubble, and recently flooded city squares." Six months later in his Sunday New York Times Op-Ed, Frank Rich characterized the speech's political recourse as a "cultural primary" that marked the "defining moment" of the 2006 midterm elections. Naturally, The Washington Post's conservative columnist Richard Cohen deemed it "not funny at all."
Against this backdrop, Franken is uniquely qualified to harness the political potential of satire's truth-to-power function and use it to govern. After an era of stone-cold serious politics that yielded uniformly absurd policy, perhaps it takes a member of the Professional Raised Eyebrow Squadron to tackle the crises of a nation reeling from policies of the absurd. In an interview with Air America's Mark Green last Friday, Franken articulated this concept: "To me [satire and politics] have always been part and parcel of the same thing," he explained. "What a satirist does is [he] looks at a situation, finds the inconsistencies, hypocrisies, absurdities, and cuts through all the baloney and gets to the truth. That's pretty good training, I think, for the United States Senate."
Franken's election also confirms that the voting lever and the remote control are becoming increasingly interchangeable. Americans have repeatedly elected famous people to government office, lured by name recognition and, perhaps subliminally, on-screen persona. The sunny California optimism Ronald Reagan embodied in films like All American and Love is in the Air was a major source of his appeal when he ran for governor amidst the social upheaval of 1966. In 2003, sometime android fighting machine Arnold Schwarzenegger won California's gubernatorial seat with the unofficial campaign slogan "The Governator." This is a country where, according to a 2003 article in Political Commentary, 30 percent of adults call Entertainment Tonight one of their "top three" sources of news about politics.
It was his celebrity aura that gave his campaign a massive advantage in mobilizing volunteers. Immediately after Franken announced his candidacy 4,500 volunteers signed up to canvas and phone bank, and by July, 50 quit their jobs to volunteer at his headquarters full-time. "We had to move from the four-room Air America offices to general election headquarters a year early," Franken's press secretary Jess McIntosh told The Nation. "So many people were coming to the house parties that Al was having to repeat speeches."
Paradoxically, Franken's background in satire and the fame it has brought is in many ways a liability. The New York Times barely suppressed its condescension when announcing Franken's candidacy under the headline "Comedian Says Minnesota Run Is a Serious One." Ron Carey, the chairman of Minnesota's Republican Party, was considerably more direct: "To think of him as a United States senator almost boggles anyone's imagination," he explained to the Times' Monica Davey. "So much of what he has said is vile and offensive. I look at his words and that's not how Minnesotans talk...he must have left his Minnesota roots in Hollywood and New York."
Franken's body of work provides ample fodder for people like Carey. A 1995 Franken-penned SNL skit depicts the drugging and subsequent feeling-up of CBS correspondent Leslie Stahl. His past bits justly supplied Coleman's campaign with such titillating TV-ad accusations as "Al Franken Demeans Women," "Al Franken Makes Child Abuse a Joke," "Al Franken Writes Pornography," and "Al Franken Laughs at the Disabled" (several of these allegations stem from his 2000 Playboy article called 'Porn-O-Rama' in which he visits a fictional robot brothel to much success).
One of the most self-sabotaging artifacts from his past life was his 1999 book Why Not Me, an eerily prescient campaign journal in which Franken documents his run for president on the single issue of abolishing the ATM fee. He wins, and after multiple 8-ball-fueled orgies with bisexual prostitutes and unfulfilled pledges to "walk the state" wherever he campaigns, he assumes the office for a dizzyingly bipolar term. During a jealous low, he punches Nelson Mandela in the stomach. During a manic high, he decides to personally assassinate Saddam Hussein. It's worth noting that the logical corollary to using any of this against him would be to say that Arnold Schwarzenegger champions man pregnancy.
Beyond the eyebrow-raising punchlines and the abstract argument of satire's power lies a deeper yearning confirmed by Franken's Senate run. After establishing himself as a shrewd critic of the Right in Lies and The Lying Liars Who Tell Them and serving as a Fellow with Harvard's Kennedy School of Government at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, Franken revealed a long-latent political aptitude brimming under the surface of his earlier works.
In a 1999 interview with CNN's Miles O'Brien, Franken discussed his habit of sitting in the Senate gallery, watching laws get made. He would raise a ruckus at press conferences following the testimony of the day; once he was asked to leave when, unhappy with Lindsey Graham's meaningless word-salad reply to his argument, Franken quipped, "So you're not going to answer my question."
During his February 20 Air America interview, Franken admitted, "I've always been more of a policy wonk than people probably think a comedian would be. Before I even decided I was going to run, I would go around and campaign for [Democratic Farm Laborers] in Minnesota, and just talk to people and hear their stories about kids not getting any healthcare, and the educational system not being what it used to be when I was growing up. The middle class squeeze, all the issues that we know are salient now in this country."
He brought this political wherewithal to the campaign trail. In the debates leading up to the election, Franken held his own against Coleman, maintaining that his main goal would be "getting the economy back on track," winning over the electorate with such polished 10-worders as "the middle class is the engine of our prosperity." Franken's leap from commentary to the front lines of the process suggests that he wasn't merely throwing rocks at the establishment's wall, he was pressing his nose up against its windows.
When John Cusack leaves with a woman he'll be photographed with the next evening, Franken stands alone, glass empty, assistant elsewhere. For a few moments he remains. From somewhere, a small gaggle of women in cocktail dresses descends on him. They have cameras. "Oh please take a picture with me, Al," one tells the Senator. "Or my kids will never believe it."

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