Another moment of reflection on the occasion of Al Franken’s apparent victory in the Minnesota Senate race: This nation has had former star quarterback pols, a pop singer Congressman and a Hollywood actor president. The old counter-culture of the 1960s long ago went mainstream. Even Robert Gates, the man picked by President Bush to lead the Pentagon in wartime, marched with the hippies on the National Mall in a 1970 protest against Richard Nixon’s incursion into Cambodia.
But there is still something momentous about a guy like Franken, who spent the 1960s in his teens and the 1970s and 80s trying to mess with our minds, becoming a senator. Set aside the fact that Franken was a founding writer at Saturday Night Live, in the early cocaine-fueled days. Ignore for a moment that he first left SNL after performing a skit called “Limo for A Lame-O” in which he criticized his own boss, Fred Silverman, for commuting to work from Connecticut in a limousine. (At Franken’s request, about 5,000 viewers of the show wrote Silverman letters addressed to “Limo for a Lame-O.”) Ignore the hilarious Franken scene from Trading Places, posted below, which climaxes with a gorilla raping a man, or the 1995 skit he kicked around at SNL that would have depicted Andy Rooney, of 60 Minutes fame, contemplating what he could do with Leslie Stahl and a bottle of sedatives.
Perhaps the most illustrative moment of Franken mischief comes in 1980, when he agreed to host a series of set-break skits for a Grateful Dead concert at Radio City Music Hall that was being simulcast around the country. The conceit was that Franken would hold a fundraiser for “Jerry’s Kids,” who it turned out were not ill, but rather stoned and poor, and in need of money for the next show. The “poster child” for the fundraiser was a kid from Asbury Park, N.J., who had taken lots of acid and once tried to hitchhike to Egypt. “Tim doesn’t want your sympathy,” Franken explained, dressed in a tuxedo. “Tim wants money so that he can get in tomorrow night.” At another point in the sketch, Franken plays Henry Kissinger, who gets caught bootlegging a dead show. Here is another highlight of the sketch, in which Franken tries to find out who slipped LSD to Jack Kennedy.
All of this matters because there are constants in the life of the man that Minnesota (Minnesota!!) has now (probably) elected to represent it in the U.S. Senate. Franken has spent his life as a sort of intellectual terrorist, a rebel in open war with the mores and power structures of America. With perhaps one or two exceptions, he has done a brilliant and noble job. Free nations need performers who will mess with our heads. But we are just not used to these performers becoming senators. I don’t doubt that Franken will be more staid in his new job than he was in his old ones. But I also find it hard to believe that he will be able to do the job entirely straight, with the same soulless formality that is Congressional convention. He spent a lifetime unmasking the powerful as witless buffoons. Now he is set to become the powerful. It will be fun to see what happens next.
ALSO: Joshuah Bearman finds another jem from the Franken vault.