For the first time in U.S. history, a professional comedian will become a U.S. senator.
Oh sure, there have been plenty of clowns in the Senate. Some on purpose; some not. But Al Franken of Minnesota is the first card-carrying comic to play, um, join the world's most exclusive club.
For years, Franken — an unabashed liberal Democrat — was known as a smart aleck. He was a writer and performer in the earliest days of Saturday Night Live. He has written several comedic books and scripts. Some of the books involve political humor from a left perspective; see, for instance, Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations. For a while, Franken hosted a radio show on the left-leaning Air America network.
These days, as a settled-down, middle-aged man of the people, he still can't help but fire off a quip now and then. When a reporter told Franken that the necessary paperwork for his certification had been delivered to the Senate, The Associated Press reported, Franken said, "I thought it could get lost. I was so worried about that. ... I was saying, 'Who was the courier?' "
Now that he's in the Senate, will his humor serve him well? Or will it potentially hurt him? Does he need to hang it up in the cloakroom?
"I'll tell you what you have to know about humor," says former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-WY), who was also known for his wit. "You want to know if they are laughing with you or laughing at you. Sure, they're laughing, but they may be thinking, 'This guy is preposterous!' "
The trick is to be taken seriously without always being too serious. There's a difference between the kind of joke or wisecrack that elicits a belly laugh and one that draws an embarrassed, nervous laugh, Simpson says. He suggests that Franken shoot for the former and avoid the latter.
But times are changing. In a universe of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, edgy humor has become the coin of the realm. Producer Elaina Newport of The Capitol Steps, a satirical comedy troupe in Washington, D.C., that often pokes fun at the city's politicos, is delighted that someone with Franken's sense of humor is in office.
"Since most politicians are unintentionally funny, it's high time we had a professional comedian in the Senate," Newport says. "More and more, politicians have been trying to show they have a sense of humor — witness Al Gore, John McCain and Sarah Palin all making appearances on SNL — because frankly, it's easier to relate to someone who has a sense of humor."
"Being funny," Newport says, "makes them seem more human. Personally, I would be more likely to trust someone who laughs uproariously and makes some well-placed zingers when it comes to the more ridiculous proposals."
Not everybody feels that way.
Thomas Corwin of Ohio — who served as a governor, a U.S. representative, a U.S. senator and secretary of the Treasury under Millard Fillmore in the 1850s — believed that having a sense of humor caused him political grief. "Never make people laugh," he told a young politician. To succeed, you must be "solemn as an ass." All the great monuments on Earth, he said, have been built to honor solemn asses.
Some years ago, George magazine made a list of the funniest Washington politicians ever. President Abraham Lincoln was on the roster. When Lincoln's Senate opponent Stephen A. Douglas called Lincoln two-faced, Lincoln famously replied: "I leave it to the audience. If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?"
One day Lincoln wrote one of his slow-to-act generals: "If you don't want to use the Army, I should like to borrow it for a while."
Lincoln was a great believer in humor. "With the fearful strain that is upon me night and day," he said, "if I did not laugh I should die."
Other funny folks on George's list included:
Rep. Davy Crockett of Tennessee, who was famous for plying his constituents with alcohol. "They could not listen to me on such a dry subject as the welfare of the nation until they had something to drink," he once said.
President John F. Kennedy, who said of his 1960 opponent, ""Mr. Nixon, in the last seven days, has called me an ignoramus, a Pied Piper, and all the rest. I've just confined myself to calling him a Republican."
President Ronald Reagan, who made fun of his own advanced age by quoting George Washington and then saying, "Let me say, I didn't actually hear George Washington say that."
Knowing when and how to be funny is perhaps more important for an elected official than having a sense of humor. When Rep. Morris Udall (D-AZ) ended his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976, he said, "The public has spoken." Then, after a comic pause: "The bastards." Udall's book about the campaign was titled Too Funny to Be President.
What About Al?
So in the end, is Al Franken too funny to be a senator? It depends on how he uses his funniness.
"You have to be careful of the harsh humor," Simpson says. "Al has a pretty sharp sense of humor. I did, too. That won't get you anywhere. You have to watch. I know he will. He certainly did contain himself during the campaign."
Washington journalist Matthew Cooper, who was named Funniest Celebrity in Washington some years ago, agrees with Simpson. Franken "can be very temperate," Cooper says. "I don't think he's going to seek a lot of media attention. He's going to follow the model of Hillary Clinton and other celebrities who have won elections. Al won't be out there being funny."
For one thing, every word — humorous or not — will be carefully scrutinized. Political observers say that Franken will be a likely target for the Republicans who are looking for Democrats to vilify.
And Franken will have a steep learning curve. "He can't act like he's bigger than his breeches," says Cooper. "He will have to be reverential to Robert Byrd. He will have to build up his constituent services."
Those, Cooper adds, "are not funny things."