In 'Al Franken: Giant Of The Senate,' Minnesota Senator Embraces 'The Funny' The Minnesota Democrat recounts his journey from Saturday Night Live to the Senate — and explains why comedy works in confirmation hearings: "Comedians kind of get to the point in an effective way."
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Sen. Al Franken Embraces 'The Funny' Again In New Book

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Sen. Al Franken Embraces 'The Funny' Again In New Book

Sen. Al Franken Embraces 'The Funny' Again In New Book

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

During his first few years in the Senate, Minnesota Democrat Al Franken avoided what he called the funny. But deep into his second term, Franken has gotten comfortable letting his comedic roots show. He has a new book out about his time in the Senate, and he spoke to NPR's Scott Detrow.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: At confirmation hearing after confirmation hearing this year, some of the most newsy and viral moments came when it was Al Franken's turn to ask questions. He stumped education secretary Betsy DeVos...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BETSY DEVOS: Is...

AL FRANKEN: No, I'm talking about the debate between proficiency and growth...

DEVOS: Yes.

FRANKEN: ...What your thoughts are on them.

DEVOS: Well, I was just asking to clarify, then.

FRANKEN: Well, this is a subject that is - has been debated in the education community for years.

DETROW: ...And lectured Supreme Court Justice Neal Gorsuch.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANKEN: That's absurd. Now, I had a career in identifying absurdity.

(LAUGHTER)

FRANKEN: And I know it when I see it.

DETROW: It would have been hard to picture Franken questioning a Supreme Court nominee when he was on "Saturday Night Live."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

FRANKEN: (As Stuart Smalley) I'm Stuart Smalley. First of all, I just want to say that yesterday's show entitled "Fear Is A Dark Room Where Negatives Get Developed" was not my best show.

(LAUGHTER)

FRANKEN: (As Stuart Smalley) And that's OK. Only the mediocre are always at their best.

DETROW: Franken says there's actually a deep connection between these two phases of his career.

FRANKEN: Comedians kind of get to the point in an effective way, and that's what comedy does.

DETROW: But Franken spent his first years in Washington doing everything he could to keep that comedy career at a distance. He wanted to prove to Minnesota voters he was serious after winning office in 2008 by the thinnest of thin margins - about 300 votes. Franken writes all about the process in a new book modestly titled "Al Franken: Giant Of The Senate."

It's one of the more blunt accounts published of just how weird running for office can be - hours of calls asking for money, thousands of miles in a car and after a career popping the balloons of blowhards, learning how to sometimes become one himself. Franken says at first he'd answer honestly when asked tough questions like, how can you win when you're trailing by 20 points?

FRANKEN: And they'd say, no, no, no, no. Pivot. Just say, Minnesotans don't care about polls. What they care about is their kids' education and whether they're going to go bankrupt if they get sick. That's a pivot, right? And it took me forever (laughter) to learn how to do that.

DETROW: Franken was in a position to be uniquely puzzled by President Trump's march to the White House. He had worked so hard to show voters he was taking governing seriously. Trump barely tried at all. Add that to the fact Franken once wrote a book about conservatives called "Lies And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them."

FRANKEN: This campaign, it just seems like we were in the post-truth era, and it doesn't matter.

DETROW: You write that you worry the liars had won. Do you think that is the case?

FRANKEN: Well, I hope that this is cyclical and we'll be in an era of neo-sticklerism very soon.

DETROW: Are things better or worse than you expected in terms of how things have played out with this president?

FRANKEN: Oh, I think they're slightly worse. I mean I didn't expect to like this (laughter). But I can't believe how fast this Russia investigation is going.

DETROW: Franken actually played a role in changing the course of that investigation. It came when he was questioning Jeff Sessions during his attorney general confirmation hearing. Sessions was a top Trump ally during the campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFF SESSIONS: I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians.

DETROW: That wasn't the case. And because of that, Sessions ended up recusing himself from the Russia investigation.

FRANKEN: He answered a question that I didn't ask, so I can't really take credit for it. Although, you know, people think, like, well, that Franken - he's playing three-dimensional chess. He knew that if he answered this question, he'd pivot to that, and then he'd lie. And then he'd recuse himself finally after it came out that he was lying. Oh, that Franken - he's several moves ahead of everyone else - genius.

DETROW: Sessions is one of many Republicans Franken says he's become friendly with during his time in the Senate. But there's one he'll probably never be friends with. With the release of this book, most of the headlines have focused on the entire chapter where Franken trashes Texas Senator Ted Cruz.

FRANKEN: I say you have to understand that I probably like Ted Cruz more than most of my other colleagues like Ted Cruz. And I hate Ted Cruz.

DETROW: Cruz says the book is obnoxious and insulting. Later I ask Franken if there's anything else he'd like to add. He uses the opportunity to demonstrate just how much of a politician he's become.

FRANKEN: See; I learned something during the campaign.

DETROW: Pivot.

FRANKEN: Pivot to no.

DETROW: (Laughter).

FRANKEN: No, I don't have anything more to say. I think this has been a very well-done interview. Congratulations, and I'd like to end it here right now.

DETROW: Thanks, Senator.

FRANKEN: It's over, done.

DETROW: Scott Detrow, NPR News.

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