'Vote For Me, Al Franken' For the former Saturday Night Live comedian, running for a Minnesota Senate seat is no joke. But will his opponents get the last laugh?
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BILL WOLFF: From NPR News in New York, this is the Bryant Park Project.

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Overlooking historic Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan, live from NPR Studios, this is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News. News, information, funny politics. I'm Mike Pesca, it's Wednesday, July 16th.

And we will on the show be talking about what happens when funny man, Al Franken - I love that, I love that title, funny man - Al Franken, tries to seriously run for Senate. And of course, politics - the intersection of politics and humor in the news recently with this Obama cover on the New Yorker - the New Yorker magazine. Everyone has either taken offense or not, or tried to explain why it's funny.

Also, one of the most-popular stories in the New York Times is this, "Want Obama in a punch line? First, find a joke." It's about how the late-night comedians are having trouble making jokes about Obama. Especially because there's just not one go-to bit of easy funniness. And that's one of the underlying things the article kind of kind of hints at, but doesn't quite say. Most of the late-night comedians just need the easy, easy jokes. So, Bill Clinton? A bit of a tomcat. John McCain? Turns out he's old. And George Bush? Not a smart guy. Those are the jokes that keep on giving. What about Obama, a man who contains multitudes?

Well, you know, they - the New York Times article tried to say that Jon Stewart's not making much hay, but he is. I watch "The Daily Show" every night. The audience isn't necessarily going along with him, but kudos to Jon Stewart. He played a clip of George Bush the other day saying something silly about dependency on foreign oil, and then he says, ah, thank God we have whole, bold new thinking. And then he went to a clip of Obama saying the exact same thing. So, I love that. It's not the easy joke, right? It's not something funny about the guy's ears. It's actually about his policies, one of the reasons why "The Daily Show" is just, you know, it's a treasure, humor - humorlorly (ph).

I always wanted to do a show called "Dissecting the Butterfly." That's a quote from - I think it was E. B. White in the New Yorker. He says if you under - you can understand comedy, but dissecting comedy is like dissecting a butterfly. You learn something, but you kill it in the process. So, as I said, funny man Al Franken is making a serious play for the Senate in Minnesota. So, is it fair for his opponents to use his comedy against him? Fair? Who said anything about fair? Also, poker, it's man versus machine. Machine won. And a brand new track from the BPP jukebox. We will get today's headlines in just a minute, but first...

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PESCA: Former Minnesota governor, Jesse Ventura, says he is not running for the Senate, and this clears the way for a heated race between Republican incumbent, Norm Coleman, and TV funnyman, Al Franken. Politicians are all about exploiting each other's weaknesses, and with Franken's comedy routines, Coleman has a lot to work with. But how far can Coleman go in dredging up old comedic gems, like Franken's Playboy article called "Pornorama," before Coleman starts looking like the bad guy? Right now, it's working. Josh Green is senior editor of the Atlantic. He wrote about Franken in May in an article entitled, "He's Not Joking." Hey, Josh. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. JOSHUA GREEN (Senior Editor, The Atlantic Monthly): Good to be with you.

PESCA: In the race so far, have they begun using Franken's comedy against him?

Mr. GREEN: Yeah, you know, you could argue it's become the biggest issue in the race. I mean, one of the first things to happen after Franken won, you know, his party's nomination in June is that the GOP and the Coleman campaign immediately started, you know, becoming outraged every day by some new bit of - you know, some new comedy routine that they kind of took out of context, or kind of threw out there, you know, some of them fairly adult, fairly explicit themes, and right away, that became a big issue in the race.

PESCA: Well, it's not even so much if they take it out of context. They just kill the comedy whenever they complain about it, don't they? Comedy is a fragile thing, and in the hands of Norm Coleman, it doesn't sound funny.

Mr. GREEN: No, I mean, it's a fragile thing in politics altogether, because, you know, politicians are more or less terrified of comedy, and in order for a joke to be funny, you know, it's probably got to offend a few people. And you know, the hot thing in politics this season, at every level, seems to be, you know, pretending to be offended, and take umbrage at just about everything under the sun.

And so, in a way, Franken has kind of walked smack into the middle of that, because, you know, as a result of his comedy career, there are just all sorts of things that Coleman can poke through and, you know, decide that, you know, this requires some kind of a hysterical press release, or an attack, or a another line about how Al Franken doesn't represent family values, that whole sort of thing, and it really has been the defining dynamic in the campaign, at least up until now.

PESCA: And they really have kind of been doing ops research on his professional oeuvre? That's what they've been doing?

Mr. GREEN: I mean, what you do in any campaign at that level is you hire a bunch of people on your own staff to go pour through the public records. You know, anything that's out there about your opponent, from newspaper clippings, quotes, congressional votes, divorce records, any of that kind of stuff to find out, you know, what is in this guy's background that I can use against him in a race? Well, for Al Franken, you know, there's a long and colorful career in comedy that has some pretty explicit, outrageous jokes, you know, a lot of which have been aired by the Coleman campaign, you know, and made into a political issue.

So, you know, normally, you're not looking through, you know, 30-year comedy career, but in this case, if that's who your opponent is, you know, that's what the GOP researchers, you know, are going to do, and a lot of that stuff now is starting to come out. There's this notorious interview with Playboy Magazine where he joked about rape. There was a joke about how if he ran for president, he'd had to give up adultery. And the sort of thing that, you know, the concerned women of America and groups like that exist, you know, to get all red in the face about and jump up and down, and get angry on talk radio.

PESCA: Well, we have one of those jokes. Here is Al Franken in a "Saturday Night Live" appearance in 1987 on Weekend Update with Dennis Miller.

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Mr. DENNIS MILLER (Former Cast Member, "Saturday Night Live"): Al Franken, why don't you run for president?

Mr. AL FRANKEN (Former Writer, "Saturday Night Live"): Well, I'd like to be president. I think I'd be a great one, perhaps one of the greatest in our nation's history. But I don't want to submit myself to the intrusive scrutiny characteristic of today's presidential politics. For example, I'd have to give up adultery.

PESCA: So, that shouldn't hurt him at all because to my knowledge, he's not been an adulterer, has he?

Mr. GREEN: No, in fact, he married his high-school sweetheart. He's still married to her, Franni. She's a major figure in the campaign. Their daughter has moved back home to help do education outreach. I mean, for - you'd have to be willingly brain-dead to sort of take that joke seriously.

PESCA: You would have to be stupid and brain-dead to take that joke and try to make hay out of it, and perhaps they will. But there are some jokes - and listen, this is what the guy did for 30 years. So, if you're running against a businessman, you would look at his business. If you're running against an elected official, you'd look at the laws he passed. And there is a strain - his critics say there is a strain to his humor that is not all-things-offensive equally, but is sexist, is specifically sexist. What about that?

Mr. GREEN: Well, you know, if you take any group of jokes out of context, you know, you can pane him out to be anti-family, anti-women, you know, all the sorts of charges that are flying. I've never personally found his comedy to be sexist. You know, it's satirical. It makes fun of new-age culture with Stuart Smalley. He, you know, he likes to kind of shake people up. He doesn't take himself very seriously, you know, all sorts of things that work on "Saturday Night Live" that don't necessarily translate that well, you know, into your opponent's 30-second TV ad.

But you know, the idea that, you know, he's somehow dangerous, or sexist, or something like that, I think, is more than a little silly. I think the problem is that a lot of these jokes can be taken out of context, like the Playboy joke and, you know, drummed home through GOP talking points, and through surrogates, and you know, kind of forced into the new cycle, and made into an issue in the campaign. And the more Franken has to react or explain his jokes, you know, the less he gets to talk about Norm Coleman, about George Bush, about why he ought to be elected to the U.S. Senate.

PESCA: Are there - I mean, he must be feeling, this is so ridiculous. I just have to say the same thing every time. I can't believe I'm being asked to say, you know, I have this soundbite, essentially on repeat, and the soundbite goes like this. It's a joke. The victims of my comedy aren't, you know, women, or aren't - isn't Lesley Stahl. The jokes are the people who would, you know, think bad things about women or Lesley Stahl. So does he do anything to defend himself other than kind of go on cruise control and say it's a joke?

Mr. GREEN: Well, that's the hard part about politics, and about switching from comedy to politics, you have to do that kind of drudgery and repeat those kinds of soundbites. When I was out in Minnesota hanging around with him for this piece, we were out on the campaign trail. We'd stopped for raspberry pie one day, and got to talking about exactly this question, and he sort of said in the Franken deadpan, he's like, you know, the Republicans have this machine. It's called a dehumorizor (ph) machine, and they feed my jokes in on one end and out the other, you know? And he just sort of broke up and started laughing, but that is a fairly accurate description of the Republicans' political strategy against Franken this time around, is to kind of, you know, take these jokes, remove the humorous context, and you know, jump up and down and get upset about it.

PESCA: Has this affected how he campaigns?

Mr. GREEN: Yeah, it has very much, I think. I mean, he's running as a serious candidate for Senate. This isn't like Jesse Ventura 10 years ago, where the guy's kind of doing it on an ironic lark, and people think it's funny and they go out and vote for him. You know, Franken has spent more than a year now out kind of beating the hustings, going to, you know, bean-feed, spaghetti dinners, every small town in Minnesota, talking about healthcare, talking about the Iraq war. Yes, he's a comedian, but he's not running as a comedian.

He's making a concerted effort - he has made a concerted effort, you know, to run as a serious Democratic candidate. The frustrating thing, I think, for him is that, you know, you can see a mile away how his comedy career is going to be used. Of course, any reporter on the campaign trail, you know, they're there because it's fun to write about Al Franken, because he's funny. You know, you want the story to be your positions, not the funny joke you made about X, Y, or Z. So, when he's out on the campaign trail, you know, he's naturally funny, because that's who Al Franken is, but you can see him straining not to make any jokes that would be offensive or that might overshadow whatever message he is, you know, trying to deliver that day.

PESCA: All right, Josh Green, senior editor of the Atlantic. Thank you, Josh.

Mr. GREEN: Good to be with you.

PESCA: And now let's get some more of today's news headlines - if you included that as a headline, I did - with the BPP's Mark Garrison.

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