Shtick & Soul

Al Franken Mainstreams the L-Word

Monica Lewinsky may be the best thing to happen to comedy since Viagra, but for Al Franken she's a must to avoid. "It's hard to do a smart joke about a blowjob, especially when there are eight or nine blowjob jokes on TV every night," he sighs. "I deliberately stayed away from it in the book."

The book is Why Not Me? The Inside Story of the Making and Unmaking of the Franken Presidency,in which Al wins by a landslide— only to choose an entirely Jewish cabinet, a portent of the gaffes that will lead to his resignation after only 144 days. Replete with visual send-ups (such as the cover of a Bob Woodward tell-all called The Void), Franken's book hearkens back to those memorable moments on Saturday Night Livewhen he invited viewers to send their tax receipts to "me, Al Franken."

But it's also a kinder, gentler sequel to his surprise bestseller, Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations. That scathing attack on the right wing's gift to gonzo has no doubt earned Franken the title Antichrist among a certain set of Dittoheads. The question of which male Jew is the Antichrist brings a more modest response than he might have delivered on SNL: "I thought it was Marvin Hamlisch, until the Teletubby thing, and now I think it's Harvey Fierstein."

Franken's multimedia empire— which currently includes Lateline, the first prime-time sitcom inspired by Ted Koppel— is a tribute to the power of smart shtick. Franken's comedy, like Harry Shearer's, is honed on the increasingly porous boundary between fact and fiction, culture and politics. But, like Garrison Keillor's monologues, it also features an irresistible persona. If Keillor is the rueful cosmopolitan looking homeward, Franken plays the hapless naïf who intrudes upon events beyond his comprehension, but who manages, through sheer narcissism, to skewer all cant. It's a classic comedy pose, but with an edge of aggro. To gaze at Franken's face is to see the schlemiel who's about to give you such a zetz.

This soulful yet seditious stance is what distinguishes Franken's comedy from the sado stand-up of the right. If inflicting punishment is the conservative version of therapy, liberals heal through transgressive irony. Unfortunately, a generation out of power has turned that kickass wit into exculpatory earnestness, a stance that doesn't usually lend itself to yuks. But if there's a crisis of liberal comedy, it hasn't gotten through to Franken. "I've always been liberal and I guess I've always been funny, so it never occurred to me that liberals aren't funny," he maintains."Besides, all the comedians I grew up with— Godfrey Cambridge, Dick Gregory— were leftists, so I've always thought of it the other way."

It may be a harbinger of changing times that the past few years have seen a modest revival of this tradition. The mass-marketing of Michael Moore suggests there's a public again for the kind of liberal comedy that doesn't throw the issues in anyone's face without being wickedly hilarious. That's why Franken's attack on Rush was so refreshing. Not only did it capture Limbaugh's reckless disregard of the facts, but it was funny— not lardass-funny like Howard Stern; funny the way a well-timed political joke is. You laugh because the very act of successful mockery gives you a sense of possibility. When Franken's book sold more than a million copies last year, it dawned on the media that the icons of the right were vulnerable. That makes him a hero of the culture wars, though he begs off that honor (perhaps because it conjures up bullwhips and smeared chocolate). Still, Franken does acknowledge that "the Rush book was a liberal screed. I meant it to be a political act."

With a press pass and a puckish grin, he's insinuated himself into a number of unlikely events, from the most recent GOP convention to the impeachment trial (where he was escorted out of a press conference for asking Phil Gramm an intemperate question). In his faux-naïf persona, he's been known to inquire about the fate of passengers on a plane whose pilot ascends to heaven in the Rapture. "I once told Ralph Reed I was a little worried that, after the Rapture, the Christian Coalition might be understaffed. I said, 'I don't know how you're going to get your voter guides out.' " Reed laughed— and walked away.

Of course, one reason Franken is able to enter such charmed circles is that he doesn't raise the specter of sexuality. His act is clean without seeming puritanical, and he guards this balance like a Congressman hoarding pork. "That's rough," he says when I show him Art Spiegelman's New Yorkercover of a cop at a shooting gallery gunning down cutout citizens. "It's hard to handle some things without being rough." Like the Juanita Broaddrick story: "I've been playing with stuff, but I keep stepping on it." Perhaps that's because rape is hard to do shtick on, or perhaps it's because, though Franken admits that "Clinton acted in a bad way, he's our guy." At any rate, Clinton seems to understand that it's more important to charm comics then pundits, since he's met Franken several times.

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