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Shtick & Soul

Al Franken maintains an exquisite balance between the demon and the dweeb.
Michael Sofronski

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 Live when 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 Yorker cover 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.

That Al considers Bill a liberal implies a definition of the word that bypasses much of the agenda it's acquired over the past 30 years. "If you believe in Medicare and Social Security, you're liberal," Franken says. "These are people who believe government has a role to play in caring for people." That rubric also describes what's liberal in Franken's comedy— and it's a quality he shares with Clinton. There's a certain tendresse to his tummling, and nowhere is that more evident than in Stuart Smalley, the 12-stepping nebbish with a heart of guilt. This character has become so intimately associated with Franken that he can't go anywhere without people asking him to speak in Smalley's voice.

"Stuart is the most vulnerable character I do," he says. But like the pushy putz Franken plays when he crashes political events, Stuart also manages to speak truth to power. And his fragile masculinity is the most daring thing in Franken's comedy. It's a temperament that could only be evoked by someone who knows Al-Anon from the inside, as Franken does. Then, too, Stuart is an homage to the petit-bourgeois life Franken saw as a child, growing up prosperous in Minnesota. It's his attempt to revisit Lake Wobegon.

His current digs on the Upper West Side have an oddly midwestern ambience, as if the furniture were transported from Chicago piece by mahogony piece. But instead of the ceremonial piano, there are book cases filled with quality fiction, and hanging on the walls are portraits of great-grandparents from some nameless Russian shtetl. Here are the trappings of a fiercely held identity that stands apart from the characters Franken plays, but informs them all. Jewishness hovers over his act, undermining any tendency to be saccharine and turning punch lines into the sinews of character. This ability to combine shtick and soul is certainly not a uniquely Jewish trait, but perhaps the knack for knowing exactly how far the envelope can be pushed has something do with the subtle precariousness of being a Hebrew from the heartland. Maintaining an exquisite balance between the demon and the dweeb has made it possible for Franken to mainstream the L-word. He's Seinfeld with a conscience, bringing menschiness to prime time.

As Al leaves to "do Conan," I promise not to make him seem tendentious. There's a brief, blank pause before he gives me the slightest zetz, a tweak you'd reserve for someone less evil than Rush but more pretentious. "I wouldn't want to seem tendentious," Franken replies. Just funny will do.


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