Friday, July 7, 2017

Review: Al Franken, Giant of the Senate

Al Franken, Giant of the Senate Al Franken, Giant of the Senate by Al Franken
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I confess I didn’t really plan to read this. I’ve loved Franken since I first saw him on Saturday Night Live, proclaiming the ‘80s not the me-decade, but the “Me, Al Franken, decade.” Still, I figured I’d heard what I needed to hear, and I’d just go on rooting for him to do his good work in the Senate while I spent time reading more serious fiction.

Then I kept stumbling across excerpts of this book, and each one made me laugh. There was the famous one about Ted Cruz, “I like Ted Cruz more than most of my colleagues like Ted Cruz. And I hate Ted Cruz.” There was his quoting Lindsay Graham as evidence that Republicans can be funny too. Noting that Graham was running 15th in a field of 17 candidates for the GOP Presidential nomination, Franken told him, “Lindsay, if I were voting in the Republican primaries, I’d vote for you.” Without hesitation, Graham replied, “That’s my problem.” And there was his persistent talk about how he’d had to “de-humorize” his statements in order to become a legitimate Senate candidate.

Finally, I got hit with a chance to buy the book as part of a fundraiser and, well, I just couldn’t stop reading it.

In many ways, this is three books in one, and all are interesting.

The first 50-60 pages are really a memoir of Franken as a Jewish kid in Minnesota growing into a successful comic. In the spirit of Steve Martin’s recent memoir, it brought the pleasure of revisiting many of the great skits of my adolescence from the performer’s side of things. I hadn’t realized how central Franken was to the early SNL vibe. He wasn’t Martin, who came to be the manic face of the guest host, nor was he Lorne Michaels, the impresario. He wasn’t even John Belushi or Bill Murray, the most inspired of the performers. But, as a writer, he was a constant voice behind all of those people, and – with the exception of Michaels – he was there longer.

Again as with Martin’s memoir, one of the pleasures is to discover the existing comics that Franken wanted to emulate. I love his take on Bob and Ray – perhaps my father’s favorite comedy team – and, once he says it, I can see how their dry approach informed Franken, his partner Tom Davis, and much of what I remember from those early SNL days.

The middle part of this book recounts the long process of Franken’s run for the Senate. It tells how a politically inclined person slowly decided to become a candidate. Along the way, he had to overcome a strange primary – in which his old humor was read out of context – and the closest Senate race in U.S. history – in which his humor was manipulated into untruths.

This part gets a bit slow in places – there’s less tension than the narrative seems to imply since we know the outcome beforehand – but it is intriguing for a political junkie.

The best part of that section, though, is the way Franken discusses the role of humor in his campaign. He talks a lot about how he had to try to present himself as someone other than who he’d been his entire adult life. His frustration is fun to see, but even more fun is to have him release some of the best jokes he had to self-censor during the campaign. It isn’t news that Franken is funny and insightful; it is news that he was being funny and insightful at this most serious part of his life.

The final section is even more fun as the now-established Senator Franken gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the Senate. The line about Cruz turns out to be an anomaly. Franken talks about how he feels compelled to push against his Republican colleagues, but he offers a refreshing look at what it means to know the people you’re fighting with. It’s striking to hear him report that Jeff Sessions – the same guy whom Coretta Scott King called too racist to be a federal judge and who is a neanderthalic Attorney General – asked his wife to knit a blanket for Franken’s first grandchild. Franken assailed the guy during his confirmation hearings, and it’s more compelling to know he did so with a personal affection for the man whom he politically opposed.

Anyway, this turns out to be a thoughtful and fun book. I kept daring myself to put it down, but then it would jump back into my hand and make me read it. All I can say is, if you’re tempted, give it a shot. Franken’s voice comes through on the page, and we certainly need as much of it as we can get these days.

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