No More Jew Jokes: How Al Franken Went From 'SNL' Funnyman to Serious Senator

The Minnesota senator’s new memoir, 'Al Franken, Giant of the Senate,' entertains and proves him to be a credible thinker and opposition leader for the Trump era

This cover image released by Twelve Books shows "Al Franken: Giant of the Senate," by Al Franken.
This cover image released by Twelve Books shows "Al Franken: Giant of the Senate," by Al Franken. Twelve via AP

“Al Franken, Giant of the Senate,” by Al Franken, Twelve, 416 pp., $28

As a reader, it’s hard to imagine liking any book coming out of Washington, D.C. these days — especially one from a partisan politician who represents the party I, from a family of diehard Republicans, grew up seeing as the opposition. But it’s hard not to like Al Franken. The junior U.S. Senator from Minnesota, who spent more than two decades as a “Saturday Night Live” writer and star, manages both to entertain in his new memoir and prove himself a credible thinker and opposition leader for the Trump era. And he does all this without ever wading too deep into divisive political rhetoric.

Well, to be fair, Franken calls Donald Trump a “lying liar” (in a nod to one of his previous books “Lies: And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right”), refers to Ann Coulter as “this thing” and explains why everyone in the Senate hates Ted Cruz, calling the former presidential contender a “sociopath.”  So, obviously, Franken’s book does hit the right, or at least far-right, pretty hard.

While Franken roasts many of his political opponents, Trump in particular, he also describes his one-time friendship with Jeff Sessions, a former Senate colleague and now the controversial attorney general. It’s hard to demonize someone “whose wife knitted your grandson his favorite binkie,” writes Franken. He also offers a lighthearted and kind assessment of George W. Bush’s comedic stylings, and recalls how they bonded over a love of comedy and a lack mutual respect. Bush joked that Franken was his favorite “SNL” comedian and Franken replied, just like “you are my favorite president.”

Al Franken grills Jeff Sessions during confirmation hearing CSPAN

He explains his desire to work across the aisle, which, coupled with his own self-deprecating tone and constant humor, manages to keep the book above petty politics. The same couldn’t be said about some of his previous books, including 1996’s “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations.”

Franken writes that his journey to the Senate is the story of how, “after spending a lifetime learning to be funny, I learned how not to be funny.” He goes on to explain what it has taken for him to “dehumorize”—including cutting the “Jew jokes” out of his repertoire—in order to become a politician. Franken recounts the story of how he wanted to write a note to a constituent on her 110th birthday saying, “You have a bright future,” but his staff talked him out of it.

He confronts head-on the fact that leading Senate Democrats like Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer didn’t want him to run, his past drug use and the many comedy sketches he was a part of that make perfect “oppo amo” in a political campaign (including jokes about rape and porn).  

Like any good memoir, Franken gives an account of his life, and about a behind-the-scenes look at how he got to where he is today. Franken recounts how he met his wife, Franni, (complete with Tinder and Grindr jokes), how he disappointed his practical German Jewish parents by becoming a comedian and why he decided to go into politics. He describes how, in his first bid for the Senate in 2008, after winning in a recount by just 321 votes, he kept his head down and tried to rise above his colleagues’ low expectations.

Franken was raised in the largely Russian and Jewish St. Louis Park, a first-ring suburb of Minneapolis, which was also the setting of the Coen brothers’ 2009 film “A Serious Man.” He describes his close-knit nuclear family, growing up in the 1960s, sitting around their TV-tray dinners watching Walter Cronkite, and recalls his father commenting on “Southern sheriffs turning fire hoses, dogs and nightsticks on demonstrators,” saying, “No Jew can be for that!” And how his father went from being a Republican, like he was at age 13, to a Democrat in 1964 when Barry Goldwater, “a guy who had voted against the Civil Rights Act,” won the Republican nomination.

When tackling today’s Republicans, including those who seem opposed to civil rights (Trump), and the gridlock in Washington, Franken always remains optimistic, even after attending Trump’s inauguration. “Trump’s fans seem to feel that he is making the dull reality of politics more fun and interesting by augmenting it with gross exaggeration, and often utter fantasy,” Franken writes.

While he slams right-wing media including Rush Limbaugh and Breitbart for creating a situation where a “liar” like Trump can end up in the Oval Office, Franken mostly treats Trump supporters respect, diagnosing their support as mostly temporary. Instead, while joking he may just be “farting in the wind,” he insists that a return to truth and basic decency is inevitable as “national gullibility is a cyclical phenomenon.” Franken’s most famous “SNL” character, Stuart Smalley, hosted a self-help show featuring “Daily Affirmations,” and it’s clear that character’s need for positive thinking came from somewhere genuine in Franken. 

Despite his optimism, Franken is still fighting the same battle he fought to get elected—to prove he's more than just a comedian. He recalls how focus-group participants said they "didn't think the fact that I had been a successful comedian meant that I was intelligent.” He also quips that that, in his case, it was one of the first times that reminding people he went to Harvard was a good idea.

The book has already garnered attention for some of its more bombastic parts, like where he says, "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." (Cruz responded in the press by calling the book "obnoxious and insulting.”)

However, the book’s best parts are not the ones making headlines; they are the parts showcasing Franken’s enduring belief in American democracy. He writes about how his constituents keep him focused and motivated no matter how “obnoxious a procedural delay or how jaw-droppingly terrible a Trump tweet.” His fond memories and the inspiration he draws from his “friend and political hero” Paul Wellstone, the beloved Minnesota senator who was killed in a plane crash, feel heartfelt and leave the reader believing that Franken’s intentions are pure.

Franken has now joined a long list of U.S. Senators who have published books while in office. These often serve as a launching pad to higher office or at least a bigger national profile. Barack Obama’s 2006 book, “The Audacity of Hope,” did both. However, the tradition goes back at least as far as John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage” (1957), even if it was famously ghostwritten. While Franken may have had help with his book (as is the case with most political memoirs in the U.S.), it certainly smacks of authenticity.  

Recently, Franken was asked by a morning-show host if he wants to be president, to which he quickly replied, “No, I want to be a five-term senator.” That may sound genuine enough, but in Washington, you never know.