2009: SNL Comic Al Franken Is, Finally, Admitted to the Senate

After a photo-finish race, the political satirist became the real deal: Now Al Franken is even being mentioned as vice-presidential material.

David Green
David B. Green
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Al Franken doing his radio show in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2005. He is wearing headphones over his mildly graying curly hair; tortoiseshell sort of horn-rimmed eyeglasses over eyes squeezed shut; a dark tie and shirt striped in white and dark blue; and seems to be shouting into the mike.
Al Franken doing his radio show in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2005.Credit: AP
David Green
David B. Green

On July 7, 2009, exactly 239 days after the election in which he stood for the U.S. Senate from the state of Minnesota, former comedy writer and talk-show host Al Franken finally took his seat in the Senate chamber in Washington, D.C.

A week earlier, the Minnesota Supreme Court had denied the final appeal by the Republican candidate, incumbent Senator Norm Coleman, to have the final tally of the photo-finish vote declared in his favor.

When the initial tally on election night gave the contest to Coleman by 215 votes, the spread was so small that Minnesota mandated an automatic recount. The manual recount, completed on January 5, 2009, put Franken, a Democrat, in the lead by 225 ballots. Coleman challenged that result. The tribunal that heard his case ended up concluding that Franken had won by 312 votes. Coleman then appealed to the supreme court, which in a unanimous decision, announced on June 30, confirmed Franken’s victory.

As Coleman’s previous term in office, his first as U.S. senator, had ended on January 3, 2009, during the next six months, while the legal proceedings slogged on, Minnesota had only one serving senator, Democrat Amy Klobuchar.   

Lies and lying liars

Alan Stuart Franken was born in New York on May 21, 1951. He is the son of Joseph Franken, whose parents were Jewish immigrants from Germany, and the former Phoebe Kunst, the daughter of Jewish immigrants from the Russian empire. Joseph worked as a printing salesman, and Phoebe was a real estate agent.

When Al was four, the family moved to Albert Lea, Minnesota, where his father took over a quilt-making factory. When the factory failed, two years later, the Frankens relocated to a suburb of Minneapolis, which is where Al and his older brother grew up.

At the private Blake School, in Minneapolis, Al befriended Tom Davis, and the two began performing comedy acts together, specializing in political satire. After graduating high school in 1969, Franken attended Harvard College, where he studied government, graduating in 1973.

The Al Franken prostate report, SNLCredit: YouTube

Franken and Davis reunited after college and were hired as a team (even being paid a single, $350-a-week salary) for the initial writing staff of the NBC comedy show “Saturday Night Live,” on which they also occasionally appeared. They were at SNL from 1975 to 1980, returning in the mid-1980s (Franken worked as writer, performer and producer from 1985 to 1995). Tom Davis died in 2012.

Before Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, Franken was satirizing American politics from a distinctly left-wing perspective, and he published six books dealing with, among other things, what he saw as the hypocrisy of the political right wing, including the 2003 “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.”

That book soared to the top of the best-seller lists after Fox News, whose slogan was “Fair and Balanced,” sued him for trademark infringement, and a federal judge dismissed the suit as being “wholly without merit.”

From SNL to the White House?

Soon after, in July 2004 Franken began broadcasting a three-hour a day, five-day-a-week radio call-in show on the now-defunct Air America Radio network. On his final broadcast, in February 2007, Franken, who in the interim had moved back to Minnesota from New York, announced his intention to run for the U.S. Senate from his home state.

One of Franken’s motivations for wanting to become a senator was to take the place left void by the death of his friend Paul Wellstone, the Democratic incumbent who died in the crash of his campaign plane just 11 days Before the 2002 election. Wellstone’s place in that election was taken by the former U.S. senator and vice-president Walter Mondale, lost to Coleman, a former mayor of St. Paul. (Wellstone was Jewish, as is Coleman, and Franken, when he ran against the latter in 2008, quipped that “I don’t think Minnesota is ready for a gentile in this seat.”)

Having unseated Coleman, Franken promised to get serious once he took office, and in the more than seven years since, he has earned a reputation for diligence. He won easy re-election to the Senate in 2014, and his name is one of those now being mentioned as a potential running mate for presumed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Al Franken on Dick Cheney Shooting Someone In the Face Credit: YouTube