The Blog

Al Franken's a Senator Now -- But is He a Bigger Laugh than Burris?

Compared to Burris, Mr. Franken's declared victory in the seemingly endless Minnesota senate battle has generated some cheering, for sure, but surprisingly little laughing or hilarity. And what a shame that is.
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It's O-fficial. At least until it isn't again.

Al Franken will be standing - in a puddle of some controversy - along with appointed Illinois would-be Senator Roland Burris at the gates of that exclusive DC institutional club filled with a mixture of brilliant public servants and besotted stiffs (sometimes in the same person.)

Which one will actually get in the Senate door and which one won't? Members-only seating on the underground Capitol Hill railway and exclusive elevator use are at stake here.

Mr. Burris arrives with the fingerprints of felonious intent on his back from the Blagojevich hands that pushed him toward the seat. That's like starting your first day at a new job just as your primary resume reference gets busted for lying. It doesn't make you a bad guy, but why do it? Because you can get away with it?

I've never been part of the Rod Blagojevich lynch mob - he's the most interesting political counterpoint going to the slightly slowing Barack Obama bandwagon. And how hilarious that the governor's response to his indictment is to throw this messy curveball at all those people who want him removed? It's in some territory beyond cynicism.

What about Roland Burris, though? What's his motivation? Why go through such a festering birth canal to get to the US Senate? I'd think he'd have the taste of sulfur on his tongue for quite some time. It would make many strong points to show up as the only black sitting US Senator. But in our supposedly Obamian post-racial world, is that the reason to be associated with (alleged) crooks?

On the other hand, Mr. Franken's declared victory in the seemingly endless Minnesota senate battle has generated some cheering, for sure, but surprisingly little laughing or hilarity. And what a shame that is. We need the laughs now more than ever. What happened to the comedian who cracked us up as Stuart Smalley? Now is not the time, sir, to dispense with satire and goofy skits in the name of politics.

Some years ago I was at a dinner party in Los Angeles where the most committed of SoCal political liberals were weeping over the state of the world: George Bush was President. Fox News dominated the media. They felt they were living in Hell. In the room were people (Norman Lear, for instance) whose cultural sensibilities and creativity had touched millions of people over many years. So how, I asked them, could they miss the point, here? Any message is better heard by an audience that's engaged. You're not being very engaging. You just need to be funnier than you are right now... more entertaining than Bill O'Reilly or Rush Limbaugh. Why let your opponents and their audiences have all the kicks while you're trying to sell your programs?

Al Franken, purely coincidentally, came out as an active Democrat/comedian some time thereafter. I'm sure that was a relief to all those progressives whose laugh boxes had dried up. After all, he was that SNL guy who was now wrapping dogma in laughs. What a great way to get people's attention.

Then he started getting serious. Not only serious but downright agitated. His speeches still got chuckles from audiences but he seemed to spend more and more time on an angry soapbox than he did with humorous riffs assaulting the other side. Gone was the scalpel; out came the bludgeon. He began to remind me a little of Lenny Bruce after his SF obscenity trial, when his stand-up performances were all about reading from the court transcripts that weren't that funny, and about his own outrage, instead of being outrageously funny for his audience.

At a Commonwealth Club event I moderated a few years ago, Mr. Franken, otherwise very nice, cornered me beforehand and asked me to read a transcript of a Bill O'Reilly TV show to establish that O'Reilly was lying about something. In front of the audience, he pressed me to confirm that he was right and Bill O'Reilly wasn't. Like that could never happen.

Now that you're almost in, lighten up, Al. For your sake and ours. Make your colleagues laugh a little while you wrangle their support for your issues. If not, we can only hope that Senator Burris knows a joke or two.

For more, read Bronstein at Large.