By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Minnesota Senator Al Franken spoke with comedian Seth Meyers about the inner-workings of Washington and using humor with his Senate colleagues in an event hosted by The Strand in Cooper Union’s Great Hall at the beginning of this month. The Strand usually hosts book signing events in their store on Broadway near East 12th Street but has recently been hosting bigger events with high-profile authors in the hall, such as an event with Bernie Sanders last December.
Franken, who was a comedian and at one time a writer and performer for “Saturday Night Live,” before becoming a senator, talked with Meyers about the balancing act of whether or not he could use humor in his position in the government.
Meyers recounted an instance when he was in Washington, DC to present the Mark Twain prize to Tina Fey and he and Amy Poehler went to visit Franken in his Senate office.
“It felt like you were telling us every joke that no one you worked with would get,” Meyers said of Franken’s behavior. “You seemed so repressed with all this comedy that you did not have the right audience for.”
Franken disputed any so-called repression, noting that even some of his Republican colleagues appreciated his sense of humor.
“I could be funny with my colleagues on the floor as long as it wasn’t too loud,” he said. “I spent a lot of my career in satire writing heaping scorn on Republicans so I thought they’d be wary of me, but they got it right away. There was a time when we had 60 Democrats and only 40 Republicans so one day I just went over to the Republican side and said, ‘Oh my god, it’s so crowded over there! I just had to come over here to breathe.’ They got it, they thought it was funny. That was our relationship, giving each other crap.”
But he did concede that he gave up humor during his first term, at least in public.
“My opponent, Norm Coleman, the Republican, put everything I had ever said or written in comedy through this machine called the dehumorizer, which was built with very state-of-the-art Israeli technology, and took the humor out of every joke I’d ever told,” he quipped. “So when I finally got in, I decided I was going to be a workhorse and not a showhorse. I had to build my own dehumorizer (through my staff). But then I won by a wide margin in the last election so I thought, ok, now I can be funny.”
Franken noted that he does always refrain from telling jokes when CSPAN is broadcasting from the Senate floor, but not necessarily because the humor is inappropriate.
“There’s actually no one there,” he said. “It’s a tight shot on you so you think there could be 99 senators in there but it’s just staff. You don’t tell a joke because it’ll be silent and it’ll look like the joke just died.”
Aside from using humor himself, Franken said that he was pleasantly surprised that some of his political opponents also had a good sense of humor, and was especially surprised some were so welcoming of him since he has also published more than one satirical book poking fun at conservatives. He noted that one colleague with a particularly sharp sense of humor is South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham.
“Last year when he was running like 15th out of 17 in the Republican presidential primary, I went up to him and said, ‘Lindsey, if I were voting in the Republican primaries, I’d vote for you,’” Franken said. “And he said, ‘That’s my problem.’”
Leigh Altshuler, a representative for the Strand, said that the bookstore has been hosting book events in bigger venues for the last six months and in addition to Cooper Union, has relationships with the New School and the Museum at Eldridge Street. The next big event will be a discussion between author Zadie Smith and New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino on September 18 at the New School.
Franken’s book, cheekily titled, Al Franken: Giant of the Senate, was published at the end of May.