Al Franken's Not-So-Serious Moments

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Minnesota voters took comedian Al Franken seriously when he ran for the state's U.S. Senate seat in 2008. After 238 days of recounts and contested ballots, Franken was sworn in--with a straight face--in July 2009. It was a few days until he cracked his first joke (to which bloggers responded, "Finally!") As Franken wraps up his first year as "the gentleman from Minnesota," we bring you some less-than-serious moments featuring the political satirist turned politician. And we've asked two political comedy teams to weigh in on the footage: Barely Political, which became viral hits with its Obama Girl character, and The Full Ginsburg, which has targeted its sharp humor at AIG and Rahm Emanuel. Did we miss your favorite Franken moment? Drop a link to the clip in the comments below.

During day two of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan's confirmation hearings in late June, an AP photographer snapped a photo of the Minnesota Democrat sketching the likeness of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions. Fox News implied the senator wasn't taking things seriously enough, what with his doodling and apparent napping during the hearings.

The Full Ginsburg responds:
Marc Georges: Not sure what this says about us as a nation that his doodle is the only thing people have been talking about with the Kagan hearings. I know more about this doodle than about Franken's entire Senate record.  

Zara Findlay-Shirras: At least he wasn't playing MASH. There was no "Scott Brown in a mansion in Florida with 7 kids."

Eric Cunningham:  This is my favorite clip of all of these. Why? Because this is Brian Williams, America's Newscaster, talking about a doodle a comedian made - and then he ends the segment by casually mentioning that it was during a Senate confirmation hearing for the lifetime appointment of a justice of the Supreme Court.  USA! USA! USA!

No hint at all of a future life in politics in this clip. Rolling around on stage in a tiny tank top and tight white pants is about as unserious as the future senator could get. Appearing on the 1980s TV show Solid Gold, Franken and comedy partner Tom Davis impersonate Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, respectively, belting out the Rolling Stones classic "Under My Thumb."

The Full Ginsburg responds:
Eric Cunningham: The idea that this video is a deviation from the progression of Franken's political career is a classic misinterpretation. This video is political. Solid Gold? That's about gold being a stable investment in rocky economies. "Under my Thumb"? That's about Congress needing to stand up to the President as an equal partner in the federal government. And the orange tank-top? Alright, that one doesn't have a metaphor. Al Franken just likes wearing orange tank-tops, I guess.

Jared Bloom: I remember seeing this when I was 5 years old and thinking, "Yeah, this guy's definitely gonna be a Senator." Unfortunately, I was wrong---my "Draft the back-up dancer from the Solid Gold Band" movement never got off the ground.

Zara Findlay-Shirras: Well, he's no John Ashcroft, that's for sure. Not to mention a Larry Craig.

Barely Political responds:
Ben Relles: It's pretty amazing that John Edwards was affected by that 30 second viral hair-drying video, and Rudy Giuliani was said to be hurt by all those pictures of him in drag. Meanwhile, Al Franken can get away with videos like this and still win his election. In political elections today it has become more and more important that candidates avoid having a gaffe or bad moment slip out on on a YouTube video. But the public seemed to understand that in comedy, being ridiculous is part of the job description.

Long before his Senate run, Franken was a writer and cast member on Saturday Night Live. In this 1979 clip he plays Henry Kissinger, opposite Bill Murray as the shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.

The Full Ginsburg responds:
Eric Cunningham: I'd imagine even at this point Al Franken knew he was destined for politics. This is the kind of impression that would positively kill at a K Street cocktail party. Especially if Henry Kissinger is actually there.

Marc Georges: Good impression, probably was a lot funnier when Henry Kissinger was actually relevant.

Zara Findlay-Shirras: His prosthetics scare me. But so does the real Henry Kissinger a little bit. He knows all of our secrets.

Jared Bloom: Wait. People in politics used to have accents?!?! Does Arizona know about this?!?!

Franken's SNL character Stuart Smalley hosted a self-help show filled with inspirational affirmations, including his most popular one, to himself: "I'm good enough. I'm smart enough. And doggone it, people like me." In this clip filmed during the first Gulf War, Stuart focuses his thoughts on the Kurds.

The Full Ginsburg responds:
Eric Cunningham: I wonder if Stuart Smalley was a character Al Franken invented just to lure future political opponents into a false sense of security. Like, I bet Norm Coleman woke up after the Minnesota Democratic primaries thinking, "Ha. There's no way I'll lose to Stuart Smalley." And that's how he gets ya. A comedic Trojan Horse. Well played, Franken.

Marc Georges: Back in the Nineties, people thought effeminate characters and lisps were funny. These people included Al Franken.

While promoting his book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them on a 2003 episode of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, Franken and Stewart joke together about how they, as comedians, have the responsibility of pointing out inaccuracies in the media.

The Full Ginsburg responds:
Eric Cunningham: I feel like this is less of a book-plug and more of a shrewd political move. Everyone knows since 2000 the path to the White House passes right through Jon Stewart's velvety couch - so if you're gonna run for Senate, it can't hurt. Or maybe there's more still up Al Franken's sleeve? Would I vote for a Franken-Farrell presidential ticket? You bet I would.

Zara Findlay-Shirras: Not a joke, but a fun fact: Bill O'Reilly and Fox News sued him over that book, for infringing on their "fair and balanced" trademark. The lawsuit went nowhere, of course.

Barely Political responds:
Mark Douglas: For something to be funny there has to be some truth to it, and this is a very, very funny book. Part of what they talk about here in this interview—that The Daily Show does a better job of exposing hypocrisy than the nightly news—has become an even bigger truth now, seven years later.  Thousands of young people get their news from The Daily Show. And recent polls have even shown Jon Stewart to be more trusted than most news anchors. So it wouldn't be shocking to see more satirists go into politics.

It's important to have a party trick, and this one ain't bad. Franken can draw a map of the United States, from memory (and very accurately, by the way), in just a few minutes. Above is a sped-up version of the video, but we have it on good authority (read: the Internet) that it takes Franken about two minutes and that he's been up to this old trick for a long time.

The Full Ginsburg responds:
Zara Findlay-Shirras: And I felt so proud of myself for memorizing all of the state names in alphabetical order in fifth grade. Now I feel like an ass.

Eric Cunningham: Big time. But this video's a great example Franken exhibiting mastery of Comedy 101: Know your audience. First, he's at a Minnesota Public Radio event, so they're nerds -- they're gonna love this cartography stuff. Second, start off the map by drawing Minnesota, play to the home crowd. Brilliant. I guess third is play weird, ragtime piano music. Though, everyone loves that.

Jared Bloom: Really, what was with that music? This is basically the worst Benny Hill Show episode ever. Where are the constables? Or the women in bikinis? By the way, I'm sure this really impressed the people who were listening to it on the radio.

Franken is absolutely serious in this moment during the health-care bill debate on the Senate floor, when he denies Sen. Joe Lieberman an "additional moment" to speak because he had reached his 10-minute speaking limit. Maybe Franken was just following the rules, but Lieberman's reaction to the denial is surprise and he actually laughs at Franken, responding, "Really?!?"

The Full Ginsburg responds:
Jared Bloom: This is the moment where I think Al Franken earned his stripes. Hating on Joe Lieberman is almost a bipartisan right of passage in the Senate. By the way, this video is way more fun when you use YouTube's new vuvuzela feature every time Lieberman tries to speak.

Eric Cunningham: I love this too - with or without vuvuzela. I guess it boils down to this: Lieberman, you're dealing with Saturday Night Live's Al Franken. Have you ever seen an SNL sketch go on for longer than ten minutes? No! America doesn't have the attention span for it. I mean, I didn't have the attention for the thirty seconds of Lieberman's speech in this video. Franken basically did the Senatorial equivalent of the old vaudeville hook on Lieberman. Well-played.

In this 2007 appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman shortly after Franken announced his run for Senate, Letterman asks Franken point blank: "Can you be funny anymore, or can you not be funny anymore?" Franken responds by explaining that he's a satirist and Letterman is a clown. Touché.

The Full Ginsburg responds:
Jared Bloom: See, this is how you know that Al Franken is not a serious politician. He's doing an interview on a comedy show! If you want to be taken seriously, you have to go on a show that's not about getting laughs, like Meet the Press. Or The Tonight Show.

Eric Cunningham: Franken says the difference between what Letterman does and what he did was that Franken "makes people think". I think I missed the message in the Stuart Smalley movie then.

Despite telling Letterman he can still be funny, Franken is completely straight-faced in this 2008 ad--although the content is rather silly. The famous political satirist tells viewers, "Look, I'm not proud of every joke I've ever told" and "I'm serious about fighting for you." Super-serious. No more funny business. Very, very serious.

The Full Ginsburg responds:
Marc Georges: I'm not sure what's more notable: the fact that one of Norm Coleman's main critiques of Franken was based on taking a joke out of context, or that Franken felt he had to make this ad to respond. On the plus side, Al picked up on the formula for effective campaign ads pretty quickly: address your audience slowly and deliberately as if speaking to a child, keep your eyes squarely on the camera like a teenager on his first day at the public pool and always try to close with a bad pun. Yay for American political discourse!

Zara Findlay-Shirras: "You're serious," Al? Well, I'm serious about that bouquet of dried reeds behind you. I don't have too much to say on this one. If I were more familiar with any specific jokes he had written I would make a 'but what about this joke?' joke, but I have no idea what jokes he wrote because I was not alive in 1975 and have not yet rented SNL Season 1 as every Good Comedy Nerd allegedly should.

Eric Cunningham: I imagine since starting his political career, "I'm serious" has become Al Franken's unofficial catchphrase. Like everyone thinks his career is some sort of performance art or something. "Oh right, Al. And then what did the chairman of the committee say? Something wacky? Classic Franken joke." "No! This happened! It was on CSPAN!" "Sure Al, is this like your balancing the budget bit?" (Well, to be fair, the idea of a balanced budget is a joke.)

Barely Political responds:
Mark Douglas: Al Franken ran a serious campaign and he said he's using this first year to show he is serious about his position and staying away from being a comic on the Senate Floor. I guess overall I'd rather see a comedian go into public service and act a bit more serious, than stay in comedy and go the route of say, Chevy Chase or Robert Klein. I don't think he needs to apologize like this for jokes from 20 years ago, but I'm glad to see this Senate career instead of perhaps 'Stuart Saves His Family 2.'

The Internet anxiously awaited the former comedian's first joke in his new job. Could Franken really shed his satirical sensibilities just because he had been dubbed "senator"? He spent his first days in Washington on some serious business: the confirmation hearings of then-Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. But about a week into his first term, during the hearings, he finally made a funny. Catch the punchline in the video above.

The Full Ginsburg responds:
Eric Cunningham: I guess what I can't believe is that he didn't make a single joke for the first week. I mean, normal people don't go a week without making a joke on the job. This is Al Franken really showing some restraint and trying to prove early on that he was a real Senator and not some weird real-life version of the movie Man of the Year.

Zara Findlay-Shirras: No, you're right. But I like how he played it cool. Day 1: Everyone's expecting it. "When's he going to be funny? When's he going to be funny?" Day 2: "Oooh, I bet it'll be today. He didn't want to blow his cover the first day." Day 3: "Oh, I get it. He's a politician now. That comedy stuff is behind him." Day 4: "Saturday Night Live, you say? Really?" Day 5: JOKES! "Oh, thank God! Now we can go back to talking in ten minute intervals."

Barely Political responds:
Ben Relles: Franken may be using his first season in the Senate to settle in a bit, taking the Saturday Night Live route. I remember Will Ferrell's first year on SNL, he was in the background a bit, and then suddenly he broke out as a star. Same with others like Amy Poehler and Kristen Wiig.  Al Franken spent 15 years at Saturday Night Live so I'm sure he has sat back quite a few good jokes to not draw attention to himself. Of course all comedians like the spotlight, and on Saturday Night Live Al Franken was a show staple until he eventually left in 1995 when a small group at SNL voted for Norm MacDonald to take over Weekend Update instead of him. In 2014 it will be a much larger group, namely an entire state, that decides how long he stays around.

Maybe it is Franken's duty as the former comedian member of the Senate to explain political cartoons to the others. Actually, in this clip, Franken uses a Washington Post political cartoon as an example of why credit-rating agencies need regulation. Listen closely for chuckles in the chamber.

The Full Ginsburg responds:
Jared Bloom: One of the first things you learn in Political Comedy School is that the best jokes are the ones that need to be explained in exhaustive detail.

Claudia Castillo: I get that Al Franken is a satirist, but does he really have to explain a political cartoon to a bunch of politicians? I mean, it'd be one thing if someone from Fox News was there to take it out of context, but he's explaining it to a bunch of politicians, not third graders.

Eric Cunningham: This is great. A careful, step-by-step dissection of a political cartoon, eating valuable legislation time is basically the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington filibuster scene, but for a Twitter generation. Someone hook up that stenographer's typewriter to TweetDeck or something. Hashtag lol.

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