As a reporter, I pride myself on keeping my opinions to myself and my personal distance from the people I cover. Until today, that wasn't a problem in the case of my friend of 20 years, Al Franken. But now that he has said that he is running for the U.S. Senate seat in Minnesota currently held by Norm Coleman, I have a duty to the voters there to tell them what I know about him that is relevant to their decision about him -- and then to get out of the way and not say or write another word about his (or that) campaign.
If you know Al's humor, you know that it's about making you laugh against your will and your better judgment. His jokes can be WAY outside the box of good taste -- which is the point. Sometimes his humor is about the excesses of ego -- his own. It's the humor of a character who is utterly lacking in self awareness. There is a cult following to this day surrounding the mincingly endearing Stuart Smalley, so oblivious that he thinks it's his duty to lecture Michael Jordan on confidence.
But Al gets most of his laughs -- and launches most of his zingers -- by deploying remorseless logic to a situation, reducing it to an absurdity that creates shock and laughter. He has lightning-quick reactions to contradictions, hypocrisy and cant -- and finds humor in exposing other people's idiocies. He has, quite simply, one of the sharpest minds I have ever encountered -- and you're talking to a guy who has covered George W. Bush since way back in 1994. Bada-bing.
Al was a math geek, but a wrestler, too -- and that is the other key thing about him. He likes to mix it up. He is passionate about his politics, and always has been -- even when he was using his political sensibilities primarily to find material for "Saturday Night Live" and his hilarious routines with Tom Davis, among others.
The combination of logic and combat can get Al in trouble--when he doesn't keep them both under control, or keep them from influencing each other too much. He can make somebody else look pretty stupid, which is funny, until it is not. His humor in general is about not knowing when to stop, but of course he can't t run a campaign that way, let alone be a U.S. senator that way.
But put to their best uses, his mind and spirit can be more than valuable. I'll give you an example. On Thanksgiving weekend in 2002, our families got together, as we often do, in New York City. (Al is as devoted a husband, father and friend as you will ever meet, with a wonderful wife and two talented and accomplished kids.) At a diner on the Upper West Side, Al laid out his idea of how we should handle the problem of Saddam Hussein and his cache of WMD. Al's idea was to flood the country with more weapons inspectors -- under U.N. auspices, probably, but most of them our forces if necessary. Saddam was tied down by sanctions and the world's disapproval. We could have forces there under the peaceful banner of inspections -- and keep a lid on things indefinitely.
I didn't have a good answer then for why that was a bad idea, and I don't now. It was pretty logical.