Don't Laugh at Al Franken

Al Franken photographed at his home in Minneapolis, MN.
Matthew Gilson for TIME
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Al Franken finally wants you to take him seriously. Having been a comedian, a best-selling author of satirical polemics, a writer and performer for Saturday Night Live and the creator of faux self-help guru Stuart Smalley, he's now running for the U.S. Senate from Minnesota. To his credit, Franken is aware that convincing people he's serious won't be easy. The path from regularly playing a character called Liam the Loose-Boweled Leprechaun to voting on whether to send people to war is longer than most political journeys--even those, like the candidacies of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sonny Bono, that also started on the screen.

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Still, Minnesotans have been known to embrace unlikely candidates. Remember Governor Jesse Ventura? And at the moment, Franken is well positioned to become the state's Democratic nominee. The outlook for the general election is too early to call: a poll taken just before Franken's announcement had him losing to incumbent Norm Coleman 35% to 57%. A later poll showed the gap at just 10 points.

The Minnesota G.O.P. has called Franken an opposition researcher's "dream." On the surface, he looks great next to the SNL alums who have been caught with a hooker or killed by drugs. Franken, 55, lives in a nondescript town house in downtown Minneapolis with his wife Franni and their dog. (They have a grown daughter and a son in college.) And while he has admitted to using cocaine in his TV days, his only real habit now is Diet Pepsi.

He does, however, have a paper trail: reams of pointed jokes and hours of transcripts in which he is hostile, at times crude. Mark Drake, spokesman for the Minnesota G.O.P., says he understands that Franken's remarks are mostly jokes but reminds me, "He once referred to Republican politicians as shameless [expletive we don't print]. I don't think voters will like that."

Drake says the jokes get at a "larger truth" about Franken: he's got an anger issue. He once literally tackled a stubborn heckler at a Howard Dean rally after the security staff failed to eject the man. And at the 2003 White House correspondents' dinner, he greeted Karl Rove with the words "I hate you." (Franken has said they just "gibed each other a little.")

But Democratic voters are angry too. According to the campaign, Franken raised more than $1.3 million in the first quarter of 2007--this despite having been an official candidate for only 45 days. At a series of stops during the recent Democratic caucus night in St. Paul, voters cheered Franken when he talked about "taking out" Coleman. They laughed at his jokes. But being entertained by someone doesn't necessarily mean you agree with him. And it certainly doesn't mean you'll vote for him. To win the seat, Franken will need to convince voters that his past remarks were "just jokes" and that he is more than "just" a comedian.

Franken has been building out his repertoire for years. In 1996 he expanded the Al Franken brand with his book Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, which became a No. 1 New York Times best seller. Four other best sellers followed.

But Franken stumbled as the left's answer to Limbaugh. That experiment--the network Air America--has been struggling ever since it debuted in 2004. Franken left Air America in February, when he declared he would run for Senate; federal regulations prevent that kind of free airtime. It was just as well: the show was deadweight on an otherwise successful career.

Cruising through the St. Paul caucuses, Franken keeps up a constant patter as he chases voters. When he announces he needs to use the "boys' room," an aide reminds him to make sure his pants are zipped. He banters back, "Afterward, right. During--now that would be a disaster."

Not every aspect of the campaign is so easy to master. Franken walks into a precinct meeting and has already begun his 60-second stump speech when the audience's slightly puzzled expressions prompt him to ask, "Have I interrupted the process?" A beat of silence. "That's O.K.," someone says. Slightly rattled, Franken ends quickly. I'm not sure if he hears it when someone calls, "Yeah, who are you?" Fortunately, someone else answers for him: "That was Al Franken."

But people do generally recognize him. And his years onstage, a lifetime of improvisation, mean his stump speech keeps getting better. At one point he solemnly tells the crowd he would like their support when they come back next year. He waits a beat, then says, "So I have it, right?" He polishes the joke through the evening, each time getting bolder in the faux demands for loyalty.

But, of course, he can't count on their votes. The primaries are more than a year away, and Minnesotans don't like to be rushed. I ask one woman who has just requested Franken's autograph if she plans to support him, and she replies, "I haven't a clue."

At the last stop of the night, Franken ends with a now perfected kicker: "And I can count on all of you?" Laughter ripples through the room. Franken chuckles too and then, as usual, goes further, deadpanning, "I hope you realize, in a democracy, laughter is assent. So thank you--it's now a moral obligation, and I'm holding you to it." The laughter is louder than ever.

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