Al Franken, Seriously
By RUSSELL SHORTO
Published: March 21, 2004
I'm in a rental car with Al Franken, and we're driving across New Hampshire on the Sunday before the nation's first primary, heading to a John Edwards rally. The Democrats are in a kooky mood following the sudden collapse of Howard Dean in Iowa, and Franken -- comedian, celebrity, scourge -- is spending two days in the state not in any official capacity but as a sort of good-will representative from the party's satiric wing. He is not, as you might think from the outrageous trappings of his comedy, an extreme lefty but rather a devout party man, one who says, for example, that the Democratic Leadership Council is a moral force for good. He believes in the process; he's friends with several of the candidates as well as many members of the press corps; he's here to soak it all up.
We're an hour late, and there are still 30 miles to go.
Franken is doing the driving, and he's full of energy, bursting with ideas, bits of comedy history (Bob and Ray, the Dean Martin roasts), political insults, patches of anger. The president of the United States has been doing some things lately that would get any political satirist excited, like announcing with great fanfare that the nation would undertake a mission to Mars and then failing even to mention the historic new venture six days later in his State of the Union address, after it got a flat reaction. Franken is particularly keyed up because he will soon have a new forum for voicing himself on such matters: a daily three-hour talk show, the flagship program in what will be a new ''liberal'' talk radio network. But it hasn't started yet, which is frustrating. ''They said Clinton was poll-driven?'' he's saying, and he's hitting the gas pedal more firmly as he talks. ''Well, this was totally poll-driven! But it should have been more exploited in terms of ridicule. This was, you know, really ripe. It's like, What happened to Mars? And what we get in the speech is steroids and abstinence. 'Let's send a message to kids that the only sure way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases is through . . . abstinence! Yaaay!' Uh-oh.''
The uh-oh is because blue lights are whipping through the car. A New Hampshire state trooper with what you might call perfect comic timing breaks in on Franken's jag and pulls us over. Franken is respectful and polite as he hands over his license, and as deeply relieved as any ordinary driver when the trooper lets him off with a warning a few minutes later. It's not a huge thing, but I haven't been in a car that was stopped for speeding since I was a teenager, and somehow it just feels right, a premonition of things to come.
And so it is. The next event on the schedule (we missed the Edwards thing completely) is a Howard Dean rally in downtown Manchester. Before stepping into the restored interior of the Palace Theater, however, it is necessary to add a point that will seem out of place but in fact cuts right to the core. From 1966 to 1969, Franken was a member of the varsity wrestling team at his high school in Hopkins, Minn. Six years after graduation, when he showed up in New York to begin work as a writer on the first season of ''Saturday Night Live,'' he was still almost as much an athlete as a comedian. ''He seemed like a total jock,'' says the comedian Laraine Newman, who was a member of the original cast. ''He always had a football in his hands when they were writing. And he had this very defined musculature. His butt was like a cut basketball. Which, you know, you don't normally see in comedy writers.''
Sidestepping the cut-basketball issue, Franken still has a wrestler's build, but more to the point he has kept his grappler's mentality. As he enters the Palace Theater, 860 defiant Dean supporters have filled the seats. They're on edge, eager to prove to Peter Jennings, Tim Russert and the rest of the national media that have ranged thickly around the perimeter that their man isn't done yet. Onstage, Martin Sheen speaks first, then Dean's demure wife, then the suddenly embattled former governor of Vermont himself. Sometime after Dean begins taking questions from the audience, a manic-looking heckler starts to heckle, accusing Dean of ''covering up for Dick Cheney.'' He gets louder. A couple of spindly members of Dean's security team approach him uncertainly; he swings his arms and keeps shouting. It goes on for several minutes and seems to be veering toward actual violence. Dean, the media, the members of the audience: nobody knows what to do.
At this moment Franken turns, cocks his head slightly, gives that well-known magnified, tortoise-shell-framed gaze and says: ''I think the two of us can get him out. You wanna do it?'' After a pause that is meant to be emphatic, I say, ''No.'' But it's too late: he's off, in rumpled jeans and a big down jacket, plowing up the aisle.
By this time there is a confused scrum around the heckler, who is holding his ground and still ranting. Franken hits the floor, wedges himself among a couple dozen legs and puts the man in a wrestling hold, grabbing him at the knees. That destabilizes him, and others now quickly push him down the aisle and out the side door of the theater. Franken gets up, looking dazed; his glasses are snapped in two. He's quickly swarmed by confused but excited reporters who want to know, like, what was he doing?