In a recent article for The New Yorker, TV critic Emily Nussbaum evaluated the performance of the TV star who won our election, and she found him to be a comedian. “Like that of any stadium comic, Trump’s brand was control. He was superficially loose, the wild man who might say anything, yet his off-the-cuff monologues were always being tweaked as he tested catchphrases (‘Lock her up!’; ‘Build the wall!’) for crowd response. On TV and on Twitter, his jokes let him say the unspeakable and get away with it.”
Nussbaum focuses on the manipulative power of Trump’s comic persona: By rebuking the seriousness that defined the office of the American presidency, Trump became the kind of juggernaut that the GOP, in its predictable villainy, has not been able to organically manufacture through sobriety. If comedy has traditionally served as a way for artists and members of the media to point out petty tyranny, our most recent election was a lesson in how a potential tyrant might use the disorienting force of comedy as a way to solidify power in opposition to common sense and common morality.
Following Trump’s inauguration, the atmosphere of absurdity has ruled our news cycle, with no end in sight. As the confirmation hearings for Trump’s Cabinet appointees continue, Minnesota senator Al Franken has led the questioning from his seat on the Senate committees for the Judiciary, Education, and Energy departments. He’s called attention to Jeff Sessions’s misrepresentation of his record on civil rights; he’s highlighted Betsy DeVos’s inadequate knowledge of common debates within education policy; he’s grilled Rick Perry on denying the science of climate change. Franken is a principled politician who takes his service seriously, and his robust opposition to the farce of Trump’s nominees has provided a model for responsible governance as we face an incoming kleptocracy.
However, for those who are familiar with his comedy, Franken presents a benevolent mirror to Trump in more ways than one. He is a product of the same unnatural convergence between American entertainment and American politics, but Franken’s transition has been an example of how to maintain stability when moving from public clown to public servant.
Senator Franken was sworn into office in 2009 after a contentious campaign that was decided by a difference of only 312 votes. But his career in the public eye began four decades ago, in 1975, with the inauguration of a different American institution: Saturday Night Live. Though the early SNL casts were packed with eventual superstars, from Bill Murray to Gilda Radner to John Belushi, Franken and his longtime comedy partner Tom Davis were powerful figures behind the scenes as writers and sometimes performers. Most of Franken’s initial run was spent out of the spotlight, but his crowning moment of glory came with the legendary 1980 “Weekend Update” commentary “A Limo for a Lame-O.” After being caught by a fan while trying to hail a cab, Franken took his complaints with his lack of car service and his network to the American people, reading out the address for “lame-o” NBC president Fred Silverman with a prompt to the American people to “Get Al Franken a Limo!” Hundreds responded, and an infuriated Silverman insisted Franken would never rise in the ranks at Saturday Night Live. The incident prompted Franken to leave SNL, but for his first return appearance in 1981, he delivered an encore, letting loose a flaying evisceration of NBC executives Jean Doumanian and Dick Ebersol.
Franken’s stunts were a victory for every intelligent person who has ever been slighted due to bureaucratic ineptitude, and it solidified his position as one of the quintessential comedians in SNL history. He returned to the series in the mid-1980s, and his 10-year run from 1985 to 1995 spawned his most popular characters, including the comically soft motivational speaker Stuart Smalley. Smalley adds another layer to the surreality of Franken’s current office, as the lisping pushover act that once landed him a movie deal was a loving send-up of exactly the sensitivity that Breitbarters and Trumpers mock as liberal emasculation.
By contrast, Senator Franken is unselfconscious and un-showy, committed first and foremost to the issues at hand. But if your media memory stretches back beyond the Obama administration, Franken’s role as one of the defenders of our constitutional democracy is as jarring as watching the host of The Apprentice ascend to his new position as our commander in chief. Though entertainers have intermittently taken on roles in politics, Franken was never like Jon Stewart, finding a funny way to highlight serious political issues, nor was he a Ronald Reagan or an Arnold Schwarzenegger, a hero no matter how frivolous. Instead, Franken was telling jokes about mommy issues — making his name on his unhireability.
For his part, 2017’s Al Franken seems ambivalent about the incongruity between his past and present. He isn’t totally devoid of humor — note his response to a recent gaffe with former Texas governor Rick Perry — but he’s not cracking jokes in his addresses either. When his former Republican opponent Norm Coleman tried to undermine his legitimacy as a political candidate by dredging up articles written during the waning days of Franken’s showbiz career, Franken’s spokesman released a statement that sums up the principles of his conduct since he’s turned to public policy: “Al had a long career as a satirist. But he understands the difference between what you say as a satirist and what you do as a senator. And as a senator, Norm Coleman has disrespected the people of Minnesota by putting the Exxons and Halliburtons ahead of working families. And there's nothing funny about that.”
Franken’s former home base SNL received harsh criticism during the campaign season for allowing Trump to host an episode in the middle of his campaign, but even as Saturday Night Live’s coverage has swung back to critical satire, our political reality has slipped so fluidly into the logic of comedy that jokes can’t function as a force to destabilize power. Trump’s unwillingness to engage seriously with his own past has cast us all into some kind of postmodern hellscape where former SNL cast member Jimmy Fallon can get laughs for ruffling Trump’s hair even as the reality star marches his way toward the real-world dismantling of health care, defunding of programs supporting education, and the possible destruction of the Earth through nuclear fallout.
Of course, Franken can’t just push a button and remove the record of his comedy days — like tweets, celebrity stays in the collective memory forever. But without the ability to entirely deconstruct the media singularity, the least you can do as a celebrity moving into politics is not confuse us into thinking government is funny. Government — when it’s functioning properly — is boring as hell. When news stations start reporting a profit thanks to the insane entertainment value of our political candidates, that’s when you know we’re headed for disaster. Conservatives are trying to convince the world that giving up a business is too much of a sacrifice for a president to bear, but Al Franken sacrificed his whole fucking (public) personality for a seat in the Senate. So thank you, Senator Franken, and for my inconveniently long memory, I’m sorry.