.Al Franken Comes to Santa Cruz

Returning to comedy after a political career and scandal, the former ‘SNL’ star takes on Tucker Carlson, Clarence Thomas and more.

Al Franken made his name as a writer and performer on the original Saturday Night Live in the ’70s and ’80s, and went on to establish himself as a leading critic of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. Born in New York, he moved as a boy with his family to Minnesota, where he started performing comedy routines in high school, along with a partner, Tom Davis. Franken and Davis teamed up as SNL writers from its 1975 debut onward, with Franken making his mark as a performer on the show via characters like Stuart Smalley.

Franken went on to author a string of books combining political satire and unapologetic left-wing views, including Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations, and was a talk show host on Air America before running for the U.S. Senate from Minnesota in 2008, and narrowly winning. 

Franken was re-elected in 2014, but resigned in 2018 after several women accused him of inappropriate conduct, including unwanted touching and kissing during photo shoots. Condemnation of Franken was widespread at the time, with his own Democratic colleagues in the Senate calling for him to resign. After he did so, however, there seemed to be a backlash to the backlash, with many of the senators who had demanded his resignation expressing regret at having done so. Franken said in a statement at the time that “I feel terribly that I’ve made some women feel badly, and for that I am so sorry, and I want to make sure that never happens again.” In his resignation speech, he said that while he felt acknowledging hurt he may have caused was the right thing to do, “because all women deserve to be heard, and their experiences taken seriously,” “I also think it gave some people the false impression that I was admitting to doing things that, in fact, I haven’t done.” He reiterated that he should have had the opportunity to defend himself against the allegations before the Senate Ethics Committee, as he had requested soon after the scandal broke.  

Is the country ready for Al Franken’s return? Clearly, to some degree, yes, as he now has a popular podcast. But a bigger test may be his current return to his comedy roots with a standup tour, which comes to the Civic this Friday, April 8. 

The idea for the tour started as a lark, Franken told Good Times. “I’m a comedian, right?” he said. “But I never did standup, really, as a single, and I really admire and love great standup.” In 2021, he started showing up at the Comedy Cellar in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and “working on an act.” For his Santa Cruz show, he’ll perform standup and answer audience questions. While he has yet to truly address the allegations or his resignation in interviews or on stage during this tour, telling the New York Times that to do so was a “no-win” situation, he did speak to GT about recent global events and how the right-wing media of which he was once a leading critic has evolved. 

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The world has been struck by events in Ukraine, watching Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedian who got into politics in a highly unlikely way, stand up to Russian brutality with courage and defiance. For you as a comedian who also got into politics, what has it been like watching Zelensky? When did you first become aware of him?

AL FRANKEN: I was aware of him when he became president as a former comedian. He had done a TV show about a high-school history teacher who goes on a tirade about corruption, and puts it online or something. Then everyone follows him and he becomes president. I’ve heard ideas like that float around for years, where someone just goes nuts, it gets online, and then suddenly everyone wants him to be president. That was what happened to Zelensky.

Everybody always would say, “Wow! That’s really weird, because he’s a comedian.”

I’d go, “Well, is it?” I was very aware of him, and Frank Foer, who has family from Ukraine, actually wanted me to come to Ukraine with him, and do an interview with Zelensky.

How do you think he’s done during this crisis?

He’s done magnificently. Having been a performer is really beneficial in government. It’s not faking something, it’s just being effective. Zelensky knows what he is doing when he is communicating, and he knows how to do it. Before this happened, he wasn’t terribly popular. He was having some problems with a couple things. He certainly rose to this occasion. I think he’s the guy who’s going to put an end to Putin.

What do you make of Tucker Carlson and his antics on Fox News?

I think he’s a smart guy, and a talented guy. I think that makes it all the worse. He knows exactly what he’s doing. I don’t know what his motivation is. I guess it’s a typical one: money and power. It’s disgusting. He has this very common thing of doing, “What is this really about?” Then he proceeds to tell people exactly what it isn’t about, like basically, “I’m just asking a question,” and then he asks questions. He goes, “Why won’t they tell us if the vaccine is safe?”

Well, no. They tell you all the time it’s safe. Or “Why won’t they tell us if it’s effective?” No. They tell you all the time it’s effective. You’re not just asking questions. You’re lying. He has this thing which is maddening because his audience doesn’t watch anything else, I guess. They’re getting their information delivered to them by him, and he is lying to them. That’s what Fox News does.

I wrote Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right back in 2003, and they haven’t stopped. If anything, they just got worse. Rush Limbaugh didn’t stop until he died [in February 2021]. Basically, what I was saying at the time was that the right-wing is putting out this information and it’s very dangerous. I don’t know what happened with that idea.

Does it take the sharpness of humor to break through that? Why does so much media coverage fall into the trap of treating both sides the same?

I do think the media is very afraid. There’s all this false equivalence. Sometimes they’ll say, “Well, one side says the earth is round like this cantaloupe, and the other side says it’s round like this plate. Both have good points.” And you say, “What? Come on, you guys, really?” They are often caught in this false equivalence now. There is no equivalence. I talk in my act about how they’re very invested in not getting jokes, the media. I give a number of examples of that. It’s too bad that the media sometimes is just a little bit lamer than it should be—no, very much lamer than it should be.

Have you been following the Congressional investigation into the storming of the U.S. Capitol last January 6 to try to overthrow the results of the 2020 Presidential election? Do you think the committee will be able to break through the noise at all?

Well, that’s the question. The testimony they’ve gotten is a start. I can’t wait till they have hearings, first of all [planned for June and July]. Secondly, I can’t wait until we see more and more of the evidence they’ve gathered. They did make a filing that included some of the interviews, questioning with people close to Trump who were basically saying he knew he lost the election. It was very clearly explained to him. They told him many times. This is going to be very interesting, because they’re going to be presenting real proof that this was a plot to overthrow the government. That’s what it was. There isn’t much worse than that you can do.

The question will be: what will (Attorney General Merrick) Garland do? I think Garland should just appoint a special prosecutor. We had one in Watergate, Archibald Cox. It takes it out of (Garland’s) hands. He should get somebody who is respected, and neutral. I hope that happens. I hope Garland takes action.

It’s all fraught with “My God, you’re going after the former president, actually prosecuting him, and pursuing a penalty for that as well as potentially prison.” If you put the former president in prison, do we look like a banana republic? Well, he tried to turn us into a banana republic. And it would be a banana republic if we had let him. On the other hand, you actually don’t want a civil war—a shooting war—with these nut cases who stormed the Capitol, people who have automatic weapons or semiautomatic weapons. But you’ve got to pursue the law. That’s what we’re about. That’s what the country is about.

Rolling Stone has reported that apparently Trump and many people close to him were all using burner phones on January 6. And Bob Woodward and Robert Costa had a major exclusive in the Washington Post reporting on Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, sending highly inflammatory texts to Trump’s Chief of Staff, Mark Meadows. But will it be dramatic on television during the hearings? You can’t really show a text on a screen, and expect it to be that dramatic or can you?

Well, that’s the thing. Remember we were talking about Zelensky and performance. That’s part of the job of a committee member. That’s why you want someone not Jerry Nadler asking that question. You want someone who’s really going to bring that home, and be able to do that. It might be [Jamie] Raskin.

Franken at a Pride celebration in Minneapolis in 2017. 

Do you think Ginni Thomas’ open political activism for extreme right-wing causes is a national scandal?

It is. Also, the fact that Clarence Thomas was the only dissenting vote on releasing those Trump White House documents from the National Archive. He refused to recuse himself from that. That’s unconscionable. “And by the way, my wife went to the ‘Stop the Steal’ rally at the Capitol.” “Did she tell you?” “Yeah.”

What was the political importance of the Ginni Thomas texts to Meadows?

Well, of course the Supreme Court is self-regulating. The other eight Supreme Court Justices can’t just say, “Clarence, you’ve got to go.” It would have to be him deciding, “I’ve got to go,” and he’s not going to do that. What will the effect be? More outrage on top of the outrage. It’ll be felt mainly by people who get outraged about this stuff who are the same people who care about democracy, and the Constitution, and the country, and probably won’t affect that much.

John Roberts would have to find a way to deal with the situation, but maybe that’s too optimistic.

I think you’re more of an optimist than I am. John Roberts has fallen down a lot. Why doesn’t John Roberts go, “You know what? Shelby County was wrongly decided. It’s clear.” Isn’t that clear? Wasn’t Ruth Bader Ginsburg right in her dissent? [She wrote that undermining the Voting Rights Act “when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”] It’s like throwing away your umbrella. That’s what they did. Immediately North Carolina did what they did, and the Fourth Circuit said they’re targeting African Americans with almost surgical precision. How is that not saying, “Oh, OK, we’ve got to restore pre-clearance right now”? How does Roberts not say that? That’s what happened, and is what is continuing to happen. Roberts to me is very crafty, but he’s not a good guy.

Would you run for office again?

Well, I would have to discuss it with my family. I would have to think about where to run. I would have to figure out what would I be getting into, even if I won … I think it all hinges on whether my wife will let me get a dog.

Would you consider it?

I haven’t ruled it out.

Do you think Trump is running for President again in 2024?

I think he is. And as of right now, I think we don’t know how it will turn out for him. I keep thinking that him saying that what Putin did in Ukraine was genius would hurt him. Then I went, “No, Al, come on.” I thought it was the end of him when he took a shot at John McCain, a former P.O.W. in Vietnam, by saying, “I like people who weren’t captured.” With him, I don’t understand it, but I think if he runs, and wants it, he is the prohibitive favorite.

There’s something sui generis about him. He somehow embodies the sort of Mussolini figure that people coalesce behind because of charisma or something, whatever it is. I don’t see it, but Republicans sure do.

What do you think it would take on the Democratic side to beat him? Do you want Joe Biden to run again?

Well, that will be up to Joe, how he feels. I think he’s handled [standing up to Putin] really well. I think the way he assembled this coalition—he did so many great crafty things in this, one of which was he took a risk, and he released our intelligence. That carries with it a couple risks: one that they’re fooling us, that we’re getting intelligence that isn’t true, that they are deliberately putting out there that is fake. They’re going to attack. But he put it out there. And two, you’re jeopardizing the people who are getting us the intelligence. But the reason for putting that out was to tell our allies, to tell Europeans, that he’s going to do this, and that gave us time. You don’t put sanctions together in a week. It gave him time to put these very comprehensive sanctions together that could kick in right away. 

He didn’t threaten anything that he wasn’t willing to do. I think he has his own personal style of diplomacy. A lot of people said, “Well, why don’t you threaten him more?” He goes, “Well, I don’t want to.” His style is he doesn’t want to threaten something he’s not going to do. He thinks his credibility counts.

I think he’s done this beautifully. The American people seem to be behind him on this. I’ll be curious. I don’t know how this is going to play out. It’s a terrible, terrible tragedy.

I’d like to see us—I’m sure the Russians won’t accept this—but just say, “Look, we would like to send in food, and medical supplies, and have a safe route to do that.” It could be NATO. We could say: We’re not going to fight. We’ll protect ourselves if attacked, but this is not offensive, this is just to get people humanitarian aid. If the Russians turn it down, that’s just another piece of evidence, as is if we need it, of who they are. But if they don’t turn it down, then we can help people.

My heart is really heavy. This is horrible. This is horrible, and yet we don’t have the option of enforcing a no-fly zone. We don’t, because the guy has played the madman theory. Putin certainly makes that point.

Pulse Productions presents “An Evening with Al Franken” at 8pm on Friday, April 8 at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St. in Santa Cruz. Tickets are $34.90-$77.90, available at santacruztickets.com. This show was rescheduled from an earlier February date that was postponed due to Covid. Tickets purchased for the original date will be honored. 

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