Al Franken Returns With a One-Man Show About His Time in the Senate

The comedian-turned-politician on current affairs, his former colleagues and his return to the stage

October 7, 2021 7:31 am
Al Franken
Al Franken is currently in the midst of his "The Only US Senator Currently On Tour Tour."
Bryan Bedder / Stringer

Al Franken is giving no more than a half inch on the two things inquiring American minds want to know most about him, lest they strive to take a mile. 

How does the former Democratic U.S. Senator reflect upon the allegations of sexual misconduct against him? He recently repeated a broad, sterile statement on the subject to the Minnesota Star Tribune: “If I offended anyone, that was never my intention. But I’m sorry if I did.” 

And on the question of whether or not he’ll run for office again, he recently told the New York Times, “I’m keeping my options open.”

Between those poles, however, Al Franken’s saying a lot. 

In a new, hour-long one-man show dubbed “The Only U.S. Senator Currently on Tour Tour,” Franken twirls colorful yarns about his childhood, his work on Saturday Night Live and his time in the Senate, jabbing at one-time peers from his side of the aisle and reserving haymakers for those across it. 

“I want to give people a taste of what it’s like there, and in doing that, you’re dealing with human beings and their strengths and their weaknesses, like anywhere,” Franken tells InsideHook. In his estimation, the Senate is “a peculiar place in many ways,” but also “a place where you can accomplish things.”

Characterized first and foremost by Franken as a comedy show, the performance sees him delivering a blow to one noted Republican Senator that goes a little something like this: “I probably like Ted Cruz more than most of my colleagues like Ted Cruz, and I hate Ted Cruz!” 

Fraken tells InsideHook the Texan has “a pernicious existence” in government, and adds: “What’s so weird about him is he’s smart in a Princeton-debator or Harvard-law-student [way], but in interpersonal relationships? Horrible.”

Franken tells a story during his show about how Cruz once flatly denied that he’d uttered a phrase of conspicuously specific vocabulary to Franken just the day before. The tale — with a punchline Franken preemptively points out to the audience, to keep things at least vaguely comedic in the face of horrifying behavior from high-ranking senators — serves to expose Cruz’s shameless love affair with lies.

“And it’s clear from the moment he got there, what he wanted to do was be President,” says Franken, perhaps previewing a gloomy return to an executive branch administration that’s proficient in misinformation.

In the performance — the first iteration of which was presented in six cities just before the pandemic arrived, and was more recently workshopped in New York comedy clubs — Franken also does an impression of former Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Republican from Kentucky. It’s as unflattering as it is spot-on. Satirizing McConnell’s speech after he’d voted to acquit President Trump on charges of inciting the January 6 insurrection, Franken outlines all the reasons he thinks Trump should have been found guilty — the conspiracy theories he advocated for in the run-up to the election, for example — before committing to the opposite conclusion. “Impeachment is a very drastic remedy,” Franken’s McConnell says, “a limited tool that should be reserved for presidents who’ve had extramarital sex.”

Franken makes fun of Democrats, too, including New York Senator Chuck Schumer and former Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill. They are targeted in a far more light-hearted manner, though. The setup starts in Franken’s early days in the Senate, when colleagues constantly asked him to tell a joke. Initially, he’d work clean on the hallowed Senate floor, but eventually went very blue in a gag about giving Willie Nelson a blowjob. By the end of the story, Schumer and McCaskill are humorlessly, and somewhat misguidedly, dissecting the joke. 

As an audience member, it’s bewildering to think these are the people chosen to represent common Americans in government, but through the lens of Franken it’s naturally the Democrats who are operating in at least better faith. (Both Schumer and McCaskill would go on to demand Franken’s resignation in 2017, after the sexual misconduct charges were levied against him by multiple women. Nine of the 35 Democratic Senators who asked him to step down have since said they regret doing so.) Franken tells InsideHook he’s still “rooting for” the Democratic party in their struggles against the GOP.

“I worked very hard to make sure that we were in the majority,” Franken says. “I have a political action committee and we [gave] money to Democrats, especially in the get-out-the-vote efforts.” 

He hopes Biden’s expensive “reconciliation bill” gets passed, paid for primarily by taxing the rich whose pockets have deepened during the pandemic

“I’m not saying we become Europe or become Sweden,” Franken says, referring to a more prevalent socialist approach to their federal spending programs, “but, man, there’s a lot we can learn from what they do, and there’s no reason not to.”

He’d also like to see the filibuster rule modified, with the burden to maintain one placed onto minority-party Senators, making them more difficult to uncork. 

Franken might not have fond memories of sitting though relentless filibusters, but he says he misses “a lot of stuff” about being in the Senate, “one of which is just trying to make a difference in people’s lives.”

Twelve years after seeing his PAWS Act bill pass the Senate, he says he was “very moved” when news broke in August that, finally, as the law intended, wounded war veterans living with PTSD would soon be getting access to spirit-lifting service dogs.   

Apparently, Franken fans should not mistake his tour (which stops tomorrow night in Dallas, technically part of Cruz country) and all its political messaging as a sneak preview of another campaign for office. He told the Times, “I’m not sure this is the best way to do that,” and, in addition to relaying tickling tales from the Senate, he says during my interview that the show also serves to explain how he got there in the first place. 

“People are always going, like, ‘What an odd thing that you’re doing this now after being Senator,’ and, ‘It was odd that you were a Senator after doing comedy for so many years,’ and to me it’s not that odd,” Franken says. “I try to give some idea of how that’s possible.”

When the U.S.S.R. launched Sputnik in 1957, Franken recalls during the show, his father sat him and his brother down and told them they must pour all their energy into defeating Russia by studying science and mathematics. (“I thought that was a lot of pressure to put on a six-year-old,” Franken quips in a more traditional punchline.)

So even though he “chose comedy over beating the Russians,” he tells me, he’s always been service-driven in some way.

Besides, a comedian as a Senator? No crazier than a reality TV star becoming President.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.