Al Franken talks 'SNL,' political career ahead of Palm Springs Speaks lecture series talk
Even though comedy writer and former “Saturday Night Live” cast member Al Franken wrote books about politics and hosted a political radio show, he never intended to run for the U.S. Senate in Minnesota — let alone win.
The 71-year-old said his friendship with the late Minnesota Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone, who died in a 2002 plane crash while running for a third term against Republican Norm Coleman, inspired him to run. Franken described Coleman, who succeeded Wellstone, as a “lapdog” for former president George W. Bush and was determined to run against him in 2008.
“Three months after (Coleman) took office, he was interviewed by a Capitol Hill newspaper and said he was a 99% improvement over Paul Wellstone. When he said that, I thought ‘I wonder who is going to run against him.’” Franken said in an interview with The Desert Sun. “(Coleman) was chairman of an oversight committee that was supposed to study waste, fraud and abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he didn’t do a single hearing about it either, so I was determined to beat him.”
Franken defeated Coleman in one of the closest elections in Senate history, beating him by 312 votes following an eight-month legal battle.
In 2017, Franken was embroiled in controversy after a photo taken during a 2006 USO tour surfaced of him holding his hands above model and radio personality Leann Tweeden’s breasts while she slept wearing body armor and a helmet. He said the entertainers were “goofing off with each other” by taking inappropriate photos that were intended to be a joke. Other women, including a congressional aide, came forward with accusations of inappropriate behavior.
He later resigned after leadership from both parties referred Tweeden's accusations to the Senate Ethics Committee.
“I didn’t mind living my life under the microscope until I got hit with this at the absolute worst moment. It was deliberate and a right-wing hit,” Franken said. “(Tweeden) went the whole nine yards and lied about it. Only one reporter looked at this thing and it was Jane Mayer, and if you read The New Yorker, you can see this was unbelievably unfair, but it happened at a time where it just freaked people out.”
Since Franken resigned, he moved back to New York, started the “Al Franken Podcast” and did a comedy tour last year.
Franken will appear on March 31 at the Richards Center for the Arts at Palm Springs High School as part of the Palm Springs Speaks lecture series.
Adding an important amendment to the Affordable Care Act
During Franken’s Senate career, he proposed legislation on issues he called “close to my heart,” such as getting veterans with PTSD matched with service animals, and adding an amendment to the Affordable Care Act that required health insurance companies to spend at least 80% of consumers’ premiums on actual health care.
“This has gotten billions of dollars back to people, but the important thing about that is it forced insurance companies to be more efficient. If you look at the insurance companies, the profit margins are somewhere in the 4% to 6% range.”
What is it like to go from a career performing and writing comedy to the U.S. Senate with an outsider’s perspective? Franken said each state’s two senators are all dealing with different economic issues. As he worked on the Affordable Care Act, he discovered one of Minnesota’s prominent industries was medical devices. Subsequently, he pushed to cut taxes for the manufacturers of those products.
“You don’t know what an organization is until you have to deal with it. But you learn quick and it becomes part of your culture. You think, ‘OK, this is how I get things done.’ It’s who you talk to to get a bill in Veterans’ Affairs, and who to persuade to get some budgeting for wind turbines. You learn your way around the place.”
During the 2010 midterm elections, the radicalism of the conservative Tea Party movement resonated with many Americans, and Republicans won majorities in the House of Representatives and U.S. Senate. Franken noticed some of the incoming Republicans were “very extreme,” and Donald Trump was able to further that same energy during his campaign to win the 2016 presidential election.
Following the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol after Trump lost the 2020 election to President Joe Biden, and as more video footage of the day is released under House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s leadership, Franken said the current state of the government is “a travesty and a joke.”
He’s concerned about issues such as the debt ceiling and Medicare and said Democrats are likely to take back the House of Representatives in the 2024 election because “I don’t think people like what they’re seeing.”
“A lot of the legislation (Republicans) are talking about, such as getting rid of Medicaid expansion, is crazy. Medicare expansion is extremely popular in red states. There are some red states that didn’t adopt it at the beginning and have it now like Idaho, Nebraska, Utah, Oklahoma and Missouri. It covers more people who need Medicaid and because it does that, these hospitals in rural areas where if someone without Medicaid came into their emergency rooms, the hospital had to eat the cost. Now Medicare pays for it and that means the hospitals in these rural areas have more money, more care and better equipment,” Franken said.
During Franken’s 15 seasons on "Saturday Night Live," he worked with legendary cast members such as Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Chris Rock. He said when he watches the show now as an “old fart,” he doesn’t recognize the music or the tone of sketches.
“I did a lot of satire with a guy named Jim Downey and we tried to have a kind of sophisticated political satire that rewarded people who were pretty sophisticated and knew what was going on, but didn’t punish people who didn’t. I watch the show now and that’s not their intention.”
When asked if he ever would revive his beloved character Stuart Smalley, an effeminate man who attends numerous support groups with a self-help show sharing positive affirmations, Franken said he still owns the wig and it could happen at some point if he finds the sky-blue cardigan sweater.
“There’s always a place for Stuart, and I haven’t done it in a long time. I’m not sure if young kids know the 12 steps (of Alcoholics Anonymous) anymore, they might need a little reminder on how to live life,” Franken said.
If you go
What: "An Evening with Al Franken"
When: 6 p.m., Friday, March 31
Where: Richards Center for the Arts, Palm Springs High School, 2248 Ramon Road, Palm Springs
How much: $35 to $175
More information: palmspringsspeaks.org
Desert Sun reporter Brian Blueskye covers arts and entertainment. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @bblueskye.
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Al Franken talks political career ahead of Palm Springs Speaks event