Al Franken performs at Suffolk Theater on July 24. COURTESY SUFFOLK THEATER
An image from the documentary “Al Franken: God Spoke.” Franken and filmmakers Chris Hegedus and Nick Doob will take part in a conversation after a June 4 screening of the film at Sag Harbor Cinema. COURTESY SAG HARBOR CINEMA
An image from the documentary “Al Franken: God Spoke.” Franken and filmmakers Chris Hegedus and Nick Doob took part in a conversation after a June 4 screening of the film at Sag Harbor Cinema. COURTESY SAG HARBOR CINEMA
Al Franken, one of the original writers for "Saturday Night Live," won five Emmys for writing and producing during his 15 seasons with the show. Franken, a Democrat, also served Minnesota as a U.S. senator from 2009-2018 and among the legislation passed during his tenure was the Affordable Care Act.
Then in 2017, Leeann Tweeden, a conservative talk-radio host, accused Franken of forcing a kiss on her during a 2006 U.S.O. tour. More accusations followed. Though Franken asked for a Senate Ethics Committee hearing to investigate the matter, none took place and he was pressured to resign, including by many in his own party. He has regretted that decision ever since. For the record, Franken maintains he did nothing wrong and he encourages people to read “The Case of Al Franken,” Jane Mayer’s 2019 account in the New Yorker, which takes a close look at the accusations made against him.
But just because he’s not serving in public office anymore doesn’t mean Al Franken is laying low or has disappeared. In early June, he came to the Sag Harbor Cinema for a special screening of “Al Franken: God Spoke,” a 2006 documentary that maps his path from comedian to politician, and took part in a discussion about the film with its directors Chris Hegedus and Nick Doob.
Since last fall, Franken has been crisscrossing the country performing his one-man show “The Only Former U.S. Senator Currently On Tour Tour.” On July 24, Franken brings the tour to Suffolk Theater in Riverhead and earlier this week, took time out to talk about the show and the state of U.S. politics these days.
Q: What drove you to create this performance and take it out on tour?
“At a certain point after I left the Senate people asked me to do speeches. So I did six, seven or eight shows right before the pandemic. The last one was the day before everything shut down when no one could do anything anymore.
“What I was doing was going to a podium, I had notes, but it was satire and political stuff — this was during the primaries for 2020, so there was a lot of stuff about that and Trump, but also, my time with the Senate. Two thirds of it was funny — it was comedy and getting laughs. I said well, I was in a comedy team, part of Franken and Davis, for 20 some years, and we used to tour and it was tremendous fun.
“As the pandemic hits, I’m going like, ‘Well, this will be over soon. I don’t need the notes. But then it lasted, so I relocated to D.C. — I have grandkids, and we got a place there deliberately a few blocks from our daughter and her family and spent eight months in their bubble. We were amazingly lucky as grandparents. Then they moved. I have other grandchildren in New York City, so we moved here. A number of friends said to check out the Comedy Cellar. So I decided to work up an act. I had a lot of material and started going down there and performing it behind Plexiglass. Then they booked me in Northampton, Mass. last fall. I did it there and that’s how it started.”
Q: Does the content of your show change depending on what’s happening in the current news cycle?
“Yes, I’m doing something new on the January 6 hearings, stuff on Ukraine and I’m doing stuff on the Roe V. Wade decision, of course.”
Q: It seems like these are particularly dark days for democracy. What’s your take on that?
“There’s a reason you say that. There have been some decisions in the last Supreme Court term that were particularly troublesome. Part of this is Roe, part is this is the court — five justices were picked by presidents who lost the popular vote — and Merrick Garland did not get in because the Republicans said you can’t confirm a Supreme Court justice during an election year. Then Coney Barret gets in right before the election, so it’s two justices stolen, and blocked by Republicans. So it’s the Electoral College, the Supreme Court, all the stuff is becoming more stark and we’re realizing that this is how our system works. Also, nothing can get done. The court’s decision on the EPA bodes ill for other decisions. They want to make it impossible for agencies to do stuff.
“This case they took at the end of the term — the North Carolina case about the independent state legislature doctrine — is extremely dangerous. Four justices already said they’re open to considering this decision which would give state legislatures the power to say who won the election. Republicans control 30 state legislatures, including Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. They’re gerrymandered to death and the court won’t rule on gerrymandering. It is very frightening. Then there's Shelby County decision which got rid of voting rights and also the terrible Citizen’s United decision.”
Q: As you’ve traveled the country with this show, what have you learned about where Americans beliefs and loyalties lie?
“I get asked this question a lot – I learn almost nothing about where this country is. The people who come see me, come see me. You can learn a lot about people but not by doing my show. I do things like go to Veteran’s events, or if I’m in Minnesota, sometimes I’ll do a political thing where I’m in a red part of the state and talk to people – but my show is just populated by people who like me.”
Q: What has changed in the years since your departure from the Senate?
“The MAGA people and the Republicans.”
Q: Given how much bad behavior there is in D.C. these days, do you regret not doing more to fight the sexual misconduct allegations and hang on to your Senate seat?
“Essentially, I was given no choice, although I still regret it. In retrospect, it was a horrible experience and traumatizing.”
Q: Any chance you’ll be seeking public office again anytime soon?
“I have no immediate plans to do that, but I’ll keep it open as a possibility.”
Q: What have you learned about yourself and the way this country and its politicians function since you left the Senate?
“I got there in ’09, and I remember the first day I was talking to some of the older guys, and they were saying it’s never been worse. [Michigan Senator] Carl Levin said, ‘It’s been worse.’ I said, ‘When?’ He said, ‘1856, Charles Sumner getting caned.’ I said, ‘That was the lead up to the Civil War.’ But it got worse and worse and worse. That year we had 60 Democratic Senators and passed the Affordable Care Act. That was huge and there was some other stuff we got done I’m proud of. Then we had a bad midterm in ’10, with lots of Tea Party house members getting in. In ’12 we won, but were losing Senate seats. In ’14 we lost the Senate, then in ’16 Trump was elected and now they had all three branches. Now it’s a 50/50 Senate and they can’t get anything done. “
Q: Do you think we’re looking at another Civil War?
“[Author] Malcolm Nance, who I just had on my podcast, thinks so. “
Q: Oh, I just heard that podcast. Nance’s new book is ‘They Want to Kill Americans: The Militias, Terrorists, and Deranged Ideology of the Trump Insurgency.”
“It is a scary book and interview. What I worry about is the small little insurgencies, the people that are hiding in the mountains. That is not impossible with some of these groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers. Malcolm said they’re buying up ammunition and reselling it. The scary thing is, he’s absolutely right about what Republicans were doing in ‘16 with the election and he called it.”
Q: Are there any bright spots to look forward to here?
“Comedy is one. But it’s not the way out of it. The way out is to win elections and keep fighting. It’s elections and trying to win state legislatures all over. Elect secretaries of state in Wisconsin and Michigan and hopefully win.”
Suffolk Theater presents “Al Franken: The Only Former U.S. Senator Currently On Tour Tour” on Sunday, July 24 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $45 to $69 at SuffolkTheater.com. Suffolk Theater is at 118 East Main Street, Riverhead.
One fine body…