Al Franken: From SNL nerd to crucial U.S. senator
Published Monday, July 6, 2009 3:15PM EDT
WASHINGTON - Al Franken was once best known as Stuart Smalley, a mincing self-help victim in a powder-blue cardigan who spoke of shame spirals, stinkin' thinkin' and often reassured himself: "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough and doggone it, people like me."
On Monday, the man behind that memorable "Saturday Night Live" character was finally sworn in as a Democratic senator -- and not just any senator.
Franken will be the 60th vote in the Democratic caucus, giving the party the three-fifths majority it needs to break filibusters -- and doggone it, Democrats like him for it.
"A lot has been made of this No. 60," a solemn Franken acknowledged on after his swearing-in.
"The number I am focusing on is No. 2. I see myself as the second senator from the state of Minnesota ... I am going to work day and night to make sure that our kids have a great future and that America's best days lay ahead. I am ready to get to work."
Franken's path to Capitol Hill was cleared last week when the Minnesota Supreme Court ratified multiple recounts to give him a 312-vote victory over incumbent Norm Coleman.
The ruling came after an eight-month, US$11 million legal battle between the Franken and Coleman camps.
The former satirist's career has been characterized by no small amount of tenacity in the face of adversity as he moved from "SNL" writer and performer to a liberal commentator who cheekily took on Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.
The 58-year-old native Minnesotan's association as a writer and performer on "Saturday Night Live" spanned almost 20 years, off and on from 1975 to 1995, netting him three Emmy awards for writing and producing.
He left the show once after mocking NBC president Fred Silverman in a skit, and then for good in 1995 in protest that Canadian Norm Macdonald got the "Weekend Update" anchor spot on the popular "SNL" newscast instead of him.
From there, Franken's career moved in a different direction -- that of a popular author who had three books reach the No. 1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list, including "Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations."
His 2003 book, "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right" lead to a court battle with Fox News, which claimed copyright infringement of its trademark phrase "Fair and Balanced."
A federal judge found the lawsuit to be "wholly without merit," and Franken said the legal brouhaha resulted in a surge in sales for his book.
Franken also dabbled in talk radio, hosting a show he originally wanted to call "The O'Franken Factor" -- a diss at Bill O'Reilly, the combustible Fox News personality whose show is called "The O'Reilly Factor." "The Al Franken Show" aired on Air America Radio for three years.
Franken's last show was in February 2007, when he announced his intention to run for the Senate.
Since then, there's been no sign of the joker who once appeared on the 1970s "Solid Gold" dance show and did a killer imitation of Mick Jagger, or even a fleeting resurrection of Smalley, who returned to "SNL" in 2002 to interview Al Gore.
"Al? Tipper gave me this picture that she took about three months after the election. Now ... I think it's pretty clear that you were in a humongous shame spiral," Smalley told Gore of his weight gain.
Indeed, Franken has been all business since entering politics, focusing on health care, education and energy in his brief remarks at his swearing-in on Monday.
There seems little chance Franken might show up on Capitol Hill in a pale-blue cardigan urging his Senate colleagues to "trace it, face it and erase it."
One of the first people he turned to when preparing for his potential new role as senator was Tamara Luzzatto, who was Hillary Clinton's chief of staff when the secretary of state was a senator.
"A number of people have told me to study the Hillary model of being a senator," Franken once said. "Put your head down and do the work."
Paul Krugman, a columnist at the New York Times, says Franken's political persona is going to come as a surprise to those who guffawed at Stuart Smalley or enjoyed the acerbically witty observations contained in Franken's books.
"I used to go on Franken's radio show, all ready to be jocular -- and what he wanted to talk about was the arithmetic of social security, or the structure of Medicare Part D," Krugman wrote recently.
"In fact, the only elected official I know who's wonkier than Al Franken is Rush Holt, my congressman -- and he used to be the assistant director of Princeton's plasma physics lab ... so what will Franken do to the level of Senate discourse? He'll raise it."