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07.01.09

How Cool Is Franken?

Not only does Al Franken’s hard-fought victory give Democrats a magical 60 seats, it gives the Senate its first genuinely funny ex-comedian. Eric Alterman shares memories of his friend and former neighbor.

Senator Franken? As long as it has taken, it’s still pretty hard to believe my friend and former neighbor is due to be sworn in early next week. He’ll be “Senator Franken” to the press and the lobbyists, and “my distinguished colleague” to the rest of that esteemed body. But as for the rest of us, I think we can safely call him “Al.”

The Al Franken/Norm Coleman saga is finally over. Three million or so votes decided by a difference of approximately 300. And with a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the Senate—including the switched-parties-for-personal-political-survival Arlen Specter, now Obama doesn’t have to play “Mr. Nice Guy” with the GOP. For if Al Franken is anything, he is a reliable vote for Barack Obama, and that, given the Republicans’ willingness to filibuster anything and everything they don’t like, is a game changer.

Is there any precedent for a person as cool as Franken becoming a U.S. senator? OK, he looks like a nerd, but he was a genuinely funny comedian, and this has never happened before.

Is there any precedent for a person as cool as Franken becoming a U.S. senator? OK, he looks like a nerd, and he worked like hell not only to educate himself on the issues but to take the entire crazy process of running for office as seriously as is humanly possible. But face it, he was a genuinely funny comedian, and this has never happened before.

One of his jokes—told in the guise of a brain-damaged guy, has been one of my stock lines every time the check arrives at a restaurant: “Hear about the mohel who did circumcisions for free? He only took tips…”

Franken suggested I retire that line about a decade ago, but I haven’t, and now my family fears I never will. It’s not for nothing that literally nobody in the U.S. Senate has a reputation for quick wit. (It’s one reason Barney Frank has had to remain a congressman all this time.)

How cool is Al Franken? Five years ago, I drove to Jones Beach to see the post-Jerry Garcia Grateful Dead in the pouring rain. It was idiotic, except that I ran into Franken and his wife, Frannie, and their daughter. We went backstage to talk to the band and they got us out of the rain and put us on the stage instead.

Franken was just thinking about running back then. He had been inspired by the loss of his friend, Paul Wellstone—perhaps the most progressive senator of all time—and the fact that though he lived off Riverside Drive, he retained a deep connection to Minnesota.

When I asked Franken how he planned to handle the carpetbagger issue, he said he could argue that, unlike Coleman, he was the New York Jew in the race who had actually grown up as a Minnesotan. He also confided that when Alan Keyes made his Illinois Senate race against a fellow with the funny name of Barack Hussein Obama, Franken got a tip that Coleman would be appearing on The Daily Show, so he called Jon Stewart and asked him to ask Coleman if he would vote for Keyes, whose carpetbaggery was so shameless as to be transparent.

Coleman took the bait, and Franken figured he had put aside the issue for good. And who knows, 300 votes—it could have been anything.

Franken’s work on Saturday Night Live would have sunk any less-determined man. Hell, so would the fact that Franken—a former wrestler—jumped Lyndon LaRoucheite who was heckling Howard Dean in New Hampshire in 2004 and wrestled him to the ground—from the press section. (“I got down low and took his legs out,” said Franken afterward. One might be tempted to say such behavior is not very Minnesotan, until one recalls that this is state that has produced not only the sainted Mr. Wellstone but also Michelle Bachmann.

Few of us will be sorry to see the back of Coleman, who managed to earn a place on CREW’s list of most corrupt members of Congress, which is no easy task. (Also, he used to have a really bad haircut, even compared with today’s.)

The dude complained on Election Night that Al Franken was letting down Minnesota with his unconscionable delay in conceding the election. He issued a victory statement before the votes were even close to being counted. He argued that votes should count in his favor even when they were proven to be forgeries. And sources close to Minnesota tell me he can’t tell a joke worth a damn.

Republicans were already feeling unloved. “In the beginning,” Democrats “seemed a lot more willing to go in and engage with us,” whines House Minority Whip Eric Cantor. Indeed, Obama doesn’t woo them the way he did during the fight over the stimulus, when he practically moved in with Susan Collins when he wasn’t charming Olympia Snowe. Well get used to it, guys.

Xtra Insight: The Daily Beast's Benjamin Sarlin: Franken Is the Right's New Punching Bag

Eric Alterman is a professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and a professor of journalism at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author, most recently, of Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Important Ideals.