Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Al Franken's image rehab tour finds a sympathetic ear in Conan O'Brien

Al Franken, Conan O’Brien
Screenshot: Conan

If you were watching some of Al Franken’s deliberately off-putting early SNL comedy and someone said you were looking at a future U.S. Senator, you might have scoffed. After all, Franken and comedy partner Tom Davis once famously wrote a sketch where his elderly Jewish parents were to come on stage in concentration camp uniforms while he berated them dressed as a Nazi. (Cutting the sketch, Lorne Michaels reportedly wheeled on Franken, ordering to never put him in the position of cutting Franken’s parents from the show again.) However, if your future visitor had told you that Franken was to become a disgraced U.S. Senator after allegations surfaced of inappropriate behavior—including a smirking photo of him making a decidedly Belushi-esque gesture to a sleeping woman—then that might have rung a little truer.

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Still, the long, improbable life of Al Franken did include a long and quite distinguished career as a Senator from Minnesota, his infamous wit making him a terror to prevaricating, stonewalling, or farcically unqualified figures attempting to sneak through a Senate hearing. His 2018 resignation from the Senate was a contentious and controversial one, with the various facts, conjectures, and regrets (from Franken and several of his Senate colleagues) broken down in a pretty darn comprehensive recent New Yorker profile by Jane Mayer. Still, Al Franken is no longer a Senator, and has been testing the waters of a return to public life, with his highest-profile interview yet taking place on Thursday’s Conan.

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O’Brien, himself a comedy legend and former SNL writing superstar, was uncharacteristically subdued as he broached the subject of the allegations against Franken and Franken’s choice to step down from his seat rather than go through the formal ethics investigation he wanted. “They believe I deserved due process, and I believed that, too,” said Franken of the now eight current and former Senate colleagues who’ve come out to publicly regret their part in urging Franken to resign. “To get a U.S. Senator to admit that they made a mistake is hard,” he elaborated wryly. As to his own mistakes, Franken maintains his innocence, proclaiming, “I’m not that guy,” while telling O’Brien, “After all these allegations came in I thought, well, I must be doing something wrong,” and noting that he has become “a lot more mindful of my interactions with everyone.” (Again, Mayer’s New Yorker piece is a good place to start for anyone looking for a way through the whole tangled, dispiriting mess.) Asked by O’Brien why then he resigned rather than go through the ethics process, Franken, pointedly saying “I don’t want to name any names,” yet clearly pointed a finger at those colleagues (led at the time by current presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand) who he claims left him no choice. Calling it “an untenable position” at the time, Franken stated, “There was no good choices.”

As to his future, Franken reiterated the line from his resignation speech that he was giving up his seat but not his voice, starting with an upcoming radio show on SiriusXM. (He’s also slated to do O’Brien’s podcast soon.) Franken was characteristically blunt about the current state of affairs in America, running down the latest thoroughly impeachable behavior by Donald Trump, including, as Franken put it, the “unbelievable” revelation of Trump blackmailing a foreign power to help him win a U.S. election. “What, you can’t bribe a foreign power to get dirt on your opponent?,” mocked Franken in Trump’s voice, and noting that there was already plenty in the Mueller Report that any functioning democracy would have acted upon. Referring back to Franken’s role in forcing former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from the Trump-Russia investigation by catching Sessions lying under oath, Franken noted that, yes, he does get frustrated at no longer being in a position to do the same with, say, Sessions’ perhaps even more duplicitous successor, William Barr. (Although Kamala Harris has performed the role of lie-catcher quite ably in Franken’s absence.) Admitting to O’Brien that he has emailed Senate colleagues with strategic question advice during hearings, Franken was clearly rueful about being unable to so directly participate in the body he resigned from under a cloud of scandal.

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Dennis Perkins

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.