By Al Franken
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“Flips the classic born-in-a-shack rise to political office tale on its head. I skipped meals to read this book – also unusual – because every page was funny. It made me deliriously happy.” — Louise Erdrich, The New York Times This is a book about an unlikely campaign that had an even more improbable ending: the closest outcome in history and an unprecedented eight-month recount saga, which is pretty funny in retrospect. It’s a book about what happens when the nation’s foremost progressive satirist gets a chance to serve in the United States Senate and, defying the low expectations of the pundit class, actually turns out to be good at it. It’s a book about our deeply polarized, frequently depressing, occasionally inspiring political culture, written from inside the belly of the beast. In this candid personal memoir, the honorable gentleman from Minnesota takes his army of loyal fans along with him from Saturday Night Live to the campaign trail, inside the halls of Congress, and behind the scenes of some of the most dramatic and/or hilarious moments of his new career in politics. Has Al Franken become a true Giant of the Senate? Franken asks readers to decide for themselves.
An Optimist's Guide to Politics
In the eight years since I came to Washington, probably the question I've been asked more than any other is some version of this: "Is being a United States senator as much fun as working on Saturday Night Live?"
The answer has always been NO!!! Why would it be?
When people ask me my favorite moment from my fifteen seasons at SNL, I always tell them it's all the late Tuesday nights or very early Wednesday mornings when the show got written on the seventeenth floor of 30 Rock, when I was rolling on the floor laughing at a line that Dan Aykroyd or Gilda Radner or my partner Tom Davis just came up with or a character that Dana Carvey or Chris Farley just invented. Nothing could be more fun.
That said, I've always told people that representing my home state of Minnesota in the U.S. Senate is, without a doubt, the best job I've ever had. I get to wake up every morning and go to work on behalf of five and a half million people—taking their best ideas to Washington, fighting for what they need to make a better life, and improving their lives in real, tangible ways.
Which would often prompt them to ask, "Are you talking about the same U.S. Senate that is one of the two bodies in today's U.S. Congress? And isn't today's Congress just an unrelenting horror show?"
The answer is YES!!! Today's Congress is a polarized, dysfunctional body, rendered helpless by partisanship, more focused on scoring short-term political points than on solving our nation's urgent problems. In short, the Washington of the past decade has been awash in nincompoopery.USS*
And that was before Trump.
Watching Donald J. Trump take the oath of office to become the 45th president of the United States was perhaps the most depressing moment I've had since I entered politics, although that record has been repeatedly surpassed since January 20. The heartless and counterproductive Muslim ban; the barrage of racist and/or corrupt and/or unqualified staff appointments and Cabinet nominees; the unhinged tweets attacking anyone who opposes his agenda; the constant, constant, constant lying—Trump's presidency so far has been one shock to the system after another.
And while we're still finding out exactly how bad, and exactly what specific kind of bad, President Trump will be, it seems very likely that things in Washington are going to get worse before they get better.
Indeed, people have stopped asking me whether I'm having fun in my new career. These days, the question I get more than any other is some version of this: "What the hell do we do now?"
We're all going to have to figure out the answer together. But, as unpleasant as my job is going to be in the coming months and years, I'm still glad to have the chance to be part of the fight. And, really, while nobody could have prepared for the grim reality of a Trump presidency, when I look back at my own political journey, I can't help but feel like I'm as prepared as anyone could be for this moment.
This book is the story of that journey.
It's the story of a midwestern Jewish boy of humble roots (the first in his family to own a pasta maker) who, after a thirty-five-year career in comedy, moved back home to challenge an incumbent senator.* It's the story of how a satirist who had spent a good part of his career heaping scorn and ridicule upon conservative Republican officeholders developed a solid working relationship with (many of) his Republican colleagues. It's the story of how a novice politician learned not just how to win an election, but how to be good at serving in office: how to find common ground when possible, but also stand his ground when powerful interests come after the middle class. It's the story of how, after spending a lifetime learning how to be funny, I learned how not to be funny.
This book will be different from other books written by U.S. senators. For instance, I'm not going to write stuff like, "Mitch McConnell and I may disagree, but when we're off the clock, we're the best of friends—sometimes we go to dinner and Mitch will laugh so hard that milk shoots out of his nose." No, I'm not going to be writing clichés like that.
Instead, I'm going to tell you what it's really been like to go from writing political satire to actually being in politics. I'm going to tell you how Washington really works. And I'm going to tell you what I've learned about the direction of our country and our prospects for the future.
Is what I do more fun than Saturday Night Live? Not by a long shot. But this book will tell you why, despite all the hugely disheartening moments I've experienced since I got into politics, I still think I have the best job in the world (some days) and why, despite the rise of Trump, I'm still (kind of) optimistic about our future (most of the time [albeit certainly less than I was a few months ago]).
Why I'm a Democrat
I was born in the house I built myself with my own two hands.
I'm sorry. That's not true. I got that from my official Senate website. We really should change that.
Let me start over.
My dad, Joe Franken, was born in New York City in 1908. When he was sixteen years old, his dad, Otto, a German immigrant, died of tuberculosis. So Dad went to work and never ended up graduating from high school. In 1955, when I was four years old, Dad moved us from New Jersey out to a little town in southern Minnesota called Albert Lea to open a quilting factory.* The factory failed within two years, and our family moved up to St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis.
When I was a teenager, I asked Dad, "Why Albert Lea?"
"Well, your grandfather† wanted to open a factory in the Midwest. And the railroad went through Albert Lea."
"And why did the factory fail?"
"The railroad went through Albert Lea, but it wouldn't stop."
Dad wasn't a good businessman. But he was a great dad. And we were a very close family.
Most evenings, Mom, Dad, my brother, Owen, and I would sit together eating dinner on tray tables watching Huntley-Brinkley or Walter Cronkite. And because we grew up during the civil rights movement in the early '60s, we learned some important lessons while we did.
Civil rights, our parents taught us, are about basic justice. And when the news would be full of southern sheriffs turning firehoses, dogs, and nightsticks on demonstrators, my dad would point to the TV and he'd say in his gravelly New York voice, "No Jew can be for that!"
Until 1964, Dad had been a liberal Republican.* And Mom was a Democrat. I took after my dad, so until I was thirteen, I was a Republican, too.
But Dad switched parties when the Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater, a guy who had voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act.† LBJ was right when he told an aide that Democrats would lose the South for a generation when he signed that bill. But he got my dad. And, therefore, me.
In Minneapolis, Dad made a modest living as a printing salesman, and Mom supplemented our family's income by working as a real estate agent. The Frankens never struck it rich—I spent my Wonder Years in a two-bedroom, one-bath house. But I considered myself the luckiest kid in the world. Because I was. I was growing up middle-class in St. Louis Park, in Minnesota, and in America at the height of the middle class in America. I believed I could do anything I wanted (except possibly open a quilting factory—I had learned that lesson the hard way).
For most of my childhood, I thought I was going to be a scientist of some sort. When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, my parents, like the rest of America, were terrified. The Soviets had nuclear weapons and now were ahead of us in space. So my parents marched me and Owen into our living room, sat us down, and said, "You boys are going to study math and science so we can beat the Soviets!"
I thought that was a lot of pressure to put on a six-year-old. But Owen and I were obedient sons, so we studied math and science. And we were good at it. Owen was the first in our family to go to college. He went to MIT, graduating with a degree in physics, and then became a photographer.
I went to Harvard, and became a comedian. My poor parents.
But we still beat the Soviets. You're welcome.
I met my wife, Franni, during our first week of college. When our daughter, Thomasin, was six years old, her first-grade teacher assigned the kids to write about how their parents met. This was before parents met on Tinder (or Grindr, for that matter). I told her, "I met Mommy at a freshman mixer—that's a dance. And I saw her across the room, organizing a group of girls to leave. And I liked the way she was taking charge. Also, she was just beautiful. So I asked her to dance and we had a dance. And then I got her a ginger ale. And then I escorted her to her dorm and asked her for a date."
My daughter wrote it this way: "My dad asked my mom to dance, bought her a drink, and took her home."
Franni's family was not as lucky as mine. When Franni was eighteen months old, her father, a decorated World War II veteran, died in a one-car accident returning home from his shift at the paper mill near Portland, Maine. My mother-in-law, Fran,* was widowed at age twenty-nine with five little kids. The oldest, Kathy, was seven. The youngest, Bootsie, was three months old.
Fran heroically raised her kids on Social Security survivor benefits and her paycheck from working in the produce department of the nearby supermarket. Sometimes they had the heat cut off. Or the phone turned off. Sometimes—often—there wasn't enough to eat.
While my childhood could be fairly described as carefree, Franni's was almost entirely carefree-free. She started working at age eleven, and every penny went to keep her family above water.
But they made it. All four girls went to college on combinations of Pell Grants and scholarships. My brother-in-law went into the Coast Guard, where he became an electrical engineer.
When Bootsie was old enough to go to high school, Fran got herself a $300 GI loan to enroll at the University of Maine. She got three more loans and graduated with a teaching degree. Because she taught Title I kids—poor kids—all her loans were forgiven. Every member of Franni's family made it to the middle class. And they did it because of Social Security, Pell Grants, the GI Bill, and Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
They tell you in this country that you have to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. And we all believe that. But first you've got to have the boots. And the federal government gave Franni's family the boots.
When I think about the values that motivate me to this day—the values that brought me (in a very, very, extremely roundabout way) to politics—I think back to my childhood, and to Franni's. I think about the economic security that was the birthright of middle-class families like mine, and the opportunity that was available for families like Franni's who wanted to work their way up into the middle class.
That, as I wrote in this year's Senate Patriotic Essay Contest,* is what America means to me.
And that's how it's supposed to be for every kid in America. You're not supposed to have to be rich or lucky to have a chance to do great things. Opportunity is supposed to be for everyone.
And that's why I'm a Democrat.
You see, Democrats are still the party of civil rights (and with each passing year, Republicans seem less and less interested in competing for that title). But Democrats aren't just the party of equality for all—we're the party of opportunity for all. We're the ones who want to give people the boots. We're the ones who stand for the middle class and for those aspiring to it—not just because it's the fair thing to do, but because it's the smart thing to do. It's how our country has always worked best.
My friend and political hero Paul Wellstone, who once held the seat that I now hold in the United States Senate, had a great way of putting this. He said, "We all do better when we all do better."
So simple, so profound. "We all do better when we all do better." It's almost like a haiku, if I knew what a haiku was.
Which I don't.
How I Became a Comedian
I wrote my first show in second grade. One afternoon, the girls in Mrs. Morrison's class surprised the boys by presenting a little revue for us that we all considered very corny. It included, I swear, "I'm a Little Teapot."
So I got the boys together and we wrote a scathing parody of the girls' show. A few days later, we told Mrs. Morrison and the girls we had a surprise for them in the AV room. During the show, some of the girls cried.
Mrs. Morrison was a wonderful teacher, so she turned that sow's ear into a silk purse: "Why not have Alan write a show that the boys and girls can do together for your parents?" I have a vague memory of just one sketch for that show. It was a Civil War sketch where the joke was anachronisms. While nurses were attending to wounded soldiers, they all heard the news of Lincoln's assassination on the radio.
Not funny? I was SEVEN!
As much as Mom and Dad wanted me and Owen to go to college and win the Cold War, the fact that I chose to become a comedian had everything to do with them.
My mother was my first audience. She was a stay-at-home mom until I went to kindergarten, so when I was little, we'd spend the day together, and I'd love to make her laugh. This is a little embarrassing, but here it is. When I was three years old, Mom would have me do my impression of Jackie Gleason's signature "And away we go!" for company. My guess is there may be something not entirely healthy there, but I'll save that for my next book, The Sorrow and the Gavel: The Sad Inner Lives of U.S. Senators.
Dad loved comedy, and I loved watching it with him and Owen and Mom in the TV room. His absolute favorite was Buddy Hackett.
Now, Dad inhaled a pipe all his adult life. When I was a kid, if Dad got on a laughing jag, he'd start coughing at some point and inevitably end up coughing up phlegm into the clean, neatly pressed white handkerchief he always carried in his right front pocket. So if Johnny Carson said, "Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Buddy Hackett!" Mom would get up and leave the room. But the phlegm didn't bother me and Owen.
Throughout grade school and junior high, I continued to be a good student and something of a comedian. I wasn't the "class clown" so much as a sly, observational comic. If I found a teacher, like Mr. Knutsen in sixth grade, who dug my stuff, I'd play to the teacher. If I didn't like the teacher, like my eighth-grade civics teacher, also named Mr. Knutsen, I'd work the room at his expense. I think he sent me to stand in the hall about a dozen times during the school year.
After ninth grade, Mom and Dad threw me a curve. Owen was now at MIT, and was therefore the Franken family expert on college. He told my parents that the students at MIT were wonks and nerds, and that I should go to Harvard. Owen also said that I should switch out of the St. Louis Park public school system and go to Blake, a country day private school in an adjacent suburb, because the wonks and nerds at MIT who had gone to private school were better prepared.
I didn't hear about this conversation until years later. All I knew at the time was what Dad told me, which was, "You're going to take a test to go to a school for smart kids."
Ever obedient, I said, "Okay." A few days later, Dad drove me to the beautiful Blake campus, where I took the test.
A couple weeks later, Dad told me, "You passed the test to get into the school for smart kids."
I spent the next three years at Blake.* All in all, I had a pretty good experience, even if I was permanently scarred by going to an all-boys school. But, again, I'll save that for a heartwrenching chapter in The Sorrow and the Gavel, "Escape from the Cloakroom."
It turned out that there were a lot of really smart kids at Blake and some not so smart, kind of like St. Louis Park High School, where you didn't have to pay a lot of money, and could interact on a daily basis with members of the opposite sex during a crucial developmental period of your life. Still, I found my way.
Blake had all the elements of a British boarding school in a novel or movie, except we were just a bunch of goofy midwestern kids who went home at night. But the stuffy vestiges of an outdated model for schooling boys gave a number of us something to rebel against. Or, at the very least, to make fun of.
Tom Davis was a year behind me at Blake. I didn't meet him until he did an announcement with a group of other boys one morning in chapel. I don't remember what it was for—probably a meeting of the Glee Club or something. (I'm kicking myself for not taking notes during my childhood.) All I remember is thinking, "That guy's really funny!"
I made it a point to go up to Tom and introduce myself. The comedy team of Franken and Davis was born.
Chapel became our stage. We did announcements for practically every organization in school, borrowing moves from comics we both loved: Johnny Carson, Soupy Sales, Jack Benny, Peter Sellers, Woody Allen, the Smothers Brothers, George Carlin, Godfrey Cambridge, Bob Newhart, Richard Pryor, and Laurel and Hardy. We traded off being the straight man and the funny guy. We did a lot of physical comedy and threw in not-so-veiled barbs aimed at the school. But mainly we just did goofy stuff, like parodies of the hit movie Cool Hand Luke ("Anyone who doesn't go to homecoming spends a night in the box!").
We'd write in each other's basements. Well, in my house it was a basement. In Tom's house it was a finished family room. At the time, Tom's dad, Don Davis, was a handsome midlevel executive at 3M. Tom's beautiful, sweet mom, Jean Davis, the former Jean Johnson, had been the 1950 Queen of the Lakes. Besides Tom, Don and Jean Davis had another son, Bob, who was three years younger. So that was Don, Jean, Tom, and Bob.
Jean loved hearing me and Tom laughing from down in their finished basement. "Oh, you boys are so funny!" she'd say, and bring us some treats.
But as the middle '60s turned into the late '60s, things started getting tense around the Davis household. Don, as Tom himself described him in his memoir Thirty-Nine Years of Short-Term Memory Loss, was "a lifelong kneejerk Republican" and "the uptight son of an alcoholic." In fact, Don's father, Tom's grandfather, drank himself to death. As Tom grew his hair and discovered pot, rock and roll, and girls, all the ingredients were there for the classic Oedipal battle common to so many suburban baby boomers.
Don didn't like Franken and Davis one bit. So Tom started spending more and more time at my house. Once Tom returned to his home after a couple days with the Frankens to find a newspaper clipping taped to his bedroom wall. The headline:
STUDENT TAKES LSD, CUTS OFF OWN PENIS
Things were getting a little tense at school as well. Our chapel material got edgier, to the point where we were ruffling some feathers. So we turned our attention to pep fests that were parodies of pep fests—hanging the other team in effigy and repeatedly clubbing the dummy in the crotch with a baseball bat. The football coach, Mr. Mezzenga, seemed to like it, though I'm not sure he was taking it at the same ironic level that the team and the rest of the students were.*
Meanwhile, Tom and I discovered a comedy revue theater in Minneapolis called Dudley Riggs's Brave New Workshop. We saw actual adults onstage doing pretty much what we wanted to do—make audiences laugh.
We started hanging out at the Workshop, getting to know the performers and the impresario, Dudley Riggs, a former vaudevillian and circus performer. Dudley took a liking to us and suggested we come to an open stage night and do ten minutes. So we did.
We led off with a local newscast on the night of the day of World War III:
AL: Tragedy, death, catastrophe highlight tonight's news at ten! I'm Ray Thompson, substituting for the deceased Chet Newholm. And now with the weather, meteorologist Bob Carlson.
TOM: Well, don't grab those umbrellas just yet… temperatures up to six thousand degrees tonight. Winds gusting at five hundred miles per hour with occasional firestorms. Back to you, Ray.
AL: The stock market closed today—for good.
We got solid laughs, and Dudley told us he "saw sparks." By the summer we were doing one show a week at the Workshop. Also, we got paid! (A little.) Tom and I were professional comedians!
At the end of that summer I went off to college, still intent, I thought, on pursuing a career in science. In the back of my mind, show business didn't seem like a secure career choice for someone from Minnesota, though Bob Dylan had been kind of tearing it up in the '60s there. And unlike Bob Dylan, the poor loser, I had gotten into Harvard. (I guess Dylan didn't test well.)
Unfortunately, by the end of my first semester of college, I could tell I wasn't cut out to be a scientist. Even though we had just beaten them to the moon, the Soviets were still something of a problem—but I knew my heart wasn't in it.
Franni encouraged me to go to the counseling office, where I was given an extensive personality test, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, to see what career I was psychologically suited for.*
The results were very interesting. The number one career match for Alan Franken was "jazz musician." Number two was "camp counselor." Coming in dead last? "Scientist."
Since I didn't play a musical instrument and had never been to an overnight summer camp, I decided the one-two combo pointed to either "jazz camp counselor," which sounded like an unimaginable bummer, or "comedian," a career that was not on the Minnesota Multiphasic list, but which I had been preparing for pretty much all my life.
Years later, Dana Carvey said to me, "There's no reason to be a comedian unless you absolutely have to be." He didn't mean that comedians weren't able to do any other job. It's just that, to be a comedian, comedy has to be the thing you absolutely have to do. Like a jazz musician has to be a jazz musician. (And maybe some camp counselors just have to be camp counselors.) It wasn't until that stupid Minnesota Multiphasic that I felt like I had permission to pursue the career I actually had to pursue.
Now, this was the early '70s, and there was this war in Southeast Asia. I got a 2-S student deferment, which kept me out of the draft until graduation. In its wisdom, the government felt it was important for me to continue my studies so I could pursue my chosen profession—comedian—and keep America strong. I ended up majoring in behavioral sciences—sociology, anthropology, and psychology—which has actually been helpful in the Senate (and might have been useful in Vietnam).
Summers, I worked with Tom at Dudley's by night, and by day for the St. Louis Park Street Department, where I worked on a crew with two other college guys. Our job was to mow weeds around water towers and other public buildings with industrial-sized mowers.
Though Tom was an avid reader, he was at best an indifferent student. After two years at the University of the Pacific, including a sophomore year during which he traveled through India and Nepal to study smoking hashish, he dropped out and became a cast member at Dudley's and a wonderfully inventive and hilarious improvisational comedian. Still, we'd do our two-man shows during the summer. One night, I got a horrible migraine after working all day in the sun. We went on with the show, but I had to bolt backstage to throw up, leaving Tom to improvise for a minute or two. The audience figured out what was going on because I looked horrible, and at the end of the show they gave us a standing ovation.
Dudley watched the show from the back of the house and came backstage afterward to commend us. I was lying facedown on a couch, but Tom asked him, "What would have happened if Al had thrown up onstage?"
"Oh, they would have all walked out," he said with the total assurance of a showbiz veteran who had seen everything.
Between my junior and senior years, Tom and I hitchhiked from Minneapolis to L.A. (kids, don't do this) to perform at the Comedy Store. Our twenty minutes killed, and suddenly we were on the radar of our contemporaries—struggling comedians trying to get a break.
During my senior year, Tom came out to Cambridge and stayed in my dorm room. He smoked pot, played Frisbee, and didn't go to classes, and thus was often mistaken for a student. On weekends, Tom and I would drive two or three marginally more prosperous students down to Manhattan in exchange for gas money and perform at the Improvisation with comedians like Jay Leno, Robert Klein, and Andy Kaufman.
In 1973, Franni and I graduated, and the three of us drove out to Hollywood. Tom and I played the Comedy Store (where Franni worked as a cocktail waitress) and a few other clubs around L.A. Occasionally we'd go on the road and play colleges in the Midwest for five hundred bucks a gig.
One spring we did a show at Huron State in South Dakota. As we drove up to the student union, we noticed there were no cars. They had booked us during spring break. There were a grand total of seven students remaining on campus who couldn't make it home for the break. Six were African American guys from the East Coast. Tom asked them why there were six of them, and one said wryly, "In case one of us fouls out."
The other kid was a very depressed junior who had been caught smoking pot during his sophomore year and as punishment was confined to campus for the remainder of his college career, except for summers. Tom and I did our show for the seven bummed-out students and a custodian. They were actually a pretty good audience.
We were doing a lot of political material back in those days, including lots and lots of Nixon stuff. I'd play Nixon to Tom's David Eisenhower,*
- "The best political book of 2017."—Alex Shephard, The New Republic
- "In this excellent, insightful memoir, comedian turned senator Franken recalls his unlikely path to public service...Franken is quite a raconteur, and he tells the story of his remarkable life and times with a sense of humor that is always irreverent and often self-deprecating."—Publishers Weekly
- "This is a great book about politics. No joke...Compulsively readable [with] laugh-out-loud lines in every chapter."—Booklist Starred Review
- "[AL FRANKEN, GIANT OF THE SENATE] may...be the funniest memoir by a sitting - standing, recumbent, squatting - U.S. senator. Scratch that 'may.' It surely is. This is a genuinely funny book, often hilarious...the Senate, and the country, would be the poorer without him. He's an American original."—Christopher Buckley, The Washington Post
- "Admirably incautious...Franken has weaponized the gifts that proved so useful for comedy - a sharp eye, a sharper tongue, the ability to tease out the essential absurdity of a given situation and deliver the goods with maximum impact."—Mark Binelli, Rolling Stone
- "In a breezy, funny, biting, and often earnest read, Franken pulls off what many of his congressional colleagues have failed to do: write...an interesting and honest memoir."—Sam Brodey, MinnPost.com
- "A fun and compelling book. [Franken] uses self-deprecating humor to poke fun at everyone on either side of the aisle, and he gives readers insight into the daily workings of life in the Senate. His love of the people and the state of Minnesota is crystal clear."—Jeff Ayers, AP
- "With this book, Franken is both resistance leader and family counselor...A hilarious guide to what happens when a comedian runs for Congress."—The Nation
- On Sale
- Nov 16, 2021
- Page Count
- 304 pages