Al Franken, left, and Marc Maron at BookExpo
No surprise, Al Franken, U.S. Senator from Minnesota (D) and former comedian and writer/actor for Saturday Night Live, was very funny at Friday's "WTF is Happening, Senator Franken?" conversation with popular podcaster and fellow author Marc Maron at BookExpo at the Javits Center.
But first, Maron wanted to address "the elephant in the room."
"We're counting on you to save us!" said Maron, coming right out and asking the liberal senator whether he would run for president.
"Bad plan," said Franken, and Maron moved on, for the time being. He recalled another book event some 14 years ago, where Franken won a debate with Bill O'Reilly.
"Schadenfreude is such a terrible emotion," Franken deadpanned, then noted how O'Reilly and Fox News ended up suing him and thereby lifting his 2003 book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right to No. 1 on the sales chart.
"They didn't understand that satire is protected speech--even if the object of the satire doesn't get it!" said Franken. Said Maron, "It was as if Bill O'Reilly walked up to you and handed you a check for $1 million."
Turning to Franken's new book Al Franken, Giant of the Senate, Maron asked about its Ted Cruz chapter.
"I probably like Ted Cruz more than my colleagues--and I hate Ted Cruz," Franken said of the conservative U.S. senator and former Republican presidential candidate from Texas.
"Part of it is his word is no good, and you need that to get along. He's a toxic co-worker--like the guy in the lunchroom who microwaves fish--and because of that he doesn’t get anything done in the senate."
You have to make compromises in politics, Franken continued.
"You have to cut things you cherish and fund things you don’t' think are right, so it gets a little confusing for people--and members get very concerned for their own re-election."
He spoke of his mentor, Minnesota's liberal Democrat U.S. senator Paul Wellstone, who died in a plane crash shortly before the 2002 election—and to whom Al Franken, Giant of the Senate is dedicated (together with Wellstone's wife Sheila).
"One of the reasons I admire Paul so much is that he was the only incumbent senator running for re-election who voted against the war in Iraq--and thought he would lose his seat because of it. But the people of Minnesota saw that he had convictions, and his poll numbers went up even though most of the people in Minnesota wanted us to go to war."
Franken decided to enter politics a few months after Republican Norm Coleman won the election for what had been Wellstone's seat.
"He said, 'I'm a 99 percent improvement over Paul Wellstone,' and I wondered, 'Who's going to beat this guy?' I didn't think it was necessarily going to be me, but it was the first time I considered running for office: You don’t say that about anyone who died in the last five months—and you don't say it about Paul Wellstone, a man of compassion who cared about people and had incredible integrity and was a wonderful family man."
During Franken's first campaign for senate (in 2008), the opposition "took everything I'd ever written and put it into a $15 million machine, 'The Dehumorizer,'" he joked. "All that was left was what they could attack me on."
One joke was a whimsical story about a sixth grader's report on bestiality.
"They said, 'He jokes about bestiality!'—and [the comment] went through infinity into the living rooms and eyes and brains [of viewers] and my mother-in-law cried when she saw it!" said Franken, who went on to win by a mere 312 votes and requiring an unprecedented eight-month recount.
"I wanted to prove I was serious about the job and a work horse, not a show horse," he said. "I won re-election [in 2014] by a comfortable margin and knew that the people of Minnesota got it."
Regarding the 2008 race, he noted how Wellstone's death "hung over" it heavily, such that "I felt an enormous responsibility [in] asking people to put their faith in me to get the nomination."
After a "virtual sex" Playboy parody piece he'd written for that magazine's millennial issue was put through the Dehumorizer ("It can look really bad when put through the Dehumorizer—and it was a dark hour of the soul"), he contacted Al Gore for advice."
"He told me to suck it up—and I put that on the wall. It's really good advice for everybody," said Franken, who also worried that his Harvard education "might be a problem" for voters with lesser educational diplomas but found that it's better than having them think you're a comedian.
"A focus group said that people don't think comedians are smart," he said. "But I'd written books, and books were good. Harvard was good. Comedians were not good."
But Republican senator Lindsay Graham is hilarious, Franken related.
"I told him, 'If I were voting in the Republican [presidential] primary, I'd vote for you,' and he said, 'That's my problem!' There are senators who don't have a sense of humor."
He said that he asked former Republican senator from Oklahoma Tom Coburn to lunch.
"He was called 'Dr. No' in the Senate because he put a hold on things, and he was very conservative and different from me," said Franken, who tried to "just have fun" with Coburn—over breakfast—and succeeded, but only after explaining to him "what jokes were and the proper reaction was to laugh if you liked the joke."
He's also had "a moment or two" with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
"Imagine that!" he said, acknowledging audience surprise that such a liberal could have fun with such an extreme conservative.
"You know, Mitch," Franken remembered telling O'Connell, "I really like your speeches better that are not in the service of evil!' And he said, 'I like the evil ones better'--which was funny! He's got a sense of humor!"
But Franken turned serious when asked about the Trump administration.
"They're not acting like people with nothing to hide," he said. But he noted that following George W. Bush's re-election in 2004—and the continued Republican control of both the House and Senate—liberal organizations like the Center for American Progress, Media Matters for America and Daily Kos became prominent counterweights, culminating with Barack Obama's elections and January's Women's March and the increased participation in Town Halls.
"These things make a difference," said Franken. "If you care about this stuff, get active."
Maron wondered again whether Franken might be considering his own presidential run, and Franken said he would not run for higher office—though he was not pressed to state this categorically. And he admitted that "of course" he has thought about it.
"I almost wanted my first book signing to be in Nashua, New Hampshire, and the second in Des Moines!" he said, naming key cities in early presidential campaigning.
"If you're a serious person, it's very hard," he said, adding that speculation that he might run has been "very flattering," if a substantial product of Trump being president.
Maron, who is himself a comedian and actor and whose next book, Waiting for the Punch: Words to Live by from the WTF Podcast, is due in October, noted that Al Franken, Giant of the Senate was really "a primer for those who want to get involved in politics." But he asked if Franken had any regrets over his dramatic job change.
"I miss hanging out with comedians," Franken acknowledged. "Now and then I'm in L.A. for an event and hang out with Conan or Larry David or Sarah Silverman and go, 'Oh, God, I miss this!' We do think differently than other people."
He also said how great it was to write something on Tuesday night or Wednesday morning and then see it on the air on Saturday night.
"The primary question is, 'Is being a senator as much fun as working on Saturday Night Live?'" he said, answering, "No! Why would it be?"
"But it's the best job I've ever had," Franken concluded, "because I get to improve people's lives."