September 26, 2022
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Q&A: Former U.S. Senator Al Franken on performing in Ithaca

Al Franken, comedian and former U.S. Senator from Minnesota, will perform at 8 p.m. Dec. 10 at the Ithaca State Theatre as part of his tour called “Al Franken: The Only Former U.S. Senator Currently on Tour Tour.”

Franken worked as a writer and a performer for Saturday Night Live between 1975 and 1995, for which he received five Emmys. In the 2000s, Franken became a prominent liberal activist and eventually won the 2008 Minnesota Senate election by 312 votes. In the Senate, Franken became a powerful member of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Franken won reelection in 2014 but resigned from the Senate in 2018 after several women accused him of unwanted touching and kissing.

Since his resignation, Franken has remained active in progressive politics and began hosting “The Al Franken Podcast” in 2019. His stand up comedy tour, which began September 2021, discusses Franken’s time as a comedian and as a U.S. Senator.

Elijah de Castro, assistant life and culture editor, spoke with Franken on Dec. 7 about his career as a comedian and a politician, his resignation and his analysis of modern American politics.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Elijah de Castro:  How would you describe what you’re going to be talking about and what the show is going to be like on Friday?

Al Franken: I’m going to be talking about my experiences in both comedy and in the Senate, and I’m going to talk a little bit about what’s going on now. A lot of it is about my time in the Senate and my colleagues — mainly my Republican colleagues — and also [the show] talks about some of the dangers that are facing our democracy.

ED: Is there anything about Ithaca that makes it exciting for you to be performing at?

AF: One of the things I think about when I think about Ithaca is a legendary Grateful Dead concert I’ve heard about from back in the ’70s. I’m a big Deadhead. But no, it’s obviously a college town in many ways and I know it’s political and a lot of people [in Ithaca] care about our country … I make no bones about being a liberal, a progressive Democrat [and] the audience that comes to see me is pretty like-minded.

ED: It seems like these days the average person has an aversion to talking about really challenging issues. Do you think that the combination of comedy and politics is important for talking about those issues?

AF: I grew up a fan of satire and of people like Dick Gregory and Lenny Bruce. I always felt that you can say things with satire and comedy that you can’t say in normal political discourse. It connects with people in a different way and if you do it well, like George Carlin and Richard Pryor, it can really have an effect. I do think it’s a way to reach people who you otherwise might not. I also think there’s a job for the satirists to push boundaries and to put things in a way that maybe other people don’t look at that actually clarifies things.

ED: How do you interpret Washington and the current state of everything [politically] when the country is in such a weird and dangerous position?

AF: It’s gotten uglier, and part of it was because immediately on election night Trump said, “I won in a landslide and the election was stolen,” which was based on nothing other than it’s Donald Trump … Right now, it just hasn’t been this bad since the Civil War in terms of how divided we are. And, our democracy hangs in the balance. 

ED: After looking at stuff this extreme, do you discuss it at your shows in a way that brings people together?

AF: I hope so. I think there should be a bit of a “let’s lighten up a bit, everybody” on both sides. I think comedy brings another perspective and it brings a way of thinking and I think that way of thinking is helpful and productive … I’m someone who has been granularly interested in politics and public policy and also the craft of comedy. I love to laugh. My dad was hilarious and that’s my favorite memories of my childhood — laughing with my family.