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Al Franken's journey from SNL to 'Giant of the Senate'

NONFICTION

Al Franken, "Giant of the Senate" by Al Franken; Twelve, 416 pages, ($28)

In the fall of 2007, the Democratic leadership of the U.S. Senate was not entirely on board with the idea that the people of Minnesota would be interested in electing Al Franken to the august body the following year.

First off, he had never run for office. Second, there was some validity to the carpetbagger charge that would be leveled; Franken had lived in Minnesota in his youth and his family lived there, but he had spent most of his adult life in New York City.

But the biggest problem was also the reason why he had such high name recognition among voters and why he was often live from New York: his estimable 15-year career as a writer and performer on “Saturday Night Live,” which began when the legendary show first went on the air in 1975.

Then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was told that he should be worried about jokes Franken had written about the Holocaust. When he was asked what that meant, Franken pollster Dianne Feldman pointed to one such Franken joke from his earlier life that she had shared with potential voters: “I think a bad Hanukkah gift for Anne Frank would have been a drum set.”

Reid not only laughed, he began convulsing before turning to Franken, who simply shrugged.

You may find yourself sympathizing with Reid as you devour the latest effort from the junior senator from Minnesota, modestly entitled “Al Franken, Giant of the Senate.”

His election came a year after that exchange with Reid, but not before a recount and multiple court challenges from the vanquished Norm Coleman. It all makes for a compelling story from a man who seemed to transition seamlessly from parodying politicians on SNL to becoming one.

The book tracks the arc of Franken’s life, from his suburban Minnesota childhood to Harvard to comedy career to left-wing firebrand to candidate to senator. It’s not a humor book, but it is a funny book – often a riotously funny book, especially in the footnotes – but it also is deadly serious when it comes to Franken’s devotion to liberal causes and to making a difference in the lives of the people he represents in Congress.

The “How I Made It in Politics” genre is not lacking. And whether the writer is liberal or conservative, most of those efforts are more ego stroke than literature.

But Franken is more than up to the task to set himself apart. After all, he is the only current member of the Senate who can say he made a living writing things that were designed to make people laugh – on purpose - before he got there, so he knows his way around words on a page.

Somewhat amazingly, this is Franken’s seventh book, joining such other page-turners as “Lies and Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right” and “Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations.”

(No one could ever accuse him of hiding his political leanings.)

His latest is not quite an autobiography, but Franken does tell his life story. It’s light on details of his childhood – at one point he notes that he kicks himself for not taking better notes when he was growing up – but he more than makes up for it in his honest assessment of his successes and failures.

He begins his story at the beginning, explaining how he became a Democrat. The two pivotal moments were being exposed to the fight for civil rights as a child and then meeting his future wife Franni during their first week of college. Franni’s mother became a widowed mother of five at the age of 29, but she and her children made it to the middle class thanks to a host of government programs including Pell grants, the GI Bill and Social Security.

“They tell you in this country that you have to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. And we all believe that,” he writes. “But first you’ve got to have the boots. And the federal government gave Franni’s family the boots.”

Franken devotes three of his 47 chapters to his status as an SNL pioneer. He was at 30 Rock during the show’s drug-fueled heyday. He cops to using, and thanks his lucky stars that he did not become an addict. He saw what happened to his lifelong friend and comedy partner Tom Davis who was not so fortunate and also shares Franni’s struggles with alcohol dependency.

But this is not an SNL tell-all. You’ll learn much more about “bean feeds” and campaigning in Minnesota’s Iron Range than you will about the wit and wisdom of Stuart Smalley. (You’ll also learn that he didn’t actually write the Anne Frank joke, if you read the footnotes.)

It’s also notable for something else: Franken writes about his mistakes once he got to the Senate, including a memorable moment when he was being too smart-alecky for his own good during a hearing and a staffer slipped him a note telling him he was being an (expletive).

It would be easy to deride this effort as too “inside baseball” for the average reader and if it were just any politician, that might be a fair criticism. But in Franken’s hands, and through his gifted satirical eye, it is an entertaining look at how politics actually works.

Or at least how it can work.

Bruce Andriatch is the Assistant Managing Editor/Features for The Buffalo News

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