Sen. Al Franken On Comedy, Trump And The 'Curdling' Of Washington | KERA News

Sen. Al Franken On Comedy, Trump And The 'Curdling' Of Washington

May 30, 2017
Originally published on May 31, 2017 11:04 am

Minnesota Sen. Al Franken has the distinction of being the only former Saturday Night Live cast member to serve in the U.S. Senate. It's a singular career trajectory, but it's also not particularly surprising given Franken's deep interest in politics and comedy.

It all started in high school, when Franken began writing satire with his friend (and later SNL writing partner) Tom Davis.

"One of the first things we wrote was a local newscast the night of the day of World War III," Franken says. "It was ... 'Well, it happened. World War III. The stock market closed today — for good.' "

Franken was a writer and cast member on SNL from its inception in 1975, and he performed off and on until 1995. Throughout it all, Franken maintained his interest in politics, and in 2008, he won a seat in the Senate.

Despite his penchant for humor, the Democratic senator is quick to note that his gut reaction to the Trump administration isn't levity — and that his colleagues on both sides of the aisle feel similarly.

"It's clear that this guy is outside the norm in many ways," Franken says of the president. "That rightly frightens and makes nervous all of us."

Franken looks back on his life in comedy and politics in his new memoir, facetiously titled, Al Franken: Giant of the Senate.


Interview Highlights

On having to prove himself as a senator before he could be funny again

What happened was the first time out I won by 312 votes. Percentage-wise, the narrowest margin ever in the history of Senate elections. ... The campaign had been pretty ugly. And they had used a lot of material that I had written or said during my 35, 40 years as a comedian and put it through ... the "de-humorizor," which would take all the irony and context out of anything I had said and come out ... being very offensive.

So I had to prove to people that I was serious, and that I was serious about doing this job for the people of Minnesota. ... [Sen.] Paul Wellstone, who held the seat before me ... said that politics is not about power, it's not about money, it's not about winning for the sake of winning; it's about improving people's lives. And so I set out to prove that; that that's what I was doing. It wasn't until I won six years later by a very comfortable margin that I said, "OK, I can be funny again."

On asking Attorney General Jeff Sessions about possible ties to Russia during his confirmation hearing

I was basically saying, "Would you recuse yourself if you were attorney general and it turned out the Trump campaign was under investigation for this?" And he pivoted. I think that he didn't want to talk about whether he would recuse himself, and so I think he pivoted to the answer he had prepared, saying, "I did not have any contact with the Russians," which of course turned out not to be true. ...

He was under oath, so that's a problem. ... Once it came out that he did have contact with [Sergey] Kislyak, the ambassador, he then did recuse himself, which was kind of the point of my question.

Because he recused himself, Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, was able to appoint a special prosecutor, Bob Mueller, who is a very good prosecutor.

I was accused by [Sen.] Chuck Grassley, who I admire a lot, who was the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, of asking [Sessions] a "gotcha" question, but actually he asked himself the gotcha question. ... His invented question was, "Have you had contact with the Russians?" And he answered it falsely.

But people give me tremendous credit for all of this. And it's like "Franken knew exactly what he was doing! He was playing three-dimensional chess. He's obviously four moves ahead of everybody else!" No, I was just asking him, "Would you recuse yourself?" I think he pivoted to not answer that question.

On his wife Franni's decision to open up about her struggle with alcoholism in an ad that aired during the 2008 Senate race

During the campaign when they were just dumping on me right and left and making me out to be a horrible person, Franni just got mad and said, "I'm going to do an ad about this." And it was a beautiful, beautiful ad, and [Sen.] Chuck Schumer who was the head of the DSCC, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, he was paying very, very close attention to the campaign, he said he cried too, but he said, "This is the ad that's winning it for you."

Like two days after the ad first aired, we had a debate in a big gymnasium and ... when Franni entered the gymnasium she got a standing ovation. Because in this ad she said something that was, "How can a mother of two such beautiful children be an alcoholic?" and it spoke to the shame. There was an anchorwoman who tweeted, "This is the best political ad I've ever seen, because it actually could help people." She was speaking to the special shame that women alcoholics tend to have when they're moms, and I know that dads have that, too.

On how Sen. Mitch McConnell would filibuster to slow things down in Congress

I write about what I call the "curdling" of Washington, which was that Mitch chose basically to filibuster pretty much everything and to slow things down. ... He'd filibuster somebody, and we'd get 60 votes for cloture and we'd have to wait 30 hours of debate until we could vote — these are the rules — and then we'd have a vote on a judge and the judge would get voted 99 to 1, or 99-0 or something like that.

So they were filibustering things that they were not against, and they were filibustering things where, to overcome the filibuster, you have to take a lot of time. ... It made it hard to get things done, but McConnell wanted to deprive Obama of achievements, and that's how he did it. It really did sour things very badly, and we still live with that.

On his version of the serenity prayer

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot legislate, the courage to legislate the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference, and the patience to explain that difference to my donors. ... It is exactly true.

On trying to bring his humor into calling donors

I have little things, like I have a thing where I'll call someone's office and I'll go, "Hi this is Al Franken calling for Mr. Meyers."

"He's not in the office right now."

"I'm calling to invite him to a fundraiser in Dallas June 7."

"He and Mrs. Meyers are going to be out of town."

And I go, "Uh huh. Will his checkbook be out of town?" And that gets a laugh, and sometimes it gets me money.

Radio producers Sam Briger and Mooj Zadie and Web producers Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is Senator Al Franken. He's written a new memoir. Unlike the satirical political memoir he wrote years ago, this one's for real, but it's still very funny. It's called "Al Franken, Giant Of The Senate." Being funny as a senator is kind of new for him. He spent his first term trying not to be funny in order to convince voters and Congress that he was serious about his job.

Franken was a writer and performer on "Saturday Night Live" from its start in 1975 through 1980. He rejoined the show five years later and stayed through 1995. He's written several books of political satire and hosted a show on the progressive radio network Air America. He was first elected senator from Minnesota in 2008. He won after an eight-month recount and legal battle. He was re-elected in 2014. I've interviewed him at several different stages of his life.

Senator Al Franken, welcome to FRESH AIR. In all the years I've interviewed you, this is the first time I get to call you senator. I've been interviewing you since you were a writer and performer on "Saturday Night Live" back in the '80s, maybe even as far as the '70s.

And I confess, when you announced that you were running for the Senate, I thought maybe you were doing it so that you'd have a great political satirical book to write when you lost. (Laughter) And that's a terrible thing to say, but was I part of your problem? Because I know you had trouble...

AL FRANKEN: Yes (laughter).

GROSS: ...Having people take you seriously.

FRANKEN: I'd always say during the campaign, that Terry Gross.

GROSS: (Laughter).

FRANKEN: No, there was sort of that problem which is we had one sort of, you know, the go-to guy on politics in Minnesota, Larry Jacobs, who's actually going to be interviewing me for this book soon. And his whole - he finally like a year in was convinced I was serious about this. But no, I had to overcome sort of a lot of that, yeah.

GROSS: I knew that you were very politically serious. I'd heard you do your explainers to Howard Stern (laughter) and on Air America. But is this a turning point for you? Does this book say that you feel safe now writing a memoir that's both really funny and also really serious about politics and forthcoming, or at least partially forthcoming, about your life?

FRANKEN: Well, yeah. What happened was I - the first time out I won by 312 votes. The percentage wise is the narrowest margin ever in the history of the Senate elections. And I needed to prove to Minnesotans because the campaign had been pretty ugly.

And they had used a lot of material that I had written or said during my 35, 40 years as a comedian and put it through this $15 million machine called the dehumorizer (ph) which would take all the irony and context out of anything I'd said, and it'd come out the end being very offensive.

So I had to prove to people that I was serious and that I was serious about doing this job for the people of Minnesota and doing what Paul Wellstone, who held the seat before me and who died two weeks - or less than two weeks before the 2002 election - he said that politics is not about power. It's not about money. It's not about winning for the sake of winning. It's about improving people's lives.

And so I set out to prove that, that that's what I was doing. And it wasn't until I won six years later by a very comfortable margin that I said OK, I can be funny again. I can be funny again.

GROSS: So you write in the book that after devoting your life to learning how to be funny, you had to learn not to be funny once you got into politics.

FRANKEN: Right.

GROSS: Was there an example of how you sabotaged yourself by being funny?

FRANKEN: Well, I used to - when I first started out at this, I went to Paul Wellstone's campaign manager and sat down with him and had coffee. And he said, write a five-minute speech that has no jokes in it. And I went, why would anyone do that? (Laughter). And he was saying you've got to prove to people you're serious. This is very early on. This is in 2005. And I did not - that's the way I had expressed myself and - through satire.

But yeah, I sabotaged myself early. I remember one time I was very proud of myself for not doing the joke. I was in New Ulm, Minn., which is a beautiful town that was founded by German settlers. That's why it's called New Ulm. And they have this big statue in the park called Hermann the German. And he stands on like a 75-foot pedestal.

And he's a statue to a - Arminius, who defeated a Roman army, killed a lot of Romans in the year 9, when Jesus was just a tot. And I grew up in St. Louis Park, which is kind of the Jewish suburb of Minneapolis. It's called St. Jewish Park by people.

GROSS: (Laughter).

FRANKEN: And so I wanted - it popped in my head as like - oh, this statue is called Hermann the German. And that's how it's known. And I wanted to say, you know, in St. Louis Park, we had a little statue called Stu (ph) the Jew. And I said - and I didn't do it.

And my team was so proud of me after I told them I didn't do this. And then like a week later, New York magazine comes out and goes like, has there been a joke you thought of and didn't tell? Yeah. Yeah. And now I tell Stu the Jew.

And it - and they're going like, why did you do that? Why didn't you just say I can't remember one? And I write about that in the book. And it's about pivoting, learning the basic pivoting. You've probably experienced a pivot.

GROSS: Oh, my God, I hate it when politicians pivot.

FRANKEN: Well, that's why you're...

GROSS: You ask a question and you get a pre-planned answer to the question that you didn't ask.

FRANKEN: But the good ones are good at pivoting.

GROSS: So you get the talking point that the politician wanted to put out instead of an answer to your question. And you say in your book that you had to learn how to pivot even though you hate to pivot. So what is it like to have to do something in an interview that you - you used to call that stuff out, you know, as a satirist...

FRANKEN: Exactly.

GROSS: ...And then you have to do it yourself?

FRANKEN: Well, some - see, the reason they give you the talking point, now, they should...

GROSS: You better answer my question (laughter). I'm just...

FRANKEN: This - I'll get to - I'll answer your question.

GROSS: OK.

FRANKEN: But the reason you do that is actually you do want to get the message out that you want to get out that day. It's strategic. And that's why your communications team tells you, you know, today you're about talking about the terrible Republican health care bill. And so if they ask me, why are you 20 points down to, you know, to your opponent? You know what? People in Minnesota don't care about polls. What they care about is the health care bill. That's a pivot, right?

GROSS: Right.

FRANKEN: So it took me forever to learn that. And it's because I think I'm a very literal person. And I think my parents just taught me if someone asks you a question, answer the question. And so what I would do is answer questions. And then I'd go on about it. And invariably, whatever was on the news or whatever was on the radio or whatever was on - in the newspaper was not our strategic objective. So I had to learn that.

GROSS: So continuing the idea of how your humor could be used against you, you have a great example in the book about a sketch you did for "Saturday Night Live" that involved a bestiality joke. It's a really - it's a, like, hilarious...

FRANKEN: Oh, no. This was in the Playboy article.

GROSS: It was in the Playboy article. Right. OK.

FRANKEN: Basically, I had written an article for Playboy that was used against me. And in one part of it, I'm talking about the benefits of new technology. And I say, for the example, the Internet is a great, great learning tool. My son did a great sixth grade report last year on bestiality. He downloaded a lot of great visual aids from the Internet. And the kids in the class just loved them because, you know, at that age they're just sponges. Now, that is a very conservative joke because the joke is saying, parents, watch what your kids are getting on the Internet, right? So they use this in an ad where they're going like, Al Franken talks about bestiality. And it kind of comes - zooms in at you (laughter). And that one made my mother-in-law cry.

GROSS: (Laughter) Literally?

FRANKEN: Literally made her cry. A lot about the campaign made her cry. It was a vicious, vicious campaign.

GROSS: OK, so what do you do in a situation like that? You're making a joke about how parents should really be careful what their kids do on the Internet, how they should monitor it. And as an example, you're using access to porn and bestiality.

It's totally taken out of context, totally used against you. How do you fight back against something like that?

FRANKEN: Well, I learned something, which is you can't litigate comedy. You can't litigate a joke. And in politics, when you're explaining, you're losing. So I had to let that go. And that was hard for me because I'm very proud of my career in comedy. And I had to just, at a certain point - I mean, I tried - I learned it by trying to litigate jokes. And it just - it's - you can't do it. You've got to let go.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Senator Al Franken. His new memoir is called "Al Franken, Giant Of The Senate." We'll be back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL BELLAR & THE AS-IS ENSEMBLE'S "HOT BOX MAGIC")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Senator Al Franken. He's written a memoir that's both very funny and very serious. It's called "Al Franken, Giant Of The Senate." So you've become known as a very forceful questioner during confirmation hearings - the confirmation hearings of Betsy DeVos, Neil Gorsuch, Jeff Sessions.

And I want to play what might be the most famous question that you've asked. And this is to Jeff Sessions during his confirmation hearings to become attorney general. And you were asking him about how he'd handle it if people in the Trump campaign were found to have had contact with Russian officials. So here's that clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANKEN: And if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?

JEFF SESSIONS: Senator Franken, I'm not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians. And I'm unable to comment on it.

GROSS: OK. What did you expect he might answer, and how did you react to the answer he gave?

FRANKEN: Well, I was basically saying would you recuse yourself if you were attorney general and it turned out that the Trump campaign was under an investigation for this? And he pivoted. I think that he didn't want to talk about whether he'd recuse himself. And so I think he pivoted to the answer he had prepared saying, I did not have any contact with the Russians, which, of course, turned out not to be true.

GROSS: Yes, he really, you know, he may have - maybe incriminated is too strong a word but...

FRANKEN: Well, he was under oath, so that's a problem...

GROSS: Yeah. He didn't tell the truth. I mean, he's - we now know that he had at least two meetings with the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in 2016. And he didn't disclose that not only to you but when he applied for his security clearance, he didn't disclose that either.

FRANKEN: That's right.

GROSS: So do you feel like there have been consequences for Jeff Sessions for the answer that he gave you at the confirmation hearings?

FRANKEN: Well, once it came out that he did have contact with Kislyak the ambassador, he then did recuse himself, which was kind of the point of my question. Because he recused himself, Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, has appointed - was able to appoint a special prosecutor, Bob Mueller, who is a very good prosecutor. So I've been credited with that (laughter) because I asked the question I asked.

But I didn't ask - he answered a different question. He answered a question that he, you know - I was accused by Chuck Grassley, who I admire a lot, who is the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, of asking him a gotcha question. But actually, he asked himself the gotcha question, which was - his invented question was have you had contact with the Russians?

And he answered it falsely. But people give me tremendous credit for all this. And it's like, Franken knew exactly what he was doing. He's playing three-dimensional chess.

GROSS: (Laughter).

FRANKEN: And he's obviously four moves ahead of everybody else. No, I was just asking him would you recuse yourself? And I think he pivoted to not answer that question.

GROSS: Have you spoken to him about that since the confirmation hearing?

FRANKEN: No, I haven't. And I expect I will. I expect I will but maybe not about that particularly but about other matters.

GROSS: So does an encounter like that change your relationship?

FRANKEN: Yes, I would think - I don't know. As I say, I haven't talked to him since then. And we were friends. We were friendly. And, you know, it was - when I first got to the Senate, my chief of staff, Drew Littman, said, you know, you've got kind of a parallel problem that Hillary Clinton had. And she turned out to be a very productive senator. You have some celebrity, and the Republicans have a reason to be wary of you.

I want to take you to Tamera Luzzatto, who was Hillary's chief of staff, and find out what she did. And Tamera gave me the advice. And, yes, you know, her Democratic colleagues were a little suspicious that she might try to take all of their camera time. And Republican colleagues had some wariness of her. So Tamera told me be a workhorse, not a show horse. And included in being a workhorse is go to all your hearings, come early, stay late, be prepared with good questions.

And so I would go to every - I'm on the Judiciary Committee. I got that because Harry - I was the last person there, I was the last senator there. And Harry just had Judiciary open. And I said, Harry, have you noticed there's a lot of lawyers in the Senate and that I'm not one of them? And he said, well, that's why you'd be great. We need people who aren't lawyers on Judiciary. And he was just BS-ing - that's all he had. So I'm on Judiciary. But I figured, OK, I'm going to show up to every hearing.

And most of them, at least at that time, were perfunctory nomination hearings for judges - for district court judges and such. So it would just be me and Pat Leahy, the chairman, and at the time, Sessions was - Jeff Sessions was the ranking member. So I'd just be there every time. And it'd be just the three of us. And he kind of noted that I - exactly what the plan was - is that I was doing my job and was serious.

And, like, two weeks in or something, Leahy had to do a appropriations thing. And so he asked me to chair. So I get there early, I'm in the chairman's seat with the gavel. And Sessions comes in, he says, well, a meteoric rise.

And I say, and well-deserved. And he laughs. Now, I like anyone who laughs at anything I say. I immediately like them. So we actually had - were friendly. And Mary, his wife, and my wife were friends on the - in the - there's a thing called the spouse club. And she knit - Mary knit a baby blanket for my first grandchild, my grandson. And it was his favorite blanket.

And it's hard to really demonize someone whose wife knit a baby blanket for your grandson.

GROSS: Nevertheless...

FRANKEN: Nevertheless, I was able to do it (laughter).

GROSS: Things are so divided now in America and in government, in the Senate, in the House, do you feel like it's possible now for you to have friendly relations with people in the government who are, you know, like, 180 degrees away from you on politics, on science, on climate change?

FRANKEN: Oh, man. There is stuff going on in the EPA right now on science where they're just getting rid of the scientific boards that oversee the science, and it's really awful. It's really - this administration does not believe in science, it seems. And they're getting, you know, people from industry. And they think there's too much regulation. And they have - we have someone who is - Meredith's (ph) a professor from the University of Minnesota, who I just talked to yesterday, who sort of oversees all these scientific boards.

And she is really alarmed. This is very, very bad. It's hard for me to have very good relations with people who are doing that. But there are people in the administration whom I like. I like Sonny Perdue, the Ag secretary, who, you know, he was a two-term governor in Georgia. And he gets it. He gets Ag and he gets people. And, you know, some of these politicians, they're successful politicians for a reason and for good reasons.

And as far as my Senate colleagues, it's not only do I think it's possible to have good relations with them, it's absolutely necessary because there's a lot of stuff that happens that is legislation and appropriations and things that happen that really aren't that partisan. And you need to work with other people. So you need to be a good colleague.

GROSS: My guest is Senator Al Franken. His new memoir is called "Al Franken, Giant Of The Senate." We'll talk more about comedy and politics after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN TAYLOR'S "GOIN' BACK HOME")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Senator Al Franken, a Democratic senator from Minnesota who is serving his second term. He's written a new memoir about his life in comedy and politics. It's both funny and serious. It's called "Al Franken, Giant Of The Senate." Franken was one of the original writers on "Saturday Night Live" and became a performer as well. He also wrote several books of political satire before running for office.

I want to ask you about Fox News. When you wrote your book in 2003, "Lies: And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair And Balanced Look At The Right," it was a satire about pundits on the far-right. And there was a lot about Fox News. And there was a chapter devoted to Bill O'Reilly. Bill O'Reilly and Fox News sued you because the title of your book used their slogan fair and balanced.

FRANKEN: Yeah. They're trademarked fair and balanced which you can trademark anything. I can trademark funny. You know, Al Franken is funny or smart and funny or something. I can trademark. It doesn't mean it holds up. So I wrote this book, and it wasn't a satire. I mean, it was satirical in many ways, but if you think about it now in this era, this Trump era, it's almost adorable that I could write a best-selling book about just parsing lies because now it's just - they just lie all the time. It's just lie, lie, lie, lie. No one cares.

In fact, I think some of Trump's supporters actually enjoy it. I think they think like, OK, it's like a movie based on a real story, and it's enhancing the story by lying. But, yeah, they sued me, and O'Reilly particularly pushed this. And it was the best thing ever to happen to the book...

GROSS: It became an instant best-seller.

FRANKEN: It went to number one well before the book came out.

GROSS: So...

FRANKEN: This is really the result of a simple misunderstanding, you see, that Bill O'Reilly and Fox did not understand that satire is protected speech, even if the object of the satire doesn't get it.

GROSS: So I'm interested in your reaction to Bill O'Reilly being forced out of Fox News to Roger Ailes, now the late Roger Ailes, being forced out at Fox News.

FRANKEN: Schadenfreude is such an ugly thing.

GROSS: (Laughter). Any other way you care about them?

(LAUGHTER)

FRANKEN: You know, I mean, the culture they set up there was pretty ugly, evidently. And I feel like Bill O'Reilly is an angry guy for some reason. And this just will make him a little angrier I think.

GROSS: So recovery plays a big part in your life and in your book. Your wife had an alcohol problem after the birth of your second child, after postpartum depression. She was in a 12-step program. You were in Al-Anon, which is for the family and friends of people who have addiction problems. And then your writing partner on "Saturday Night Live" and in high school Tom Davis...

FRANKEN: Right.

GROSS: He ended up having an alcohol problem, too, and you tried to stage an intervention for him. It didn't work. You had an acrimonious split as a result of all of this, and then became friends again.

I'm wondering how that's affected your understanding of addiction, but I think what I really want to know is when you hear addiction-related health issues addressed in Congress, do you feel it's often being addressed by people who don't really understand what the issue is?

FRANKEN: Yeah, of course.

GROSS: Like, you have so much, like, personal experience with this.

FRANKEN: Yeah. I mean, of course, that's the case. But, obviously, addiction does touch a lot of people, so I imagine there are colleagues who just haven't written about or talked about it at all.

GROSS: Oh, that's probably true. Yeah.

FRANKEN: But this was - yeah, this was ultimately very good for me. And then Franni during the campaign when they were just dumping on me right and left and making me out to be a horrible person, Franni just got mad and said I'm going to do an ad about this. And it was a beautiful, beautiful ad and, like, two days after the ad first aired, we had a debate in a big gymnasium.

And people were on the floor and in the seats and when Franni entered the gymnasium, she got a standing ovation because in this ad, she said something that was how can a mother of two such beautiful children be an alcoholic? And it spoke to the shame, and there was a anchor woman who tweeted that this is the best political ad I've ever seen because it actually could help people. You know, she was speaking to special shame that women alcoholics tend to have when they're moms, and I know that dads have that, too.

But, unfortunately, for Tom, he never got sober. We - in the book, I write about him dying, and we did become very, very close again. And there is a chapter about drug use at the show. And I talk about Tom in that, and I did a eulogy for Tom which was very hard for me to do on the floor of the Senate. And Harry Reid read it the next day, and he called me up. I was in a Judiciary Committee hearing and someone said that Harry's on the phone.

And I go in the ante room and Harry said, you know, I really like your eulogy for your friend, he said. And he says, he sounds like he was quite a guy, and I said, yes, sir, he was. And he said I love this part, the dark side of death. That was Tom. He had written a piece called "The Dark Side Of Death" and I had quoted a paragraph from it, and then Harry read the passage from the piece I had talked about that Tom had written about dying. And Tom wrote (reading) in the foreseeable future, I will be a dead person. I want to remind you that dead people are people, too. There are good dead people and bad dead people. So my best friends are dead people. Dead people have fought in every war.

And then Harry said to me it's perfect. And I said, yes, that's perfect. So, you know, this is an emotional topic for me and for a lot of people, and I still, you know - in Al-Anon you're supposed to be anonymous on radio. (Laughter) I'm breaking some rules here. But I think you're allowed to interpret them the way you wish. You know, I'm not a perfect person at all, and I don't want people - first, if I do something that they don't like, I don't want them to take that out on Al-Anon. (Laughter) You know, they should still go if they have a family member or friend who is drinking.

GROSS: So another "Saturday Night Live" question since we were talking about recovery. In the '70s in the '80s when you were on the show, that was the big cocaine era. And a lot of people on "Saturday Night Live" ended up with drug problems.

FRANKEN: Yeah.

GROSS: You know, a couple of deaths was a result.

FRANKEN: Belushi. Belushi was - that's when we all realized, oh, I get it. This could kill you.

GROSS: Yeah. So I didn't - I don't think your wife was in recovery yet, but my impression is you did your best to stay away from that.

FRANKEN: No, no. I mean, I did - I write in the book very frankly that, you know, I'm a big Grateful Dead fan. And I used to take LSD sometimes at those concerts. And I smoked pot. And I did cocaine at the show there but for the grace of God go I. I did not become addicted to that. I used to say that I only did enough coke to stay awake to make sure that no one did too much coke.

GROSS: Yeah (laughter).

FRANKEN: And that was kind of true actually, but we would have these late writing nights. And there was this thing when it first started coming out that cocaine was being done around the show. We put out this thing saying like you can't do a 90-minute comedy variety show week after week and do cocaine. And people sort of bought that.

And that was - and they - and a lot of people at the show thought the opposite. They thought like you can't do a 90-minute show week after week without doing cocaine - but you can. And I think we learned a lot from Belushi's death. And Farley, man, that was - he struggled. He struggled. He must've gone to 12 rehabs and just couldn't beat it.

GROSS: My guest is Senator Al Franken. He's written a memoir that's both funny and serious called "Al Franken, Giant Of The Senate." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE MOUNTAIN GOATS' "PEACOCKS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Senator Al Franken. He has a new memoir that's called "Al Franken, Giant Of The Senate." So you write that one of the things that shocked you the most was after President Obama was elected, Mitch McConnell said the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.

FRANKEN: Right.

GROSS: Do you feel like that changed the tone in the Senate in any way?

FRANKEN: Well, yeah. I mean, I wasn't shocked that he thought it. I was shocked that he said it. And I write about the - I call it the curdling of Washington. Which was that Mitch chose basically to filibuster pretty much everything and to slow things down. That was about slowing things down so that we could not - he'd filibuster somebody. And we'd get 60 votes for cloture. And then we'd have to wait 30 hours of debate till we could vote. These are the rules. And then we'd have a vote on a judge. And the judge would get voted 99 to 1.

So they were filibustering things that they were not against. To overcome a filibuster, you have to take a lot of time. And so this really soured, made it hard to get things done. But McConnell wanted to defeat, to deprive Obama of achievements. That's how he did it. And it really did sour things very badly. And we still live with that.

GROSS: You write about being reprimanded by Mitch McConnell when you were gaveling a confirmation hearing for Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court.

FRANKEN: When I was presiding, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. And...

FRANKEN: It wasn't a hearing. I was presiding in the Senate.

GROSS: This was the Senate. OK. Right. OK.

FRANKEN: Yeah. And, you know, in the chamber. And I was presiding. And my excuse is I was tired, but Mitch was giving - I was hearing one speech after another about how Kagan was the least qualified nominee ever in history. And he said that. And which is ridiculous.

She had been president of Harvard Law School. She had been solicitor general who argues the cases in front of the Supreme Court for the administration. She had been a counselor to Clinton. And he kind of was describing her as charming, yes, but she's the worst nominee ever. And if it was just charm, that, you know, he was describing her like a promising debutant.

I just rolled my eyes and then laughed at a couple things he said, which was wrong. And I know that Democrats listening or progressives listening might go like, well, I do that too. Well, you're not presiding over the Senate. That's a responsibility. And you have an obligation either to listen, or as a lot of my colleagues do, sign thank you notes.

(LAUGHTER)

FRANKEN: And I was - because I had been a performer, I actually made - when I was presiding, I'd make eye contact and listen to people I thought out of courtesy. And this one I just screwed up. And he got mad. And he came up. And the press is right over where you preside. And he said, Al, this isn't "Saturday Night Live." And - which is a perfect thing for him to say. He's a very, very smart politician. So it got attention.

And I said, well, I thought your speech was really offensive. And then I really knew I screwed up. And I - after I - actually - we had the vote. And then I got to announce that she had been confirmed. But then I went right to his office, the minority leader's office, and said, I'm here to apologize to Mitch. And he wasn't there. I did write a apology note, note of apology.

And - McConnell spokesman said, well, Senator Franken apologized. And that's the appropriate thing to do. And that's the end of it. And I thought gee, wow, that's like a nice thing of him to do. He was a mensch to me on that.

GROSS: So what...

FRANKEN: And that said, I have nothing else good, I think, to say about him in the book.

GROSS: Do you think that President Trump is affecting the way things are being done in the Senate or how people are relating to each other in the Senate?

FRANKEN: Well, I think there is an interesting dynamic going on. A colleague of mine - a Republican colleague - was asked by someone at an event right after Trump came into office, like, are Democrats angry? He said, yes, Democrats are angry. Republicans are angry and scared.

And I think that my Republican colleagues are frightened by what Trump will do all the time. And I think they see that his base is staying with him, so they don't abandon him. And I think they should have spoken up for a special prosecutor before. They just didn't. I think they've been afraid to do that because the base is their base.

And most of my colleagues, most of them live in states where the only one who really beat them is a Republican in a primary. And they don't want to be primaried and lose. They want to keep their job. So I think they're very nervous about this president, and they say so frankly behind closed doors or, you know, in private discussions.

GROSS: Really?

FRANKEN: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: I mean, in private discussions with you, Republicans confess that?

FRANKEN: Yeah. They - I mean, it's clear that this guy, you know, is just outside the norm in many ways. And that that rightly frightens and makes or makes nervous all of us.

GROSS: So are you concerned that anything you've written in your book is going to be held against you the way the bestiality comedy thing was? You know, 'cause so many political - I've read a lot of political memoirs.

FRANKEN: (Laughter) I like the way you said it. I've read a lot of political memoirs.

GROSS: Yeah. I mean, most political memoirs - if I can generalize for a moment - are very shall I say circumspect. And...

FRANKEN: I think they're very calculated.

GROSS: Yeah, calculated, often dry. And, you know, with like talking points.

FRANKEN: But mine, Terry, is very...

GROSS: Yes. No, yours is really funny.

FRANKEN: ...Entertaining.

GROSS: And it actually is very entertaining. And I think, you know, whether anyone agrees with you politically or not, like, a joke is a joke and funny is funny.

FRANKEN: And it's honest, don't you think?

GROSS: It's the most brilliant book I've ever read I'm pretty sure.

FRANKEN: There we got it.

GROSS: Yeah.

FRANKEN: Oh, man, we got our quote.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: But seriously...

FRANKEN: That's - I'm going. I'm leaving. That was the whole purpose of this interview.

GROSS: Since the beginning of the book is about how you were afraid to be funny when you started in politics because you needed people to take you seriously and to believe that you could actually do the job. So you allow yourself to be really funny in the book and to tell things about yourself that some other politicians might not want to divulge.

I mean, let's put it this way, like, Bill - this was years ago - but Bill Clinton had to say he inhaled. And you worked on "Saturday Night Live," where everybody was doing drugs, you know. So do you fear that anything in the book is going to be either misinterpreted or held against you? We'll leave the Ted Cruz thing aside because I don't want to get into that (laughter). I don't want to take up time with that.

FRANKEN: Sure.

GROSS: But so are you - outside of the Ted Cruz thing - concerned that things in the book will be held against you and will hurt you politically?

FRANKEN: I'm sure that things will. I mean, again, this will be put through the new dehumorizer. And, you know, people on the right will do that. I think the people of Minnesota, first of all, I think they'd enjoy this book. And they will - I think that so much of my stuff was taken out of context that they kind of saw that in the first race. And then they saw that I wasn't what I was depicted at. And, you know, I feel like the people of Minnesota know who I am.

GROSS: My guest is Senator Al Franken. He's written a memoir about his life in comedy and politics called "Al Franken, Giant Of The Senate." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSETTE EXPLOSION'S "DOUCE JOIE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is Senator Al Franken. He's written a new memoir called "Al Franken, Giant Of The Senate." Part of the memoir is about making the transition from comedy to politics.

So finally, we were talking earlier about recovery. And you have a very funny version of the Serenity Prayer in your book. Do you want to repeat that, or would you like me to do that?

FRANKEN: I think I know it.

GROSS: Good. You do it.

FRANKEN: I think - God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, the wisdom to know the difference. No, no, no. That's just the Serenity Prayer.

GROSS: You're getting it wrong. Yeah. That's the Serenity Prayer. Yeah.

FRANKEN: OK. I'm sorry. No.

GROSS: It's legislate.

FRANKEN: Let's try this over again. The Democratic senator's Serenity Prayer. God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot legislate, the courage to legislate the things I can, the wisdom to know the difference and the patience to explain that difference to my donors (laughter).

GROSS: Yes. And I think that's both hilarious and probably really true in terms of what you have to keep in mind.

FRANKEN: It is exactly true (laughter). And it's on a chapter I do that explains fundraising and call time. Because it's a book, I don't get to sing the songs from call time.

GROSS: Oh, can you sing one?

FRANKEN: Yeah. I'll make a call. And I'll...

GROSS: A call to a fundraiser, I mean, to a donor.

FRANKEN: To a donor.

GROSS: A potential donor.

FRANKEN: So call time is when you're calling for money for donors. So I'll sing to the tune of the song from "La Vida" (ph). (Singing) Please answer the phone, Howard Goldfine (ph). You maxxed (ph) to me last cycle. Oh, won't you be home, Howard Goldfine?

(LAUGHTER)

FRANKEN: And then when I leave a message - I leave a message, and then I have - the big number from call time is "I Left A Message" which is an original tune. So it's (singing) I left a message. Oh, yes, I did. I left a message I do not kid. No, no, I left a message on the phone. I left a message. They were not home.

And we have - we've developed in our mind "Call Time The Musical." So this is the only thing that keeps me sane. Because you'll be people calling people like for three hours at a time, and I am determined to make these three hours as fun as possible for me and my - and the other guy in the room, my call time director. And so we do. We actually - and I have little things.

Like, if I have a thing where someone I'll call someone's office, and I'll go, like, Mr. - Hi. This is Al Franken calling for Mr. Myers (ph). Well, he's, you know, not in the office right now. Well, I'm calling to invite him to a fundraiser in Dallas June 7 at so and so. And they're like, oh, he and Mrs. Myers are going to be out of town. And I go. Will his check book be out of town? And that gets a laugh, and sometimes it gets me money.

GROSS: (Laughter). So in an act of bipartisanship, you co-wrote a country song with Orrin Hatch. Could you sing it?

FRANKEN: Yeah. Let me get the other song out of my - the other terrible song out of my head. This is something that I kind of wrote, and I needed a bridge, so Orrin and I - and I went, like, when I was first there, I went to Orrin's office to listen to his music because he writes music. And he had a country song, and I said, well, I got one, but I need a bridge for it. And it's called "We Stayed Together For The Kids." And it's a duet.

It's a man and woman. So I'll do both parts, I guess, but I'll just do it the same. (Singing) We stayed together for the kids. And then the woman sings (singing) it was what we thought we had to do. But now the kids have up and grown, and there's just me. And there's just you.

That's them together. So (laughter), you know, it's about a couple who stay together for the kids, and then it ends with them being glad they did because now they - and it's - there are things like (singing) you were cold as ice in bed.

GROSS: (Laughter).

FRANKEN: (Singing) That's because you cheated with my friend. Oh, yeah.

GROSS: (Laughter).

FRANKEN: And she sings (singing) I should have left you. But instead, there was Suzie (ph), Kyle (ph) and Ben (ph). We stayed together for the kids. So Orrin and I - so then we were trying to write the bridge for this. And we're just in his office, and I was having a good time.

And I spent more time with Orrin than I was supposed to, and my scheduler called his scheduler who sits outside his office, and she said what's going on? I don't know what's going on in there. They're just laughing.

(LAUGHTER)

FRANKEN: And, you know, Orrin is a, you know, he's a good guy. He's conservative, and I don't agree with him very often, but we're friends.

GROSS: A nice note to end on. Senator Al Franken, thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR. It's great to talk with you again.

FRANKEN: Oh, it's always great to talk to you and to listen to you.

GROSS: Oh, thank you.

FRANKEN: Well, you want me to say - your radio show is brilliant.

GROSS: (Laughter).

FRANKEN: You can use that, you see?

GROSS: You're returning the favor. Yes.

FRANKEN: Yes.

GROSS: Now I have a blurb.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK. Now I got it. Thank you (laughter).

FRANKEN: Sure. Thanks.

GROSS: Al Franken's new memoir is called "Al Franken: Giant Of The Senate."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, David Sedaris returns to our show. His new book "Theft By Finding" is a collection of his diary entries from 1977 to 2002, and it's fascinating to read his entries about everything from picking fruit, moving furniture and cleaning houses for a living to going to art school, his life-changing broadcast of his "Santaland Diaries" on Morning Edition, getting sober and the deaths of his mother and sister. We'll talk about as much as we can possibly squeeze in. I hope you'll join us.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.