The Real Al Franken: Part Nasty, Part Jerk

He's often portrayed as an erudite comedian, but Minnesota's junior senator has always had rough, sleazy edges

by Jim Stinson | Updated 20 Nov 2017 at 6:37 AM

Al Franken has long enjoyed a fairly squeaky-clean image.

Comedian. Liberal polemicist. Senator from Minnesota, the super-nice state.

But his image took a beating on Thursday — alongside new scrutiny — when it was revealed he may have sexually harassed a former model on a USO tour in 2006.

For Franken, the revelations mean new scrutiny of someone who has long wallowed in the filth of Hollywood without getting too dirty. But it also means a look at his odd history of aggressive behavior with people who dare disagree with him on political issues.

The cost is already hefty: The Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote on Thursday that the Franken scandal "damages his ability to be an effective moral voice for Minnesotans — perhaps too much for him to continue in the Senate."

The Franken scandal "damages his ability to be an effective moral voice for Minnesotans — perhaps too much for him to continue in the Senate," said the Star Tribune.

Franken got sucked into the morass of Hollywood sex scandals when California radio host Leeann Tweeden alleged that after a USO show in Afghanistan, Franken groped her while she slept on a military jet. The kicker: she had a photograph to prove it.

But worse, Tweeden said Franken insisted on rehearsing a "kiss" before the USO show. Tweeden said no, but Franken lunged at her and stuck his tongue in her mouth. Tweeden warned him off but later was groped and photographed while she slept.

Franken has apologized three times to Tweeden, but Tweeden is still angry. She called the groping photo a "parting shot" after nearly two weeks of being "belittled and humiliated" by Franken. The Senate Ethics Committee is reportedly looking into the matter.

To reject or irk Franken is to risk his odd wrath — and that has not been a top secret in politics or Hollywood. Franken, a dogged liberal, once challenged Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, to a fistfight.

Related: Al Franken Accused of Forcibly Kissing, Groping Woman

It was the summer of 2000 and, according to Lowry, he had been on C-SPAN to discuss how liberals and feminists are "promoting the feminization of America." Lowry called for a "defense of traditional notions of masculinity."

Franken got mad and offered to fight, bare-fisted, for $1,000 to go to the winner's charity. Lowry declined.

The year 2000 must have been a high-testosterone time for Franken. That was also the year he hounded conservative Melanie Morgan for three days for daring to argue with him on the budget.

That year, Morgan was on ABC's "Politically Incorrect" with Bill Maher when Franken was a guest. After debating the budget, Franken got Morgan's phone number from the show. After that, it got weird. Morgan says Franken harassed her for three days.

"He started calling me at home and harassing me, trying to prove to me how right he was," Morgan told Laura Ingraham on "The Ingraham Angle" Thursday night. "Finally, on the third phone call, I told him if he didn't back off that I was going to call the police and make a police report about his behavior. I found it so creepy and so disturbing and obsessively weird."

Smaller targets also caught Franken's eye. In 2008, when campaigning at Carleton College in Minnesota, Franken bumped into Peter Fritz, who he learned was a College Republican. Things got weird fast, according to the Star Tribune.

Franken began questioning Fritz on Republican policies. Franken mocked Fritz's speech patterns, according to the newspaper, and left without shaking hands with Fritz.

Hollywood weird is baked deeply into Franken. He made his start as part of the comedy team Franken and Davis, and was spotted by Lorne Michaels of "Saturday Night Live" sometime in 1975. Michaels made the comedians writers for his new show, which debuted in the fall of 1975.

It was a bonanza for Franken, who had graduated from Harvard University in 1973.

"Franken and Davis" skits, starring the two men, were really the worst part of "Saturday Night Live" in those early years. The best parts of the show were when Franken was off-stage, letting actors such as Chevy Chase, Bill Murray and Gilda Radner perform their craft.

The Al Franken Decade — Not
It wasn't long before Franken's self-centered and partisan nature crept into the writing. In 1980, with many of the best Not Ready for Prime Time Players gone from "SNL," Franken was allowed to do monologues on the show's Weekend Update.

He declared that the 1980s would be the "Al Franken Decade." It must have been a bitter disappointment for the young liberal — the 1980s became the decade of President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

For Franken, professionally, the decade was especially miserable. He left "SNL" in 1980, and admitted on a 1986 episode that most of his screenplays were turned down. He only managed to get bit roles too, including as a baggage handler in 1983's Eddie Murphy hit, "Trading Places."

One script was eventually made — "One More Saturday Night" — about how boring a small Minnesota town can be. Not surprisingly, the 1986 movie was a tremendous flop, making only $32,000.

Franken made it out of the decade by turning more to political humor, and he was back at "Saturday Night Live" from 1985 until 1995.

His humor often relied on the misogynistic and the obscene. In a New York magazine article in 1995, Franken discussed an unaired "SNL" skit in which he drugs and rapes Lesley Stahl of CBS News. In the 2000 millennium issue of Playboy, Franken wrote about the wonders of pornography and the possibility of an oral-sex machine.

The Senator
In 2003, he began savaging the Right in books, including "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right." In 2004, he co-founded an alternative to right-wing talk radio, called "Air America." (It is now defunct.) But Franken never saw his efforts bear real fruit against the Right.

But it was one defeat to the Left that Franken took especially hard: In 2002, Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), a hard-core leftist first elected in 1990, died in a plane crash as he was running for re-election against St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, a Republican.

Wellstone's funeral was marred by partisanship, and the resulting backlash lifted Coleman over the Democrats' replacement pick, Vice President Walter Mondale.

Franken vowed revenge for the backlash, which he thought was aimed at lifting Coleman, according to one of his books. He narrowly beat Coleman in a recount of the 2008 Senate race.

Franken has had trouble sticking by the etiquette and rules of the august body of the Senate. In 2010, he insulted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell by gasping and rolling his eyes. Franken apologized to McConnell, according to Politico, after McConnell confronted him and said, "This isn't 'SNL.'"

Related: Gloria Borger Goes Soft on Al Franken: He is Suffering Tremendously

In this year's book, "Al Franken: Giant of the Senate," Franken boasts of insulting Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to his face. Franken came up with a joke about Carnival cruises, after a stomach virus made its way around one ship.

"When most people think of a cruise that is full of s***, they think of Carnival," Franken recounts saying to Cruz. "But we think of Ted."

And here, it's easy to note, Franken revels in being a jerk.

"And there went Ted’s smile," wrote Franken. "For once, he had no words. I nodded, turned around and walked away."

(photo credit, homepage images: Al Franken, CC BY-SA 2.0, by Peabody Awards)

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