Al Franken gained notice as a comedian and political satirist on ‘Saturday Night Live’ before being elected a senator from Minnesota in 2008. He resigned from the Senate in 2017 following multiple accusations of sexual misconduct.
Who Is Al Franken?
Al Franken was born May 21, 1951, in New York City. He first gained notice as a writer, comedian and sharp political satirist during his long tenure on the comedy sketch program Saturday Night Live. He wrote for and performed on SNL from its inaugural season in 1975 to 1980; he returned in 1985 and served as one of the show's producers until 1995. Elected a U.S. senator from Minnesota in 2008, Franken found his career in jeopardy in 2017, after a radio host shared photographic evidence of Franken inappropriately touching her, and he announced his resignation from the Senate that December.
Career in Comedy
Writer, actor, and politician. Born May 21, 1951, in New York City. Franken first gained notice as a writer, comedian and sharp political satirist during his long tenure on the comedy sketch program Saturday Night Live. He wrote for and performed on SNL from its inaugural season in 1975 to 1980; he returned in 1985 and served as one of the show's producers until 1995. During this time he won four Emmy Awards for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy, Variety or Music Series.
Some of his most famous appearances were as a frequent commentator on the "Weekend Update" sketch and as the self-help guru Stuart Smalley, a character who earned a longer look in Franken's 1993 book, I'm Good Enough, I'm Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me, and an unsuccessful film, Stuart Saves His Family (1995). On a more serious note, he co-wrote and co-produced the film When a Man Loves a Woman (1994), starring Meg Ryan as a wife and mother struggling with alcoholism.
From early in his career, Franken poked fun at politics and politicians, engineering a humorous encounter with President Reagan on his campaign bus in 1976 and initiating a number of biting parodies of Democratic and Republican leaders alike on SNL. In 1988, he provided commentary for CNN at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. Four years later, he worked as an anchorman and writer for Comedy Central's coverage of the Democratic and Republican conventions, an eight-day stretch of programming called "Indecision '92."
In 1996, Franken published his second book, a collection of political essays entitled Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations. During the 1996 presidential election, he memorably paired with Arianna Huffington as a commentator for Comedy Central's Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher. Three years later, he published a satirical account of his own fictional presidency, Why Me? The Inside Story of the Making and Unmaking of the Franken Presidency.
In 2003, after winning an injunction by Fox News to stop its publication, Franken put out another political satire, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, which included a cover photo of Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly. Aside from openly mocking O'Reilly, a chapter in the book accused the commentator of lying. In August 2003, Fox News sued Franken, claiming infringement of its registered trademark phrase "Fair and Balanced." A federal judge found the lawsuit to be "wholly without merit."
The next year, Franken joined liberal talk-radio station Air America. His show, originally named The O'Franken Factor, aired three hours a day, five days a week in an effort to provide an alternative to the conservative talk-radio circuit. While maintaining his role at Air America, Franken also published a sixth book, The Truth (with jokes) (2005), which focused on the 2004 Republican presidential campaign. The book debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list, and remained on the list for 10 straight weeks.
In 2007, Franken left Air America in order to fully pursue his political ambitions. Franken announced his run for the Minnesota Senate on February 14, 2007, on the last day of his radio show. After being tapped by the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party in June 2008—and receiving an endorsement from conservative speech writer and comedian Ben Stein—Franken won the Democratic primary for the Senate seat.
On election night in 2008, reports gave Franken's Republican opponent, Norm Coleman the seat by more than 700 votes. But by the end of the night, the two candidates were separated by less than 0.5 percent, which enacted Minnesota's automatic recount law. On January 5, 2009, the Minnesota State Canvassing Board put Franken ahead by 225 votes. The next day, Coleman appealed the decision, which led to a trial. On April 13, 2009, a Minnesota court announced that Franken was the winner. Coleman appealed again, this time to the Minnesota Supreme Court. But on June 30, 2009, the court rejected Coleman's appeal, declaring Franken the winner. Shortly after, Coleman conceded. Franken was formally seated in July 2009.
The second time around, Franken had a smoother course to victory. He defeated his opponent, Mike McFadden, winning more than 53 percent of the vote. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Franken thanked Minnesotans "for taking a chance on me six years ago. And thank you for giving me the chance to keep working for you in Washington."
Sexual Harassment Controversy
In November 2017, as powerful men such as Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and Senate hopeful Roy Moore were facing allegations of sexual harassment in the media, Franken suddenly was forced to account for past indiscretions as well.
The first accusation came from radio host Leeann Tweeden, who said that Franken had forcibly kissed and groped her during a 2006 U.S.O. tour of the Middle East, before he took public office. Even more damning, she posted a photo of a grinning Franken reaching for her breasts as she slept.
After initially offering a short apology, Franken followed with a lengthier one in a statement that read, in part, "I respect women. I don’t respect men who don’t. And the fact that my own actions have given people a good reason to doubt that makes me feel ashamed."
His actions were condemned by colleagues from both sides of the aisle, and Franken announced he fully supported the referral of the matter to the Senate Ethics Committee.
Days later, Texas resident Lindsay Menz came forward with the claim that Franken had inappropriately touched her as well. The incident occurred as the two posed for a photo at the 2010 Minnesota State Fair, with Franken reaching around to grab her rear. Menz, who described the experience to family and friends at the time, said she was emboldened to share it publicly after seeing Tweeden do the same.
Franken subsequently told CNN that he didn't recall the encounter. "I take thousands of photos at the state fair surrounded by hundreds of people, and I certainly don't remember taking this picture," he said. "I feel badly that Ms. Menz came away from our interaction feeling disrespected."
After lying low for several days, Franken in late November resurfaced for his first interviews since the allegations became headlines. "I‘m embarrassed and ashamed," he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "I’ve let a lot of people down and I‘m hoping I can make it up to them and gradually regain their trust." In other interviews, he stressed that he would be held accountable by the Senate Ethics Committee, and said he had no plans to resign from his position.
On December 7, 2017, after more women came forward with accusations and his Democratic colleagues publicly called for him to step down, Franken took the Senate floor for a speech in which he announced he would resign from his post "in the coming weeks."
Calling it the "the worst day of my political life," Franken continued to insist that he had different recollections of the alleged cases of misconduct, but admitted that it would be impossible to continue working in the Senate under the cloud of suspicion. "I of all people am aware that there is some irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office," he said, adding, "This decision is not about me. It is about the people of Minnesota."
Reports soon surfaced of several Democratic senators expressing regret over a rush to judgment, with at least four of them asking Franken to reconsider his resignation. West Virginia's Joe Manchin was among the most outspoken of his colleagues, saying, "What they did to Al was atrocious." However, Franken reportedly had no intention of changing his mind, and was focused on aiding the transition to his appointed successor, Minnesota lieutenant governor Tina Smith, before formally resigning on January 2, 2018.
Franken is married to Franni Bryson, whom he met at Harvard while still an undergraduate. The couple has two children, Thomasin and Joe. The family currently resides in Minnesota.