Photo: Peter Hvizdak / Hearst Connecticut Media
NEW HAVEN — U.S. Sen. Al Franken tried to be serious when he spoke Sunday at the Shubert Theatre about topics such as health care, but as a former comedian, he couldn’t stop himself from cracking jokes and drawing belly laughs from the partisan crowd.
Franken, a Minnesota Democrat touring to support his book, the satirically titled “Al Franken, Giant of the Senate,” attracted several thousand left-leaning people on a summer afternoon. The event was sponsored by R.J. Julia Booksellers of Madison.
During the hourlong, on-stage conversation with Colin McEnroe, who hosts a talk show on WNPR Connecticut Public Radio, Franken said he is sometimes frustrated by the need to be taken seriously by colleagues and the public. That means not telling a lot of jokes.
He recalled his first U.S. Senate campaign in 2008 against Republican Norm Coleman, which Franken eventually won by a margin of only 312 votes and after a lengthy recount. Coleman’s campaign had dredged up Franken’s sexual comments in a January 2000 Playboy parody and aired an ad that called him “depraved.”
“My mother-in-law cried when she saw that ad,” Franken said, “So when I got into office I decided not to be funny at all.”
But still he couldn’t help himself; he had been a successful writer and performer on the TV show “Saturday Night Live” and spent more than 30 years in the comedy business.
And so the first note he wrote on Senate stationery, to a constituent named Ruth Anderson who was about to celebrate her 110th birthday, said this: “Dear Ruth: You have a bright future.”
Franken recalled his chief of staff running into his office two minutes later, yelling, “What is this?”
“It’s a joke,” Franken replied. “I thought she might enjoy it.”
“Oh yeah,” the staffer said. “You think her family will enjoy it?”
Franken remembered another letter he dashed off, a birthday note to Sen. John McCain, of Arizona: “Dear John: Hope you have a great year. Of course, any year would be better than the five you spent in the Hanoi Hilton.”
Franken said that even when he was re-elected by a wide margin in 2014, “after not being funny for 5 1/2 years,” his staff still had to watch him carefully. They often used this advice: “That’s a good joke for inside the car.”
In addition to being a humorist, Franken told the audience, “I’m a crier. I’m very sentimental. If McDonald’s does a commercial about a disabled person on a job, I’ll cry every time.”
“I care about this stuff,” he said, “I care about the vote we had last Friday morning, because I know how much that means to families and people.”
The crowd applauded, knowing immediately Franken was referring to the narrow tally that defeated Republican leaders’ latest attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Franken added, “It just drives me nuts that (President Donald) Trump says: ‘Nobody knew this was complicated.’ That’s hilarious. But it also makes you angry, because it makes such a difference to people.”
He said he saw this up close in 2008, when he first campaigned for the Senate and listened to Minnesota residents talk about their health care worries and how medical bills were driving them into bankruptcy. “When you see one flyer after another for a (benefit) dinner for a family that’s gone bankrupt, then it becomes personal.”
Franken said he hopes Democrats and Republicans “can now work in a bipartisan way” to improve the ACA.
He joked that the number of Americans in polls who said they liked the Republicans’ health care plan was 17 percent, “which is also the number of Americans who claim they have seen a ghost.”
When McEnroe asked Franken about reports Trump might fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 American presidential election, and whether Trump or his representatives might have been involved in it, Franken said such a firing could lead to “a constitutional crisis.”
The crowd cheered when McEnroe asked Franken if he might consider running for president. But Franken shook his head. “I’m 66. I don’t want to be president. It’s an unbelievably high-pressure job. You really need somebody there who wants to be president.”
Franken also answered a question posed from someone in the audience, a teacher who bemoaned the escalating number of lies being told in Washington and asked: “What should I tell my students about the need to tell the truth?”
“This is one of the sad parts about this election,” Franken replied. “Because this president lies all the time. And it seems to not matter. Everybody’s parents, except perhaps Trump’s, say: ‘Don’t lie. Tell the truth.’ It offends me when people lie.”
“I don’t know what you should tell your kids other than it’s the right thing to do: tell the truth!” Franken said.
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