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Senator Al Franken on How He “Pivoted” to Political Life

Comedy was easy compared with the hoops he’s had to jump through since

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On the latest episode of Black on the Air, Larry Wilmore was joined by Minnesota Senator Al Franken to talk politics, comedy, and Saturday Night Live. Franken, who spent decades as a comedian and satirist, had some trouble transitioning to politics when he first ran for senate in 2008. As he tells Wilmore, he had to learn how to "pivot."

One time early on in his foray into politics, Franken was in New Ulm, Minnesota, to give a speech beneath a monument to Hermann the German. But he couldn’t just throw out a joke the way he was used to.

"[I’m] speaking to the DFL (Democratic Farmer-Labor) picnic, and I’m in the shadow of Hermann the German," Franken said. "I’m from ‘St. Jewish Park,’ as some people call it. … I did comedy for 37 years professionally, so any self-respecting comedian would say, ‘You know, here I am in the shadow of Hermann the German. You know, in St. Louis Park, we also had a statue — Stu the Jew.’"

He has to make that joke, right?

"No, well that’s what I used to think, but now, I’ve been running long enough that I knew there was a tracker there. That’s [a person] from the Republican party taping me. The Republicans put every joke I’d ever done through the de-humorizor. Which is a $15 million machine built with very, very sophisticated Israeli technology."

Out of context, the joke could turn into a bad look for Franken.

"So I figure, if I say that here, somehow, they’re going to end up saying, ‘Al Franken blamed the Holocaust on the people of New Ulm,’ and I didn’t want that to happen, so I didn’t say it. … And [my staff] was very proud of me."

He also had to work on a new skill that’s always useful in politics: pivoting.

"I’d been having trouble learning certain political skills like pivoting. And so two weeks later, New York magazine came to interview [me and] asked me, ‘Has there ever been a joke that you thought of that you didn’t tell?’ And I went, ‘Yeah, Stu the Jew.’ And then [my staff said], ‘Why did you do that?’ I shouldn’t have done that. And you know, ‘Why didn’t you say, "I can’t think of one right now"?’"

What’s pivoting? It’s answering a question without actually addressing the question.

"I got a little training in pivoting. Pivoting is basically this: Early on in the race [a reporter will] go like, ‘You’re 15 points behind in the polls. You’re asking Democrats to get behind you to be the nominee. If you’re 15 down in the polls, how are you going to convince them that you’re the guy to take on Norm Coleman?’ And the pivot is, ‘You know, when I go around Minnesota, Minnesotans don’t care about polls. What they care about is whether they get health care.’"

While comedy came naturally to Franken, pivoting didn’t.

"And I had a hard time doing that, and the Stu the Jew story, actually, that was the one where I went, ‘I gotta learn how to do this.’ And I did. And then I got another training, and I had an interview with a guy who’d interviewed me several times before, and I just pivoted egregiously all throughout the interview, and I kind of got the hang of it, and at the end of the interview he turns to my press secretary and said, ‘You know he’s getting a lot better. I think he’s got a shot.’"

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.