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Al Franken gets serious about politics

Is the comedian on a book tour or ‘an extended stump speech’?
/ Source: Reuters

He pioneered mock television news 30 years ago and wrote a satirical book about becoming the 44th president of the United States.

So when comedian Al Franken says he is considering a run for U.S. Senate you have to ask — is he serious?

“The next thing I am doing is moving back home to Minnesota and getting involved in politics,” Franken told Reuters in an interview at his Air America radio studio. “I’m looking at a run for Senate in 2008, but in the meantime I am focused on knitting together the progressive network in the upper Midwest.”

It sounds serious. Franken is starting a national tour to promote his new book “The Truth (With Jokes),” which features the usual political satire that has made him a top-selling humor writer.

A New York Times reviewer called it “an extended stump speech” for his political run.

The heavily researched book tackles topics like Social Security reform, Iraq and the case of Terri Schiavo, which prompted a highly charged national debate on euthanasia earlier this year.

Still, for Franken, a one-liner is never far away.

He skewers Republican leader Tom DeLay for saying proper medical care might have revived Schiavo as she remained in a vegetative state while politicians debated her fate.

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“In other words, given proper treatment, there was no reason Terri Schiavo couldn’t live out her lifelong dream of being a Rockette,” Franken quipped.

To launch his political career, he says he’s moving to freezing-cold Minnesota in January, but that’s no joke. That’s his plan.

He shrugs and shakes his head when asked whether wrestler Jesse Ventura’s successful run for Minnesota governor inspired him. He prefers to talk about Paul Wellstone, the left-wing Democrat who died in a plane crash in the closing days of his 2002 campaign for a third term in the Senate.

It’s Wellstone’s seat, which went to Republican Norm Coleman, that he hopes to win back for the Democrats in 2008. “I knew Paul well; I campaigned for him a lot,” said Franken. “He was a friend. A great guy.”

Franken said there have been actors in the White House and the Senate though “never a comedian.” Would voters in his home state elect a comedian?

“They would elect a comedian like me,” Franken said.

Stand-up politicsFranken has worked the political humor circuit for years, mining it for content and using his stand-up skills to raise funds for liberal Democrats.

He started doing improvisational theater growing up in the Twin Cities, and, after graduating from Harvard, performed topical stand-up comedy in Los Angeles with his long-time writing and performing partner Tom Davis.

An agent suggested they might write for the original “Saturday Night Live” 30 years ago. To land that job, they composed a sketch of a newscast presented at the end of the world.

Franken replays it with his newsreader persona. “The stock market closed today ... Forever...

“Here is the weather ... The temperature is up to 8,000 degrees in the valley.”

Franken stayed with “Saturday Night Live” for two decades, writing and appearing on camera, doing his antic version of television news.

In his 1999 book “Why Not Me?” he writes about becoming president while running on the single issue of cash-machine fees. Since then, his humor has become more political, and more barbed, with “Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot” in 2000 and ”Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them” in 2003.

He transformation from comedian to liberal talk show host began when Air America launched early last year, begun as a response to conservative shows like Limbaugh’s.

Material for political comedy “just keeps getting better” with the indictment of two prominent Republicans and the failures in Bush’s handling of the fallout from Hurricane Katrina, Franken said.

His book popped onto the best-seller lists immediately.

Some critics say the “humorist on a mission” might be getting too serious for his own good. The new book, said a Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram review “is heavy on condemnation ... and light on laughs.” But a New York Times review says Franken’s book “does keep its promise to be funny about extremely unfunny matters.”

Franken says he learned to do a balancing act partly by doing comedy shows for soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. “You don’t stand up and say, ‘Your president is lying to you and you are dying for no reason.’ I don’t do that joke.”