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Live from the Capitol, It’s Al Franken: Humor and the Left in the Trump Era

To most lay viewers of newly-elected Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, it may have seemed certain that, in his past life, Minnesota Democratic Senator Al Franken was a master of the courtroom. His tactful questioning of Gorsuch over a past decision of his, a case now infamously referred to as the “Frozen Trucker,” suggested an ability to read a witness like an open book, a tell-tale sign of a seasoned trial lawyer. Indeed, to many viewers, particularly those of my generation, it comes as a surprise that Franken was actually a writer and actor for one of the nation’s most formative staples of comedy, Saturday Night Live, during the show’s nascent days. As his questioning of Gorsuch came to a close, Franken remained unimpressed with the judge’s responses related to the trucker case and, referring to his SNL past, the senator noted, “I had a career in identifying absurdity, and I know it when I see it.” Now, perhaps more than ever in recent US politics, identifying absurdity is a task simultaneously of great importance and, thanks to its sheer ubiquity, of great difficulty. In a political reality where the Republican president has roots in second-rate reality television, the Democratic opposition is turning to a senator who got his start in comedy to rebuke the Trump administration’s penchant for absurdity.

Though the senator’s foray into politics is relatively recent, Franken was a political force for many years prior to his current career, albeit in an entirely separate capacity. Franken served as a writer for SNL during its first five seasons from 1975 to 1980 and returned again in 1985 for another decade. There, Franken contributed heavily to the show’s political overtones, for instance, portraying Senator Paul Simon during the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings and providing the Weekend Update desk with poignant, highly satirical analyses of the smear campaigns of 1994. While Franken never feared targeting the center-left, as evinced by his two White House Correspondents’ Dinner addresses during the Clinton administration, his longtime target has been the far-right and its political commentators, notably radio and TV personalities Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly.

Through several scathing critiques of the American Right, among them Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, Franken’s disdain for conservative advocates was apparent, and sometimes – in the eyes of opponents – verging on distasteful. Nevertheless, even when rebuking the right-wing media’s apparent embrace of misogyny and xenophobia, Franken expressed a healthy respect for its ability to mobilize. In 2004, Franken shared the media platform with his subjects of nuanced ridicule by hosting a policy intensive talk show on Air America (which he jokingly dubbed the “O’Franken Factor”). The show never rivaled those of Limbaugh or O’Reilly, but it did provide Franken his first taste of policy. In 2008, Franken challenged incumbent Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman, and, only after a legally-mandated recount, won by 312 votes. On July 7, 2009, Franken joined his colleagues in the Senate, albeit some six months late, providing Democrats the crucial and short-lived 60th, filibuster-proof vote in the Senate.

In their second term on the Hill, Franken and his staff got serious about being taken seriously. Pressed by David Axelrod on The Axe Files to impersonate Senator Bernie Sanders and reprise Stuart Smalley, the self-help guru he often played on SNL, Franken willingly declined. “I don’t think my role to play here has anything to do with humor,” he is known to say. “I don’t think humor is the tool I’m supposed to be using.” This reluctance speaks to more than Franken’s respect for the authority he possesses. It also speaks to a greater effort to rebrand himself as a partisan, with the hope of thereby rebranding the political climate he finds himself in and shirking the aura of Hollywood and Rockefeller Plaza alike. Franken realizes, in light of the most recent election results, just how little many Americans care for the endorsements of celebrities or the constant barrage late night comedians place on the Trump administration, and his colleagues should as well.

"The honesty and courage of Franken is invaluable to refuting what some call a “post-truth world;” as long as there are people among us who continue careers in identifying absurdity, our political reality will continue to operate in fact."

Don’t get me wrong: Humor remains a powerful tool in calling out the absurdity that has taken place under this administration already. Franken’s alma mater SNL, thanks to Alec Baldwin’s ever-aloof portrayal of Trump, Melissa McCarthy’s vitriolic press secretary Sean Spicer, and Kate McKinnon’s unwittingly racist Attorney General Jeff Sessions, shows that, sometimes, the best remedy for living in an era of political absurdity is laughter. The show’s ratings, as high as they have been in decades, suggest much of America is joining in this laughter.

However, the situation is entirely different when comedians direct us to laugh at our neighbors, not some public figure in Washington. Take a recent episode of The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. One of the show’s “correspondents,” Jordan Klepper, finds his way to a Trump rally in Nashville. Of course the administration’s decision to campaign less than 100 days into its first term is an absurdity worth identifying. But this absurdity was not the segment’s punchline; rather, the Trump supporters were. This is not to condone the highly problematic, hate-spewing statements some of the supporters shared. But undeniably, Klepper and his team handpicked from the crowd the most radical examples present and likely discarded any evidence that suggested a Trump supporter could articulate a justifiable reason for being there. Yes, a segment like this suggests the deep divide present in our country and the opinions espoused by some of those interviewed were deplorable. But frankly, so too was this “reporting” from Klepper, suggesting the Left’s part in prolonging that divide. The segment therefore undermined the voices of the millions of Trump supporters who also disapprove the President’s decision to spend his time campaigning instead of addressing the problems they elected him to solve. Moreover, the segment willingly and woefully accepted a blatant tone of condescension. Did the Daily Show team completely miss the irony of a liberal, east coast, Canada Goose-clad comedian deriding rural Americans? Franken’s words from Lying Liars rings ever true: “We have to fight back. But we can’t fight like they do. The Right’s entertainment value comes from their willingness to lie and distort. Ours will have to come from being funny and attractive.” Klepper and the Daily Show should note that cheap comedy only reinforces clichés and stereotypes without paying its dues and engaging in actual reporting.

At this currently blurred line between productive humor and detrimental contempt, Franken exemplifies the proper Democratic course for reconciliation. Representing a state with strong rural roots and where Hillary Clinton won by a mere 40,000 votes, Franken realizes the futility of villainizing the Trump supporter. Time and again, Franken has exposed the absurdity of this administration the right way. Franken’s deft questioning of Trump’s cabinet nominees has done more than provide Facebook soundbites; it has revealed the intrinsic lack of preparation of this administration. The senator played a crucial, early role in contesting the administration’s larger vision, through his questioning of Secretary of Education nominee Betsy DeVos’s comprehension, or lack thereof, of the concepts of growth and proficiency. His questioning of Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions, relating to the then-Senator and Trump campaign surrogate’s connection to Russian representatives (to which Sessions claimed to have none), set a trap that implicated greater involvement between the administration and Russian officials. And even his most recent questioning of Supreme Court nominee Gorsuch cuts deeper than a partisan attempt to disqualify the judge; it exemplifies a perennial critique of the Right in its willingness to defend the interests of big business over those of the employee. In doing so, Franken challenged the impunity of the Scalia legacy on the Court, a legacy the senator sees as “blind to the equal dignity of LGBT people, and hostile to women’s reproductive rights, and a view that often refused to acknowledge the lingering laws and policies that perpetuate the racial divide.”

Democrats in the Trump era ought to take note of the Franken journey, however irregular it may be. The honesty and courage of Franken is invaluable to refuting what some call a “post-truth world;” as long as there are people among us who continue careers in identifying absurdity, our political reality will continue to operate in fact. For instance, Democrats ought to continue to label the GOP healthcare plan as an utter failure that is the result of both a highly fractured Republican Party in disarray, and the successful, ground-level mobilization by Democrats, rather than a “learning experience,” as the President has bashfully chosen to label it. But it is of the utmost importance for the American Left to remember, as Franken does, just who the target is. In our public discourse as advocates and in our conversations as private citizens, it does little good to villainize our neighbors. Frankly, that’s absurd, especially when our elected officials give us plenty to laugh at. 


About the Author

Nathaniel Pettit '20 is a US Section Staff Writer for the Brown Political Review.