|Slate: That's Not Funny
||[Oct. 29th, 2008|12:58 am]
In theory, Americans love an anti-politician—an outsider who tells the voters what he actually thinks rather than suffocating his personality beneath layers of polspeak. Think of Warren Beatty in Bulworth, Michael Douglas in The American President. In reality, voters tend to ruthlessly punish any spark of genuine personality. And the worst personality trait you can have, politically speaking, is humor—not the corny, banquet-speaker humor of Ronald Reagan but humor as a cutting tool of social analysis.|
Consider the case of Al Franken. The Saturday Night Live writer turned Minnesota Senate candidate spent most of the last year trailing badly as pundits clucked their tongues at his "potty mouth." Lately, he has pulled even with his opponent, Norm Coleman, but he's done so only by riding an overwhelming anti-Republican wave and running a relentlessly dull, cookie-cutter campaign. Even so, his shameful comic past has marked him indelibly. Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson warned that Franken's election would "push our culture toward vulgarity and viciousness." Even some Democrats apparently regard him as a bad joke. Not long ago, NBC political director Chuck Todd waxed incredulous at the prospect of Franken winning. "I have had multiple very high-level Democrats on the Hill sit there with their fingers crossed," reported Todd. "They are scared of Franken winning. More importantly, they fear that if Franken wins, then every liberal Hollywood type is going to say, 'Hey, I can run for office, too.' " Coleman recently released a campaign flier calling Franken "completely unfit for public office" because of his comedy career.
It's understandable that people might, at first blush, think of Franken as the equivalent of Sen. Carrot Top—or the next Jesse Ventura, a fellow Minnesotan to whom Franken is incessantly compared. It doesn't help that Franken is best known for playing the goofy character Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live. And so Franken's comedic career has been transformed in the public mind into the job-training equivalent of dressing up in tights and smashing a fake chair over somebody's head.