On Air
0:00
0:00
Open In New Tab
MPR News

In wake of misconduct allegations, a look at Franken's career in comedy, politics

Share story

Sen. Al Franken
U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., speaks during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee Dec. 11, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
Alex Wong | Getty Images 2013

Minnesota Sen. Al Franken is expected to talk about his political future Thursday, and appears to be on the verge of resigning. Until a few weeks ago, the two-term senator was earning attention for his grilling of Trump administration nominees and a new book.  

  Franken rose to fame as a writer and comedian on "Saturday Night Live." But his career began breaking toward politics in the early 2000s when he worked as a radio host on the now defunct liberal network, Air America.

After the plane crash death of his hero Sen. Paul Wellstone in 2002, Franken began pondering a run for the Senate. Franken, who spent his childhood in Albert Lea and St. Louis Park, moved back to Minnesota in 2005 and campaigned on behalf of other DFLers around the state.

  As he hosted his final show on Air America in 2007 Franken announced his run for U.S. Senate, telling his audience, "I'm not a professional politician. I know I'm going to make some mistakes and this is going to be the hardest thing I've ever done."  

Franken admitted his background in comedy might hurt him, including old sketches and off-color jokes. One of the most damaging was a sexually explicit article he wrote for Playboy nearly a decade before. Democrats and Republicans also criticized him for floating a joke about rape with other comedy sketch writers. The anecdote was in a 1995 story about Saturday Night Live in New York magazine.  

Franken addressed his past during the DFL convention in 2008.  

"The things I said and wrote send a message to some of my friends in this room and the people of this state that they can't count on me to be a champion for women, and for all the people of Minnesota in this campaign and in the senate," Franken said. "I'm sorry for that."

  In a year in which Barack Obama took 54 percent of the vote in Minnesota, the race between Franken and incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman hinged on so few votes that recounts and court battles dragged on for more than six months after election day.  

"I won by 312 votes, so I really have to earn the trust of the people who didn't vote for me and of all the people of Minnesota," Franken said.

  In the Senate, Franken took on issues including drug costs for seniors, oversight for credit rating agencies and net neutrality. He made an effort to stay away from comedy.  

His political star rose, as he became a strong fundraiser nationally for Democrats. He was even mentioned as a vice presidential candidate during the 2016 election.  

He also gained a strong political voice in the party, most notably, during confirmation hearings for President Trump's nominees. His questioning of Jeff Sessions grabbed the attention of national media at the time. Franken asked what the Attorney General nominee, who spoke on behalf of Trump at rallies before the election, would do if "there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government..."

  Sessions responded that he "did not have communications with the Russians, and I'm unable to comment on it."  

That answer led in part to Sessions' recusing himself from the Russia investigation.  

On Nov. 16, radio host Leeann Tweeden posted a 2006 photo showing Franken appearing to touch her breasts as she slept wearing body armor and a helmet during a USO tour. She said he'd also forcibly kissed her during a rehearsal of a script he'd written.  

Franken apologized and welcomed a Senate ethics committee investigation. But in the days and weeks following, more allegations of sexual misconduct have been made by women, some anonymously.  

On Wednesday, a former Democratic aide alleged in a Politico article that Franken had tried to forcibly kiss her in 2006.  Franken immediately denied the allegation made anonymously, but by evening almost all of his Democratic colleagues in the Senate including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer had called for him to resign.

Correction (Dec. 7, 2017): This story has been updated to correct that Leeann Tweeden posted a photo taken during the 2006 USO tour.