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Al Franken is taking comedy seriously again

Al FrankenCourtesy photo

Al Franken has had two professions. Both of them, he thinks, were undertaken not by choice but necessity.

As a young man, he was drawn to comedy. Later in life, he felt compelled to go into politics.

And when his political career went south, he did what he had to do: He returned to comedy.

On Saturday, Franken will stop by the Wilbur with his solo show “The Only Former US Senator Currently on Tour Tour.” Forced to resign in 2017 for some improper acts — we’ll get to that shortly — he’s having a second act in American life. Or maybe a third.

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“After spending a lifetime learning how to be funny,” he wrote in his 2017 book, the facetiously titled “Al Franken, Giant of the Senate,” “I learned how not to be funny.” Now he’s learning to be funny all over again.

“You have to want to be a politician,” says Franken, who was elected to the Senate twice, in 2008 and 2014. “You have to want to make a difference in that way.”

For Franken, comedy and politics were not only inevitable, they were often interchangeable.

As a young man, his idols were comedians like Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory, who zeroed in on corruption and hypocrisy while making audiences laugh.

“That’s sort of the goal, to be able to do both,” Franken says, on the phone from his current home in New York City. “By doing that, you can make a point a lot stronger, a lot more memorable, and maybe have a bigger influence on things.”

Actually, politics wasn’t inevitable for Franken until the plane-crash death of Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, his friend, in 2002. Wellstone, a fellow Democrat, taught Franken his favorite adage in politics: “We all do better when we all do better.”

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When Wellstone’s opponent assumed his seat in the Senate, he declared that he was a “99 percent improvement” over the late senator.

“I read that and I just said, ‘Who the [heck] is gonna beat this guy?’” Franken recalls. A few years later, he defeated the incumbent, Norm Coleman, by 312 votes out of almost 3 million cast. It was one of the closest major elections in American history.

Franken began writing comedy as a high school student in the suburbs of Minneapolis. He got into Harvard, but he quickly realized his heart wasn’t in the major he’d chosen, science.

So he took a personality test. The results suggested that “scientist” was dead last in terms of the careers he was suited for. (Number one, he says, was “jazz musician.” Number two was “camp counselor.”)

Years later, Dana Carvey told Franken that there’s no reason to be a comedian “unless you absolutely have to be.” By then, Franken and his performing partner, Tom Davis, were writing for, and occasionally appearing on, a little sketch comedy show called “Saturday Night Live.”

After “SNL,” Franken honed a signature blend of politics and entertainment. In 1992 he anchored Comedy Central’s “Indecision ‘92,” reporting live on the Republican and Democratic national conventions. It would be several years before Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert would take up similar space on the air.

In the mid-2000s, he hosted “The Al Franken Show” on Air America, the left-leaning radio network that was supposed to offset talk radio’s conservative tendencies. (He’d titled his best-selling first book “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations.”)

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As a comedian, Franken has often toyed with a smug persona — for instance, the recurring “SNL” appearances in which he declared the 1980s “The Al Franken Decade.” But he could have used some advice from one of his alter-egos, the shame-prone self-help guru Stuart Smalley (“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”) after his political downfall.

In late 2017 he resigned from his seat after facing multiple allegations of inappropriate behavior toward women. There was nothing funny about the allegations, and Franken stepped away from the public eye for a while. It’s a subject he still prefers not to discuss, though he has said that he felt he deserved an appearance before the Senate Ethics Committee.

Following a period of isolation, he reemerged with “The Al Franken Podcast.” Now entering the show’s third year, Franken hosts former colleagues (US Representative Jamie Raskin, Senator Tammy Duckworth), fellow comedians (David Letterman, Sarah Silverman), and occasional notables from the world of his biggest personal obsession, the music of the Grateful Dead (John Mayer, Bill Walton).

Around the time he launched the podcast, Franken hit the road with a show that once again blurred the lines between his two professions.

“It was not really stand-up — I did a speech with a podium,” Franken explains. “But the content, a lot of it was funny. It would qualify as comedy, but not stand-up, because I had notes and a podium.”

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After the pandemic interrupted all that, he began making unannounced appearances at the Comedy Cellar, the Greenwich Village nightclub.

“It was always a warm welcome, just fun from the get-go,” he says. But those nightclub crowds weren’t necessarily the most politically savvy bunch, Franken says. His first post-COVID theater show took place last September in Northampton. It was a strategic decision — the Democrat in the liberal bastion.

Of late, he’s been admiring the way that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has transitioned from his former life as a sitcom comedian to wartime leader, commanding the world’s attention.

“He’s a performer,” Franken says. “One thing I learned — in [Senate] hearings especially — was that having been a performer is very valuable.”

In the Senate, he was often improvising, he says. “If I was being too sarcastic, I could dial it back. I could sense it.”

He stays in touch with former colleagues, he says. In particular, he wishes he could have served on the Judiciary Committee over these last few years to challenge the former president’s picks for the courts. “I think it would have been valuable to have me there,” he says with a laugh. “It just drives me crazy, watching.”

E-mail James Sullivan at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.

AL FRANKEN

At the Wilbur, 246 Tremont St., May 14 at 7 p.m. $47-$89. 617-248-9700, thewilbur.com