What led you to become a comedian?
My parents liked comedy. The reason I became a comedian was because my favorite thing ever to do was sit on the couch with my dad and my brother and my mom and watch comedy and laugh. It took me till I was about 40 to realize that. “Why did I become a comedian? Oh yes, yes! Yes. That was my favorite thing.”
Was your family supportive?
To their credit, my parents basically said, “Do what you want to do.” But I was a Sputnik kid, and I had grown up studying math and science. In 1957, Sputnik had just gone up, and like every American, my parents were terrified because the Russians were ahead of us in space and had nuclear weapons. So they sat me and my brother down and said, “You boys are gonna study math and science so we can beat the Soviets.” And I thought that was a lot of pressure to put on a six-year-old. But my brother and I were obedient sons. He was the first in our family to go to college: He went to MIT. I realized early on that I wasn’t cut out to be a scientist, and so I became a comedian. But we beat the Soviets. So you’re welcome.
What’s the most Minnesotan thing about you?
It’s that I always wear a T-shirt under a shirt. If I go out and I don’t need a tie and I wear a sport coat and, like, a pair of slacks, I still have the T-shirt there sticking out under the shirt. I just realized that I always do that. I would never consider not wearing a T-shirt. That’s very Minnesotan. That’s extremely Minnesotan. No one else wears T-shirts except us in Minnesota. And North Dakota, South Dakota.
How did you know it was time to leave SNL?
I had always wanted to host “Weekend Update,” and I didn’t get it. Norm Macdonald did, and he was the better choice. By that time, in 1995, my views were already public, and I think it would’ve been bad for the host of the show’s signature news piece to have a well-known liberal bias. They chose wisely, but I was not happy about it, and so I finally left. It was very hard to do, but I published two books after that, one of which, Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot: And Other Observations, was the No. 1 bestseller for 23 weeks. So it’s the best thing that ever happened to me, but I didn’t understand that at the time. Someday, after the Senate, I think maybe I could go back and be the host of “Weekend Update.”
You were careful not to be funny during your first term. Was it hard to hold your tongue?
It was hard sometimes and still is. There’s still things that I don’t say that I’d be crazy to say but that strike me as funny. My first campaign was very vicious, and they put pretty much everything I’d ever written or said through this $15 million machine called The Dehumorizer and, as a result, it decontextualized everything I ever said and robbed it of any irony. You can do that to pretty much anything, and make someone look really bad. I had won by such a narrow margin that I had to prove to the people of Minnesota that I was there to be a serious senator. The best way to disprove that I was there to be a serious senator was by being funny. It was fairly easy for me to internalize what I had to do and not do. It wasn’t hard to execute. Sometimes it was a little hard emotionally. But I was glad that people in Minnesota understood why I really had gone to Washington.
What got you through that brutal first campaign?
The darkest hour was right before our convention, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Convention, which sort of bestows the Party endorsement, which, in that year, was going to mean that you were the nominee — all of the candidates had agreed that the person who got the endorsement would be the nominee. And they threw some stuff at me that made me sound misogynistic and just other awful things, and I had to convince people and I had to reassure the delegates at that convention that that wasn’t who I was, and I apologized for, you know, jokes. That was a tough time, because I was afraid I was letting everyone down. I almost had a dark night of the soul, but I didn’t have time for that. [laughs] I had, like, an hour, a dark hour of the soul, and then I sucked it up and gave a great speech.
Your political mentor, Senator Paul Wellstone, died in a plane crash in 2002. What did he mean to you?
A tremendous amount. It’s hard to overstate how important Paul is to Minnesotans, and to me. He was a friend, and the way we lost him is still painful. I have a picture of Paul, hanging right behind me at my desk. Every day I try to remember the things he said: “Politics isn’t about power, it’s not about money, it’s not about winning. It’s about improving people’s lives.”
What should every American know about the political system that they don’t?
That there are genuine differences between Republicans and Democrats, and that there aren’t, sitting out there, objective solutions to problems that we’re ignoring for some partisan reason. It’s more complicated than that. And also that Democrats are almost always right.
What’s something you learned from being on the wrestling team in high school?
Don’t ever give up a chance to eat. I had to lose like 20 pounds. As a freshman, I wrestled at 103, then 112 as a junior, and 120 after that. By the last season, I just said, “OK, that’s enough of that.”
Which is tougher: Television or politics?
They’re both tough, but when you’re doing it right, they’re both great. There’s nothing better than improving peoples’ lives — whether it’s getting more funding for mental health in schools or, on the other end, making people laugh. I tell my friends who’ve continued in comedy, people like Conan [O’Brien], “Don’t for a minute think that what you’re doing isn’t as important as what I’m doing.” Even though it isn’t.
Who’s the funniest Republican in the Senate?
Pat Roberts and Lindsey Graham are very funny. I saw Lindsey in the senators bathroom during his campaign for president, when he was polling at about 2 percent, and I said to him, “Lindsey, if I were Republican, I’d vote for you,” and he said, “That’s my problem.”
What has being a Deadhead taught you?
The Dead taught me about trying to catch lightning in a bottle — they were different every night you saw them. If you went to an Eagles concert, it would be note-for-note perfect. Beautiful. But you don’t have to see them again for another 20 years. The Dead were different every night. You could actually go to a show that wasn’t very good, but in contrast, you could also go to Dead shows that were truly, hair-raisingly great. There was nothing like it.
What advice would you give the younger you?
Invest in Apple. And then it’d be, “No, you idiot! More! Invest more money!”
The senator will publish a new book, Al Franken, a Giant of the Senate, this month.