As the words "National conversation about sexual misconduct" appeared on CNN yesterday morning, I joked that I'd missed the national conversation about sexual conduct. I joke a lot because I have a bad temper, and jokes are one of the more socially acceptable ways of expressing rage. Sometimes.
Good jokes are subversive, and I've been obsessed for a while about what it means to punch up versus punch down, because the concept illuminates a layer of privilege that isn't always easy to access. Take for example, a t-shirt sold by Barrelhouse Magazine—it simply says in white script on black fabric, "Fucking poets, man." This is a popular item at the annual conference for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (aka AWP), so it came as a shock last year when Tin House Magazine produced black tote bags with "fuck'n poets" printed on them. Plagiarism aside, the joke as it comes from Barrelhouse—a nonprofit run by a dozen pop culture obsessed misfits who revere Patrick Swayze —conveys a very different meaning than the same coming from Tin House, which is a well-funded and prestigious journal, especially if you are into contemporary, Big L Literature.
The poets in the Barrelhouse statement are Serious Artists who don't own TVs, and the relationship of BH to them is that of jester to nobility, whereas the poets in the Tin House statement are more like employees. A poem published in Tin House is a career step, while a poem published in Barrelhouse is just pretty cool. Tin House's "fuck'n poets" are being ridiculed by the boss, not the clown.
Which brings me to Al Franken. Seriously, it does. When I think of Franken, the first thing that comes to mind is not his public service or Stuart Smalley. It's a night in the early 80s back in college when I attended a free Franken and Davis show with my boyfriend. The event was poorly promoted, and there weren't more than 40 people in the audience. Franken and Davis were pissed off by the low turnout, and they made sure we knew that. The routines and gags were mirthless, which made us all nervous. Franken wore obscenely tight pants for a Mick Jagger bit, and I think the larger joke was supposed to be about a doughy guy trying to look rock-star cool (and almost succeeding), but under the circumstances he just looked exposed and raw. At some point, he complained to the audience, “You need to laugh more.” A heckler shot back with, “You need to be funnier.” That got the biggest laugh of the evening.
The show was depressing, but mercifully short. Since then, I've always remembered Al Franken as the asshole who tried to cajole an audience into enjoying his performance when it was clear that he didn’t enjoy it himself (which is essentially a distorted version of his comedic persona, I suppose).
So, flash-forward to the picture of him grabbing Leeann Tweeden's breasts, looking at the camera like an imp. The Al Franken in that photo is making a joke that depends on exploiting the vulnerability of a female body at rest in a flak jacket and helmet, fully protected from bullets but not the patriarchy. Even if the joke is about the boob grabbing the boobs, the woman is an unwilling a prop. Later photos of Franken groping a willing Arianna Huffington, and another report by another woman claiming he grabbed her buttocks during a photo op at a state fair, just prove that this is a gag he really, really likes. The barely suppressed rage is stunning.
Thing is, it's a 20thcentury joke, coming from a National Lampoon/frat humor tradition that relies on the bully power of "you can't take a joke," to keep its targets under control. However, as a 21st century joke, the punchline is missing--the one in which the prop woman awakens to toss her groper in the middle of the war zone where his body, without armor, is now the vulnerable one. On second thought, that's not funny, either.
Look, I know I'm crazy-frustrated about Roy Moore, and that I'm lashing out at Franken because Moore is barely even human to me. I can't even imagine how he could transform himself to become a force for decency in the world. Franken, on the other hand, is all too real, and he has skills.
Al Franken, the senator, is supposed to be our guy. The guy who could, at the very least, take down Jeff Sessions in the court of popular opinion. (Remind me why we only have one guy for that?) But then along comes the ghost of Al Franken, the angry comedian, who thinks jug/bun-grabbing is hilarious. Setting aside my paranoia about what else may be in the man's past, is it possible to turn this into a teachable moment or two? I'm not even talking about rehabilitating the guy. I just want to squeeze a little more juice out of him before he's tossed away.
In my fantasy world, Al Franken returns to the college circuit, perhaps even with Leeann Tweeden, to lead discussions about the history, rhetoric, and effect of rape jokes. He is a very compelling, natural speaker, and he can self-deprecate like a mofo, but more importantly, he has been an adult since the 70s, weathering the sexual revolution, the cultural effects of HIV, and perhaps less steadily, this current era of consent. He may be a politician, but what distinguishes him is his artistry. I can honestly see him as a Professor of comedy, who doesn't need to disavow his past actions so much as assertively consign those abuse-dependent gags to history.
But that's just a fantasy. All signs suggest that Franken is just going to push through, hang on, and accept his diminished voice in order to hold onto his current career, all the while crossing his fingers that nothing worse comes out, forcing him to resign in disgrace. Just like they all do. Fucking politicians, man.