In the 2006 documentary “Al Franken: God Spoke,” Franken, the comedian, activist and future senator from Minnesota, offered a quote that would prove prescient for more than its choice of verb: “Celebrity trumps ideology.”
Franken shares little ideology in common with Donald Trump. But as former NBC stars, both men are examples of how politics has been celebritized — and now, of how political scandal has.
On Thursday, a radio newscaster, Leeann Tweeden, accused Franken of forcibly kissing her as they worked together in 2006 on a USO tour of the Middle East. She also produced a photo of Franken, the former “Saturday Night Live” star, groping at her chest for a photo as she slept.
In the photo, Franken’s hands are stretched toward Tweeden’s breasts, but he’s not looking at her. He’s looking into the camera, with a broad smile on his face.
His grin is implicating. It says that the joke is between him and you, the viewer, and that Tweeden is simply the prop.
In 2006 Franken was considering his 2008 Senate run, which gives the photo all the more disturbing resonance. The groping, it seems to say, is nothing to worry about, just part of the act that gave him entree into activism and then politics in the first place.
He’s confident enough to snap a naughty-boy picture and trust his audience, including Tweeden, who received a copy of the photo, to keep it secret, to be good sports about it. It’s just showbiz.
That dynamic — the performer, the enabling audience and the woman who does not realize she’s being objectified — is familiar. Specifically, it reminded me of Trump’s notorious 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape. But maybe not the part you remember best.
That part was bad enough, of course: Trump bragging to a giggling Billy Bush about grabbing women by their genitalia because “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”
But the context for that line is chilling, too. Trump and Bush are driving to meet the actress Arianne Zucker of “Days of Our Lives,” on which Trump is about to make a cameo. Aboard the bus, the two men ogle her legs: “I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her,” Trump says.
When they get off the bus, Bush asks for hugs for both of them. Zucker obliges. She doesn’t know that the two men have been laughing and leering. Like Tweeden, she’s not in on the joke. She’s just the material.
I’m not going to don a powdered wig and rule on whether Franken and Trump are equivalent, or whose offenses were worse than whose.
But both are examples of the collision of politics with the world of celebrity, where men have long felt entitled to indulge their ids, to play the grabby adolescent and then to laugh it off.
As a candidate, Trump fell back on the show-business defense long before the “Access Hollywood” tape came out.
In 2015, he defended himself on Fox News to Greta Van Susteren after Rolling Stone quoted him as saying, of his primary opponent Carly Fiorina, “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?" Van Susteren said this was not the first time he had made such disparaging remarks about women, to which Trump replied, “Many of those comments are made as an entertainer, because I did ‘The Apprentice.'”
Notably, Trump did not cut Franken the same sort of slack in a Twitter post Thursday:
“The Al Frankenstien picture is really bad, speaks a thousand words. Where do his hands go in pictures 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6 while she sleeps? ...”
In his first response to the revelations about him, Franken fell back on the I-was-an-entertainer defense too: “As to the photo, it was clearly intended to be funny but wasn’t.”
Hours later, he apologized more abjectly, though he still cited his performer’s background. “Coming from the world of comedy,” he wrote, “I’ve told and written a lot of jokes that I thought were funny but later came to realize were just plain offensive.”
(Monday, another woman accused Franken of having groped her, in 2010.)
The entertainment defense is attractive because of the leeway our society has given performers. A politician’s gaffe is a comic’s laugh.
Franken won election, for instance, despite being attacked by his opponent for his past rape and pornography jokes. He apologized during the campaign, but in his recent memoir, “Al Franken, Giant of the Senate,” he wrote that he regretted the apology: “I was just doing my job.”
Until his recent scandal, Franken had been suggested as a potential 2020 opponent to Trump in part because he might be able to weaponize the same tools of celebrity. The candidate who successfully merges entertainment and politics is potent, because you can claim to be joking to one audience while another sees you as a truth teller.
Trump has used this tactic as both candidate and president. His seeming endorsement of police brutality this summer: a “joke,” according to his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Take me seriously, not literally! Lighten up and enjoy the act, snowflake.
In both comedy and politics, however, this is a privilege our society has been more willing to grant to men. When the comedian Kathy Griffin posed this year with a model of the bloodied head of Trump, for instance, her critics, including the president, were less willing to accept art or satire as a defense.
The idea that comedy is a protected space for testing boundaries — that it requires the freedom to take risks and say what’s forbidden elsewhere — is an old one. After the comedian Louis C.K. admitted to sexual misconduct that included masturbating in front of female comedians and colleagues, that idea sounds, at least in some cases, like an excuse.
FX, the TV network with which Louis C.K. is most closely associated, rightly cut ties with him. Abuses by performers and Hollywood executives are starting to be taken literally and seriously.
But we’re in a strange cultural crosscurrent, where even as some toxic Hollywood men are facing consequences, politicians are seeking the kind of license once given to entertainers.
Franken may be damaged, after all, but Trump was ultimately elected, despite numerous accusations of sexual harassment and abuse. He survived the “Access Hollywood” scandal not like a politician but like a shock comic. His audience excused him because they didn’t want the show to end.