No longer joking


But long before Al Franken became the junior Democratic senator from Minnesota and Victoria Jackson took to writing a conservative blog skewering Franken’s party, the two shared laughs as part of the same cast in the late 1980s — and the following brief but interesting encounter.

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Franken had become a top writer on the show. Jackson, newer to the cast, had garnered a following as the naïve blonde with the squeaky voice — an act she played behind the scenes.

But Franken wasn’t buying it. So he pulled her aside after a meeting.

“I just want to tell you that it really offends me that you act ditzy because I heard you at the meeting, and you’re really smart,” Franken said, according to Jackson, who recalled the story for The Hill in a phone interview.

Jackson responded by giving him a glimpse of her inner self.

“Maybe I have this kind of personality because I’m overcompensating, thinking that everybody here is dying and going to hell, and I’m supposed to tell them about Jesus,” she said at the time. Franken looked at her like she was “from Mars,” she recalled.

“His face turned white, and he walked away speechless,” she said.

On his way to a Senate vote, Franken stopped and cracked a smile when asked about the 20-year-old conversation. He confirmed the account but added that he had a slightly different recollection of how it played out.

Standing in front of the door to the Senate floor, he was poised to elaborate, but two of his new colleagues blew by him to cast their votes. Franken’s smile vanished.

“I better get in there,” he said.

Like much of his “SNL” career, it is ancient history, part of a chapter when the two of them were poking fun at politics on the cast of a young, groundbreaking show that this year enters its 35th season.

The show returns on Sept. 26, with new it-girl Megan Fox hosting and U2 performing as the musical guest, and is coming off a season that brought it to new political heights.

Alumna Tina Fey returned last fall to offer an impression of Sarah Palin that rivaled Chevy Chase’s imitation of President Gerald Ford falling and Will Ferrell’s bumbling-tough-guy take on President George W. Bush. Every major 2008 presidential candidate swung by for cameos last season, and no one in Washington was scared — not Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), not Vice President Joe Biden.

It should come as no surprise that the show played a role in helping both Franken and Jackson find their political voices. But the two came to the show from different starting points.

Franken told Jackson that his family always discussed politics at the dinner table when he was growing up. She often talked about gymnastics and the Bible during her family meals. (Jackson was a gymnast growing up, and her handstands and backbends became one of her go-to talents on “SNL.”)

Jackson said watching Franken and the other “SNL” writers create jokes about presidential debates and other current events gave her insight into politics that she hadn’t previously considered. Franken, who graduated cum laude from Harvard University with a political science degree, once wrote a “Weekend Update” piece for her on term limits. That was the first time she had heard of the concept, she said.

They both had their moments on the show. Franken played former Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) for a skit about the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings in 1991 — a skit that has new meaning now that he is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In 2002, he interviewed then-Vice President Al Gore as his famed self-help guru character Stuart Smalley.

Jackson, meanwhile, said her favorite political skit on “SNL” was when she appeared on “Weekend Update” doing a handstand with an American flag on her backside during a report detailing then-President Ronald Reagan’s trip to Reykjavik, Iceland, for negotiations with the USSR.

“The greatest part of ‘SNL’ is that it stays current,” Jackson said. “The fact that you write it that week, you can stay a part of the news, and politics is a big part of the news.”

Today, Franken and Jackson occupy vastly different space on the political spectrum and bear no comparison in terms of national clout. Franken’s inroads to Democratic politics has been well-documented. Jackson became politically active last year and has been picketing lawmakers and expressing her thoughts on the conservative website Big Hollywood. In February she attended her first protest — over the $787 stimulus package — and has been active since, going to tea parties, town hall meetings and other protests.

She doesn’t really care if people take her seriously, she said. She even finds one of her trademarks from the “SNL” years coming in handy.

“I have an irritating voice, but all I want to do is make people wake up from the slumber,” she said. “Like a rooster in the morning — he has a very irritating sound and he wakes people up. That’s my goal.”

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The two have crossed paths since their time on “SNL.” Jackson attended Franken’s 2004 live appearance in Miami to promote his liberal Air America radio show. It had been 13 years since they had seen each other, and after the event, she went backstage to say hello.

“It took him a second to realize it was me,” she said, adding that they hugged and chatted about their children. “I kind of mumbled that it was weird to be the only conservative in the auditorium … Al didn’t know what to say and seemed confused as to why I was there.”

They now effectively work against each other, and, according to Jackson, they didn’t have a close working relationship on “SNL” to begin with. But she said she respects his work — “He’s really smart and funny” — and saw something senatorial in him even in their comedian days. “I’m surprised he wasn’t in there sooner.”