Entertainment

'SNL' Didn't Hold Back in Grilling Ex-Castmember Al Franken Over Harassment Claims

This week, Senator Al Franken of Minnesota came under fire for allegedly kissing and groping newscaster Leeann Tweeden without consent during a 2006 U.S.O. tour of the Middle East. After being called out, Franken issued an apology, Tweeden publicly accepted his words, and President Trump seized the accusation for an incendiary, political tweet. By this weekend, many wondered if Saturday Night Live, where Franken worked as a writer and featured player from 1975 to 1980 and again from 1985 to 1995, would confront the headline and roast one of its own.

The answer: most definitely.

"Now I know this photo looks bad," Weekend Update host Colin Jost said of a snapshot attached to Tweeden's story depicting Franken pretending to grope the newscaster's breasts during the U.S.O. tour. "But remember: it also is bad."

As one of the show's original writers, Franken and his longtime creative partner Tom Davis played a pivotal role in shaping the earliest incarnation Saturday Night Live, then again in the mid-'80s when many believed the sketch series to be on death's door. In deep during the years where drugs fueled late nights of revelatory comedy writing ("I only did cocaine to stay awake to make sure nobody else did too much cocaine," Franken joked in the acclaimed SNL oral history, Live From New York), the comedian-turned-Senator wrote sketches ranging from political satire to off-kilter character bits (his self-help guru Stuart Smalley was born from his own struggles with sobriety). According to reports, he campaigned to take over the Weekend Update desk in the mid-'90s, and finally left the show after Lorne MIchaels nixed the idea.

Jost's segment cut deep into the well-documented clubhouse culture that bred giants like Franken. "It's pretty hard," the Update host said, "to be like, 'C'mon he didn't know any better -- he was only 55.'" Now Franken's learning the hard way that comedic misbehavior and deep-seated lack of boundaries, can come back to haunt a guy; along with Tweeden's accusations, quotes from a New York Magazine profile of Saturday Night Live, in which Franken makes a joke about drugging and fooling around with journalist Lesley Stahl, are once again making the rounds on political blogs. Jost's commentary suggests that even people in the business want the toxic behavior of harassment-as-humor weeded out from their world. 

Franken tried to address the entire swath of issues in his apology:

"The first thing I want to do is apologize: to Leeann, to everyone else who was part of that tour, to everyone who has worked for me, to everyone I represent, and to everyone who counts on me to be an ally and supporter and champion of women. There's more I want to say, but the first and most important thing—and if it's the only thing you care to hear, that's fine—is: I'm sorry.

"I respect women. I don't respect men who don't. And the fact that my own actions have given people a good reason to doubt that makes me feel ashamed."

His full statement also found room to reckon with the past: "Coming from the world of comedy, I've told and written a lot of jokes that I once thought were funny but later came to realize were just plain offensive. But the intentions behind my actions aren't the point at all. It's the impact these jokes had on others that matters. And I'm sorry it's taken me so long to come to terms with that."

In the end, SNL used one of its own to pull back to a macro view of the situation. While President Trump criticized Franken's actions, he himself is subject to accusations; 12 women who have accused the president of sexual misconduct, harassment, and assault between the 1980s and 2000s. And as of the sketch, Trump had yet to comment on the subject of Alabama Senate contender Roy Moore, accused by eight women of misconduct during years when they were underage. SNL didn't stop at the political sphere either; before getting to Kate McKinnon's hilarious impression of Jeff Sessions, the show had to take on accusations made against Entourage actor Jeremy Piven. One thing seems clear: don't expect this to be the last time SNL takes on this topic.

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Matt Patches is the Executive Entertainment Editor of Thrillist. He previously wrote for Grantland, Esquire.com, and Vulture. Find him on Twitter @misterpatches.