Al Franken's week behind the "Daily Show" desk won't inspire a campaign to make him the long-running program's permanent host. But it was a firm reminder that the former Minnesota senator's top priority these days is comedy.
The man who once lobbied, unsuccessfully, to be the "Weekend Update" anchor on "Saturday Night Live," started his four-night gig with a high-profile visit.
The guest was Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican senator who forged an unlikely friendship with Franken during their mutual time in Congress. Franken would resign in 2018 after accusations of sexual impropriety.
Their fondness for each other may have robbed viewers of any meaningful debate. The two each squeezed in their differing talking points on former President Donald Trump, but the chat felt a lot like a photo opportunity with both holding back any serious jabs. Franken even reiterated his belief that Graham was the funniest person he had met in Washington. The extended version of their conversation, available only online, had slightly more spark, but no fireworks.
Franken continued to toss softballs to his other guests, as well, which included "Succession" actor Alan Ruck, author Heather McGhee and drag queen BenDeLaCreme. But "TDS" has never been known for its penetrating interviews.
When the Comedy Central show debuted in 1996 with host Craig Kilborn and co-creator Lizz Winstead, both of whom hail from Minnesota, it was primarily a takedown of smug journalists. Under the leadership of Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah, it became much more political, reflecting — and occasionally influencing — the liberal agenda.
Franken upheld that tradition. His defense of increased funding for the IRS could have been a guest editorial on "Last Week Tonight With John Oliver." But his material wasn't nearly as inventive as anything on that Emmy-winning series. Going after Fox News and Trump may have gotten him lots of applause, but for a veteran comic who created a character as rich and complex as Stuart Smalley, it must have felt like easy target practice.
He had much better material to work with when he took over for "Jimmy Kimmel Live" last August.
As the guest host of "TDS," Franken didn't just read headlines.
In one sketch on Monday, he pretended to be a booking officer who turns on the wind machine seconds before snapping Trump's mug shot.
His ability to mimic his former Capitol colleagues, something he showed off during his performance at Minneapolis' Acme Comedy Club the same week he was on "Kimmel," was used to great effect in a bit on congressional hearings. His impressions of senators Chuck Schumer and Susan Collins on Thursday night may have only been for true politicos, but they had to be roaring.
I also liked his goofy moments, like when he broke into a TikTok dance and dove under the desk when he heard a Russian bomb go off. Franken may be 71, but he's still limber enough to pull off physical shtick. He also looked great in form-fitting suits accompanied with a nice mix of colorful ties.
Less dazzling was a segment that aired Tuesday about Franken's field trip to the New York City sanitation department. Watching a former senator haul trash was kind of a chore. Nodding to Ratso Rizzo's "I'm walkin' here!' tirade in "Midnight Cowboy" stopped being funny two decades ago.
New York policies came up a lot during Franken's week but he didn't forget his home turf.
He went after State Sen. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, for not supporting free meals for schoolchildren, although I expected a smarter insult. Franken called him a "gosh-darn jerk" who should be tossed into one of our 10,000 lakes. He also cited the late Paul Wellstone during his gushing interview with "The Sum of Us" author McGhee.
Franken never brought up the scandal that led to him resigning from the Senate. He also didn't drop any hints that he planned to run for office in the future. But he did prove to be a capable substitute teacher, even though he's unlikely to get tapped to become permanent host. Comedy Central is more likely to back a new voice, one that has a more obvious connection to a younger demographic.
Executives have not dropped many hints on when they'll make a decision on the new "TDS" host. For now, they're continuing with guest ones; John Leguizamo will be in the chair next week. After that, the show's correspondents will take turns behind the desk.
"TDS" airs at 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays. Those missing Noah can check him out in person when he performs Nov. 8-11 at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis. Maybe Franken can stop by then and do his Schumer impression.