Al Franken's next step

Entertainer in limbo in Hollywood and Washington

A full day after Minnesota voters went to the polls, Al Franken's candidacy for the U.S. Senate was uncertain.

His entertainment future was even cloudier.

Franken's candidacy, which began in February 2007 as what was in some ways a statement run, culminated in an absurdly close election that probably won't be decided until December.

With all precincts reporting, Franken trailed Republican incumbent Norm Coleman by just 477 votes out of more than 2.8 million votes, a fittingly close end to the most dramatic and expensive race of this campaign season. (Both men, with 42% of the vote, were considerably ahead of third-party candidate Dean Barkley's 15%.)

By law, the close margin triggers a recount at the option of the second-place candidate. Franken said on Wednesday that he would see the recount fight through until the end, and even alluded to the possibility that his campaign might pursue voter irregularities in parts of the state.

If Franken pulls out a squeaker, he would cap an amazing transition from political satirist to politician.

Comedians, while they have many of the room-working skills that other celebrities don't possess, are generally seen as more vulnerable than actors who play fictional roles. Their job, after all, is specifically to push the envelope, while politicians tend to avoid the envelope. That envelope-pushing became a campaign issue, as Coleman trotted out controversial jokes Franken wrote on "Saturday Night Live."

It was also a race in which the Democratic establishment in the Senate was slow to support the candidacy of a man who would instantly become their most famous representative. Franken eventually persuaded them, and also outmaneuvered nearly a half-dozen Democratic opponents in the primary.

But it was a potential election-day loss that had the tongues of political and entertainment insiders wagging on Wednesday.

Franken has continued to be represented by William Morris and could return to the Hollywood career he had put on hold the past 20 months if he loses. Among his current projects is the feature comedy "Don't Send Help," a script Franken co-wrote that's set up at Fox.

He could also return to television in a commentating or political-comedy role. The popularity of "SNL's" political satire this year, insiders noted, proved that Franken's longtime interests and the current audience zeitgeist now align perfectly.

Cable-news also could beckon. Franken had an Air America show before he left, and the politician-to-host route is becoming more popular. On the other side of the aisle, Mike Huckabee hired CAA and found himself with a Fox News talk show. Sarah Palin is the subject of speculation about a talk show of her own.

But even if Franken opted for one of these venues, it's unclear that a return to entertainment would be a lasting one.

Many believe he will make another run in politics -- the Democrats would likely embrace a man who almost knocked off a popular Republican -- and would neither need nor be satisfied with what would amount to a return to his previous career.

One late-night producer compared any Franken move back to entertainment to a former baseball manager who makes a pit stop in the broadcast booth before heading back to the dugout.

And even if he technically would have plenty of options in Hollywood, his political ambitions may curtail what he's able to do.

"I think his (run) has helped, not hurt, him in terms of an entertainment career," said former Bill Clinton aide and current television consultant Craig Minassian. "But if he's thinking about running again, it may affect the kinds of roles he chooses. He's going to be evaluated from now on by the standards of a politician."
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