Why isn’t Al Franken funny anymore?

Unless something changes in the next few months, Sen. Al Franken is going to be re-elected to the U.S. Senate. Republicans have been unable to get a big name to run against him, just five years after the longest recount in state history was needed to put him in office.

Many people — detractors, mostly — expected Franken to do for senatorial decorum what Jesse Ventura did for gubernatorial protocol in Minnesota. But Franken ended up being all serious and senator-like.

The pundits figured a few early missteps and the danger of a thin margin of victory convinced Franken to be unfunny. But Salon’s Alex Seitz-Wald writes today that comedian Franken isn’t coming back to replace senatorial Franken.

“He’s crossed the Rubicon,” University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs told Seitz-Wald. “I think he’s very genuinely kissed goodbye to that old self and I don’t think he’s ever going back.”

Seitz-Wald blames an exchange with then Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor in which he alluded to a Perry Mason episode.

When the hearings finally rolled around, Franken was the last to go, given his low seniority, but asked the first question ever put to a Supreme Court nominee about net neutrality, a pet issue of his.

The question made a splash in the tech world, but the Washington political press was instead completely distracted by a funny, but irrelevant exchange he had with Sotomayor over the TV show “Perry Mason.” “Sen. Franken’s first joke,” was the headline at Politico. Sean Hannity leapt at the chance to attack the former comedian for apparent frivolity and a GOP leadership aide circulated an email fanning the flames.

Maybe, but I graded the exchange at the time, based almost exclusively on the non-Perry-Mason portion of his questioning and gave him a C-, mostly because it was Sotomayor who was easily turning aside the questions on net neutrality that he asked, with a lesson on how government works that made it appear Franken was asking the right questions of the wrong person.

The Perry Mason quip didn’t help, but that’s not what made him look like a rookie in his first big game.

Franken’s image problem from the questioning wasn’t that he was funny, it was that he was funny before he was serious. Had he started, for example, with the issue of net neutrality and then worked in a Perry Mason reference, nobody would’ve much cared.

But the reasons for Franken’s apparent intentional button-down demeanor now are more an indictment of the lighter-than-air national political coverage than anything else.

He can’t risk an insightful and intelligent analysis on one side of an issue being ignored just because he made a Stuart Smalley reference. Stuart Smalley is more interesting than policy analysis. Context is dead in that regard.

Perhaps political journalists can take a lesson from the senator.