Al Franken draws map of the US

Here's Senator Al Franken drawing a surprisingly detailed map of the USA, live on stage at the Minnesota State Fair. One cynic of my acquaintance claims he's tracing. I dunno, looks freehand to me (even though I'll freely admit that it would be easy to create indented trace-lines by using a pen with no cartridge in advance. Still, wouldn't it be cool if this was part of every senatorial race?

Senator Al Franken draws map of USA (Thanks, Fipi Lele!)


  1. This is actually a pretty useful exercise to get good at. You’ll notice that mostly he’s drawing the states in their relation to one another. There are legislators in Minnesota who don’t really know the difference between Alabama and Mississippi (hi, Rep. Bachman!), but Franken isn’t one of them.

    I had a history professor (James Kettner, RIP) who could draw freehand the map of any region we happened to be studying – the Chesapeake Bay, the Erie Canal, the mouth of the Mississippi, whatever. He did this by simply knowing where everything important was. This is essentially the same thing. It was a useful skill in a historian and it’s a useful skill in a senator.

  2. I’ve seen him do this in person, and it sure looked real–down to the somewhat skewed, squared-off geography. (On the above map, for example, look at how much bigger Ohio is than Michigan.) It’s a great party trick for a smart guy.

  3. Cory,

    Your cynical friend doesn’t sound like very much fun. I’m sure you can imagine that with a little training any one could do this, it would be a matter of memorizing 50 shapes, and a reference point for each one. Also, this is something that he’s been doing for years:

  4. Anyone know where I could find this video w/o music? I’d like to hear his commentary as he draws… found an older version, but I’d like to hear him address Minnesotans…

  5. I saw a video of him doing this from a few years ago (when he said it was the last time he’d do it!), and it looked impossibly good. But when you look quite closely you can see how imperfect the drawing is in details, while very nice overall. It’s a nice trick.

  6. Sad that this is considered anything more than a mildly remarkable feat for an American adult to accomplish. What’s next, tying his own shoes?

  7. The opening of his old show on the Sundance Channel was Franken standing behind a wall of glass and drawing the map with states properly outlined in red or blue. He would’ve had to draw the map IN REVERSE in order to look correct on the other side of the glass! It was very impressive!

  8. Yah, it’s a parlor trick, and I’ve seen him do it in person. No tracing involved, he’s been doing this schtick since he started running for the Senate.

    So far, he’s turning out better than the weasel he replaced, although I doubt it has anything to do with drawing ability. This trick is just practice, I expect anybody with sufficient motivation could learn to do it.

  9. I have a friend who can do this. It just takes practice (and more importantly the will to do so). As other commenters have said, Franken’s been practicing this for decades.

  10. Sad to see the skepticism sneak it’s way into the summary. It’s like, the guy wins the election and he can’t get a break from the neo-con chickenhawks… then he draws a nice picture at the state fair and someone’s waiting to pounce on some flaw with it… People don’t heckle Pen & Teller on a Vegas Stage, you know? Don’t take the ‘wonderful’ out of the post – that’s all I’m saying (that’s for the comments anyway!)

    Al’s a good guy and he’s the kind who is cut out to serve the state in the way we’ve always needed it.

    Besides, I doubt Norm could do this even if it was paint-by-number.

  11. The accusation of tracing is silly, considering how skewed and disproportionate some of the states and features are. Perhaps I’m biased, but the Georgia coastline is particularly bad.

    So, too awful to be traced, and too good not to be impressive.

  12. Here’s the challenge. Unless you can do all of these things, you can’t bitch about Franken’s map:

    1) Find the USA on a world map (one published outside of the US, so the US isn’t the middle of the map as a gimme).

    2) List all 50 states. Their capitals would be bonus points.

    3) draw the fucking map yourself without it looking like a Rohrschach test.

    5) LABEL the states correctly!

  13. Here’s another video of him drawing the 48 states. Unlikely there’s any tracing since there’s a guy literally holding the board behind him.

  14. @10
    I agree that it is a sorry state of affairs when this is such an impressive feat that he is accused of cheating.

    In high school, we had to free hand a world map with capital cities in their approximate locations for freshman social studies. I would be very happy to see us get back to that point.

  15. More video of his MN State Fair conversation on Health care and also campaign reform:

    People who have not seen much of Al outside of SNL will be pleasantly surprised that he is whip smart and one of the clearest speakers around. He’s very good at summing up not only complex legislation but also the forces at work for and against it.

  16. I’ve seen him do this trick a couple of times. Once on Saturday Night Live, and again on the intro sequence for the TV version of his talk show on the Sundance Channel. It’s a cool trick.

  17. I don’t really understand the term “trick” that everyone is using. A trick implies there’s an element that isn’t real, an illusion or some secret mechanical tomfoolery. It’s a skill or a talent or whatever term you’d like to call something that takes lots of practice to learn, perfect and perform. Maybe “stunt” would be better?

  18. I’m sorry, but drawing things in correct proportion isn’t a “parlor trick”. It’s an skill that comes with practice over the years. Anyone might be able to do it, but the fact is most people don’t.

    Parlor tricks are practiced too.

  19. Hey, folks, it’s not a TRICK, it’s a learned skill. It indicates that he cares enough about his country to learn its geography. Most people can’t draw the outline of their own state or province, let alone the whole country. It suggests that he can wrap his mind around geopolitical stuff.

  20. I cannot draw anything worth a damn. So while I can identify the United States and have a picture of the country in my head, I couldn’t reproduce the map if I tried. It would take a whole lot of practice for me, and tears, and rage.

  21. #10 – YOU can do this? I mean, hey, kudos if you can (and I don’t doubt it), but I’m sure I could go round up 10 adults who can’t. 11 if you count me, and I’m not only a smarty pants BUT I also have a similar party trick in which I memorize a list of 75 things, and then recall the list forwards, backwards, at random, etc.
    And yet, I’d like to think drawing a map of the US from memory is a common skill. But I know better.

    1. I also have a similar party trick in which I memorize a list of 75 things, and then recall the list forwards, backwards, at random, etc

      My party tricks usually involve tequila and the local football team. You people go to dull parties.

  22. You only have to draw three entire state borders: the freak states (AK and HI) and a starting state. All of the others share at least one border. You don’t even have to really draw CO/WY, it’s just a rectangular gap between other states.

  23. Yeah, #10 – I’m sure you’re brilliant, what with all of your countless unknown accomplishments, but it takes a REAL winner to boast anonymously.

    Mr. Franken is demonstrating an ability to draw, and that is a learned skill. And yes, as mentioned, he did this on Letterman, and did not trace. Anyone can see that his line work is fantastic, regardless of size discrepancies, etc. If he was tracing, there wouldn’t be the same fluid kind of gesturing with each pen stroke. He also has a pretty fantastic memory, as anyone who’s listened to him speak can tell you.

    Not only are parlor tricks learned, they’re pretty damned cool. I’d love to see what Anonymous #10 is capable of, but he just doesn’t have it in him to show us all. We just have to take his word that this isn’t a spectacular display of memorization and artistry from the Senator. If he’s so much more talented than Mr. Franken, why all the sour grapes? That’s politics, I guess.

  24. He’s been doing this trick for years. I saw him do it in the early 90s and i *think* i may have seen him do it on SNL looong ago, but i’m not sure. It’s not _that_ hard, it just takes a little practice. I do something similar with cryogenic piping diagrams at work to amuse and amaze the new hires. Verdict: Not Fake.

  25. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is kind of wonky, but I’ll hand it to him that this is utterly amazing.

  26. I knew a tattoo artist who could draw an Aztec calendar almost freehand. He needed a ruler and a compass to ensure the circles were perfect and concentric, but other than that it was all from memory. The reason he could do it was because SO many people wanted Aztec calendar tattoos that he just memorized it.

    If you want to draw a map of the US, Aztec calendar, or whatever, it’s the same as getting to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.

  27. I, too, am surprised that people think this is surprising enough that it is faked. It’s certainly a neat trick, but anyone could learn it, with a little practice. Sheesh.

  28. Yeah, he’s been doing this for years, it’s a neat trick (especially for a politician), the idea that it was traced is silly, I’m sure many people could learn to do likewise. I have a friend who could produce a pretty fair map of Europe, England and France… needless to say he’s undoubtedly some kind of socialist…

  29. It is very nice to see a politician display a grasp on such basic knowledge. To many people take such things for granted.

    I doubt he is tracing simply because it is not very difficult to memorize a map of the US. I know from taking Geography in college. Our exams were blank paper and colored pencils and a list of countries, physical features and cities we had to free hand. It was a pain but it was doable.

    I imagine its easier than preparing for a speech or debate.

  30. It’s no trick. I can do something like this — maybe not quite as well, but close — and no state will touch any state its not supposed to. I’m a doodler and a life long geography nerd. I can probably do a passable version of pre-1991 Europe (sorry, I can’t do Belarus and the Ukraine and Moldova justice here).

  31. It’s not a bad skill to have. I can’t draw it that well, although my geography skills are great (if I say so myself).

    OTOH, I’m a chemist and I _can_ draw the whole Periodic Table from memory, easily. (and give the full names of all the elements).

  32. #19: Same reasoning/same conclusion here, based on his getting the shapes of VA and MD distorted: the _kind_ of error looks right for freehand-from-memory, not “try not to look too perfect”.

    If I try this, the errors of that sort accumulate to the point that even if I get the first few states close, the far edges of the map wind up grossly distorted as I try to stretch/squeeze state to fit. :-(

  33. Checked with a source close to Franken (relatively-speaking. Ahem, relative-ly, dig?), who tells me he’s been able to do this since college.

    Good to see this not-so-hidden talent has sparked such intense political debate.

  34. I can do that … pretty well. And most of the world too (boundaries circa 1950). Anybody who can draw and has half-way studied maps can do the same.

    I can also eat fifty hardboiled eggs.

  35. My wife saved a dinner plate that he drew the Lower 48 on, using a Sharpie, before his campaign. We have it propped up in our dining room, of course. As commented before — not a trick,but a skill. Why even attempt to knock the guy on this?

  36. Yes, but can you eat all 50 eggs in one sitting.

    Al used this stunt at his harvard interview and has been getting pretty good mileage out it of it ever since.

    I love Al.

  37. I have seen him do it at a fundraiser for the extended lawsuit, in Minnetonka Minnesots, and he was not tracing. I was 3 feet away as he drew it, and I got to see it at 2 inches up close afterward. He said he learned to do it in 6th grade, and he just kept dong it.

  38. I used to work with a guy who met Franken on a plane, in the 80’s, and Frankin drew him a map, on a cocktail napkin…he kept it in his office. It was cool.

  39. Franken recently added Alaska and Hawaii to his 48-Contiguous-States party stunt. Here’s his explanation of why it took him so long to acknowledge the half-century-old geography shift:

    It’s a nice little stunt, at least somewhat cooler than pi to 100 digits, and much more attractive in Sharpie on a dinner plate.

  40. You can tell it’s freehand because California is quite a bit larger in relation to the other states in reality. Just compare Texas and California in his drawing…not quite how it is on a real map. It’s weird that people think this is so outlandish. Apparently we don’t know geography very well.

  41. My elementary school taught us how to do this stuff. If you know what landmarks to draw, it’s not that hard. Really.

  42. I’d pay good money to see Norm Coleman try to do it, just for the humiliation that he so richly deserves.

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