I think Garrison Keillor is a genius

You could learn a lot from a small-town guy.

Garrison Keillor
  • Garrison Keillor

Well, a secret genius, anyway. That might seem a funny sort of title for someone who’s written for The New Yorker, penned the screenplay for a Robert Altman film, published a slew of novels and short-story collections (including my beloved The Book of Guys, which imagines an aged Don Giovanni playing piano in a dive bar and still arguing for the licentious life, as well as Zeus trapped by Hera in the body of a Lutheran minister), and, oh yes, kept a two-hour variety show — A Prairie Home Companion — on the radio for 40 years. But the fact is, there are a number of people, including a number of my friends, who think he’s just awful. I don’t bother arguing; I know the man’s unhurried bass is buried too deep in my ear for me to make a really objective assessment. And it’s not like he needs my defense. I’m content to let his genius remain my secret — at least, until he taps me to write his biography.

But if you’re curious, and if there are still tickets, you can maybe go and see for yourself. He’s doing a one-man show this Thursday at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido, as part of their 20th Anniversary Season. Oh, and here’s a chat we had about showbiz and getting older. Stick around for the end: there’s a bit of Prairie Home news that ties in with America’s Finest City.

Matthew Lickona: What itch are you scratching with a one-man show that you can’t scratch with A Prairie Home Companion?

Garrison Keillor: You have to go out and do things like this to stay in shape — whatever kind of shape you can still be in at the age of 72. It just really needs to be done. If you don’t do it — if you sit in your little writing studio and you go out and do A Prairie Home Companion every Saturday — you find yourself in an echo chamber. And I don’t know, you just sort of dry up, I think. You start repeating yourself. I think that when you stand in front of an audience, it forces invention, and invention needs to be forced when you get to this age. This is real decrepitude in the world of comedy. The world of comedy belongs to people in their 20s and early 30s. I’m twice that age, and I’m trying to stay in the game.

ML: Given that, what do you think you have to offer?

GK: I think I have some insight into the middle of the country. So I like to go out on the coasts, either one, or down South, and talk about the Midwest. I don’t do this in Minnesota. I never would. But I talk about this foreign country which is in the middle of America, and which people, for some reason, imagine does not exist. But it does, and I like to talk about that part of the country and tell stories about this small town I invented as a way of talking about people I grew up among without hurting their feelings.

ML: I remember you once told a story about being in New York City and hearing someone talking about the end of civilization. And you said, “Where I come from, civilization is a job.” It’s just what you keep doing. I’ve thought of that as I’ve tried to raise my own kids.

GK: You heard that sort of thing after 9/11. You heard all this apocalyptic talk, and it really was not that sort of event. The apocalypse, when and if it comes, will come in slow motion, over a century. It won’t be a couple of planes flying into tall buildings.

ML: When I told people I was going to interview you, I got no middle-of-the-road responses. Several people were very excited, and several said, “I can’t stand that guy. All that corn pone.” Do you have any thoughts on why you inspire such a visceral reaction?

GK: Well, people have a harsh reaction to things that they don’t listen to, the same way that I could — I mean, I wouldn’t, but I could — say harsh things about television comedy, which I haven’t really kept track of for years. This is the problem with criticism, that people tend to avoid the things they don’t like. That’s natural, but as a result, they don’t really understand the things that they don’t like, and they make them into straw men. But that’s fine, that’s fine. It doesn’t bother me, it does no harm, and if it’s useful to people to have something to despise, that’s fine. Glad to be that person.

ML: Is there anything you wish people got about your work that you feel gets missed?

GK: No, I have no feelings about that at all. I mean, I’ve been doing this radio show for 40 years and, you know, as near as we can figure, it has an audience of about four million, and what more can you ask for?

[And yet...] It’s not a particularly political show. In fact, it isn’t at all political. Some people think it is, because I’m a Democrat. But the show is not. Some people think it’s about the Midwest. I don’t think so, particularly. But the show goes on, and there’s only one explanation for it, and that is that it is funny and thoughtful, to the extent that people want that on a Saturday evening. It has a nice listenership from recently arrived immigrants, legal or illegal, because it is not topical. I lost touch with popular culture a long time ago. So I don’t do jokes about famous people, because they’re not particularly famous to me. Or movies, or television, or politics.

So the comedy is about basic life. It’s about the seasons — I live in the North — it’s about having children, it’s about age, it’s about stories. And people who have just come over from Somalia or from Turkey or from name-your-foreign-country find this interesting, because they don’t need to know the names of celebrities. And I talk slow.

ML: My father is your age, and when I told him I was going to talk to you, he said, “Ask him what he’s going to say to God when he gets there.”

GK: Aye-aye-aye... I will avert my eyes. It’s not what I will say to God. It’s what God will say to me. God knows everything, and there are a lot of things I wish He did not know. But you know, we still count on a merciful God. We’re not too sure about that, but in the Episcopal Church, we seem to think that God is going to overlook a lot.

ML: I mostly write about movies for the Reader, and I want to ask you about the Prairie Home Companion film from 2006. Would you still cast death as a beautiful woman if you were writing it today?

GK: The angel of death? I didn’t do any of the casting. Bob Altman handled that entirely. I was the writer, and he told me who he wanted to get and I tried to write the script in that direction. I had to do this under great pressure, because he was a very, very sick man. Everything was on an accelerated pace. I did a lot of changes during the shooting, which was done in five weeks. Virginia Madsen played the angel of death, and Mr. Altman was very dubious about the character when I first put her into the script. But when he got Virginia Madsen — this classic blonde beauty — he really started to get intrigued. He worked so hard on lighting her in the right way. And he wanted me to write a scene at the end in which she appears to all the main characters, and we don’t know which one of them she’s going to summon. He really got into her — I don’t think he’d done a supernatural character before — and it was fun, because he was a really cool guy.

ML: Not to dwell on the morbid, but I’ve got this old book of pieces from Vanity Fair in the ’20s and ’30s. They got a group of artists to write their own epitaphs. Dorothy Parker’s is “Excuse my dust,” and George S. Kaufman’s is “Over my dead body!” Any thoughts on what you’d have for yours?

GK: I would use the epitaph I saw on tombstones in Denmark. They were tombstones of a certain period, I think, but even some fairly recent ones had it. They said, in Danish, “Tak for alt,” meaning, “Thanks for everything.” I really liked it, and there’s something very Danish about it. “Thanks for everything.”

ML: I’m hitting middle age and starting to get cranky about the state of the world. So I wanted to ask you who have done more and seen more than I have: what gives you hope when you look around?

GK: Well, the world that I know is a certain small branch of the music and entertainment business. I’m 72, and to my eyes, this looks like a business that is going to pieces fast. I’m glad I’m not starting out in it. But the people in their 20s and 30s who I come in contact with, they are so ambitious and hopeful and willing to pay almost any price — much moreso than people I knew when I was their age in the early and mid-’60s. I think we were rather smug and defensive; we found safety in being aloof. The people I meet now are so positive and upbeat and curious and better disciplined. And as far as musicianship and writing skills, they’re way beyond what people I knew were doing 40 years ago. And it’s all the more amazing for the fact that the business they’re trying to make their way in is in an era of severe change. You hear more and more of young people who are simply unable to earn anything, and who are willing to play clubs and pass the hat. They don’t expect to earn anything from making records. A few people at the top are figuring out a way to earn very, very good money, and the rest are just scrapping for acorns. But there’s a great spirit there.

ML: Do you think A Prairie Home Companion will endure without you?

GK: Oh yeah, I do. We have a young man who grew up in San Diego, Chris Thile, who is going to guest host a couple of shows in February. I’m looking forward to it, and he is, too. He’s a musical genius and an amazing performer, but he’s also a really ambitious, upbeat, positive guy.

[Keillor is speaking carefully, as usual: Thile’s status as a genius has been certified, in the form of a $500,000 MacArthur genius grant. (He allowed as how there’s this one mandolin he’s had his eye on that is now financially graspable.) You might recognize him as the mandolinist and singer for Nickel Creek and The Punch Brothers. I might recognize him as the guy who just stole my next job.]

GK: He’s in his early 30s, but I’ve known him for half his life. I think he first came onto the show to play mandolin when he was maybe 16. He’s going to host the show February 7th and February 14th, and I’m going to go hide someplace and listen to it on the radio.

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I have listened to Garrison since Jim Ed Poole did the sports on his early morning show. It was classic Midwest understatement, and left me howling many times. Some people get it, some people don't!!

I've been listening to A Prairie Home Companion since the mid-80's. I always felt I was eavesdropping through a time machine. What a great show.

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