Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Flashback 2012: 'Prairie Home Companion' on its way

     Garrison Keillor is one of those figures like Al Franken, whose careers sank after running headfirst into the Me Too movement. I'll leave it to others to decide if that was fair, or if they were swept up in a furor, like Antoine Lavoisier, the scientist beheaded in the French Revolution. Once the guillotine is set up, it demands new necks to feed upon.
       I've been thinking about seeking Keillor out, maybe trying to interview him. But Keillor was a tough interview before this trouble happened. He hated the press before, and I doubt being publicly cashiered made him any fonder. I remember, after this conversation, telling someone that talking to him was like trying to interview an oak. 
     He's going to be performing "A Prairie Home Holiday" at the Rialto Square Theatre Dec. 11. I don't think I'll go—I've seen him several times, and it's in Joliet. But if you never have, you might consider it. He's the greatest American humorist since Mark Twain, and he won't be coming around forever.

     Mark Twain made a lot of money. Both from his own best-sellers, like "Huckleberry Finn," and from the work of others - he owned a publishing house - particularly the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant.
     But he also lost a lot of money. Trying to repeat the Grant success, Twain published the autobiographies of lesser Civil War generals who, it turned out, the American public no longer cared much about.
     And Twain had a genius for bad investment. He bought many worthless patents. Several times in his life he was forced to hit the road to earn money, particularly after the economic panic of 1893, which left Twain bankrupt at 60, forced to travel the world giving speeches to pay off his creditors.
     I think of Twain pulling into Chicago or Berlin and imagine a local gazing at the paper, musing whether to go see the great man, whenever his lone rival over the past century, Garrison Keillor, comes to town, as he will in a couple weeks, and I have to decide if I should go see him again. Usually I do.
     Not that Keillor is financially ruined, I hasten to add. He tours the country with his radio show, "A Prairie Home Companion," because ... well, I had no idea why, so I asked him, before we fell to talking poetry, which you might have read about in my last column. Why not always broadcast from St. Paul?
     "Well, you get to see a better cross-section of people who listen to the show," Keillor said. "That's something a person needs. The longer you're in this business, the more you have to press yourself to get out and be out around people. I like to hang out after the show and talk to people; I want to check out who they are."
     His audiences turn out to be younger than you might expect.
     "A lot of people in their 20s now, and 30s, who more or less were forced against their will to listen as small children - they've made this transition, they come to enjoy something that as young people they thought they loathed," he said. "I'm interested both in the loathing and what they like about it now. So they offer a lot of information, and I want to keep in touch."
     I imagine they like the variety of the show—the songs and humorous sketches, and the highlight, Keillor's snapshot of his fictional hometown, Lake Wobegon, a short story he says is shaped in part by those listening to it.
      "When I sit down to write the show, I'm not writing it for myself. I don't want to," he said. "I'm writing for an audience. It just helps a lot to have some faces in your mind."
     Keillor doesn't read the story, nor does he entirely make it up on the air, but rather a blend, part recalling what he wrote earlier, part extemporizing as he goes along.
     "I'm a writer. The way I think is by putting words down," he said. "I like to have some outline, some story. That's how I do my thinking, looking at a long legal pad, with a pen, making marks. Then I toss it out. Once you write it down, then you don't need it anymore. You extemporize from what you remember of it. You don't make any attempt to memorize. Sometimes you turn it all around in the act of performing."
     What happens then?
     "When you tell a story, the audience will tell you where to go," he said. "They give powerful directions, and that's what you want to rely on. It just looks odd, I think for a man to stand up in front of an audience and read off a script."
     Does he ever forget what comes next? On live radio? What then?
     "It happens often," he said. "And you just have to talk in circles until you find a trail. You're in the woods and sort of crashing around through the underbrush. Eventually you find your way out of it."
     Keillor, 70, has in the past publicly speculated about retiring, but no longer.
     "It's always up in the air," he said. "We have this season pretty much all blocked out," and 2014 "is starting to get sketched in."
     With the election so close, we talked about politics—while the show isn't overtly partisan, it often contains a strong message.
     "I would always rather confuse people than have a label stuck to me," he said. "But I'm an old Minnesota Democrat, no secret about that. I've been involved in Democratic politics up in Minnesota, especially this fall, though my view has broadened with time. The party line doesn't interest me so much as politics is the best way there is to meet people and get to know who they are. Deep down, politics is about civility and about friendship, about the bonds between people. I think that I'm aligned with people who have acquired in their youth a powerful sense of empathy for the outcast, the stranger, the victim, the abused and the unlucky, and so we believe that we allied against the protectors of privilege. To me there's only one side to be on."
           —Originally published in the Sun-Times, October 26, 2012


  1. Years ago, in one of the massively unfair and hilarious stings that were its specialty, Spy magazine sent pictures of a 16-year-old model, along with suggestive notes purportedly from her, to a bunch of celebrities who lived in or were visiting New York. The only ones who fell for it were Wilt Chamberlain (Spy went on to hire an actress to engage him in risque phone conversations) and Keillor. That's why, when Keillor got accused of sexual harassment years later, I had no trouble believing it.

    As for "Prairie Home Companion," I listened to a few minutes of it once and could not for the life of me see why it was such a big deal.

  2. I have the worst luck. When I was young and sexual freedom was all the rage, I wss way too shy to take full advantage and only got to sleep with women who really, wholeheartedly and without reservation wanted to sleep with me...for whatever reason. Now, when I'm old and my inhibitions have mostly faded away and I often feel inclined to flirt with pretty and maybe not so pretty women, I have to think twice, thrice and maybe 10 times to make sure my innocent observations won't be mistaken for unbridled lust. As if...


  3. Pretty sure I read this one in the paper, since I can sometimes remember back to 2012. ; )

    "greatest American humorist since Mark Twain" Interested to see that bold statement from an informed commentator such as yourself. I don't know if I agree with that, though I might consider most prolific. To me, Woody Allen and Mel Brooks are greater American humorists, but maybe I don't understand the definition of humorist!

    His productivity was kind of the problem to me. I liked the guy, saw PHC both at the home theater in St. Paul and at Ravinia and listened to the show quite a bit. But I always thought it was a pretty hit-or-miss affair, with more misses than I was content with. Which comes with the territory if you're cranking out that much material on deadline, I don't doubt. "And you just have to talk in circles until you find a trail. You're in the woods and sort of crashing around through the underbrush. Eventually you find your way out of it." Evidently, many found this technique engaging or impressive; I found it exasperating.

    Since I don't have a creative bone in my body, it's pretty presumptuous of me to even comment on this, but I felt the same way about Woody Allen. (Not that mentioning him is a good idea these days, let alone twice.) Why didn't he take a few years to hone a script and make more special movies, instead of cranking out many lesser works once a year? I imagine for the same reason that PHC was a weekly show instead of monthly, or less.

  4. No, Will Rogers was the Greatest American Humorist since Mark Twain!
    His crack from about 190, still is perfect for today: I am not a member of any organized political party, I'm a Democrat!

  5. Wow! Equating Garrison Keillor with Mark Twain! I'm quite familiar with Twain though I never did hear him speak and keillor is no Twain.

    And comparing his fate to Lavoisier led me to some research. Was not familiar with the man and the fact he was executed during the french revolution for being overly bougie.

    Keillor lost his gig for being a letch. Which judging Lavoisier on the age of his bride (13) he'd a got hash tagged pretty hard too

    I was a fan of Garrison Keillor. Seemed I was always in the car when he was on. Took my boys and caught his act at the auditorium theater several years ago. Pretty good shtick.

    Don't miss him or Al franken.
    The men who've misbehaved club is pretty big hell I'm sure I'm a member but it shrinking and it's because of the expectation that women should not be mistreated.

    It doesn't really seem like you've left it up to others to decide if he got jobbed seems pretty clear you think so. With the free advertisement and all

  6. My love-hate relationship with Keillor has lasted almost forty years. I religiously listened to his shows in the Eighties and Nineties. Sat in front of the radio, or stayed in the car until his Lake Wobegon monologues ended. But as time passed, I began tuning out the rest of the show. He became more sexist, and less amusing. His singing got worse.

    After Keillor had a stroke in 2009, he apparently realized that he was extremely fortunate not to have become incapacitated...or dead. So his show took on a new and preachy tone of religiosity that I did not care for. There were more gospel singers. He often quoted from the Bible and sermonized about religious topics, some of which were expressed via a new Lake Wobegon minister, Pastor Liz. Soon his monologues became all-Liz, all-the-time.

    Keillor's long-running radio show eventually passed its sell-by date and got repetitive and stale. Same old jokes and the same old stories. Snarky political humor. Ridicule of women, gays and lesbians, minorities, ethnics, and the disabled. Way too many fart jokes. And then the focal point of PHC, the mesmerizing Lake Woebegon stories, grew shorter and shorter. Sometimes as short as five or six minutes. The well appeared to be drying up. Finally, the weekly radio show ended with the coming of Dolt 45.

    But Keillor remains, far and away, one of the greatest (and funniest) wordsmiths and raconteurs of our time. His books and his online blog are outstanding. I've seen him live. Twice. Once with each wife. I wholeheartedly agree that he is the Mark Twain or the Will Rogers of his era...and of ours. And like so many other performers (Sinatra, Betty White, Tony Bennett), Garrison Keillor won't pull the plug. Adulation is a powerful drug. He'll probably keep taking it until the end.

    Still, I wouldn't mind seeing him one more time--the way you might want to see certain ballplayers, or rock stars, before it's too late. Keillor, despite all his flaws and all his sins, is in that pantheon of "all-time greats." And we--or at least some of us--will miss him when he's gone.

  7. Before this topic dies out in favor of the next one, I thought I'd ask the collective multitude if anyone here has seen Robert Altman's film of the same name, starring Keillor and several A-list stars from back in, um... 2006, according to the DVD that I'm squinting at here. Given that his constant churn of live shows would indeed force him to meander a bit in search of a point in some of his material, I have always thought that this film must have allowed him the time to focus more on what he wanted it to say, and fine-tune it until it did.

    Thus it's a string of acts not too far removed from the live show (and including some of the regulars), but with a somewhat mystical story surrounding it and overlaying it. I'm not one for plot spoilers, but I have to say that the film has its moments, including those with Keillor himself, discussing... well, many things. There's a bit of sadness throughout (not to mention some real-world intrusion, such as a reminder of how good Lindsay Lohan was before her career and social meltdown), but anyone devoted to APHC should see it.

    1. I was enough of a fan that I did see it. Though after 15 years, in memory it is a meandering melange with Lindsay Lohan sparkling in the center.

    2. Saw it. Liked it. Own it. Never been a Lindsay Lohan fan. And it was Robert Altman's last film. He died soon afterward. "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" (1971) might have been his greatest work, and even if it isn't, it's one of my all-time favorite films. Maybe one of the weirdest Westerns ever made...but one of the best.

    3. We saw it as well, and I vaguely remember liking it well enough. It certainly makes sense that it was more focused than the live show. About all I could have come up with had I been asked what I recall about it before reading Andy's comment was that Meryl Streep was in it. Even LL "sparkling in the center" barely registers now.

  8. I liked his show. He had a great band and great guest artists. I saw him at Medina Temple with Studs and at Ravivia with John Prine. Garrison was passing the torch to Chris Thiel at the time. The show he created was unique and one of a kind. I believe PBS did an American Masters on him. Showing that he lives in Minnesota and New York City. He seems like a good guy to me. More like a nerd or a square. I think his me too moment just moved him out the door a little sooner. But I thought in his heyday he was a treasure.

  9. Today's Washington Post carries a long article about his comeback, detailing the transgressions that brought him down. The comments on the piece tended to suggesting that his sins were exaggerated and his punishment too severe.


    1. I haven’t read the comments yet, but the events outlined in the article left a bad taste in my mouth. “I have no regrets,” he tells the room. “I have no regrets. I have enjoyed thinking about my mistakes, and the disasters. . . . It’s all amusing at this point. Ambition is gone. Thank you, Jesus!” Frankly, anyone who doesn’t have some regrets about their past behavior, especially toward other people, isn’t thinking about it hard enough.

      And in another part of the article, a fan says “ ‘For us, in a way, Lake Wobegon became real,’ she said. And so the details of what he was accused don’t seem very important.” When the goings-on in a fictional town outweigh what happens to real people, something’s wrong.

      We’re not talking about a single disputed event, either. Read that entire WaPo article closely and see if you agree that his “punishment” was too severe.

    2. Here’s a link that should work for noon-subscribers: https://wapo.st/2XxHTcv

    3. Reading the comments now, and I’m stunned by your characterization of them. I find them overwhelmingly the opposite.

    4. The article makes for grim reading. On one hand, it's sad his career is overshadowed by his excesses. On the other, a man as bright as he is should be able to read the room, and he doesn't. Maybe that's age. Given his 40 years in the public eye, these charges seem paltry. But then, Ethel Rosenberg was executed along with her husband, and he was the traitor.

    5. I don't know if what Tom was referring to were "the comments on the piece" or the comments *in* the piece. The comments included in the article, mostly from supporters, are as Tom describes. The comments of the WaPo readers following the story offered plenty of indications that many don't think his "sins were exaggerated."

      Indisputable is that a guy who's been married 3 times and "had at least two extramarital relationships with women on his staff" is not simply the shy, avuncular, gee-whiz, wholesome mensch that many thought he was. Not that he's required to be so, but it's not like there was no fire in this instance to go with the smoke. And when you're selling old-timey, feel-good nostalgia, "grim reading" is not what your fans are looking for.

      Independent of that, is there some magic to posting a WaPo link that everybody can read that you've discovered, Coey? Even if it's not Noon? ; )

    6. Ha, you caught me! Digital subscribers can “gift” 10 articles a month. I believe the EGD community is the first to benefit from my largesse.

    7. Cool! Very thoughtful of you to share the gift with the EGD crew. Thanks!

  10. “I have no regrets. I have enjoyed thinking about my mistakes, and the disasters." Easy enough to say he enjoys those thoughts in public, when he has his game face on. Nobody will ever know what he thinks about when it's three in the morning and he can't sleep and he replays the whole megillah in his head.

    It’s all amusing at this point." I don't buy that one either. He's a lifelong actor, maybe even something of a con man. Trying to play the role of someone easily shrugging off a self-caused disaster, one that he really hasn't recovered from, and laughing about it all the way home. Methinks the man doth protest too much.

    "Ambition is gone." Like hell. He's working harder than ever at 79, and producing more than he has in years. Books (although he's self-published now that he's something of a pariah). A masterful blog. Screenplays. He's racing with the clock. Cognitive impairment and the Grim Reaper are probably not that far off. The next stroke might be the last. So Get it all down on paper before the Iceman cometh.

    Thank you, Jesus!” That one makes me wonder. Is he being serious, or is that merely sarcastic snark? GK was brought up as a devout, God-fearing, churchgoing Christian. Jesus was the master of his household, and ate at his family table. He rejected and laughed at piety in young adulthood and middle age. Now, as the end draws near, he has returned to the spiritual comfort of his youth. The elderly rediscover God every day, and there's a succor born every minute.

    Great online quotes from the bard. But they not only leave a bad taste, they are also redolent of horse puckey.



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