Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Garrison Keillor: Definitely Above Average

It doesn’t get more All-American than Garrison Keillor, who just wrapped up his final episode as writer, host, duet-partner, and comic monologist for Public Radio’s A Prairie Home Companion. I don’t know what we’ll all do without his news from Lake Wobegon, his earnest ads for such homey fictitious products as Powdermilk Biscuits (“Heavens, they’re tasty – and expeditious!”) and his public service announcements touting the Professional Organization of English Majors and the Ketchup Advisory Board .

Once radio was America’s favorite form of home entertainment. Families would gather around the big radio console in the living room to laugh at Fibber McGee, Fred Allen, and Amos ‘n’ Andy. Then TV sitcoms replaced radio, and the intimate art of telling stories over the air was lost . . . nearly. In 1974, Keillor launched A Prairie Home Companion, an unabashedly folksy hour of shaggy-dog stories, serials featuring elaborate sound effects (“Guy Noir, Private Eye”), folk music, and mock commercials. It was performed in front of live audiences,who participated in singalongs and contributed messages to absent loved ones.

Humorists in America have traditionally sprung from newly arrived immigrant groups and social outcasts. For much of the twentieth century, the most prominent comic performers were Jewish, even those (like Jack Benny) who changed their names to reflect the majority culture. Starting in the Sixties, we saw the rise of the African-American comedian, whose outsider status gave him the perspective to mock mainstream American life. More recently we’ve have gay comics, Middle Eastern comics, and others who make their home on the fringes of our society.

Then there’s Keillor, who at first glance couldn’t be more socially entrenched. He’s a WASP from the heartland: Minnesota, to be exact. Yet he couldn’t be further from the hip urbanism that’s considered cool in today’s performers. He’s tall and a bit ungainly, and the religious tradition from which he hails is strongly evangelical. My friend and colleague Barbara Burkhardt, who is hard at work on a definitive Keillor biography, tells me that his material often reflects his own struggles with his family’s strong religious bent. No wonder he seems to quietly crusade on behalf of “shy persons” and those whose eccentricities make them outcasts within their own communities.

It may seem surprising that Keillor’s very last regular broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion did not take place at the Fitzgerald Theatre, his usual stomping ground in St. Paul. Rather, the broadcast was set on my home turf, at L.A.’s glamorous Hollywood Bowl. That’s why the last show lampoons SoCal’s beautiful people, emphasizing our obsession with physical fitness and our own good looks. I’ve been told that Keillor’s decision to retire at this particular moment (which may reflect some health issues) was made after the show’s touring schedule was already set, and that there will be a hometown farewell at a later date. But I continue to wonder, now that Keillor is retiring from a weekly broadcast, if in fact he has Hollywood in his sights.

Back in 2006 there was a Prairie Home Companion film. Keillor wrote the script and starred as a version of himself for the great Robert Altman who directed this as his final project. The subject of the film is the show’s pending cancellation. And Death lurks in the wings. I certainly hope Keillor’s retirement is less melancholy. Like Lake Wobegon’s children, he’s much too far above average to be forgotten anytime soon. 

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