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The prisoner of Lake Wobegon

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Garrison Keillor, who brought his radio show (this year it's called American Radio Company) to the Chicago Theatre recently, is a man in search of an identity. As he tries to broaden the scope of his show without losing his old Prairie Home Companion audience, casting about for a persona to replace his quaint midwestern professional "shy person"--which his fans love but which he's manifestly outgrown--his skits, songs, and monologues seem in constant danger of slipping into cuteness and sentimentality on the one hand, or of underhandedly sniping at his audience on the other.

Keillor's dilemma is illustrated by the fact that, in his new show, he's had to drop the monologues about little events in New York City, his present home, in favor of the old "News From Lake Wobegon," that familiar staple feature of Prairie Home Companion. In a recent interview he told me about his affection for those New York stories, and for that city--and about how his audience (or "most people who used to listen to A Prairie Home Companion," as he put it) don't seem to share his enthusiasm. "This is a point," he said, "on which my audience and I disagree." Keillor claims to be quite comfortable with that disagreement and says he doesn't mind talking about it; the audience, however, seems to have won the argument.

Keillor (to sketch in some of the essential background) was raised in a small town near Minneapolis by parents who belonged to a tiny fundamentalist sect (the Plymouth Brethren); an introverted teenager, he went to the University of Minnesota, where he worked on the literary magazine and college radio station. Within a few years of graduation he'd begun writing for the New Yorker and hosting a morning show on Minnesota Public Radio, which gave birth in 1974 to A Prairie Home Companion--the by-now familiar radio variety show, mixing folk-based musicians, humorous sketches and skits, and Keillor's wistfully funny/touching monologues. At its peak A Prairie Home Companion was carried by almost 300 public radio stations and boasted some five million listeners. Its mythical Lake Wobegon, "the little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve," was the locus of the book that transformed Keillor the writer from a cult humorist to a best-seller.

A few years ago, in full view of his adoring public, Keillor fell in love with Ulla Skaerved, who had been a Danish exchange student in his high school class, and broke with Margaret Moos, his longtime living partner and executive producer of his show. Keillor was much incensed by the attention his private life received in the press, and it wasn't long before he'd brought A Prairie Home Companion to an end and announced plans to leave the country with his new wife to live in her native Denmark.

Living abroad didn't work out, though, and soon Keillor and wife were back in the U.S., but living in New York rather than Minneapolis. In 1989 Keillor returned to public radio with a new variety show, at first called the American Radio Company of the Air, originating from the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Apparently, though, the response in New York was not as good as hoped for (certainly there's an inherent contradiction in basing Keillor's sort of folksy entertainment in that most urban of all metropolises, a contradiction more highlighted than overcome by the show's soft jokes and skits about the city); in any case the radio audience for the new concept fell far short of the old Companion's.

So this season, what's now billed as Garrison Keillor's American Radio Company has taken itself on tour, playing to large houses in Seattle, San Diego, Dallas, and Chicago, among others. Local musicians are usually featured, along with lots of local references--little jokes and asides about the venue city that seem designed mostly to ingratiate the live audience. As was the case last year the music, although still mainly folk-based, occasionally veers over to show tunes. No longer anchored in the Minnesota ambience, Keillor Company seems to reach for a vague all-American concept that will cross both regional and urban/rural boundaries. The show has a propensity for cuteness and coziness that is as crowd pleasing as it is false. What was a constant temptation in the old show has become the chronic malady of the new.

The Chicago Theatre performance opened with Keillor's greeting to the audience, "Good to be back in the midwest--back among the shy people," and ended with the tale of a Lake Wobegon teenager who finds a moment of epiphany in the Art Institute during a class trip to Chicago. In between Keillor managed to praise Chicago as "the city that's cultured enough to name a street after a great German poet but confident enough to pronounce it gothey" and "home to a football team whose coach has the best football-coach name in the NFL." He also introduced a Jelly Roll Morton tune "that like so many great songs carries a bit of Chicago geography," in this case a reference to State and Madison streets.

He told a refurbished version of an old New Yorker story, about the making of a "geek-rock" musician--a high school boy bites a chicken's neck when it's thrown at his band during a 4-H function. (The band's name varies: "Trash," "Yellow Running Sores of Alienation," "Puke and Snot," "Gopher Guts," etc.) And he sang the "Ballad of a Middle-Aged Lutheran," set to a Beethoven theme ("One day you're young, the next day you're one of those boring flabby old guys")--he prays to become an Episcopalian, because they're not required to be stoic but can have fun and "pull out the stops." The Barrett Sisters (gospel) and Acme Vocals (a cappella oldies), both of Chicago, also performed, and west-coast humorist Alice Kahn, who grew up here, did a whimsical bit, and there was a skit centering on frozen food.

All of this was thoroughly expectable, safe, cozy, gentle stuff--and what the audience had obviously come for. But there were also a couple of things that went in a different direction. Most notable was a song Keillor sang, which is worth reproducing (I won't attempt to indicate tune or meter):

"It was a wonderful war. Cause everybody knew what they were fighting for. Not many people died. And almost all of them were on the other side. And the weapons worked great. And the country showed strength. And it lasted a month--which was just the right length. It was a wonderful war. [A fair amount of applause here.] It was a war-movie war, with the rockets flying up from the ships offshore. It was all on TV. And we lay on the couch and watched it, Lucy and me. And she said, 'It's so awful--America at war again.' But actually it didn't look that bad on CNN. It was a wonderful war. With Panama it makes a doubleheader--two wars to make you smile. Only World War II was better. But a war as good as that only comes along once in a while. And now the war's done, I wonder when we're gonna have another one. Maybe Iran or Afghanistan. Or maybe we'll go and settle up with Japan. [Laughter] But one thing's for sure. I don't think we're gonna go to Greece this year. No, I think we'll stay around home this year. Or maybe we could go to London this year. But it's gonna be a while before we go see the Nile. [A little laughter, a fairly big round of applause.]"

This, which Keillor called "a little song I wrote last night to celebrate the end of the war," was a rather sharp and probing characterization of the American outlook, an uncharacteristic foray onto the terrain of current events and politics that neither flattered nor pandered to Keillor's audience. Politics also reared its head in the news from Lake Wobegon. The boy who visited Chicago had started out refusing to wear a yellow ribbon in high school. And "It Was a Wonderful War" was followed by a reading of Yertl the Turtle in honor of the birthday of Dr. Seuss--the tale of a turtle king who builds his throne out of other turtles and sits pretty until Mack, one of the underlings, burps and buries Yertl in the mud.

All of this was rendered, as is usual for Keillor, without commentary or any hint as to how it should be received. The high schooler who didn't want to wear the yellow ribbon is typically inarticulate: it's not that he doesn't support U.S. troops; "I just don't want to wear one." But later he decides to don the ribbon in order to participate in the class trip to Chicago. "It Was a Wonderful War" was sung in a way that matched its manifest content--upbeat, lighthearted. No heavy irony.

Keillor is a master of hiding, reluctant to be pinned down and very jealous of the privacy of his inner thinking as well as of his personal life. Ask him about what he's saying and he'll tell you he's just another humorist. "You see," he told me, "I'm just a writer. I just write comedy, that's all I do. I don't think about the big questions. . . . I'm a humorist, and humorists take a short view. That is, they take a small view." But talk to him about comedy and he's quick to dissociate himself from the genre. "We're all thinking about this war, and the war is a topic that comedians would rather avoid," he said. "But I talk about it." (This claim, incidentally, doesn't stand up with regard either to other comedians or to Keillor himself--he's not the only comedian to have talked about the gulf war, and the implied willingness to take on political topics is quite rare in Keillor's own history.)

Keillor will talk about his audience and how fond he is of it, yet he obviously feels constrained by its expectations. And at the same time he claims not to have any idea exactly who his audience is. ("Somebody may, somewhere, back at Minnesota Public Radio, but I don't. I make a point not to. I write the show every week and then I perform it. And then after the show I stand around and talk with anyone who wants to stand around and talk with me. But that's not demographics, that's just shaking hands, saying hello to the friends and neighbors.") Ask about the small-town connection in his work and he'll say that his stories are not really about small-town characters. ("The stories are all set in a small town, of course. But they could be set in a city.") Nor, despite the constant references to this concept in his shows, are they about America. "I don't look on this town as standing for all of America. I think when Americans start talking about America, we always make it smaller than it is, somehow. It's such a big country, and it's so various. But it's convenient, you know, for people to try to imagine it in terms of a microcosm. That was sort of Reagan's view of America. He sort of had this sunny small-town midwestern view of the country. And to me, anyway, he was a ridiculous man. He was an embarrassment, and he never really knew what was going on. I come from the midwest, and I also have a sunny view of life, I guess, and tell stories about a small town. But I hope not to be as foolish as that."

Keillor presents himself offstage, in other words, much as he does on--as an insightful but humble small-town fellow, plain and essentially simple, who just happens to like telling stories on the radio. "I've spent the last 20 years trying to produce that kind of a show because--because I like doing it, frankly," he went on to tell me. "It's more fun than television and it's a way to say what you have to say to an audience that you're fond of. . . . It's fun to do and it's boring to talk about."

There is a lot of dissimulation going on here. To create and orchestrate a show and a public personality as Keillor does requires a canny presence in back of what's presented--a sophisticated person behind the persona. And although he won't take off his mask or costume, sometimes the man is bound to show himself. His remarks on Reagan, for example, are revealing of his present tensions. To say he hopes he isn't quite as foolish as Reagan seems like a typically Keilloresque bit of self-deprecation, but on the other hand why even bring up the comparison? I didn't mention it, but it's certainly arguable that A Prairie Home Companion's peak of popularity during the Reagan era was not merely coincidental--that the program appealed, in a softer, more literate way, to a nostalgia for the "traditional values" of small-town America similar to that invoked by the president and his constituency. Keillor himself has always had a more complex view of his mythical little town (see the 95 theses in his book Lake Wobegon Days, for example: a list produced by a former Wobegoner that dissects and condemns many aspects of the town, its churches and families, finally tapering off into a frustrated series of "damn"s). But he has also (and more commonly) given in to the pull of sentimentality, evoking a cozy, stable world in stories that are saved from stickiness only by a gentle burlesque, and from smugness by the combination of inarticulate pathos and foible-ridden angst that so often afflicts their characters. ("Without glossing over the meanness or the cruelty of small towns," Keillor has been quoted as saying in another interview, "which is simply human nature, their attraction to me is that in a place where people know you and your business is open, you can live with integrity.")

Keillor wrote about the Reagan era, in an op-ed piece a couple of years ago: "The Reagan years were sweet years, when, under the cover of flags and martial flourishes and preaching self-discipline, the country yielded itself to a pleasant corruption and gained 80 pounds on doughnuts and cupcakes and got a little stupider, but many marriages have survived troubles as bad as that. All we need is a little religion and some satire, and passion of course." Like all Keillor's material, this is wry and partly tongue-in-cheek, but serious too. He is not uncritical, but the essence is affirmation. One might say, in fact, that with his combination of sly but tender wit and exaltation of a kind of homespun wisdom, Keillor was in many ways the Will Rogers of the Reagan period.

It seems that he may be having second thoughts about replaying the role in George Bush's New World Order. He could forge a new trail for himself--but first he'll have to break some old habits and disappoint, maybe even outrage, his old fans. Such a break might not be the most lucrative career move he could make, but the material to come out of it could be a lot more interesting and important that anything he's given us so far.

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