The mysterious appeal of Garrison Keillor.

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
June 16 2006 3:28 PM

A Prairie Home Conundrum

The mysterious appeal of Garrison Keillor.

Garrison Keillor. Click image to expand.
Garrison Keillor

It is time for us to sit down, as a culture, and have an honest talk about Garrison Keillor. It's no use trying to ignore him anymore: He is upon us. Keillor's empire—a folksy, benevolent force—has flourished in holy obscurity for more than 30 years on public radio. He has come to represent a crucial schism in the national taste—the Great Continental Divide between sarcasm and earnestness, snark and purity, the corrupt and the wholesome. The mere sound of Keillor's voice—a breathy baritone that seems precision-engineered to narrate a documentary about glaciers—is enough to set off warfare between the generations. Last week the collective tension tightened when, armed with roughly half of America's cinematic firepower (Altman, Streep, Harrelson, Lohan, et al.), the Keillor empire rolled into movie theaters. Despite slight distribution, the film sneaked into the top-10 weekend grossers. ("Garrison's audience," Robert Altman told the New York Times, "is like the Mel Gibson Jesus audience.") And yet the movie made some people crazy with hostility. How has someone so relentlessly inoffensive managed to become so divisive?

Keillor has, through three decades of canny self-marketing, turned himself into a kind of EveryMidwesterner. When he started as a writer and radio host in the early 1970s, America's major regions had all been thoroughly mythologized—there was Faulkner's Mississippi, Steinbeck's California, and everybody else's New York. But the Midwest was, relatively speaking, a blank slate. Like Faulkner, Keillor invented a fictional territory—a mythical Minnesota hamlet called Lake Wobegon, "the little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve"—and dedicated his career to exploring it. (Wobegon is a little like Yoknapatawpha County, but Midwestern—i.e., with all the murder, rape, class warfare, and incest translated into gardening, ice fishing, and gentle boyish hijinks.) Wobegon allowed him to be both culturally specific—every story is loaded with landmarks and proper names—and yet free from the tyranny of fact. He honored his native culture by gently mocking it, an approach that ingeniously echoed the region's ethic of self-deprecating pride. Once Keillor settled on this subject and tone, his career became an impressive and sustained display of the Protestant work ethic: He now hosts two radio shows (in addition to A Prairie Home Companion, a 5-minute daily segment called The Writer's Almanac), writes frequent essays for periodicals, and has produced a small library of books (novels, poetry anthologies, memoirs, political invective, children's stories).

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Keillor's flagship franchise is still A Prairie Home Companion, a weekly two-hour radio variety show that debuted in 1974 to a live audience of 12 people and now draws more than 4 million listeners a week across 600 stations. For a variety show, Prairie Home is remarkably invariable—its elements (skits, songs, humorous poems, catchphrases) cycle in and out of the program as predictably as the seasons. The highlight of every show is Keillor's career-making innovation: the so-called "News From Lake Wobegon," a pointedly unthrilling 20-minute monologue full of childhood tomato fights, drunk preachers, Norwegian bachelor farmers, Minnesota weather (God designed the month of March "to show people who don't drink what a hangover feels like"), and sentimental rhapsodies about the precious things in life. Keillor delivers the news in a kind of whispery trance. When he speaks, blood pressures drop across the country, wild horses accept the saddle, family dogs that have been hanging on at the end of chronic illnesses close their eyes and drift away. The segment always ends with the achingly familiar line, "That's the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above-average." And then a storm of rapturous applause.

Keillor's humor has always been a bit of a puzzle: What is its irony/sincerity ratio? Is he mocking Midwesterners or mocking the rest of us via Midwesterners? In 1985, when Time magazine called Keillor the funniest man in America, Bill Cosby reportedly said, "That's true if you're a pilgrim." A decade later, a cartoon version of Keillor forced Homer Simpson to assault his TV and shout, "Be more funny!" But judging Keillor by mainstream standards of comedy (compression, originality, edge) misses the point. He works hard to be unfunny in a very particular way. His humor is polite, understated, and deliberately anachronistic; it never breaks a sweat. He is happy to sacrifice mass appeal to preserve what he sees as grown-up honesty. "I think that past the age of thirty there is no obligation to be clever at all," he once told the Paris Review. "Cleverness is a burden after that. You are supposed to settle down and be a good person, raise your children, and be good to your friends, which you may not have been back when you were clever." (For the record, Keillor turned 30 in 1972, two years before he started his radio show.)

Within the decorous, irony-lite boundaries of his shtick, Keillor is very clearly a genius. His range and stamina alone are incredible—after 30 years, he rarely repeats himself—and he has the genuine wisdom of a Cosby or Mark Twain. He's consistently funny about Midwestern fatalism ("We come from people who brought us up to believe that life is a struggle," he recently told an interviewer. "And if you should ever feel really happy, be patient. This will pass."), and he's a masterful storyteller.

Though Keillor is associated with the Midwest, his sensibility comes largely out of New York City. He began his career in the early '70s writing short humorous essays for The New Yorker (he later became a staff writer then left, on a very high horse, when Tina Brown took over as editor in 1992). He is probably the purest living specimen of the magazine's Golden Age aesthetic: sophisticated plainness, light sentimentality, significant trivia. He was inspired to create A Prairie Home Companion, in fact, while researching a New Yorker essay about the Grand Ole Opry, and we might think of the radio showas his own private version of the magazine, transposed into a different medium. The "News From Lake Wobegon" is basically an old-style Talk of the Town piece about the Midwest.

Keillor the writer often stands in sharp contrast to Keillor the radio persona. When he steps offstage and removes his bowtie, the transition seems to activate a surprising, and often fierce, critical intelligence. In January he published a viciously funny front-page essay in the Times Book Review accusing the French author Bernard Henri-Lévy of intellectual sloppiness in his efforts to grapple with America. With Twainian flair, Keillor turned Henri-Lévy's own stylistic excesses against him. It was impossible to imagine the piece in his radio voice: The thought was way too fast and sophisticated. The critique was so spirited because Keillor's approach to America is the exact opposite of Henri-Lévy's: whereas the Frenchman (according to Keillor) is "short on the facts, long on conclusions" and possessed by a "childlike love of paradox," Keillor is always deliberately long on facts, short on conclusions. He avoids paradox and all other forms of rhetorical cleverness, and he prefers anecdote to explanation. He'll name 34 different garden vegetables and nine generations of Inqvist children before he'll offer anything that might seem like a generalization.

It may be that Keillor is so allergic to Henri-Lévy's love of paradox because, though he'd never acknowledge it, his own public image is deeply paradoxical. He's a cosmopolitan provincial (he's lived in Copenhagen and owns a multimillion-dollar apartment on Central Park West) and a sophisticated simpleton (a plainspoken yarn-spinner who just happens to write world-class prose). Once you start thinking about this—once Keillor's trademark simplicity begins to look complicated and unnatural—the paradoxes start tumbling out like herrings out of the pickle-barrel: His plainness seems pretentious, his anti-bombast bombastic, his anti-snobbery snobbish. This sense of affectation is why some people instinctively dislike such a likable entertainer.

Keillor has called radio "an underground reality," and despite his decorum, there's something of the rebel in him. To non-fans, it's a bit cocky how openly out-of-step he is with the pace of modern life, and there's something aggressive in his gentle jingles about rhubarb pie and powder-milk biscuits, his ever-present uniform of bowtie and red sneakers, and his relentless nostalgia. Without saying it outright, Keillor projects himself as a sage—a kind of Wobegon Obi-Wan spreading the revolutionary creed of premodern simplicity. This willful simplicity (he titled his two poetry anthologies Good Poems and Good Poems for Hard Times) is annoying because, after awhile, it starts to feel prescriptive. Being a responsible adult doesn't necessarily mean speaking slowly about tomatoes. It can also include things like irony and cleverness, and even yelling into your cell phone about sitcoms.

Although Keillor is in almost every way the polar opposite of Howard Stern, they are working on similar projects. They've engineered personae to shake listeners out of what they see as unhealthy modern diseases—in Stern's case, the plague of sexual repression; in Keillor's, our addiction to television, the Internet, glibness, and distraction. Both men are shock jocks, Keillor is the shock jock of wholesomeness.

Sam Anderson is a writer living in New York. He can be reached at elvisnt@gmail.com.

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