Last summer, one of America’s most beloved fixtures on public radio signed off from his role as host of A Prairie Home Companion. Garrison Keillor, 74, had been hosting the Minnesota-based variety show since the 1974, having revitalized a genre of entertainment that had largely been replaced by television.
I’ve been thinking about Keillor after having a conversation with Breaking Even’s Nicole Ouellette about this month’s blog theme — creativity and the creative process.
Arguably, the most memorable aspect of Keillor’s time at PHC is his monologues that capped off every episode of PHC. Rather than take each episode off with a bang, Keillor’s monologue is a quiet, intimate affair. There’s little fanfare, no eruption of fireworks, no zany vocal sound effects that frequently punctuated the rest of the show.
“The News from Lake Wobegon” was more of a hot cup of tea on the back porch than Broadway-style finale. It speaks to Keillor’s creativity that he could close his show every week in such a quiet, captivating way.
Keillor, in a 2006 interview with CMT, stated, “I never found that to be true, but I did find that if you want to get people’s attention, you speak more softly.”
The monologue starts that same — “it’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my home town” — and then delves into the lives of its Lutheran inhabitants.
Keillor once told National Geographic that the creation of the fictional town was, in part, brought on by the loneliness he felt after moving to Freeport, Minnesota in 1970: “No minister visited to encourage us to worship on Sunday, no neighbor dropped in with a plate of brownies. … I lived south of Freeport for three years and never managed to have a conversation with anyone in the town. I didn’t have long hair or a beard, didn’t dress oddly or do wild things, and it troubled me. I felt like a criminal.”
Either despite, or because of, that isolation, Keillor was able to craft a fictional small town, described, tongue in cheek, as a place “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”
How real those characters become, however, also depends on the audience, according to an interview Keillor did with The State in 2015: “I leave it to the audience to imagine the characters – I just try to get the events straight. I create a scaffold and the audience imagines a building – that’s how it works. The stories are based on real life in some way. … When you live in one place for so many years … your memories are attached to the landscape, particular streets, the river, woods, a town, and you only need to drive around slowly and you will recall enough stories to occupy you for hours.”
Each week, Keillor, would recite that week’s “news,” without a script, apparently on the fly.
It wasn’t completely improvised — let there never be said there’s no room for preparation in the creative process. Keillor would write a draft for each monologue in the days leading up to the show, and would review it a couple of times before delivery.
“The monologue you hear is a man trying to remember what he wrote down a few hours before. Sometimes, while he’s trying to remember it, he thinks of something better,” he told CMT.
The illusion was Keillor making a story up on the fly, as if he was your uncle, recounting a tale of the darndest thing you ever heard, when, in reality, there’s a lot of planning involved.
“It’s not the job of an entertainer to have a moment of revelation on stage, but to create them for other people,” Keillor told VQRonline in 2001.
Keillor has handed over the reins of PHC to musician Chris Thile, most notably of the country/bluegrass band Nickel Creek. But he has kept busy with his writing, a craft he has been honing long before he ever took to the airwaves in Minnesota. He even popped up in the news very recently after writing a scathing open letter to Donald Trump.
Keillor, by the way, is still performing live. He has performances scheduled until at least April 2017.
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