Weeds: Keillor’s better at everything


I hate Garrison Keillor.

Okay, I don’t really hate him. I’m jealous of him. He’s an uncommonly gifted writer, and I’m not. When I spend time with words, vanilla comes out with specks of chocolate. Keillor’s words come out in bright, colorful flavors.

Granted, Keillor is a “writer,” and I write a little bit. Unfortunately for me, we plow the same ground: small towns, fields, gardens, church, and the people in them. We poke around these places looking for humor and a bit of meaning. About a million times listening to Garrison, I have said to myself, “I wish I had thought of that.”

I had the opportunity to consider my anemic ability when Keillor was in St. Peter a few weeks ago. He spent an evening in Christ Chapel at Gustavus Adolphus College, part of what he called The Gratitude Tour. The liner for the program said, “Mr. Keillor has now reached a certain age when you realize how lucky you are and you stop complaining. Complaint is a mainstay of comedy, so he is now experimenting with a comedy of gratitude.”

It was just Garrison walking about the sanctuary, telling stories, reflecting, making observations. There was a podium he didn’t use. He had no notes. Occasionally I’ve been asked to speak to some group. If I stand in front people and try to sound half ways intelligent without writing things down, I will be lucky to sound coherent. Garrison did that for two hours! Songs were interspersed through the program, no instruments, the audience singing along.

My one-way relationship with Keillor goes back to St. John’s University. Minnesota Public Radio was birthed there a few years before I came for schooling. Garrison Keillor was an early hire, broadcasting a morning show from the campus which was the genesis for the Prairie Home Companion Show. The small towns around St. John’s begat Lake Wobegon, Powder Milk Biscuits, good looking men, strong women, and above average children.

While in college I ran around St. Joseph, Albany, and Cold Spring. Pam grew up between Long Prairie and Osakis. Lake Wobegon may have sprung from Keilor’s mind, but it sure seemed that if you drove the county roads up in that region you would come to it.

I became a big fan of the Prairie Home Companion Show. There was an eclectic mix of music and humor bits each Saturday at 5:00. But the core of each show was the monologue. For twenty to thirty minutes, Garrison stood alone on stage with a microphone. Sometimes on a stool, sometimes with his eyes closed, he would tell stories that I felt like I could walk right into. Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery and the Sidetrack Tap might as well have been Broich’s Piggly Wiggly and the Lincoln Tavern. Father Emil from Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility and Pastor Inqvist of Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church became as real as Father Wyffels and Pastor Freimark.

The stories were always funny, sometimes tinged with sadness. They had a way of revealing the characters’ humanity and vulnerability. I felt like I knew those people; sometimes it felt like it was me.

Keilor is an amazing talent I have admired for forty years. But there have been bumps in the road. It seemed like he abandoned me when he left the show suddenly in 1987 to move to Sweden with his new wife. A few years later the show was recreated as the American Radio Players of the Air and was broadcast from New York. New York? That was as far from Stearns County as you could get.

Later Keillor wrote a satire column for the Star Tribune, wherein he repeatedly bashed then-president George W. Bush. Bush for his flaws, is a good and decent person. Keillor had always made jabs at politicians, but this seemed mean spirited. (Now Keillor writes a column for the Washington Post in which he satirizes the current president. I don’t have the same concerns about our 45th president being a good and decent person.)

Time moves on. The Prairie Home Companion Show came back to St. Paul. I forgave Garrison those indiscretions. For which I’m sure he would not care even if he did know. Besides I wasn’t always faithful. My listening ebbed and flowed with life responsibilities.

I went to see the Prairie Home Companion Show broadcast from the Gibbon Ballroom in 1997, a show which honored polka music and the grand old ballrooms that used to dot the Midwest. I saw the show a few other times in person. Mostly I listened on the radio while making supper with Pam or dancing with one of the children. Those are good memories.

Now Garrison has retired from the show, although it continues with a new host. I suspect he will continue to do stage work like at Gustavus. He is scheduled at the Grandstand at the State Fair. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him back on his old show as a guest.

All my adult years I have followed Mr. Keillor’s career more or less. TV and movie stars have never held my attention like this radio star. When I was young Harmon Killebrew was my hero, playing baseball at a level I aspired to but could never achieve. I suppose it is like that with Garrison Keilor in my adult years, writing at a level I can only dream of.

People with exceptional talent are to be appreciated. They can lift us up as we watch them hit a baseball 500 feet or listen to a beautiful story. It is good to have people that push you, even if you can’t match them. I’ve got them all around me here in Sleepy Eye. Tom Larsen is a better singer than me. Scott Demaris is a better runner than me. Tom Hirsch is a nicer guy than me.

There was a country song called, “Pretty Good At Drinkin’ Beer.” I might have to fall back on that.


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