Garrison Keillor brings some heat to his humor.
Thursday, April 20, 2006
Weekly: What are you doing on this speaking tour?
Keillor: I get up in front of people and I talk. I walk out and sing a song—I might sing “The Frozen Logger,” or “Woop a Tai Yai Yay,” or “By the Waters of Babylon.” And then I talk. I’ll talk a little about winter. My aunts and uncles. I sometimes sing an a capella song about my aunts and uncles. I’ll talk a little about Lake Wobegone. And then usually I’ll tell a story—a longer story. A story about pontoon boats, or about how I got into radio. A story about my cousins, when I was 13 or 14.
Weekly: Do you write this stuff on the road before each performance?
Keillor: No, no. I am working pretty much from memory. These are sort of combinations of things I’ve done over the years.
Weekly: For the past year or so you’ve been writing a weekly syndicated newspaper column that shows a different side of you—it can be quite political.
Keillor: Mostly not. But I don’t like to be pigeonholed. I’m getting to that point in my life where the dim shadows are falling, and I feel that there’s something good about wielding one’s pen in whatever direction one feels like. Newspapers do like to keep things separated, though. There are the op-ed pages, on the one hand, where the political columns go, and there are the lifestyle pages, with the humor columns, on the other. I guess I don’t see that division.
Weekly: Are your editors trying to get you to see that divide more clearly?
Keillor: No—they’re fine. But some newspapers have cancelled me, and others have refused to run the political stuff. Some have run a syrupy, prissy note: “You will not find Mr. Keillor’s column in this space this week. We would prefer to laugh than read about politics.”
Weekly: Three weeks ago you wrote a column calling for the impeachment of President Bush. What has inspired you to tackle politics with such passion?
Keillor: I think it’s just a matter of weighing in, for the good of one’s own conscience. I just feel that something like the torture of prisoners is something that one ignores at grave peril to one’s soul.
I just wanted to say how I feel. I believe the president encouraged this torture, which is a war crime. Which is illegal. I think people need to say this out loud.
I don’t think there’s any chance that the Republican party [which controls Congress] will hold this administration accountable. But they should.
Weekly: You’ve been doing A Prairie Home Companion for 25 years, and it seems now like it was cutting-edge back when you started. Do you think the show’s wholesome attitude lines up with some new version of hip?
Keillor: I don’t know about hip anymore. It’s not my province anymore. It’s an idea that belongs to people who are under 30. And they are welcome to it.
I am 63 years old, and my intent is to be 63, and to not have any doubt about that. Hipness has nothing to do with it.
I am teaching a composition class at the University of Minnesota, and I have 140 students. I really love being able to work with them. But… I have no real interest in winning their admiration. I want to try to tell them the things I think somebody needs to tell them. How they feel about that is up to them.
Weekly: You sound like the guy on the radio…to what extent is Garrison Keillor of A Prairie Home Companion a character that you created for the show?
Keillor: Oh yes—he’s a character. For one thing, he’s much more talkative than I am. Much more gregarious. In person…well, I’m a writer, so I’m a listener. I don’t do any monologuing at parties. The way you act when you’re performing would be intolerable in real life. You’d be a monster.
Weekly: I was delighted to see that you are doing a move of A Prairie Home Companion, with Robert Altman, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Tommy Lee Jones…how did that happen?
Keillor: Well, I approached [Altman] through a friend of a friend to see if he might be interested in shooting a screenplay I was working on, set in Lake Wobegone. He said no, he wasn’t interested in doing that. But he had been to see the show, and he told me he was interested in shooting a backstage fictional documentary. I think that’s what he called it.
A documentary was of no interest to me, but I liked “fictional.” So I wrote him a screenplay. And revised it…and revised it…and revised it. And something around the fourth draft, he said, “OK.” And we shot it in something like five weeks. Well—he shot it; I just wrote the screenplay.
Weekly: And you star in it, right?
Keillor: No! I don’t star in it…I do appear in it, though. I’m playing the part of…an announcer, I guess. Who is referred to as GK. I play sort of a stiff, slightly-scattered character.
I don’t give him any monologues to do…I have people interrupt him a lot. There are several sort of stream-of-consciousness scenes where he sort of natters around. I natter pretty well.
Weekly: It sounds like Garrison Keillor by Altman.
Keillor: Yes, well… I suppose it is.