By Edwin L. Carpenter – Associate Editor, The Dove Foundation
Garrison Keillor has, as anyone who has listened to his radio programs knows, a unique sense of humor. The Dove Foundation attended a press conference recently in St. Paul, Minnesota for the premiere of the film version of “A Prairie Home Companion,” and Keillor was in fine form. When asked why he included an angel of death character in the movie, Keillor replied straight-faced, “We needed some humor in the story.”
In actuality, the death angel seemed to represent the death of Keillor’s radio program in the movie, with the plot centering on his last program, as well as being a commentary on the state of radio today.
Keillor plays himself in the film, directed by the highly respected Robert Altman, who recently received an honorary Academy Award. When asked about bringing Altman on board, he said, “I realized I didn’t know anything about visual images. Mr. Altman does. We relied on him. Radio does not have visuals so we draw lifelines, very simple lifelines.”
Keillor responded with humor to a question about playing himself in the movie. “It’s difficult to watch yourself…well, you can see why!” His self–deprecating sense of humor showed up frequently in the interview. For example, the question of the death angel (played by Virginia Madsen) came up more than once, as reporters wanted to know what she represented. He said that Madsen’s character is a “beautiful, ethereal character. She’s a comic character. I thought she was. She died as a result of a joke I told on the radio.” He said it was the funniest joke he ever told on radio. She laughs so hard while driving she ends up in a fatal car accident. “Has anyone died while listening to your show?” Keillor was asked. “I’m sure. I’m sure,” he replied.
For those who are wondering about the joke, here it is: A penguin bumps into another penguin and says, “Oh, for a minute I thought you were wearing a tuxedo.” “How do you know I’m not?” asks the other penguin. Once more, his unique brand of humor shines through. “I love the joke for the silence that comes after the punch line,” he said.
He was asked if the movie, filmed in his native Minnesota, is historic. “”The movie hasn’t opened yet,” he replied. He did add that “Movie locations can be recreated any place. But with this cast, it was nice to be able to film here.” He was pleased to have the likes of Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Kevin Kline, Tommy Lee Jones and Lindsay Lohan in the movie. A lot of the movie was filmed at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theater, where the film also premiered. It may be too early to tell if the opening of his film will be historic for Minnesota or himself, but he is obviously pleased with his long distinguished career in radio and said, “When people see you on TV they tell you they saw you, but on radio they remember what you said.” He plays a “radio announcer, stiff and professional” in the movie.
A radio announcer and storyteller is what he truly is, and Keillor is pleased with the longevity of the show, including his creations such as “Guy Noir,” a recurring character from his radio show which Kevin Kline plays in the film. “A Prairie Home Companion” is what Keillor is best known for. “It’s been around a long time with recurring characters such as Dusty and Lefty. People associate it with a certain time, 5:00 pm central time on Sunday. It’s a comfortable time and a comfortable show. I don’t know what people do on Sunday—I go to church, but it’s very comfortable for people. In having done it for thirty years, I run into people who say, ‘I grew up with you, listening to it. We were trapped in the car!’ The key thing is that it’s live and most shows are taped and post produced but we’re not. For example, this weekend we’ll be in Colorado at 4:00 pm.”
The radio show premiered on July 6, 1974, and has the devotion of millions of listeners. They tune in each week for its unique blend of storytelling, humor, and music. The program currently draws over 4.3 million listeners on over 550 public radio stations and is heard on the Armed Forces Network and on America One in the Far East and Europe. The Library of Congress added the show’s July 6, 1974 debut broadcast in 2004 to the nation’s registry of historic sound.
Based in Keillor’s backyard of St. Paul, Minnesota, “A Prairie Home Companion” owns a Midwest sensibility including goodwill and a fundamental politeness. The show possesses a homespun and sophisticated style without being slick. A first-rate house band performs and each episode features one or more musical guests. The styles include country, folk, gospel, jazz and even opera singers. Instrumentalists appear, performing classical and bluegrass. Imaginary sponsors use their own jingles, with lyrics by Keillor. The sponsor’s promises are as high as the moon or the stars for purchases of such items as biscuits or even duct tape.
Keillor was asked about the technological advances in broadcasting, such as satellite radio, the internet, and pod-casting. “More important than satellite radio is the internet,” he said. “That’s the amazing thing. In Minnesota when I was a kid you could get WSN from Nashville and stations in Pittsburgh and Little Rock. I was amazed by that.” He is obviously impressed with the far-reaching effects of present day broadcasting technologies.
Once more the theme of death in the film is broached by a journalist, hoping Keillor will open up more on the topic which is sprinkled frequently into the film, including the death of a singer. Why the theme of death? “Because I needed a story,” he said. “I cast off into a few different directions and I didn’t feel anything but with this I felt like I was drilling for water, and there was water here. I like it as a post in the story.”
In contrast to the topic of death, he believes there are advantages to live performing with music. “It saves you a lot of time,” he said, as no post-work is required. “Mr. Altman really loves music. He’s a non-musician who’s really passionate about it.” The film includes songs by Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly, as well as Lindsay Lohan and Keillor himself, doing a duet with Streep. “Lindsay really does a great job on ‘Frankie and Johnny,” he says, referring to the song which Lohan performs in the movie, with additional lyrics added by Keillor. In the film, it appears that Lohan’s character, Lola, forgets the words for a moment, and makes up her own for the song.
Keillor’s humorous reply to the question about why he turned the radio program into a film was, “The desire to work. I need work. I enjoyed doing it. I like to work. It was a big project but I am elated. I don’t want the audience to think there’s an over-riding theme. There’s not.”
At the same time Keillor, a prolific and versatile writer, has written novels, short stories and essays and his enjoyment in working on those projects led to the screenplay for the film. “I’ve always wanted to write for a dramatic medium,” he commented. “I do some of this on my radio show, but the problem with radio is I’m writing for myself and I’m not an actor. So my hope was to write a screenplay and then actors would take it over and do it.”
When asked if other offers were coming in, he said, “No, no. There are no offers to 63-year-old radio announcers.” Regarding aging, he said, “You have that to look forward to!” Keillor has said he would like to get a job in a movie in which he doesn’t have to talk and when asked why, he replied, “Exactly!”
Actor John C. Reilly commented on Keillor’s quirky personality when he said, “Garrison is a little aloof. You meet him and think ‘He doesn’t like me.’ But he does. That’s just him. I brought what I could to the character (Dusty) and he was completely generous in that way.”
Perhaps Meryl Streep summed it up best as to why people tune in to listen to Garrison Keillor. “You never know what he’s going to say,” she said.
Read Dove’s Review of “A Prairie Home Companion”