GUEST: Garrison Keillor, Host of A Prairie Home Companion
Related Story: Garrison Keillor Brings Lake Wobegon To San Diego
CAVANAUGH: Sunny suffering laid back San Diego wouldn't seem to have much in common with a chilly prairie town like Lake Wobegon. But you'll find San Diegans who wouldn't miss a weekly update from that town or who grew up with the show that brings the heartland to the west coast. Joining me is the legend behind the legend, the host of a Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor.
KEILLOR: Ms. Cavanaugh! How are you this morning?
CAVANAUGH: I'm very well. Thank you for joining us. Isn't next year your 40th season?
KEILLOR: I don't know! I guess so. I don't know. We took -- I took a sort of sabbatical back in the late '80s, and I'm not sure then how you figure that in. It's 40 years since we started. But it hasn't been 40 uninterrupted years. I'll have to work this out. Is it an anniversary? I mean, if you are married for 40 years, but you were divorced for two, is it still your 40th anniversary?
CAVANAUGH: I would say so.
KEILLOR: You would, okay.
CAVANAUGH: I would say it's the 40th season for prairie home companion coming up next year. I'm wondering, whether or not you see it as 40 or you're giving yourself a little leeway, why do you still get a kick out of the show?
KEILLOR: We don't look back! You don't think about whatever you've done in the past. You look forward. I'm doing a show this weekend in Los Angeles, and I'm trying to figure out how to write Lilly Tomlin in. And she's just such of a fabulous comedian, and I want to do something -- have her take a script in the show. I just think about that show, I don't think about last week's or the week before. And I'm looking forward to this summer bus tour. Get on a bus, and you ride around, and you sleep in a little bunk about the size of a feed trough. And then you stop in your next town and you do a show. You sing a few duets, you do silly things, and off you go to the next one.
CAVANAUGH: Now, people who have been listening for years, what might they be surprised about when they actually see a live show?
KEILLOR: Well, the show that we do this summer is a show that is completely improvised. So they won't see any scripts on stage. There won't be some hidden Teleprompter. We just let fly. And they might be surprised by that. I don't know. If they see the broadcast, they might be surprised to see how much activity there is on stage, and people moving around, which doesn't have anything to do with the sound of the show. It's a heavy traffic show even when there's just one person talking.
CAVANAUGH: When people -- I've done some reading about the articles that have been written but, Garrison, and they take a point of saying that you have a home in New York City, and what you do barely disguises your underlying cultivation, as if hosting a show set in the midwest would make you a yokel. Do you pick up on that kind of snobbery from people even now?
KEILLOR: I don't, really. I look on New York as being very hospitable, there are wonderful crowds that come to the shows we do there. We usually do about five or six shows in New York City just off Times Square. I have an apartment on the upper west side, which is such a peaceable part of town. And the odd thing about New York, it's not about cultivation. It's a pedestrian city that's more like the St. Paul I grew up in than St. Paul today. If I need to buy a pair of socks, be I have to get in my car in St. Paul. In New York, I don't. It still is a city of little shops and little -- it's a city of free enterprise. And St. Paul is much more a city of shopping centers, and you have to go out to the suburbs to buy a jacket. So actually in many ways, New York is more like Lake Wobegon, which is still a town of small shops, the five and dime, and the mercantile, and the chatter box cafe and all. New York is more like that. They've somehow defeated the big box store.
KEILLOR: And chains, to some extent.
CAVANAUGH: I wonder how you think your esthetic, your writing, your view of life might have been different if you came from a place like San Diego.
KEILLOR: It's hard for me to imagine, but when I go down to San Diego, I find all sorts of people, including people more like myself than a San Diego stereotype. I find people who grew up fundamentalist in San Diego. I go down to Point Loma to the Nazarene college, and I find all these kids there who are surfers and beach people, but at the same time they grew up in Bible study classes as I did. And so they're very familiar with scripture, and if I do a show at Point Loma, I can drop in references, you know, to Daniel and the lion's den, and they know what I'm talking about. So the cliched image of California as a sibboritic, narcicisstic society, it isn't true once you get up close to people. You find that in California, it's possible for a kid to be a great student and also love to play beach volleyball. There's no conflict between the two.
CAVANAUGH: I'd like to talk to you just a minute about another of your radio programs that's been such a staple for so many people. The writers' almanac. You've been introducing people to poets they may never have heard of otherwise. How do you choose your readings?
KEILLOR: I just pour through bushel baskets of poetry books from all these small presses and big presses. And I don't have to look at a lot of a poet's work to see if they're readable or not. The poems that I read on the air I do not want to snow people. I don't want people to be confused. I want to read a poem on the air and know that anyone listening can get it the first time, even if there's other stuff going on, and they're yelling at their kids, or they're frying eggs or just living an ordinary life. I don't want ever to do a poem that makes somebody feel stupid.
CAVANAUGH: Ah, ha.
KEILLOR: The poems that I read are not necessarily, you know, the greatest poems of all time. But they are poems that come at you straight and speak in a normal narrative tone and that people get, and that speak to people's hearts.
CAVANAUGH: We often hear talk about the death of print, the demise of bookstores. What to you is the most hopeful thing you see taking shape for people who love words the way you do?
KEILLOR: I still see people reading books wherever I go. I walk into a coffee shop, which is frequented by people in their teens and 20s, and here they are. They're still reading books. They may have their laptops open, and they may be texting on phones as well, but they have books. The love of print on paper, bound between covers, didn't go away. The computer didn't replace this any more than the automobile replaced the bicycle. It still is a useful and beautiful invention.
CAVANAUGH: Garrison, you have from time to time been public about your politics. You supported Barack Obama, urged alfranken to run for the Senate in Minnesota. Now one of Minnesota's most divisive politicians, Michelle Bachman, announced she's not running again. Do you think that may be this might spell the begin of the deep partisan divide in our politics?
KEILLOR: No, not at all. She stepped down I think for her own personal reasons. She didn't feel it necessary to explain. The district that she represented is, I think, clearly leaning Republican. So her stepping down is really a boon to the Republican party in Minnesota, which has been having its problems. If they're smart, they will very likely pick up that seat and life will go on.
CAVANAUGH: You're very gracious about answering these questions about politics and poetry. I want to get back to your show. What are the things people have told you that they love about your show?
KEILLOR: Well, they love certain singers particularly. And they're oftentimes surprised by people they hear on the show that they are fond of. They do like our attempts at radio drama, guy noir private eye, lives of the Cowboys. And they're fond of that. They love the sound effects guy.
[ LAUGHTER ]
KEILLOR: Fred Newman. And the things that he and his spirit. He's a very playful guy, especially for somebody in his 60s who got his MBA at Harvard. Fred, there's a lot of kid in Fred. And people really, really love that. I think they like the fact that it's a live show. Although on the west coast for very good reasons, they oftentimes delay the show a few hours. But it still sounds live. And I think people like that. It's a time when audio reproducing editing and so forth have become so sophisticated that anybody with a brain in their head would tape a show and then process it to give it a kind of artificial perfection. And the fact that we don't I think kind of sets us apart. And may be people enjoy the mistakes. And there are plenty of them.
CAVANAUGH: I want to let our listeners know, Garrison, that a prairie home companion, the live show takes place July 15th at Humphreys by the Bay. And just in case they didn't know, it airs on KPBS 6:00 PM to 8:00 PM on Saturdays, 11:00 to 1:00 on Sundays, the writer’s almanac airs at 8:00 weeknights on KPBS FM. Thank you so much for your time.
KEILLOR: Thank you so much, Maureen.