Garrison Keillor’s tenure as host of A Prairie Home Companion, his weekly public radio variety show, didn’t exactly peter out. Since it first began in 1974, the show has become an icon of the public radio scene, an institution spanning not only decades, but generations. When Keillor retired from the show this summer, it was still averaging 3 million listeners per week.
But that number was down from over 4 million ten years ago, and the average age of the show’s listeners is 59, according to Nielsen—and getting older all the time. For many younger listeners, the show’s kitschy Americana and nostalgic trappings were too much to get past. Funny as they may be, old standbys like Powdermilk Biscuits (“They give shy persons the strength to get up and do what needs to be done”) and Beebopareebop Rhubarb Pie (“Nothing gets the taste of shame and humiliation out of your mouth quite like Beebopareebop Rhubarb Pie”) seemed to fail to connect with a new generation of listeners as they once did. As one writer put it, “My reflexive first impulse, based on the packaging and the placement, was to distrust it as straightforward, cinnamon-scented sentimentality, like a year-round Christmas store.”Keillor had no interest in presenting a scrubbed and gleaming version of the church and its people to the world; if anything, his stories tend in the opposite direction.
This sentimentality is manifest most in the rambling, homespun stories Keillor tells about his imaginary hometown, Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. Situated as the centerpiece of the show, the “News from Lake Wobegon” monologue is, for many, the highlight of the evening’s program. In it, Keillor rambles about the quirky misfortunes and misadventures that befall the town’s stodgy, Midwestern residents. The stories are quaint, endearing, and sometimes genuinely moving—characteristics that have led the show’s detractors have found it impossibly hokey and dull. Homer Simpson, watching a parody of Keillor on TV with his family, is unimpressed. “Maybe it’s the TV,” Bart suggests. Homer bangs on the top of his television: “Stupid TV. Be more funny!”
That’s a surface reading, though. As Ira Glass, another leading light of public radio storytelling, put it, “Garrison Keillor created a packaging that nonlisteners took as real. The actual show is so much more complex, and human, and complicated than nonlisteners think it is.”
The tales from Lake Wobegon are, in fact, much more richly textured, emotionally complex, and subversive than they first appear. “The News from Lake Wobegon” is dark comedy, and Keillor keeps things dark enough to maintain the tension that dark comedy requires. He has a persistent tendency to undermine the show’s picturesque facade in subtle ways. In a characteristic moment in one episode, for instance, Keillor wryly describes a scene on Lake Wobegon: “The sun makes a trail of shimmering lights across the water. It would make quite a picture if you had the right lens—which nobody in this town does.”At other times, his bite is less subtle. On another recent episode, a woman is left bald after a failed suicide attempt involving her gas oven. Even the name of the town itself, supposedly borrowed from a Native American word, is really from the English word woebegone, “beset with woe.”
It may come as a surprise to listeners and nonlisteners alike that Keillor has said he won’t miss the people of Lake Wobegon. They’re too controlled by good manners, he says, and “they have a very hard time breaking through. . . . I am frustrated by them in real life.” Elsewhere he has complained about “their industriousness, their infernal humility, their schoolmarmish sincerity, their earnest interest in you, their clichés falling like clockwork—it can be tiring to be around.” Asked why, if they irk him so much, he has devoted so much of his professional life to ruminating about them, he said simply, “It’s the people I think I know.”
This is the paradox at the center of A Prairie Home Companion: Keillor genuinely loves the people of Lake Wobegon—who are, of course, simply a particular subset of Midwestern Americans—even as he is genuinely annoyed by them. His annoyance subverts his love for them—but, just as importantly, his love also subverts his annoyance.
If the heart of A Prairie Home Companion is “The News From Lake Wobegon,” then the heart of Lake Wobegon is the church. Sometimes it’s the Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility Catholic parish and its priest, Father Wilmer, but more often it’s Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church and its pastor, Liz (in the old days it was Pastor Ingqvist, but he was transferred some years ago). The church is the center of the town’s life, in part, because that’s simply the way of life in many small Midwestern towns. Lake Wobegon’s social life is largely bound up in its churches, and most of its residents belong to one congregation or the other. The Lutheran church makes an appearance in the monologue most weeks, and Pastor Liz probably gets more attention than any other single Lake Wobegon character.
Keillor himself was raised in a fundamentalist Plymouth Brethren church, and like his attitude toward Lake Wobegonians in general, his memories of it are mixed. On one hand, he says, “I have many fond memories of growing up in the meeting. Of the gentleness of people, of the transparency of their faith, of their devotion to the Word and to Scripture study.” But, he says, “I don’t miss the humourlessness, the lure of legalism, or the snares of the invisible liturgy. . . . If the Pharisees were to come back, they’d come back as Brethren. Seeking the manners of godliness over the love of God, going through the motions, genuflecting in all the little ways Brethren do. This spirit of fearfulness is so contrary to the spirit of artistic freedom and joyfulness, whether in literature or music or painting, in which we aspire to transcend ourselves. I never met Brethren who felt that the arts were a gift of God. The Brethren I knew felt quite the opposite, that the arts were a pretense for individual pride.”
For all his distaste for the culture of fundamentalism, though, Keillor says that he does believe in the Christian confession. “I believe in the propositions in the Apostles Creed that we stand and recite Sunday morning,” he says.
The church in Lake Wobegon reflects this disparity. On one hand, it’s full of the kinds of petty foibles that typify Keillor’s characters, and the churchgoers’ hypocrisy and smallmindedness is often a target of his humor. But it’s also the place Keillor returns again and again in his stories to find transcendence, and his knowledge of and love for the gospel and the Scriptures pervade his stories. “Our show, deep down in its heart, is a gospel show,” he has said. One place we hear this is in the gospel songs that Keillor frequently sings on A Prairie Home Companion, which he clearly knows and loves so well. Another recent “News from Lake Wobegon” segment ends with an impromptu singalong of gospel songs and Christmas carols around a backyard campfire. It’s a complex moment, fully aware of how clichéd it is, and of how small and provincial its world is—and yet, as Keillor bursts into song onstage, the beauty of the moment overshadows all this, and the conviction and love in his voice are unmistakable.
Keillor had no interest in presenting a scrubbed and gleaming version of the church and its people to the world; if anything, his stories tend in the opposite direction. But behind his show’s quaint, Midwestern trappings, and behind its often dark and cynical underpinnings—deep down in its heart—is a genuine belief in the church’s grace and transcendence. It’s the kind of belief than can withstand Keillor’s annoyance with the frequent humorlessness, legalism, and hypocrisy of the church.
G. K. Chesterton said in a lecture that “it is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.” Keillor’s humor has long resonated with Christians who are acutely aware of the tension between their faith and its clichéd, often embarrassing cultural accouterments. We need to be able to look squarely at them—even poke fun at them—and still believe.