Culture, Entertainment, Radio

Recovering From “Garrison Keillor Disease”

I turn 81 in a few days and I intend to spend my remaining time looking at beautiful things, starting with my wife, and enjoying music and comedy and theater and the writing of writers who make me happy. It isn’t what they taught me at the University of Minnesota. They hung T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” around my neck and other grim classics that taught us that the greatest literature is the suicide note–Garrison Keillor

Way back in the mid 1970s, my family and I looked forward to Saturday nights on the radio with Garrison Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion.  A sweet-natured variety show about the mythical small town of Lake Woebegon, Minnesota, it featured music, skits, and monologues, most famously Keillor’s “News from Lake Woebegon” segment, as well as ads from fictional sponsors such as Powdermilk Biscuits (“Heavens, they’re tasty and expeditious!”) and Bertha’s Kitty Boutique.

It was a portrait of ideal small-town America that many yearned after:

where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average

and it was an escape for a time from the sometimes acrimonious tone–even then–of public and political life.

We loved it.

And then something changed.

To put it in today’s terms, I think we’d say that Keillor got “triggered” and got “woke.”  Maybe it was Ronald Reagan and the 1980s.  Maybe Keillor was facing some personal challenges.  But something happened and the tone of the program shifted to a darker, overtly political, commentary, and a far less optimistic vision for America.

We stopped listening.

In 1987, Keillor ended the show to “focus on other things,” shortly after it was revealed that he’d had an affair with one of the show’s producers between his first and second marriages.  He toured Europe, and then returned to the US and started another radio show, the American Radio Company of the Air, which he moved back to Minneapolis-St Paul in 1992, and renamed A Prairie Home Companion.  But, although it lasted until shortly after his second retirement from the show in 2016, it never recaptured (at least in our eyes) the magic and innocence of the original.  And we rarely tuned in.

Along the way, Keillor occasionally showed up in print in various journals, always with a jaded, rather sour, and sometimes downright mean, perspective on himself, his country, and his fellow man. I was very sad to see someone I’d thought of for several years almost as an extended member of the family in such dire straits, and I coined the term “Garrison Keillor Disease,” which I use to describe an apparently well-adjusted and decent man who, suddenly and for no apparent reason, goes out-of-round, seems to enjoy being nasty, and wallows in utter misery which he seems intent on inflicting on everyone else.  (I’ve diagnosed David Letterman, a once articulate entertainer and genuinely funny man, as a fellow sufferer.)

Perhaps it was simply a mid-life crisis.  (Keillor would have been 45 when he quit the show for the first time.)  Perhaps he’d begun to take the grim, glum, and dysfunctional teachings of his college years too much to heart.**  Perhaps there were other things going on which we don’t know about (there usually are).  What is public knowledge is that the year after his 2016 final retirement from APHC, Keillor was enmeshed in a “me-too” scandal in which he was accused of “dozens” of instances of inappropriate behavior by one-time colleague.

In response, Minnesota Public Radio expunged the name A Prairie Home Companion from the show, renaming it The Show With Chris Thile, and then, Live From Here (not much of a “ring” to either, is there?), and terminated online access to the APHC’s archives.  Access was restored in 2018, following a settlement with Keillor.

And along the way, Keillor found several of his writing gigs with national newspapers and journals, and an appearance or two on television (one was an episode of the PBS show Finding Your Roots) were cancelled or removed from the airwaves after the fact.  For a time, he became something of a non-person.

But yesterday, Keillor published a short article in Jewish World Review, titled Enough About Them, This is About Me.  It’s where the quote at the top of this post comes from.

In it, he writes of leaving Minnesota and moving to New York.  And of a new attitude.  And a new life.  He ends with this:

But now that I’m in New York, I plan to avoid activists and hang out with funny people. The 80s are the homestretch. Mortality makes each day a fine treasure, meant to be savored, so that’s my project now, and New York is the right place: in Minnesota thousands of Swedes worry about diversity and inclusivity, and in New York it’s all around you and you’re part of it. I paid my dues, I was a liberal Democrat, and now I plan to liberate myself from liberalism and be a happy bystander at the parade and cheer for the drummers, the dames in the glittery capes, the guy playing the calliope.

Wake up, America. We have the great privilege of speaking English, a language with so many words for hogwash, such as hokum and hooey and horse hockey, plus bilge and balloon juice, also piffle and pomposity, with which we can fend off claptrap and twaddle.

Come up and see me sometime and we’ll have a heart-to-heart.

I don’t expect that Garrison Keillor and I will ever agree much about politics.  But I welcome him back to the fight.  I’m just sorry that it took him until eight days before his eighty-first birthday to remember what’s really important in life.

Dr. Right pronounces him cured of his long-standing affliction.  Happy eighty-first birthday–and many more– Garrison Keillor!

**IMHO, colleges do have a lot to answer for in this regard although teaching The Waste Land certainly wasn’t their greatest crime.  That is reserved for their elevation–to public awareness and acclaim–of writers like Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs.  No wonder so many who graduated believing these to be the stellar examples at the forefront of their celebrations of the literary canon are so screwed up.

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