A defense of Keillor

For some, Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion is too white, too Midwestern, and too too old, Los Angeles Times critic Robert Lloyd acknowledges. But his own “ups” and “downs” with the show have been of his own making, he writes in a pushback essay against its detractors.

Tonight at the Hollywood Bowl, Keillor will step onto the stage as host for the last time. The show is being recorded for broadcast tomorrow night.

It is, Lloyd says, a more nuanced show than the show’s detractors acknowledge.

“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.”

But you would be wrong to regard it as nostalgia, even as age and the old days have inevitably run to the forefront of Keillor’s thoughts. It’s Keillor’s Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, or William Saroyan’s Ithaca, Calif., an ordinarily eccentric small town big enough to contain all life’s joys and sorrows and, despite its sheen of Protestant, passive-aggressive politeness, a multitude of sins.

“The challenge of humor,” Keillor has said, is that “somehow it must comprehend darkness and death.” Fatality as well as fatalism is built into the series; people die, or almost die, and so remember to live. In Robert Altman’s 2006 lovely, last film, “A Prairie Home Companion,” Death (played by Virginia Madsen) is a character, roaming the corridors and the stage of the Fitzgerald Theater as the series itself is about to expire. It is not meant tragically.

There is a sense among a few old-time radio types that it’s radio itself that is being sent away in the eulogies for a single program.

“A Prairie Home Companion” has been a sort of ark between the old world and the new, the analog and the digital. It kept audio comedy alive into an age of video – I bow down here to the flexible brilliance of company members Sue Scott and Tom Russell and to the sound-effects artistry of Fred Newman and Tom Keith, given a pride of place unmatched elsewhere.

The average age of A Prairie Home Companion listener is 59, an age that doesn’t embrace change. So what happens next, as the program shifts to a different strength, will help dictate the future of the radio portion of Public Radio. If it’s allowed to succeed, program directors won’t be as shy about trying new things. If it fails, it might as well be called Public Rerun.

“That’s what makes this investment worthwhile because we can build a program that will have appeal for the next 25-30 years, as opposed to take the easy road and just going into repeats alone,” MPR boss Dave Kansas tells MPR News’ Marty Moylan.

“It’s going to be a long shot. Keillor is a genius. Keillor, I believe, is irreplaceable,” Jack Mitchell, a public radio historian, countered.

Keillor says it’s a line of work that died a long time ago.

Archive: The night Garrison Keillor consoled a grieving state (NewsCut)