Omaha, one presumes, is much larger than the fictional Lake Wobegon, Minn., the setting of Garrison Keillor's weekly variety show “A Prairie Home Companion.” But some things are the same, including the Midwestern brand of humor that residents of both Wobegon and Omaha enjoy.
Keillor, 70, will bring his mix of comedy and storytelling to the Holland Performing Arts Center on Tuesday evening. We spoke with him about the self-deprecating humor of Midwesterners, the key ingredient to a good poem and the future of “A Prairie Home Companion.”
Question. You've hosted “A Prairie Home Companion” on and off for nearly 40 years, and you really nail the Midwestern style of humor. Can you explain what makes Midwestern humor unique?
Answer. We are self-deprecating people. We are brought up not to speak too highly of ourselves and to expect a modest place in the world. We are brought up in a culture which — regardless of our own beliefs — is a Christian culture, and this imposes certain obligations. We are not to long for success or luxury or an easy life. We are to accept our troubles and our sorrows, and to try to be honest about our shortcomings.
Q. That doesn't sound very funny.
A. No, it doesn't at all, but I think one works up to this. Self-deprecating humor, I think, is very, very funny, and the idea is that everyone's life — no matter what sort of privilege or notoriety he or she may enjoy — we have certain basic things in common.
That's the amazing thing you discover doing the show, that urban culture — what you pick up if you grow up in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles — is very unique, whereas rural culture or small-town culture is recognized by people the world over. So that's the nature of Midwestern humor. It travels well, it really does. And if you do the show, as we have, in the U.K. or Germany, or Ireland, or Sweden, it's picked up very quickly. They know these people, they know this type, they know about women who are nosy and who know everyone's business. It's all recognizable, and it's all about the basics of life.
There are certain rules that we learn growing up in the Midwest that other people may never pick up. If you want a nice birthday party after the age of 18, you have to throw it yourself — you can't expect other people to do it to you. We have to see to that ourselves. (These are) basic pieces of wisdom that, I think, Midwestern humor is based on. It's not the humor of insult, which so much humor is.
Q. So it's good-natured more than it's mean-spirited.
A. Absolutely. I think that kindness is at the bottom of (Midwestern humor), and if you're on the attack, it has a sour taste in the Midwest, whereas someone from New York or L.A. might enjoy it if they hear someone ranting. But in the Midwest, we would not.
Q. You've mentioned that “A Prairie Home Companion” has a growing immigrant audience. Can you talk more about that?
A. I've heard it from taxi drivers, who often are new immigrants. You get in the cab and you ask to be taken to the hotel and this very black man in the front seat says, “I recognize your voice. Are you on the radio?” and you say, “Yes.”
It's not a big audience, but it's a very interesting one, because it means that I don't have to worry about not doing a Taylor Swift joke anymore or making joking reference to “The Great Gatsby” or whatever else is new, or the troubles of the Obama administration. I don't need to go there — other people can go there, but I don't need to. I can stay on the territory where I'm comfortable, and that is talking about people who have children and people who, if not devout, are curious or troubled about large, cosmic spiritual issues at the same time they're trying to take care of their lawns, trying to make their pets behave, trying to have a nice house and trying to be good people.
Q. People also know you from “A Writer's Almanac,” which airs on National Public Radio and features short biographies of notable authors, as well as a daily poem. Why did you want to be involved with a show dedicated to authors and to poetry?
A. I started the show out of a sense of obligation as an English major, and also because I thought to read a poem on the radio is really to give people a gift. A certain kind of poem, a poem that is memorable, a poem that a listener can get in one hearing and that's not a puzzle to be toyed with, is a gift that you give somebody.
I'm taking a couple months off from the “Almanac,” and Billy Collins is going to do it in my place in June and July, and what happens to the “Almanac” after that is yet to be decided. But I've loved doing it, and I think that memorability is the key here. Some poets write poems that the moment you turn the page, they're gone, and that just is the case. And other poets write poems that stick with you. Very, very few poems stick with you.
Q. A few years ago, you said you'd retire from “A Prairie Home Companion” in 2013. And it is 2013, and here you are. Are you still planning to retire soon, and what is the future of “A Prairie Home Companion”?
A. Well, I see the future of the show as going on and on and on. I think it's a wonderful institution. I'm not ready to retire from it yet, because I still think that the best shows are out there in the future somewhere and that I'm learning a lot about how to do the show. And so I don't want to quit and then feel this regret that I could have done better. And I feel good, and I'm bouncing around, and I'm still able to hop up on stage, walk down through the crowd with a microphone in hand and talk to people, so there's no reason really to stop. And what would I do if I did stop? I don't think I would do anything particularly distinguished.
Q. Do you have a favorite “Prairie Home Companion” character?
A. Well, I have a lot that I'm fond of. My mother died last summer, and I've talked now and then about my mother. And now that she's dead I'm able to make up stories about her. I guess I did that even before, and she got a kick out of it. I once talked about her being an ace trapshooter, and she got a big kick out of that. My mother never held a gun in her hand in her life.
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