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GARRISON KEILLOR: Beyond Lake Wobegon

February 09, 1992|SHARON BERNSTEIN

Humorist Garrison Keillor has been beguiling radio audiences with his kindly spoof of old-time radio shows since 1974, when his Minnesota-based "Prairie Home Companion" became de rigueur listening among the public radio set.

A televised performance of his current New York-based show, "The American Radio Company," which is recorded live in front of an audience, will air as a Valentine's Day special on PBS. While the humorist was in Los Angeles for a recent reading of his new book, "WLT: A Radio Romance," he talked to writer Sharon Bernstein about radio, his new book and life outside of his beloved Midwest.

You've been broadcasting from New York for more than two years now. How has the program changed?

The show got sillier. For example, we started doing a lot more with chickens on the show.

Real chickens?

We have a chicken named Chuck. He's an acting chicken. Essentially, it involves me telling the story and the chicken doing the sound effects. And every week on the show we have a human sacrifice, where we throw a man in a suit over a cliff, either onto a trash pile or else into water. And that's been fun.

You frequently take the show on the road. Do people respond differently in different parts of the country?

If you're doing a show in Minnesota, people won't laugh as loudly as they will in San Francisco or New York. People laugh more in parts of the country that punish them more. In a place like Minnesota, which is a kind of paradise, what's to laugh at? You don't see the joke.

Do you like being on the road?

Yes, I do in some ways. You put all of your troubles and your problems in a blind trust and just go out. I travel 15 to 18 weeks out of the year. It's a lot for a writer because a writer is a sedentary beast. A writer really wants to stay in one place and look at the same wall.

Are you still based in New York?

I live there. I have my socks in New York. But to an alarming extent I'm based in my laptop computer. I'm deeply attached to it and the fact that I can take that thing anywhere at all and sit and work.

Tell me about your new book, "WLT: A Radio Romance."

It's a novel about two brothers in Minnesota in the '20s who have a failing restaurant. The restaurant is failing because it's in a building that had been a mortuary, and this has a depressing effect on sales. A lot of the patrons have been there before and don't want to remember that over there in the corner where the coffee machine is, is where Aunt Bertha was laid out. So they need a way to promote (the restaurant) and bring in a new trade. So they start a radio station.

Why do you base your stories in Minnesota?

It's where I'm from. And it's what I know and it's where my language is spoken. I speak in the language of those people.

Living in L.A. one would think that the whole world is obsessed with Los Angeles, and that those people who are not obsessed with Los Angeles are obsessed with New York.

Are we allowed to be not obsessed with either place? Is there a special place for people who are just Americans?

And yet, you moved to New York.

I wasn't obsessed with it. Far from it. I was never going to start writing about it. (Keillor does write for The New Yorker magazine.) I could never write about New York as interestingly as it's been written about a thousand times already.

Can you tell me a little bit about your own personal background, where you come from?

I come from Anoka, Minn. I received a good upbringing and a decent education and grew up and lived in the Midwest until I was 45. I've been away for four years and I'm now on my way back. I don't know when I'll arrive back, but I'm sure I'm on my way back.

Why?

It's where people talk like me. I'm a tourist in New York. I don't belong there anymore than I belong in this hotel room.

What are you thinking about the country as you travel around?

I'm thinking that I'm starting to look forward to the presidential campaign very much. It's an extremely interesting campaign. You can begin to sense this exciting story that's taking shape which may have a very different outcome than what was widely predicted. I'd love to write about this campaign.

If you were to write something about it, would you try to write something funny?

I would just want to go out and look at it.

Where do you see yourself in the pantheon of writers?

I am part of a small brotherhood, with a few women in it, of American humorists and I'm very honored to be in this group--and the group includes people like Roy Blount Jr., Calvin Trillin, Dave Barry, Ian Fraziere, Alice Kahn, Nora Ephron, Veronica Geng--who are engaged in writing a literary form of comedy.

Tell me a little bit more about where you come from.

I was left behind in Minnesota by my parents who were Broadway stars and who were on a road tour of a traveling company of "Moon for the Misbegotten" and I was placed there, left in Minnesota, among churchgoing fundamentalist people, honest Anglo-Saxon rural people. And I've never told anybody all of this until just now, but I am almost 50 and it's time that the truth be told.

So I'm looking for them in New York and hoping to find them. They may be Los Angeles, I suppose. It's a long search.

Maybe you should contact Ted Turner.

My parents? Colorized?

"The American Radio Company" airs Friday at 9 p.m. on KCET.

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