Above Average Writing: A Prairie Home Companion

Garrison KeillorPeople can be divided into two camps, in my experience. Something that goes deeper than politics, deeper than religion. I’m talking about the two camps that divide over A Prairie Home Companion, the radio variety show of 32 years that airs weekly on American Public Radio. In my experience, you either love the show and think Garrison Keillor is a humorist of the proportions and staying power of Mark Twain and Will Rogers, or the show bores you to death and you think Keillor is a suitable alternative for Ambien. Me? I fall in the former camp. (Photo credit: Brian Velenchenko)

Who here has not ever heard the catchphrase for Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon, “. . .where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” On the PHC website, someone asked Keillor about the origins of the phrase. I thought it was an enormously interesting peek into this particular writer’s process:

I remember constructing the line back in the early days of the show, Andrea, and taking care with each phrase in the series. It was a very deliberate invention. I was doing a sort of routine that was migrating from stand-up toward an extended story and I needed a line to indicate THE END. The stand-up started out as a broad parody, based on the police blotter column in a small-town paper (and also the social notes, e.g. “Mr. and Mrs. Keillor had supper Thursday evening at the home of the William Pedersens. Also present was Mrs. Pedersen’s brother Duane and his wife Lurleen.”), so that’s where the “news” came from in “The News from Lake Wobegon”. It’s a signature line that holds up pretty well, I think. I grew up with strong women and I like the romantic characterization of men and then the line about children, which has been picked up by other people including educators, is a sort of anti-test-score joke and also expresses the hope of parents for their children. They each have enormous possibilities, whether or not anybody else thinks so.

Now, I have my own theory about it as well. I’m not from Minnesota, but my grandparents were Swedes who called that state their home. And my grandmother, God bless her, was the sort who could compliment a meal by saying, “I’ve had worse.” So calling children “above average” here also seems to me a good Scandinavian-American-Minnesotan way of bestowing the understated compliment.

Every time I listen to A Prairie Home Companion, I am awed when Keillor gets to the “The News from Lake Wobegon” section. This is a story that he has done weekly for God-only-knows how many shows. Each one of the stories is as finely structured as a Swiss watch, with an ending that — almost without your realizing it — comes full circle from the beginning in a perfect wrap-up. And I have read that he generally narrates this section of the show without referring to notes. Come on! You gotta respect that. For a representative sample of these amazing stories, check out the audio version of Lake Wobegon Days, which won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word or Non-musical Album in 1988.

I’ve never had a chance to see APHC live, but I did have the opportunity to go to one of Mr. Keillor’s book readings one year in Ohio. The store practically had to turn people away at the door; I’m fairly certain the fire marshal would not have been happy with the turnout. But Mr. Keillor was the epitome of good manners. He stayed, signing books, until every last one of the hundred or so who had gathered to see him had been able to shake his hand and say hello. He made everyone feel like his most special fan. And for that, on top of his already above-average writing, he goes into the WordHappy Hall of Fame.

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2 Responses to “Above Average Writing: A Prairie Home Companion”

  1. Dick Sutliff Says:

    I couldn’t have said it better, sir. Now to figure out a way to get to the “non-believers” — that is the challenge. Those who don’t “get” Garrison simply don’t know what they’re missing. Pity.

  2. toddiedowns Says:

    Right you are, Dick. My hope is mostly to catch the people who have yet to be exposed to A Prairie Home Companion and persuade them to give it a listen. While I doubt Mr. Keillor is wanting for fans, it would still be nifty to bring him some new ones.

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