Appellate Judge James A. Stewart wonders if Garrison Keillor inspired Joel Hodgson and Andrew Zimmern.
"I was afraid of living an ordinary life, and I realized that's what we all get, and it's good enough."
Garrison Keillor, when talking about A Prairie Home Companion, says he found success "accidentally." His radio variety show began in 1974 in St. Paul, Minnesota, and has been running more or less continually since, except for the time he left the country to become an expat in Copenhagen and the time he relocated to New York and gave the show a new title. It's a fixture on public radio stations, drawing more than 3 million listeners each week and attracting guests like Steve Martin and Arlo Guthrie. Even if you've never listened, you might have heard an audio compilation, read one of Keillor's novels, or seen the movie he did with Robert Altman. Hopefully, the fears of growing old alone that he mentioned in a monologue have abated some.
While Keillor still looks pretty ordinary as he shambles through a state fair or a rhubarb festival, his life turned out to be unique enough that he's the subject of an American Masters documentary, Garrison Keillor: The Man on the Radio in the Red Shoes. After all, how many people host an internationally broadcast weekly radio variety show done live in front of an audience? The documentary, shot over more than a year, mostly features footage of Keillor augmented by quotes from his monologues or an interview done for the documentary, with regulars on the show sharing their impressions of Keillor or their experiences in doing radio.
At first glance, Man on the Radio seems like nothing more than a chance to put faces to the voices that fans have heard on the radio, something you might have done already with his Prairie Home Companion. Since he does a semi-autobiographical monologue nearly every week, Keillor's life is relatively familiar to fans, as is his self-deprecatory style, full of quotes like, "Being an English major prepares you for impersonating authority." As the documentary goes on, however, you get a picture of a man whose permanent hangdog expression seems to reflect his inner self, but is essentially content. Keillor has found a niche that allows him to be quiet and introspective, but a welcomed part of the larger community wherever he goes, as both a small-town guy and a big-city intellectual. "I've always wanted to get more than one life, to get a St. Paul life but also a New York life and a cowboy life, a show business life, a literary life, and a secret life," he says.
Keillor's basic contentment reveals itself gradually, since Keillor also seems to be always "on," even if his version of "on" is that of a soft-spoken writer. As he's being interviewed, he doesn't quite look at the interviewer or the camera, instead seeming to look inward for his next sentence. He's at his most relaxed when talking to college students in Savannah, Georgia, a segment shown at length in one of the extras. Here, he tells the students about his career, advises them to always circulate beyond artistic circles, and gets laughs with his imitation of the tough guy sleuths who inspired his Guy Noir character. This visit is by far the best of the extras. Also featured in the extras are a bonus Lake Wobegon story on "Privy Tipping," an interview with Keillor and Prairie Home Companion movie director Robert Altman, some interview outtakes (which are interesting more because you see the way he talks rather than for what he says), and a text bio of filmmaker Peter Rosen.
The picture and sound quality are excellent, even with natural lighting as he heads out into the world. While the Keillor quotes are excellent, you might wish for a bit more of his general mundane conversation.
If you're a Prairie Home Companion fan, the PBS special is worth watching and manages the trick of saying something new about a familiar personality. I'd check the listings for an airing first, but that Savannah discussion is an extra that makes Man on the Radio worth a rental or a purchase, if you're a faithful listener, a writer, or an educator.
Not guilty. May Keillor continue his radio life for many years to come.
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