From Iceland — Kingdom of the Frown

Kingdom of the Frown

Published May 5, 2006

Kenny “CK” Lee sits next to us, munching on a bratwurst. He is all of five feet, round, in his late fifties, with a few teeth missing, but impeccably groomed.
“I won the 88.1 phone in contest, and we drove all the way in from South Bend, Indiana. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to tonight,” he says, his wife attempting to shush him.
“I could talk all night, just tell me to shut up if you want. But I’m a giant fan of Mr. Keillor.”
“Really? We’re going to interview him after the show. Is there any question that you’d like to ask him?”
CK’s eyes pop wide open, a smile rises on the corner of his mouth.
“Well, no. He scares the hell out of me. I wouldn’t ask him nothing.”
We’ve had about five hours with the cast of A Prairie Home Companion, America’s most revered radio show, and one of the most successful and inexplicable cultural institutions to come out of the Midwest in recent decades this side of Oprah. To sum it up, A Prairie Home Companion is a variety show with legendary live band, celebrated guest musicians, especially in the American folk community, a 30-years-running self-emulating comedy sketch on small town Minnesota called the News from Lake Wobegon, and a few other radio dramas/ comedies, one of which, Guy Noir, has become such an institution that it has a ballet dedicated to it, among other homages.
The show presents a good portion of the best of Midwestern culture, and then mocks the hell out of it. If you’re looking for the influence behind films like Fargo by Minnesotans the Coen brothers, or even the cartoon The Simpsons, which also delicately constructs a fictional, all-American city only to gently eviscerate it, you can find them in A Prairie Home Companion (the Simpsons, on more than one occasion, have repaid the favour by mocking their predecessors).
Stopping in at a rehearsal of the great Minnesota production as it begins its tour that will lead it to Iceland, I’ve gotten more than a little spooked. Without exception, everyone has been the kind of nice that you hear about in rehab clinics – everyone smiles and waits for you to make sense and answers completely. We have casually talked with America’s best-selling country recording artist, Brad Paisley, who has flown up from Nashville to visit a radio show he has admired his whole life, and I have chatted about the merits of Diet Dr. Pepper with a 16-piece choir and members of the house band who have played with the best of American folk musicians for 20-odd years.
Constantly, I come across someone more pleasant than the last – with the cumulative effect coming to something like CK of South Bend, Indiana expressed: utter terror.
To explain all this, I must reference Steven Spielberg’s The Twilight Zone, Act Three. In that act, there is a child with profound mental powers who can make anything he wants to happen occur, simply by wishing it. His imagination is that strong. The people around him, who seem like a doting family, seem attractive and likeable, but as the sketch goes on, they reveal that their lives are completely at the whim of the child’s imagination.
Seeing Garrison Keillor arrive for the rehearsal of his show was exactly like inhabiting this movie. The regulars, the nicest people of A Prairie Home Companion, huddle around Keillor, who shows up dishevelled and pouty, pens and pieces of paper being pulled from his khakis as he utters, “Stop, stop, this is a mess, I’ll just rewrite this right away,” and begins writing and rewriting something that may or may not bring the whole imagined world he has created crashing down, or at least may or may not pull the actors in and out of scenes.
The cast of dozens, essentially, has no idea of their parts for the evening other than vague ideas of melodies – even the massive vocal choir with a penchant for Diet Dr. Pepper will receive fresh sheets of lyrics just before going live before a stage audience of thousands, and a radio audience of five million.
The whole experience is horrifying, perhaps all the more so because the words and songs being uttered and rewritten are fantastically funny. Tonight, a Norwegian farmer will talk to his wife on the phone about having certain urges that come with spring, and then about being caught in a snowstorm, then trapped underneath a tree that has fallen with the inevitable April blizzard, then being chewed on by wolves, throughout all of which he points out, “Oh, no, I’m fine, really, it’s not a problem, they just seem to be getting my leg, but you know, when it’s time to go, it’s time to go” to his bride, as a cast sings more and more bawdy lyrics to “Tiptoe through the tulips” – something about lying down and feeling breath, etc.
The cast is hard at work and completely at the will of the pouty 6-foot-4, five year old in the 64-year-old writer/director/star’s body. As the jokes get funnier, the songs sound more harmonious, the cast seems to get even more nervous. A crew man explains to me, somewhat forebodingly, while Keillor rewrites a song on the screen of his laptop with a pen, that the star takes things a little too seriously, drives himself too hard. “His parents were in the Sanctified Brethren, people who don’t believe in dancing or singing, just worship, and that may have had an effect.”
Under the blue light of his Apple computer, things begin to look bad. He is, quite obviously, a cracked genius. From what I gather, the crowd of thousands who come, and millions who will tune in, will get fantastic jokes, well-arranged 50s- and 60s-style pop tunes, a concert by America’s most popular musician, and they will all be sombre and serious about it, and maybe even look like they need a nap. Or something will go very wrong. What we see in Keillor’s slouch, his raised eyebrows, and the pens he keeps pulling out of his pockets, tells us that there is just too much rewriting going on.
The cast breaks for bratwursts and diet sodas, Keillor and the band staying upstairs. When we return, the house has filed in, and Keillor is already onstage, or somebody who vaguely resembles Keillor.
The scolding child is now a full-grown adult, standing erect, dressed in what looks to be an immaculate grey suit, casually joking with the audience. There is almost no connection between Keillor now, in front of the audience, and Keillor as he was 30 minutes ago, writing new lyrics for three of the songs to be featured tonight.
Even his pair of bright red running shoes, paired with a lustery grey suit, makes you think this is a man who could casually talk a bank cashier into handing over someone else’s savings, or schmooze among athletic, A-type businessmen over drinks at a university fundraiser.
And, of course, the crowd is not frightened of Keillor, they adore him. His one-liners like “Spring, with the change in clothing, the pollen in the air and the sunshine, is a time when the thoughts of men on their way home from work turns to roughage,” receiving uproarious laughter.
The Lake Wobegon sketch is a hit. The Guy Noir series, now fully incorporating Brad Paisley, who Keillor met minutes before going onstage and, apparently, took a liking to, goes over well. In fact, Paisley is given the spotlight for a good portion of the evening.
The show is a complete success: the photographer who has traveled with me to witness it is in awe – that somehow everything came together, and that it always has for the last 34 years, is astounding.
After the show, we watch Keillor greeting his fans. He insists on talking with everyone, we are told, something that exasperates his coworkers and some theatre owners, who have to wait an hour or so for him to leave. I walk over and stand in line, hoping to see some more of the gregarious and open personality that just took over the stage for the last hour and a half. A mid-thirties man with a peculiar speech impediment approaches him, telling Keillor that he was an English teacher in Wisconsin and that he taught Keillor’s books to everyone.
As a response, Keillor repeats the man’s words, with the same accent, a faint, embarrassed lisp that Keillor is obviously affecting.
We all look up at him, a little shocked.
Keillor seems to be daydreaming, and he snaps out a little, and says something about Wisconsin being just down the road, and the fan parts somewhat awkwardly.
Soon after this, we sit down for an interview, taking occasional breaks when he has to talk to a departing cast or crew member.
/// I suppose I should start with the film. Tonight you screened the preview for Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion, and it looked like an instant classic: spontaneous, funny, and timeless. You wrote the script. Are you a lifelong secret film buff?
– I don’t go to many films. I don’t know why. I think if you have a passion for films, you have to be able to enjoy the bad films as much as good films and I have friends who do. They just enjoy them in a different way. And they just love to see it unfolding on the screen. And they’ll go to two or three movies a week. I know people who do that. It’s easier to do in New York, where you have so much choice and so many independent movies come there. In Minneapolis, there are maybe five or six screens for independent movies, which are the more interesting ones where there are interesting risks being taken because the budgets are smaller and there’s less committee sensibility behind the picture.
But I just really, I’m really intolerant at my age. Intolerant of movies that just don’t engage me. Or books. But you know it’s easier to put a book aside.
/// Well, if you were a fan of independent theatre, or of literature, you couldn’t have asked for a better cast and director. You have the director of Short Cuts, one of the most impressive translations into film of an author who shouldn’t have been translatable, and you have the cast that has been at the centre of indie film for the last decade: John C. Reilly, Lily Tomlin, Kevin Kline, to name a few.
– It was Altman’s idea. It certainly was not mine. But he’s such an easy person to work with. That even after one conversation with him. A few conversations with him. I had dinner with him in Chicago, and hadn’t even seen all that many of his movies. I know less about Robert Altman than the average graduate student in America. But from one dinner conversation, and a couple meetings later on in New York when he came to the show, you really felt that this person would be a good person to work with.
I shouldn’t say easy, but you knew that he was fascinated by the subject and that he had a very sure sense of what he wanted. He’s not a person who second guesses himself. And he wanted to make a certain style of picture. I did not. But I tried to write a screenplay that would serve his vision and would have a great many different elements that sort of interlocked. It’s not a story that ties a man’s hands behind his back. It’s a very interlocking puzzle, with all these little pieces, and he was able to move them around and play with the pieces.
I think he had a wonderful time making it. I think all the actors did too, I know that I did. I’ve never made a movie before so I don’t know what it’s like, but the actors told me that this was really unusually fun for them. It was a short shoot for one thing, five weeks. And some people in the cast came for shorter periods of time. But Altman is a director who can be cranky with staff, investors and passersby, but with musicians and actors, never. With musicians and actors he is courtly. And very appreciative. He was always complimenting the band. Which is the band from the show. They were playing all the music. He was always complimenting them. He was so gracious to the actors. And they had a wonderful time.
There were some really wonderful acting turns in it. So I was sorry when it ended.
/// My God, does this mean you’ll be doing another movie?
– Yeah, no, I want to. I want to.
/// Do you behave in a similar manner to Altman? Is that why you got along, because you work in the same fashion?
– No, I don’t think I’m successful at that because I’m working on a different timeline. But I really can’t make excuses for myself. I am sort of abstracted and kind of living in my head. And as a result I think I tend to be curt with musicians. I know what I want so I just kind of tell them. And I’m not as old as Altman quite. Maybe he’s become even more courtly with age.
/// When we sat down, you mentioned seeing good films in New York, but losing interest here in Minnesota. You seem to be a fan of cities, which might surprise Midwesterners or longtime listeners of your show. Are there other places you’ve lived that you have this kind of attachment to? Denmark? You’ll be going to one of the great capital cities of the world, Reykjavík, and I wonder if you’re prepared for the experience?
– I’ve never seen Reykjavík, and I’ll be very curious to walk around it. I met some Icelanders in Denmark when I lived there. And they were very serious and sweet people. I met some at a language camp. I went to a Danish immersion language camp. And there were several Icelandic couples there who wanted to learn Danish for some reason. I asked them about the Icelandic language and they said “Don’t do it.” (Laughs.)
/// Today seems a good time to talk about your origins. You had the country superstar Brad Paisley on the show, and he happens to have grown up in the Grand Ole Opry, as you pointed out in your show. A Prairie Home Companion was created based on your experience writing about the Southern radio show for the New Yorker magazine. Can you tell me about the influence there?
– Growing up, we couldn’t get Grand Ole Opry up here. We could get it somewhat in the winter – AM radio travels better in the cold for some reason. But there was a station, a rock n roll station, that was so close to its frequency. I just remember listening to it in the winter. But the signal would fade in and out, which made it mysterious, like it was from another planet.
So I took a train down there to see it in 1970 or 71, and it was pretty amazing. All of these big stars. I followed country music somewhat because it was a time when college students were more interested in folk music, and there was a connection between folk music and Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs and the bluegrass bands; you got interested in people like Stonewall Jackson and Loretta Lynn whose movie, Coal Miner’s Daughter, was just out when I went to see it, a beautiful lady.
And all these big stars were playing in this old gospel tabernacle in this rather seedy part of Nashville with pawn shops and neon bars all around, and greasy spoon restaurants like Lime Barrels and Merchant’s Lunch, and it was kind of the old warehouse district, near the Cumberland River. And the audience came from all over. The parking lot had license plates from Alabama and Georgia and Mississippi. And I just found it fascinating.
There was no air conditioning. It was a summer night. The windows were open. There were people sitting out in the parking lot listening to it on the radio, and you could also hear the sound from the radios. So the sound from the hall and the sound from the trucks, the pickup trucks, just all kind of merged into one. People were smoking cigarettes, there was beer. It was very social outside. And musicians would come out the doors. Nashville firemen were the doorkeepers, and musicians would come out by them, and you could tell who they were by what they wore. They were all glittery kind of nudie suits and they’d come out for a smoke in the alley. And people would come up to them and kind of stand near them. Maybe not even talk to them. They were just somebody’s drummer or somebody’s fiddle player, but people really were in awe of these musicians.
/// As you describe it, the parallels begin to drop away. Beer, smoke, pickup trucks, glitter suits. This doesn’t sound like something that could happen in Minnesota. With your show, for example, everyone was having a good time but they were serious about having a good time. Well-dressed and polite and laughing till they cried.
– It’s a Midwestern audience. They’re very serious people. I probably am, too.
/// I noticed through the rehearsal I was laughing a few times, but you never were.
– You’re not supposed to laugh at your own jokes.
/// Maybe. I was thinking, during rehearsal, of the movie The Aristocrats, a movie where the best of the Catskill comedians, especially, tell the same joke. Most of them laugh as they tell their joke. A very different tradition, maybe. Actually, wonder if you’d do that joke?
– I don’t think I’ll do that on the show. Anytime soon. (A blink for timing.) Yes, it may be a different tradition.
/// You don’t laugh at your jokes, but you do smile and dance when you sing.
– I’m just trying to keep up with the rhythm somehow. It slips away from me easily.
/// And yet you have the curious dream job of writing new songs for each show, or at least new versions of old songs, to do a full concert or musical, every week. Tonight, for example, you had the number one recording artist in the country singing a tune that you wrote no less than an hour before the show.
– He did a pretty good job with that. He did well. He’s got a great understated talent. And he projects so well. His singing projects so beautifully that there’s never any doubt about what he’s singing. It was really riveting. I like that because I hear a lot of singers who are slurred, and their words are concealed. So much of what they do is concealed. And I’m not just talking about rock n roll, I’m talking about all kinds of things. But when a singer does a song and you’re not tracking what he’s saying, I think it’s just a mistake.
/// Are you tolerant of it? You said, about film, that a lover a film will appreciate a bad film. You’re a well-known lover of music…
– No, I’m not tolerant of it.
Here we turn off the recorder. Had I not just seen the show, I doubt the interview would have convinced me that Keillor consistently puts out art of energy, grace and humour. Impossibly charismatic and seemingly open onstage, in person, he comes off cagey and judgemental.
Keillor’s eyes are bloodshot. The energy he just put into the show has to be coming to an end. How long did he spend writing this show, the five or so songs, the 40-page script? We apologise our way through a standard-issue portrait request. Our photographer is positive that Iceland will fall in love with A Prairie Home Companion – it is the most amazing combination of music, comedy and charisma he’s seen.
And Keillor agrees to a photo shoot, slouching now, and dragging his feet as we head back out to the house of the theatre. As we set up some lighting, Keillor starts joking and laughing, talking more freely than during the interview, the topic now away from himself and on Iceland and our photographer.
Then we start shooting. And Keillor begins making faces. And he continues. Photo after photo. Frowing, squinting, like a spoiled child in need of a nap.
“Should I tell him to stop grabbing his crotch?” the photographer whispers to me.
“Just shoot a lot of them, he’s being casual,” I whisper back.
We take 30 shots. He is making a face, and grabbing his crotch, in all but two of them.
As we prepare to leave, Keillor delivers one last, truly surreal monologue. Riffing on Iceland, he mentions that he has been to the Faroe Islands.
“I was on this island called Streymoy, the main island there, with a charming little fishing village that makes up their capital. It was a weird place, packed with old shops and sheep and puffins, very weird, odd little creatures. And I went out one day for a walk in a field out on this island. And it was the greenest grass I had ever seen, all high enough to brush against your knees, but so incredibly soft. It was exactly like a dream. And since I’ve been there, I’ve had many dreams about this.
“I was walking on this green grass, looking out at the ocean at a rock formation, and the grass felt so soft it was like a cloud. And then I realised that the grass was moving. I realised that I was standing on a turf precipice, out over the ocean, and I realised this and I jumped back, and the precipice I was standing on fell into the ocean.”
We are mesmerised by the story. Keillor’s voice, which often lifts up at the end of a serious thought, convinces us that this might be the life experience that he dreams of each morning, waking him so that he can turn off the alarm before it goes off. A religious moment, close to a personable parable, save for the lack of moral.
“That was a great Faroe Islands story,” the photographer says, after Keillor disappears down the hallway. “I really don’t believe it ever happened.”
“No, but when he talks, it feels like he’s talking out dreams. Like you’re dreaming something with him,” I say, thinking I’m being insightful.
“Yeah, it’s called storytelling,” the photographer says, scanning his pictures, still hoping to find one photo without Minnesota’s man of letters grabbing his crotch and pouting.
On May 15th, Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion will premiere at Háskólabíó. A brief Q & A session with cast members will accompany the screening.
On May 16th, Garrison Keillor and the full cast of A Prairie Home Companion, along with a number of Icelandic performers, will broadcast a live show from the Icelandic National Theatre. Tickets are available through the National Theatre.

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