tv Overheard With Evan Smith PBS May 10, 2011 11:00pm-11:30pm PDT
>> funding for overheard with evan smith is provided in part by hillco partners, texas government affairs consultancy and its global health care consulting business unit, hillco health. and by the mattson mchail foundation in support of public television. and also by mfi foundation, improving the quality of life within our community. and also by the alice clayburg reynolds foundation and viewers like you. thank you. >> i'm evan smith. he's an author, humorist, storyteller and icon of public broadcasting whose weekly radio show, a prairie home companion, and its signature segment, "news from lake wobegon," have been a part of our lives, in one form or another, since 1974. he's garrison keillor. this is overheard.
>> garrison keillor, welcome. >> thank you sir. thanks for having me here. >> an honor to have you here. >> well, it's an honor to see you, sir. >> huh? >> and an honor to meet you. >> well, it's an honor now. may not be such an honor in a few minutes but -- >> well, let's see how it goes. [laughter] >> yeah. >> i know the obvious thing, mr. keillor, is to ask you about a prairie home companion, but i wanna talk about the writer's almanac first. >> i've heard of that. >> you have? you've been associated with it for. >> it's a little tiny five-minute. >> quite wonderful. >> .show. i think it's probably one of the few five-minute shows in -- in radio. >> but that's one of the great things about technology. we get it now for five minutes on the radio. we get it in a podcast; that's where i listen to it. >> i had no idea.
>> get it on the computer. >> really? >> and i was listening to it just this morning in fact. >> hmm. >> and you wished a happy birthday to john irving and to dr. seuss. >> mm-hm. >> .and to tom wolfe, told stories about tom wolfe's evolution from being a newspaper reporter to writing the books that we all know and then. >> mm-hm. >> .you read a poem by luci shaw called "december". >> mm-hm. >> .and then you signed off with your -- with your standard end. >> mm-hm. >> .which i thought was you know the classic five minutes; just perfect and it set my day off right. you've been doing this for a long time. >> have been. >> yeah. >> i like that poem by luci shaw because in the last lines she had a.a.a snow shovel, the sound of a snow shovel across concrete. >> mm-hm. >> .and.and tossing its light load onto a.onto a drift. i just felt there were a lot of people around the country who needed that poem, people in austin, texas. >> [chuckles] >> .and people in georgia
and florida, hawaii. it's a beautiful sound, that scrape. >> we don't hear that sound very much though. >> .that scrape of the shovel. >> yeah, yeah. occasionally but not often. >> so it meant a lot to me and.and the fact that tom wolfe had gotten his doctorate in literature and then he went into the newspaper business! >> what was he thinking? >> what a.what a great career move that he. [laughter] >> yeah [chuckles]. >> .he made there. i mean what would he be doing if he were teaching american studies at yale? i mean he'd be.he'd be. >> he'd be bored. >> no. he'd be forced to talk about thoreau and -- no, they all made great moves. john irving, the only really terrific wrestler to become a novelist and . [laughter] .so there you are. >> well, and i learn things from this little five-minute broadcast every day. >> i should hope so! >> well, i do! [laughter] i.i learned for instance something i did not know which was that tom wolfe's career writing the sort of books that we all read now was made possible by a newspaper strike in new york that cost him his job. >> yes, right. he got fired. >> right. >> .which is a good move for any of us. i.i've never been fired and i'm ashamed of that. [laughter]
>> well, you still have time right? it's possible. >> yeah, right. >> well, that.that's a great little thing and i don't think peo.many people are as aware of that as they might be. they know prairie home companion much more but. >> mm-hm. >> let's.let's go back to the beginning before "a prairie home companion." as i understand the story, your start is really thanks to getting plucked out of the slush pile at the new yorker magazine in 1969. >> yes. >> you had submitted a story to the new yorker as they say "over the transom." >> yes. >> and a very kind, young graduate of wellesley or smith or someone working at the new yorker whose job it was to pore over this stuff plucked your story out. >> barnard. >> was it barnard? >> yeah. >> a barnard or a wellesley sort of person. [laughter] a sort of young person who gets to go through that and that.it's.we.we owe all of this to her. >> well, i owe her a great deal. it was a.it was a very unprepossessing story called, "local family makes son happy." so it was a parody of a newspaper story... >> right. >> .and it was about a.a family of a 17-year-old boy who are worried about him dying in a car crash and so they hire a young woman to live with them and be his
companion. >> mm-hm. >> and the piece ended with a recipe for fancy eggs, scrambled eggs. [laughter] and it was kind of surrealistic and -- and not the sort of thing i would expect the new yorker to take and she. >> and they took it. >> .and.and she took it, yeah. >> and you know how rare it is for magazines then and now to pull something out of the slush pile. >> yes, yes it was. it was rare. so she was my.she was my angel. and being published in the new yorker did me so much good, i wasn't aware of it at the time, thank goodness, in public radio. so that when, five years after that, i wanted to start this live variety show on saturday afternoons before the metropolitan opera the fact that i had been published in the magazine of s. j. perelman and james thurber and e. b.
white gave me credibility to start a show. >> hm. >> i couldn't have done it without that. >> you really believe that? >> i absolutely believe it. >> now the.the story is that you were working on or considering working on a story about the grand ole opry. >> mm. >> .and it was that that was the insp.for the new yorker and that it was that that was the inspiration for what became a prairie home companion. is that a myth or is that true? >> no i was down there. the.the opry was moving from its home down in the honky tonk row of nashville, they were down on lower broadway. >> yeah. >> .and tootsie's orchid lounge and all these nefarious bars where -- where you're gonna smoke whether you smoke or not -- [laughter] and they were gonna move out to the suburbs and that was interesting. and then even more interesting was the fact that president richard nixon, who was then only a few months away from resignation and who just wanted to be in front of a friendly crowd, came down
for the first show in the suburbs and -- and played -- played my wild irish rose at the piano and twirled a yo-yo... [laughter] >> i don't care whether that's true. i like it. [laughter] >> irresistible for a writer so i went. >> yeah. >> .down there and.and i stood off in the wings and dolly and porter and stonewall and loretta and roy acuff and cousin minnie pearl, they were all there and.and they just were having such a fine time and.and i thought to myself you know a person could do this. >> mm-hm. >> a person could. >> yeah. >> and there's where i stepped off the precipice. >> right. >> .and -- and went down this long slippery slope that i'm still. >> still on. >> .sliding down. >> yeah. how difficult was it to.i mean you mentioned the.the benefit that you enjoyed from. >> mm-hm. >> .the new yorker relationship but how difficult was it to get this started in the earliest days? >> not.not difficult at all.
they.they -- they mixed the show on a little five.five-channel mixing board with.with knobs. >> right. >> .potentiometers and -- and they had big microphones the size of footballs and -- and we stood in front of them and you know played and sang. it was a dreadful show -- [laughter] -- and -- but we had the benefit of a.of.of a.of a tiny, tiny audience. >> yep. >> .so that our mistakes were -- were only spread out in front of [chuckles] very few people. >> great. yeah i think they call this "opening the play in new haven." is that right? >> good, yes. >> yes. >> we.we -- we.we opened the play in -- in haven beach, nebraska. >> as it happens. [laughter[ >> and -- and so we had a good long time to develop that and to. >> work out the kinks. >> yeah, well, they haven't been worked out yet but. [ laughter ] >> .you know you learn how to cover up your mistakes. >> right.
the show really.and this was 1974 that the show began. >> this is correct. >> correct. so at what point into the life of the program did you think finally, i mean in all seriousness, well, we've got something; even if it's not perfect, it's at least.i'm satisfied that we've.we've figured out what we're doing here? >> i'm still wondering. [laughter] >> truly? truly? >> truly. i didn't.i was not brought up to be satisfied. [laughter] >> it's a good thing actually. >> i was -- i was brought up in the christian faith, which is -- does not teach you to look back on.on your.your own deeds with satisfaction. >> and so you're still waitin' for that day to come and it just won't come? >> it's not going to come. >> not gonna come? >> no. [laughter] >> the.the. >> the christian faith. -- is a difficult, troubling faith. it's not -- it's not just the good shepherd you know, it's not rays of sun coming through the clouds. there's a lot of really difficult, impossible stuff there.
>> yeah? >> and you read the gospels and it'll just scare you to death. [laughter] thank god i'm an episcopalian. [laughter] and we know how to ignore all that. [laughter] >> i just want to give you room to let you go as long as you want so that's actually my. >> [chuckles] >> the -- the show has had two halves right? so '74 to '87 was the first half of the program, and you took a break. >> yeah. >> .came back with the show under a different name and then came back fully i believe in '93. >> right. >> .and renamed it a prairie home companion. >> right.
well, we made this terrible mistake you know of retiring when you're -- when -- when the show was a big success in '87. really a stupid thing to do. >> but isn't that good? retire on top. go out a winner. >> no, no, no, no, no, no. no you should go out in shame and disgrace. you should go. [laughter] >> .you should go out being fired you know for something. >> right. >> .and -- and preferably something low down and mean. so then it took me a long time to climb back and then i.then i came back and changed the name of the show. why? why? it was stupid. i came back and re-titled the show the american radio company of the air. whoo! so it took a long time to recover from that mistake and we've been trying to recover ever since and just trying to get a handle on.on doing it you know? >> hm. >> it takes you along time to live down your.your youthful pretentiousness and just -- and just deliver to people what they want. >> is the show dramatically different? i mean, you know a lot of people who are watching this program today are sitting here probably have some familiarity with this show going back a ways; i'm not sure they go back to 1974. >> ah. >> so for their benefit and for mine, how different is the program today from what it was at its inception? >> i don't remember the show. >> yeah. >> .so i can't tell you. [ laughter ] .i.i.i have short-term memory loss with with.with radio and i rem.i forget all of it. >> everything. >> .by.by monday early afternoon at the latest. >> right. probably healthy. >> sometimes.oh absolutely. >> yeah. >> if you remembered what
you had done on a show like that you.you.you would die of discouragement. >> right. [ laughter ] >> and anybody who comes from the midwest, you grow up with an inferiority complex you know as big as your pancreas and. [laughter] >> .and.and -- and.and if you grow up in a small town you will never, ever lack for discouragement. [ laughter ] >> right. >> and then you've got the christian faith on top of it. [laughter] >> right. which we've.which we've covered, but i know a big issue, i realize that. >> so you just.it's all you can do just to remain ambulatory. >> right. [laughter] can.can.can you say a word.let me digress from the a prairie home for a second and.and go back to that growing up in a small town. what.what about your. >> the word.the word is persistence. >> persis.is that what it is? >> that's the word you're looking for. >> i ammlookiig for persistence? >> persistence. >> is.that's.that's the thing that made you be able3 to do this, the thing that you took from your childhood, from your small town childhood? >> yes, yes. they.they brought you up to be persistent.
my.my people were.were graduates of.of the big crash, and so they were people who did not trust men in suits, they didn't trust banks, they kept money stashed around the house in odd places and taped to the underside of drawers and so on, and they taught you to.to.to work hard and to keep on working and never take anything for granted. so the very quality that you rebelled against. >> right. >> .in your parents, their persistence, their doggedness -- you know, you wanted to be a romantic, you wanted to wear bell-bottom pants, you wanted to be swashbuckling, to wear an ascot you know or whatever and wear your hair long and have mood lighting and lava lamps and so forth. [ laughter ] you rebelled against their persistence but that was the quality that they baked into you that enabled you to. >> yeah. >> .do whatever you were gonna do.
you were under the illusion that it took talent but it didn't. [laughter] you know talent is.talent is -- is worth a nickel. what it took was persistence. >> right. >> .and memory loss [clears throat] and. >> [laughs] >> .and the ability to endure boredom. >> right. [ laughter ] >> the ability to endure days of boredom as you sit and write things that don't work out. >> right. >> .and you throw them away and you keep on going. that's.that's the important thing. >> now, the voice, your voice. we.i associate your voice with public radio more than anything.3 >> my voice? >> your voice. my voice!!?? >> .more than any other voice in the world. i mean i always wondered what.what it would be like to meet you, we've never met before today. >> mm-hm. >> .if your voice on the air would be any different. >> hm. >> .if that was more of a.of an on-air voice, like mia farrow's character in radio days where. >> hm. >> .you know mellifluous on the air and then. >> hm. >> .squeaky and annoying in person but. >> yeah. >> .it's the same voice.
>> yeah. >> i won.i wonder if your voice -- if you ever thought about going into radio before all this grand ole opry stuff happened because you seem to have such a natural cadence and a natural timbre for radio. had this ever been an issue for you? >> no, i think the voice that i fall into on prairie home is a manufactured voice. when you go into radio you know you're imitating, you're always imitating. you're imitating edward r. murrow, you're.you're imitating eric sevareid, all these giants who. >> right. >> .i grew up with and.and and my voice when i started out doing prairie home was much higher than it is. of course i'm older now. >> right. >> .and i'm more discouraged [laughter] but -- but it -- but it was a high twangy midwestern voice. >> yeah. >> and so i've.i've brought that in.into -- into this sort of broad.this kind of standard american broadcasting voice. >> right.
how does the program come together? would you give us a peek behind the curtain on that? how long's it take to.it -- most.most of it is improvisational i know on the.the.the content of the program but how much preparation goes into a weekly program? >> oh you mean now? >> now. >> now. oh, oh, oh. >> yeah give.give.give me a sense of how.how the program comes together. >> well, i'm -- i'm a broadcaster when it comes to that show and so i.i can't work far in advance. i.i need to be motivated by fear, by.by adrenaline and... >> dead.deadlines? >> yeah right, a deadline. and -- and the longer you're in the business the.the more dulled your reactions are so that you don't get nervous as early as you used to. >> mm. >> and i used to get nervous around wednesday, and now friday morning sometimes, very nonchalant and -- and -- and then of course there's the panic when you
come to rehearsal on friday evening. >> yeah. >> and then you have to really start to make tracks. >> so there is a rehearsal? >> yeah, yeah, sort of. i mean, you know we all get together and we look at each other and -- and then you have to get to work. >> yeah. >> and then on saturday there's a sort of controlled panic and -- but then everything kind of smoothes out. >> mm-hm. >> you come to 5 o'clock central time. >> right. >> .and they play the theme "tishomingo" and -- and the audience claps and -- and we don't have an applause light you know so that's.you know that's refreshing, they clap and -- and then you're launched on it and there's no time to worry about it. >> how big an audience? >> well, whatever theater we're in. it depends. >> typically? >> well, back home at the fitzgerald we have a capacity of about 1,100; 1,200 if we seat people on stage. >> mm-hm.
that's pretty great to have that kind -- well, the audience ha.dong that program i imagine before a live audience vastly different. >> mm-hm. >> you didn't always do it before an audience right? >> i'm so nearsighted that i...i'm not really aware of them. [laughter] >> yeah, is that right? >> no. >> but isn't there more energy in the room when you have an audience there? >> to me it's not an audience, it's like a renoir painting of flowers. [laughing] >> is that right? [laughs] [laughing] >> it's all sort of pinkish. >> well. >> .pinkish flowers. >> .i'll -- i'll be thinking about that one later i'm sure. >> yeah. >> can i ask you about richard dworsky? >> yes. >> richard dworsky does the music for prairie home. >> yes. >> and also does the.it's the terrific little theme music at the beginning of and at the end of the writer's almanac. >> right, yes. >> what a magnificent contributor to your output over the years and i think very little-known. >> he is. he's.he's.he's.he's intuitive and -- and so when i write a sketch, if i write "guy noir," if i write um "the lives of the cowboys" or "bob, the story of a young artist" i just put
in.in caps in brackets "[music]". >> just leave it at that? >> just "[music]." >> right. >> and and so if -- if bob is -- is being held over a cliff by -- by the wrist of a -- of a slender young woman named daphne and -- and now we have to have a bridge, he'll always put the music in the absolute right, righttthing. if.if demented, mutant pterodactyls are coming up out of the earth. he.he'll know the music to put in there. [laughter] you never have to be specific you know. >> he does mutant -- >> he'll do.he'll do all of that and.and he'll do, you know, hearts and flowers and people falling in love and.and people falling off a cliff. he'll do all of that.
>> yeah. how long have you been working with him? >> he came in in 1992. >> right. >> what year is this? >> this is 2011 so this is 19 years. >> wow! >> a remarkable long working relationship. >> wow! wow, we'll have to.we should give him a plaque. >> or something right? exactly. >> something. >> a pterodactyl or something. right? yeah. >> yeah. a tie or something. >> he's.he's pretty great. can i ask you about public broadcasting, public radio specifically? obviously so much of your life has.ha.has been lived on public radio. >> hm. >> and public radio has changed dramatically over the years that you've been doing this program. it's always been a minnesota public radio-produced program. >> right, right. >> but public radio as a medium has changed. >> i guess so. >> can you talk about your relationship. >> i don't know. >> .with public radio. but you know that. >> huh? >> .it's -- it's different today than it was just five or ten years ago. >> i don't know. i listen to it in my car. i...i.i. >> that's all you know? you turn on the dial and it comes on. >> i do and.and i don't drive that far so... [laughter] >> .you know i.i just get it you know ten minutes at a time and . >> right. so that.the medium hasn't changed as far as you're concerned? in terms of how you think about the program or think about the audience, you have not seen changes that you can point to and say, "ah ha, that's something that is consequential." >> i have.have a.a very privileged job and.and
that.and that means that i never go to meetings. >> seriously? >> we don't have any meetings. >> no. >> so i know nothing. >> right. >> i. >> you.you have people who go to meetings on your behalf. >> i guess they do. i don't know. [laughter] >> right. he is privileged indeed. >> i haven't been to.i haven't been to a public radio convention in 15 years and i. >> you know you'll now be asked having said that actually so.. >> .you've jinxed it. >> .i don't.i don't read about public radio. >> yeah. >> .so i don't know. >> yeah. >> it doesn''.it doesn't concern me. >> yeah. >> it's.it's for management to worry about. >> right. >> i'm a writer and.and i'm writing a show that sets out to be light-hearted primarily. >> yeah. >> .and i wouldn't feel any more lighthearted if i went to meetings. >> no, no, not at all. no, no, no, no. [laughter] but.but.but.but it does matter to you that.but let me chall.challenge you only in this respect, that the audience of public radio is probably a more 'keillor-esque' audience than if you were on commercial radio.
would you agree with that? the.the public radio good audience for you over the years. >> i don't know. commercial radio has.has gradually withered and broken up into a thousand pieces and the big powerful sort of fatherly, avuncular am radio stations that were such a staple, when i was a kid, they're all -- they're all gone and.and you know you have your choice between head banger music and oldies stations and.and people screaming about the president. i mean it's not a great choice. >> right. >> meanwhile public radio seems to have -- seems to have thrived. i did a.a summer tour last august and we wanted to do outdoor venues. and as part of the.as part of the show i took a hand microphone and with sara
watkins i walked out into the crowd singing duets, singing love songs. and we just walked among these people sitting on blankets and families with small children and a wheelchair section, you know people my age, and and -- and it was -- it was gorgeous. and to me i don't identify that as a public radio audience. >> it's an audience. >> to me it's just america. >> right. >> it's just america. >> yeah. >> and we had a.we had a gorgeous time; people sitting and drinking beer which it may be the key to the whole thing. >> helps doesn't it actually? i agree. [laughter] i.i.if they only served liquor at public television tapings it would actually be a big.a big improvement. [laughter] >> yeah. >> we have about three minutes left. two questions for you. the first is, can you please tell me, what's with the red shoes? over the years this is the legend of garrison keillor: his red shoes. >> somebody gave me some red shoes. >> yeah. >> they.they.they.they gave me in fact four pairs of
them and i don't know why. >> how long ago? >> oh this was ten years ago. >> right..3 >> and i'm on my last pair, so -- [chuckling] >> are you? so if the shoe companies are listening... >> i don't know. >> -- an endorsement deal might be in the works? >> i just.i just.i just wear them. i got tired of wearing wingtips. >> yeah. >> and when i was young and adventurous i used to wear these handmade, hand-crafted leather boots. >> yep. >> .which were.which were like lead shoes. they.you would have drowned if you'd fallen into the river. >> yeah. >> they were so heavy. and after you switch from this ten-pound shoe to.to sneakers you feel light on your feet. >> hard to go. >> .you feel graceful again. >> .hard to go back. >> oh couldn't.couldn't go back. >> you've now mentioned a couple of times your advanced age. >> have i? >> you have. you are -- you are 68-years-old, sir. is that right? >> i guess so. >> you are. >> i think so. >> is there a point at which you think i will just be done or are you gonna.are they gonna carry you out of -- out of the fitz? >> oh no. i want the show to continue. >> yeah.
>> .so i'm in the process of -- of finding somebody who can take it over. and i plan to do that in the next two years. that's my.that's my plan. >> do you have candidates? >> mm, i've got a few in the back of my mind, but nobody specific. >> governor pawlenty might need something to do soon actually. >> i think he's sort of taken himself out of the running here. >> has he? >> yeah. [laughter] >> but -- but it will be in good hands in any case whoever it is that . >> i believe so. i.i.i want the show to -- to go on and i want to be able to sit in the back row and watch it. >> right. may i say it will never be the same? >> of course it won't but. >> yeah. >> .we won't be the same tomorrow either. i mean you know everything.everything changes constantly. >> and that's okay with ou? >> oh, absolutely. >> good. well, you've been very kind to sit with us today. it was an honor to get to talk to you. >> it was my pleasure. >> no, the pleasure was mine. garrison keillor. [applause] >> no it was miie. >> .thank you very much. [applause] thank you, thank you sir.
>> funding for overheard with evan smith is provided ii part by hillco partners, texas government affairs consultancy and its global health care consulting business unit, hillco health. and by the mattson mchail foundation in support of public television. and also by mfi foundation, improving the quality of life within our community. and also by the alice clayburg reynolds foundatton and viewers like you. thank you.