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'A Prairie Home Companion' is wretched and unlistenable

Garrison Keillor's public radio variety show is inoffensive, successful, and put on by very nice people. It is also, if you ask Jon Bois and Spencer Hall, the most terrible show in the history of Earth.

Jon Bois:

There's a scene in The Wire in which Bodie has to ride to Philadelphia to oversee a drug shipment. It tells us two things: first, that Bodie's understanding of the world is so limited to inner-city Baltimore that he's surprised to learn that the radio stations are different in other cities.

And second, that A Prairie Home Companion is terrible to listen to. Earlier this week, my brother, my friend and I were debating how much someone would have to pay us to sit in an empty room and listen to an hourlong episode of the public radio variety show. I settled on $50, which is just below the $63 hourly rate I charge for the service of sitting in a silent, empty room. (Nobody has ever taken me up on this, but I'm a terrible negotiator, and I would prefer to hang a price tag on everything before I haggle on anything.)

The sum of its parts is considerable! Garrison Keillor is a gifted writer and storyteller, the voice actors are talented, and the musicians are as technically sound as one could ask for. The show is also genuine and pleasant and friendly, which normally guarantees that I wouldn't dare speak ill of the institution in question.

The parts, though, join to make me abjectly miserable. The show opens with "News from Lake Wobegon," a bit in which Keillor tells a story about a made-up town. He can tell literally any story he would like to. He could tell us that the people of Lake Wobegon separated from the Union, allied themselves with Canada, and are working to dig an underground pipeline through Minnesota to establish trade with them, but a corridor collapsed, and a secessionist is trapped beneath the Earth while her statist husband frantically arranges for her rescue. There. There's one of, like, 56 million billion cool stories that could be told with the tool of fiction at one's disposal.

It is never that. On the spectrum of fiction, Keillor's sits forever at the most mundane spot. He prefers to mimic the trivial stories of our own lives: your friend's son is going to prom! It was raining the other day! Your mother's garden is in its fourth year and doing quite well! Keillor sees us neck-deep in this burial hole of the ordinary, and decides that we need more ordinary.

Only it's weaponized ordinary, because it's all made up. In most episodes, Keillor goes on about the weather. Imaginary weather. He has done this every week for almost as long as I have been alive.

Yesterday, I listened to an entire eight-minute "News from Lake Wobegon" segment. I recorded the timestamp and duration of every laugh from the audience, as well as the line that elicited it.


Note that Keillor chooses to name four characters, and that he names them Florian, Myrtle, Laurel and Greg. I ran a Google image search for "a prairie home companion" and found hundreds of photos of lots and lots of people over the span of years and years. There was one racial minority. This isn't intentional, and I'd imagine that the Prairie Home Companion folks are as egalitarian as anyone, but listening to this show feels like pressing my face against the bosom of whiteness, clad in the gown of all its stereotypes.

It's public radio. It's folk music stripped bare of every sentiment that isn't, "it is nice outside and also there is a barn." It's Keillor's New Balances, which he wears with his suit. It's skits like "Guy Noir, Private Eye," which are really just tools in the service of making wry grammar jokes half the time. In one episode, they discuss the correctness of "oblivious of" versus "oblivious to," and the crowd just laughs and laughs. It is the worst thing I have ever heard.

A Prairie Home Companion is the soundtrack to the terrible hangovers of my younger years -- the ones that would have me slouching on the couch at two in the afternoon on a Sunday. I'd turn on NPR because it was easier than watching television, and then I'd stumble across the room and just lie there. Inevitably, the programming would turn over to PHC, an informed, targeted strike against my happiness. I was feeling too miserable to move.

After, I don't know, maybe 25 minutes about orchard stories and guys pretending to be cowboys (somehow, the kind without guns or enemies) and boring folk music that belongs in the Wikipedia entry for "music" and nowhere else, I wailed. It was a big, loud, tortured "AAAUUUUUUGH," with the crook of my elbow listlessly draped over my face.

My neighbor banged on our shared apartment wall. My wailing was too loud. I just couldn't take the quaint. God bless, and help, whoever can.

Spencer Hall:

[This is an episode of "News from Lake Wobegon" that Spencer took it upon himself to write. He asked me to edit it down. I have decided not to, because it's important to me that you really understand what we're dealing with here. - Jon]

Well, it's time for the news from Lake Wobegon. It's been warm, at least what we'd call warm. The corn's growing fast, so fast that Hjalma Johnson can barely pick it up, what with his back, and heat affecting him. Hjalma's an old Norwegian bachelor farmer and doesn't do well when it's above fifty degrees, which is not bad because his neighbor Gunnar Anderson, well, he can't even move if it's above 40 or so, and goes north to his son's fishing cabin in Ontario for the summer where he just--

[long, willowy inhale]

--well he just lays there, really. There's corn everywhere, and no one's doing a thing about it, because it's hotter than an October should be.

Evian Flintergut thinks it's a shame. She and Hjalma go way back. The even courted or a while, at least if you ask Hjalma, though what he would call courting is probably a little different because he said hello to Evian in 1983. It was Flag Day, and the town celebrated by giving people flags, so Hjalma walked up to her and said, "Hello" as Evian was perched, there, on the ladder, the light dappling on her dress, it was a yellow sundress, not too modest since you could see the bottoms of her knees, you know, as risque as any of those Flintergut girls got, mind you, they were a notoriously modest bunch, why Eleanor Flintergut wouldn't leave the house without a coat until it was June, and was noted by her neighbors who would point, and laugh, and suggest that Lutherans were Lutherans, but they certainly weren't Flinterguts. They never said this to her face, though, most certainly not at the Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church, where attendance was sparse that week because Father Lute was on his weekly snarch fishing expedition, up north, close to where Gunnar Anderson would be, his line hitting the water at no later than 5:30 a.m. because Father Lute was a light sleeper, and feared wolves.

But Hjalma did say hello to Evian Flintergut, there, up on the ladder, with the sun shining in her jet black hair, and the hair on her head, which was big enough to require her to shop at Kaivonnen's Hats For Big Men and Stately Ladies. Artie Kaivonnen would see her, and knew she needed a proper sun hat, for those scorching days in the mid-sixties in Minnesota's Indian Summer when the sun came down and put you in danger of getting a tan. A tan would start people talking like you'd done something scandalous like go on a vacation without telling someone, or worse yet, that you'd just laid in your backyard in the middle of the day and done nothing in particular. Artie Kaivonnen made a lot of money, but was crazy, or Finnish, a phrase someone like Hjalma would tell you, if he were into talking.

Artie ate a kite after a few doses of mulberry wine at the Blackberry Festival a few years ago. We never talked about it, but he did. Said it was being surly, and tore it out of a child's hands--Brigtor Nurkdahl, I think it was, a fine boy who later went on to the University, and now practices chiropractics in the city--well, he tore it right out of his hands and ate it, you know, like a dog chewing on a pair of your wife's shoes. No one ever invited Artie to anything anymore, and he died by his own hand a few years later, or moved to Florida. It's hard to remember which one. We never talk about suicide or Florida.

But she got her hat from Artie, and was there, up on the ladder, her hair in her hair, and Hjalma drove up and said "Hi." It was the first word he'd said in 1983 to a woman. He had used a few words when he went ice fishing that winter with his brother Olaf. It was a good conversation. He said "Pass the drill," and Hjalma did, and a few minutes later they both remarked that the weather was warm. It was the longest conversation either had had in several years, and embarrassed a bit by the display of affection, they spent the rest of the time drinking beer in the silence, and the cold, and the ice.

Evian said hello to him.

Then satisfied, Hjalma smiled and turned, and left. Evian resumed her flag planting, and 1983 passed, and then 1984, and one day, Hjalma looked up at his fence in 2013, when the corn was piling up too fast for him to catch it all in the sixty degree heat, and the leaves turning, and there at his gate out on the county road was Evian Flintergut, of the modest Flinterguts, waving and saying hello, or something like that. Hjalma's hearing wasn't that good anymore, and sometimes he found himself in the evening turning up the television to unreasonable volumes just to hear Don Cherry's voice, that booming Canadian wind blowing down into his old ears, and over the corn and the wolves and the old Johnson house and sleeping Father Lute, awake in the early morning in the cold thinking about wolves that weren't there, or maybe were, you never knew with wolves and Father Lute.

She was waving, and he thought of that day, so long ago, when she was up on the ladder, the dimples in the backs of her knees showing under that dress, and he thought foolish things. Did she remember? Was she here to split the loneliness, the corn, the long gulf of silence, the long silence, broken only by the sound of hockey in the evenings, and maybe that owl that lived in the barn and hooted all night. He was too old to love, maybe from birth, and maybe because he was old, but Hjalma had never been ever to tell. Norwegians live in a separate house from their feelings. They visit rarely, unlike Swedes, whose emotions live in separate countries, and then sometimes get surprise visits from their emotions, strange visitors who bring too much baggage, and then stay too long, and then there's some crying and they don't see each other again for years.

Finns like Artie, well their emotions live in the woods, and once a year they go out and chop that house down for firewood and burn it.

And she was still pretty, and sturdy like a Norwegian bachelor farmer like his women. He walked the road, taking her in as he approached the fence, and noting her age as he closed, but also her beauty, and her concern. He walked up, Hjalma did, and paused and mustered the spirit to say words for the first time since a recent visit to Gluterflunk's Hardware Store, which has since closed due to the opening of a MegaTool out at the mall, where he had to ask for some fertilizer

"Hi," he said. He waited for what felt like a long time, longer than any old man should wait for anything after a lifetime of waiting, and certainly longer than a man with Hjalma's bladder issues should wait.

"Hi, Hjalma," she said. "Your barn's on fire, yanno."

He looked back. It was, big plumes of smoke, burning the timbers, and the corn he could pick up, all of it ablaze because Hjalma had never been too good at hearing, and also because that loopy Sigmarsson kid from over the way had a problem with arson, and couldn't resist Hjalma's tinderbox of a barn. That kid would go on the be a state senator, and a fine one, by most accounts.

"Well, wouldn't ya know."



And that's the news from Lake Wobegon this week.