Last night we headed up the hill to Mountain Winery to see Garrison Keillor. I wasn’t sure what to expect, what his show would be, how big or small the crowd. This wasn’t helped when the security woman checking my bag sighed and said, “It’s a good thing you brought a book.” Mr. Keillor is an icon, a celebrity, a living (controversial) legend back in Minnesota — I’d even argue “an American treasure” — but how would he go over out here? Would he sing a song, read a poem, tell some jokes, regale us with stories of Lake Woebegone? Is that enough for a live show … in California?
Seven years ago, I’d just graduated from the University of Minnesota when I heard that Mr. Keillor, who had just finished filming A Prairie Home Companion for the screen, would be guest faculty, teaching Comedy Writing. I could not pass up that class. I signed up as an auditor. For 3 hours every week Mr. Keillor tweaked our work and showed us how comic timing works and falls dead flat; he tried out his new material on us — the funniest being a sketch on Dick Cheney, who had just shot his friend in a hunting accident (what could be funnier?!); he opined on his new crush on Meryl Streep, the star of his movie. Alas, I learned how hard comedy really is, that I have zero comic timing, but I’ve never, never laughed so much in a class, never been so utterly charmed.
Upon opening his own bookstore that same year, my Mr. Keillor wrote this sonnet:
A bookstore is for people who love books and need
To touch them, open them, browse for a while,
And find some common good — that’s why we read.
Readers and writers are two sides of the same gold coin.
You write and I read and in that moment I find
A union more perfect than any club I could join:
The simple intimacy of being one mind.
Here in a book-filled room on a busy street,
Strangers — living and dead — are hoping to meet.
I didn’t need my book; I couldn’t take my eyes off of him.
Mr. Keillor had plenty for the stage, and then some.
In the round of that outdoor theatre, surrounded by steep hills of California grapevines, we listened to a master storyteller and laughed and sang right along. If you have a chance to see him this summer, do it.