Interview by George Plimpton
This conversation between George Plimpton and Garrison Keillor was recored on stage at the 92Y in New York City on November 28, 1994. It’s part of a collaboration between 92Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center and The Paris Review.
The Animated Transcript
George Plimpton was the editor of The Paris Review from its founding in 1953 until his death in 2003.
There was a man sitting on his front porch and the pastor came by and they sat and talked about theology for a little while and the pastor asked the man if he believed in infant baptism and the man said, “Believe in it hell, I’ve seen it done.”
A humorist has to what, what was I about to say? [Crowd laughs] I was distracted someone was moving back and forth in the hall there. If everyone be perfectly still
When did you decide to become a writer and why?
I grew up in a fundamentalist protestant family that stressed that we were a select people and so we were to avoid contact with others who did not share our faith. We were isolated and perhaps growing up in this world, first of all one has a reverence for the word and for language. God spoke to us through the word and in our family this was the King James Bible. It also I think gave books, fiction great power because they were proscribed. We were not to touch them and my family was shocked when I came home with a volume of Hemingway when I was a boy and I wanted to read it. So there was a price to be paid for being interested in fiction and in writing, pushing my family away. Books and authors became my family.
It’s a decision however that continually seems temporary but you are never quite sure you’ve made it absolutely. I’m only 52. So I made a tentative choice that has lasted this long but I could still fall back on retail sales.
Being considered a humorist are you constantly aware that it is time to come up with something as clever as you’ve just described or to be comic in some way?
I think that you are only obliged to be a humorist from the age of 18 until you turn 30. Past the age of 30 I don’t think there is any obligation to be clever at all. After that you I think you are supposed to settle down be a good person, raise your children, and be good to your friends which you may not have been when you were very clever, and try to atone for your cleverness.
Humor has to surprise us otherwise it isn’t funny and it’s a death knell for a writer to be labeled a humorist. Because then of course it’s not a surprise anymore, it’s what’s expected of him. When you come to expect humor of people, you will never get it. Looking for it, demanding it, expecting it, what you do is to kill off every joke you ever come across.
Humor in writing needs to come in under cover of darkness and be disguised, it has to surprise people. You don’t want to get that sort of sound in your writing that boing that gives you away.
Humor is not about problems with airline luggage handlers. It’s about our lives in America and it’s about the ends of our lives and it’s about everything that happens after that and everything that happened before.
Well you paint this lovely picture of the piece going up and then immediately appearing in the magazine I was wondering if sometimes at the New Yorker they say well this is not quite up to snuff or however they would put it.
Well you see though when the New Yorker turned down work, they turned it down in such an elaborately gentlemanly way making apologies for their own shortsightedness. Undoubtedly it was their fault but somehow for some reason this fell short of the remarkably high standard that you by your own work have set for yourself. They had a way of rejecting my work that made me feel sorry for them somehow.
Listen to the full conversation
Garrison Keillor and Religion
Growing up, Keillor’s family was part of the Plymouth Brethren, a conservative branch of the Evangelical Christian movement.
“We were fundamentalist Christians – members of the Plymouth Brethren.” Garrison told The Guardian. “We believed in separation from the world and in the divine inspiration of the Bible; every word and every comma. So we read these texts very closely and memorised passages of scripture for recitation, which gives a person a love of language and especially the grand cadences of the King James rolling off your tongue.”
Garrison Meets Homer Simpson
The Power of Books
Big Screen Prairie Home Companion
Garrison Keillor, Lily Tomlin, and Meryl Streep starred in A Prairie Home Companion, the 2006 film written by Keillor based on his weekly radio show. Robert Altman was the director.
Director Robert Altman was 80 years old and in poor health during filming in the summer of 2005. In order to secure insurance for the shot, Altman had to hire a backup director in case he was unable to finish the film. He chose none other than Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, The Master).
The Real Lake Wobegon
“Where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”
Keillor’s fictional town of Lake Wobegon is actually a composite of the central Minnesota towns that Keillor lived in and around in his younger years.
“The Homeward Trail” Richard Gilks
“On The Other Side” Rebecca Ruth Hall, Ken Anderson
“Georgia Sky” Jim Wolfe
A Prairie Home Companion