Garrison Keillor Q&A: “My retirement isn’t retirement, it’s a change of scene”

In 2016 Garrison Keillor stepped down as host of A Prairie Home Companion. Leaving the radio variety show he was synonymous with for 42 years was not a retirement, however, but rather what he calls “a change of scene.”

Garrison Keillor leads a singalong.
Garrison Keillor leads a singalong.

Garrison continues to work on numerous writing projects, among them “a screenplay and a limerick collection and a memoir,” while maintaining a busy touring schedule. Denver-area fans can see his Prairie Home “Love & Comedy” Show on Sunday, August 13 at Denver Botanic Gardens Chatfield Farms in Littleton.

Keillor and company describe the show as “two-plus hours of stories, love duets, family drama, poetic outbursts, and our famous Singing Intermission. The Old Scout, Garrison Keillor, with the extraordinary Heather Masse, sound-effects genius Fred Newman, Richard Dworsky and the exemplary Road Hounds. Good times!”

Fans of A Prairie Home Companion rejoice!

We recently caught up with Garrison to learn more about his post-Prairie Home life. We also asked him about his memories of performing in Colorado, where he’d like to perform again, and his thoughts on the future of variety shows.

See Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home “Love and Comedy” Show with Richard Dworsky, Heather Masse, and Fred Newman on Sunday, August 13 at Denver Botanic Gardens Chatfield Farms. This show is presented by UMB Bank. Tickets and complete details on the show can be found here.

At a recent show in Martha’s Vineyard, you told the audience “I tried to retire about a year ago and then I thought about it, the casualty rate is about 100 percent.”

For many reasons, by choice and necessity, current retirees are redefining what it means to be retired – even if that means not really retiring at all. Do you consider yourself among the vanguard of these non-retiring retirees?

My retirement isn’t retirement, it’s a change of scene, which everyone needs eventually. I gave up management —- being producer of a complicated radio show with a boatload of employees —- for the solo life of a writer and standup guy, and went straight to work on a screenplay and a limerick collection and a memoir, all of which are moving right along, and a weekly newspaper column. I love doing this stuff. I don’t like having to tell someone that his work is disappointing. So I took a hike.

Do you recall when you first came to Colorado as a performer? What stands out to you in those memories of your early Colorado concert experiences? From your perspective, how has Colorado – and its audiences – changed since those first appearances?

I recall that the first Colorado show was outdoors at Fiddler’s Green, and it was with a student orchestra, and suddenly the audience turned bright colors as they put on their ponchos, and the sky got dark and the wind came up. The orchestra evacuated the stage and I stood out there alone, doing something —- maybe reciting “The Wreck of the Hesperus” —– and up in the fly gallery a whole bank of lights came loose and dropped halfway and a lone stagehand climbed up a rope ladder to re-anchor the lights. He was the highlight of the entire show. He got a huge ovation when he was done. It was like watching Houdini or the Flying Wallendas. I believe that I eventually did the News from Lake Wobegon but it was hardly death-defying, as he was.

Is there a place – a city or state or even country – that you have not performed in that you would like to? What is it about that place that appeals to you?

I’d like to go back to Berlin. The audience there was very intense and studious and hardly laughed because they didn’t want to miss anything. This time, I’d like them to laugh. I’d like to do shows in cities with big immigrant populations, like Detroit and Chicago and Brooklyn —- immigrants like the show because I speak slowly and clearly and the material isn’t about current celebrities. Doing comedy for people whose English is newly acquired feels sort of triumphant to me. When you get the joke, that’s your indication that you’ve become an American. It’s not about taking an oath; it’s about laughter.

Garrison Keillor with Fred Newman and the band.
Garrison Keillor with Fred Newman and the band.

With over 40 years experience with A Prairie Home Companion, you have seen several cycles of dominant methods of broadcast media rise and fall, yet the variety show remains. In the age of digital streaming and podcasts, how do you see the health of the variety show? How do you see variety shows evolving in the future?

The variety show has a big future so long as people still enjoy congregating in one place. It allows great improvisation and it opens the door to talented artists whose act is great for about eight minutes and not so good for longer than that. Like the woman I saw in London who played a kazoo duet with herself, a wonderful trick made more exciting by the fact that she pretended she was playing one kazoo under her dress between her legs. It was crazy funny for a few minutes and then she took a bow and left. I’ll never forget her.

You are not afraid speak your mind and level some very pointed criticisms at some of our elected officials in your columns. Entertainers have long taken stances on the political issues of their day. How do you reconcile your roles of being an entertainer as well as a social commentator?

I write a weekly newspaper column in which I’m free to say whatever I think about the President, and I do, knowing that the reader is free to crumple the page and turn away. It’s different when you sell a ticket for someone to come in and watch a two-hour show. Everyone who comes is my guest and I try hard to make guests feel welcome.


How do you keep up to date on new artists? Where do you turn to when you want to discover new music? Who are some artists who have caught your attention recently?

Garrison Keillor performing with Heather Masse.
Garrison Keillor performing with Heather Masse.

I know nothing about new artists, nothing whatsoever. I’m 75. I like what I like, most of which has been around forever. My grandchildren would feel odd if I listened to their music. I love old close-harmony duets and they don’t make those people anymore.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

I am the age my grandpa was when he was old and shaky and anxious about everything and I assumed I would be too but it hasn’t happened. I feel like I’m getting my second wind, enjoying work more, and finally starting to get over the self-mortification that we Midwesterners take as our due. I came along at the right time for heart valve repair, blood thinners, anti-seizure medication, and was lucky to have dropped some very bad habits soon enough. I am grateful for all of that. Every day.

This Q&A was conducted via email with Swallow Hill Music Content Marketing & Publicity Manager Barry Osborne.

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