Keillor Tells E&P a Talk With Dave Barry Helped Lead to New TMS Column

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By: Dave Astor

Early one morning last year, humorists Garrison Keillor and Dave Barry were sharing a van as they headed to the airport from a Spokane, Wash., hotel.

“We were having a little conversation about newspaper columns, and I was telling Dave why he ought to keep doing his,” Keillor recalled in an E&P phone interview. “He said, ‘Why don’t you do one?'”

Barry didn’t take Keillor’s advice, but Keillor took Barry’s. On July 3 — about six months after Barry began an indefinite leave of absence from his Miami Herald/Tribune Media Services column — Keillor will start writing a feature for TMS (E&P Online, May 17).

What approach will the host of radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion” take in his weekly column? “I’m not a pundit,” replied the Minnesota-based humorist. “I’m not an authority on the Mideast, Congress, or taxation. I’m not a crusader or an apologist.” Keillor said his feature will instead be “an odd amalgam” of the sensibility of local newspaper columnists — who he called “real treasures” — and national newspaper columnists as he discusses the big-picture meaning of “small current events.”

When asked for an example of this approach, Keillor recalled recently standing in a South Dakota parking lot watching a woman from Los Angeles interacting with local residents. “She was taller than I, because she was wearing 8-inch heels, and she had atomic orange hair,” said Keillor. Yet the woman and residents were interacting in an amicable way.

The lesson for Keillor — and what he might say if he wrote about this South Dakota scene in a column — is that “this red-state, blue-state business is horse hockey. I find it irritating.”

Keillor’s politics lean more liberal than conservative. For instance, he’s a big fan of progressive New York Times/New York Times News Service columnist Paul Krugman. But Keillor also admired the conservative Times column by William Safire that ended this winter.

The 1942-born Keillor reads the Times national edition and the Minneapolis Star Tribune every day, and also loves perusing other newspapers during his frequent travels. “I cannot begin a day without a newspaper in my hand,” he said. When there’s no newspaper outside his hotel-room door, or in the hotel’s gift shop, or in a vending machine on a nearby street, Keillor goes roaming until he finds a store that sells one.

As a longtime newspaper reader, Keillor knows what he likes and doesn’t like about the medium. “A newspaper is the most efficient way to keep abreast of the news,” he said. “You can read what interests you and skip the rest.”

Keillor does think many newspapers these days “are too positive and upbeat on the mistaken assumption that that’s what readers are looking for.” He’d also like newspapers to run more of “what people really say” (rather than the prepared words of press conferences, speeches, and promotional interviews); more about what people actually eat (rather than fancy recipes); and more police reports.

“I’m continually fascinated by what people steal and what people do when they’re drunk,” confessed Keillor.

Given that the humorist can have his say during the weekly “Prairie Home Companion” radio show (which began in 1974), in books (he’s authored more than a dozen), and in magazines (he writes periodically for Time and has also contributed to The New Yorker), why is Keillor doing a newspaper column?

One reason is length. “I love the short form,” said Keillor. “On my radio show, I can use 5,000 words if I want. The newspaper column is 800 words. The beauty of it is the limitation of it.”

Keillor has received offers to write a newspaper column in the past. One reason he turned them down was because syndicates told him such a feature wouldn’t be that time-consuming. Writing the best that one can write isn’t easy, Keillor said, and “takes as much time as it’s going to take.”

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