Tuned In: 'American Masters' profiles Garrison Keillor


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PBS's "American Masters" trains it lens on an icon of the heartland: Garrison Keillor, host of public radio's "A Prairie Home Companion" and raconteur of the doings in fictional Lake Wobegon, Minn.

It's an enjoyable 90-minute presentation that shows Keillor working behind-the-scenes on his radio show and often at his laptop writing. He essentially narrates the program, rarely in the form of interviews by "American Masters" producers, but often in chunks of dialogue taken from his monologues.

"Masters" trails Keillor to a Minnesota rhubarb festival where one church lady fan proclaims, "He's not a fancy kind of guy. ... He likes rhubarb like the rest of us." Another woman, who could just as easily be a character on "Prairie Home Companion," declares, "Baking rhubarb pie is a metaphor for finding happiness in your own backyard."

Ya, sure, you betcha.

"American Masters" interviews some of the other "Companion" performers and shows how each episode is put together with many contributions and how all those contributors answer to Keillor, who appears to have final say in decisions ranging from script to music.

Outtakes from performances on the road depict Keillor coaching a young girl who's accustomed to singing in her Lutheran church but finds herself in a bigger venue for "Companion." And Keillor muses about the reaction of younger listeners to his radio program who sometimes think he invented the form. He discusses the value of performing "Companion" in front of a live audience saying, "It's a novelty for people to see what radio looked like when people used to do radio shows like this."

If this "American Masters" program is missing anything it's more on Keillor as a person. Viewers get a sense of how he does his job, but not necessarily what formed him or influences his work. There's a hazy sense of his love of the "authentic," including the midwestern charm of Minnesota, and how he's also drawn to the more highbrow life of a literary icon in New York City where he's owned an apartment since 1988.

But the film never addresses the obvious: How someone who rarely smiles and often appears joyless is capable of spreading so much joy among his devoted listeners.

Obviously "American Masters" isn't "Biography" and there's no reason to expect it to get into his three marriages and the disconnect between aspects of the life he lives and the more mundane fictional world he's most closely associated with, but the program would benefit from a deeper exploration of why and how Keillor became the master of gentle, soothing midwestern humor.

'American Masters: Garrison Keillor -- The Man on the Radio in the Red Shoes'

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, WQED.

Starring: Garrison Keillor.

Contact TV editor Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1112. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv.


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