The news from Lake Wobegon: more guest hosts likely

“You’ve got scripts here and everything,” Garrison Keillor said to Sara Watkins during a pre-broadcast warm-up just moments before A Prairie Home Companion hit the air this evening.

“They never put these out for me,” he continued drawing a laugh from the capacity crowd in the Fitzgerald Theater.

There was a lot of curiosity about what Keillor had described as an experiment, having Watkins, a bluegrass fiddler with a soulful voice be the first guest host on APHC in decades.

Prairie Home staff said when the arrangement was announced that it was just a one-off effort to try something new, and to allow Keillor the chance to actually watch the broadcast live.

When it was all done, and the enthusiastic applause had died down, Keillor described the experiment as a success.

She did great. She got everything in,” he said after the show. “It’s such a huge asset to have a musician host it.”

“”I think she’ll do even better the next time,” he said. “I hope so. Why wouldn’t she?”

Next time?

With those words Garrison Keillor may well have revealed the future of A Prairie Home Companion.

“I may be let free from this prison,” he continued. “These prison bars may be about to open.”

Keillor has been talking about the future of A Prairie Home Companion for some time. At 68 he says there are other things he’d like to do, but he feels a responsibility to the show.

“It was the result of the hard work of a lot of people and I don’t think I should let it go into dry dock just because the captain gets old. There are other captains,” he said.

He said no decisions have been made, but this is the first time he has talked about having a number of people step into the host role. He said show staff is beginning to book the 2011-2012 season, and that might be a good place to start with some guest hosts.

He says what’s important is to maintain what he sees as the three essential elements of APHC: live music, comedy, and a midwestern identity.

“The midwest, that’s the tough part,” he said.

However with those three elements he can see the show going in any number of directions.

However it also rules out Watkins as a possible longterm host as she is a Californian.

He said if they do decide to try more guest hosts in the future, it would likely mean more shows at the Fitzgerald, and fewer on the road.

“We could do it in a couple, two, three, years, maybe less,” Keillor said. “And I could retreat to a comfortable position backstage. I could become a radio actor.”

Or an executive producer someone suggested

Keillor’s eyes popped open. “I like the sound of that,” he said, continuing that he had never been an executive of any kind before.

From a listening point of view the show that precipitated all this was actually a pretty typical program, with the exception of the guest host.

Watkins sang the opening song, and personalized it a little to explain how being from San Diego she was trying to get used to St Paul snow. Backstage Keillor was the first to applaud as the song drew to a close.

She introduced the guests, sang the Powdermilk Biscuit song, and vamped along with sound effects wizard Tom Keith as they described a snowmobile trip along the frozen Mississippi which involved a man-eating fish and snow monkeys.

Keillor appeared as a guest performer, acting, and delivering the news from Lake Wobegon, where perhaps as a nod to the media interest in his own story, he mentioned Clint Bunsen’s belief that “nothing in this town gores unnoticed.”

Keillor also appeared in a skit where he hinted that Watkins might be back.

“You’re not going to take the show off in some other direction?” he asked her.

“Not this week,” she replied.

A few moments later backstage Keillor told watching journalists “This is very easy work,” not mentioning he had written the scripts. A few moments later came back to tell them careers were changing before their very eyes.

The only two minor mishaps were when Watkins announced that the news from Lake Wobegon would be coming up in the second half of the show, just moments after Keillor had done the segment.

“Kid had a defective script,” Keillor said later, “My fault.”

Then as the show entered its final half hour, producers realized they were ahead of schedule. Watkins quickly told her brother Sean they were going to do two extra songs together, even though he had not actually played one of them in several years. The extra songs went off perfectly.

When he was not on stage, Keillor generally kept a low profile, and actually listened more to the show than watched it. When the show wrapped up he did not come onstage until after the broadcast was off the air. He walked to the middle of the stage and led the audience in applauding Watkins.

“It was an interesting experiment, and we had to do it to prove it can be done,” he said.

“I just enjoyed it,” he said. “And I didn’t even have a good seat.”

  • jfh

    a very good overview of an historical event, Euan.

  • Congratulations on the “experiment”! I think it went very well. Of course it’s just an experiment… right?

    We certainly don’t want to have our favorite son from Lake Wobegon Trail Country riding off into the sunset anytime soon.

    But then again being the practical midwesterners we are it’s always good to have a backup plan just in case. You never know when the bright lights of Broadway will call on our good friend again and whisk him away to the big city of New York.

    Besides it’s also good to give the rookies a chance to show their stuff once in a while too. Maybe we’ll find another talented radio showman …er showperson (must be politically correct nowadays). You might even find someone right here in Lake Wobegon Trail Country.

    And of course it would be great have Garrison spend more time in his home town of Lake Wobegon and see him riding on the Lake Wobegon Trail.

    We look forward to seeing you again the next time you visit us in Lake Wobegon Trail Country…

    Happy Trails! Cliff

  • Really quite extraordinary. Of course; any future guests might want to brush up on their current events; English literature(for those English Majors amongst us; we ‘American Studies’ majors are an even more slendorer minority). They would also benefit from a New Yorker subscription. I love the blue grass sound. What about Brad Paisley and Shery Crow, Tish Hinojosa, and Linda Rondstaadt? have you heard of our Sisters Morales? This was a brilliant experiment. Thank you.

  • Paula Allen

    What a disappointment to tune in to “Prairie Home Companion” and not hear the voice of Garrison Keillor as host! I’m glad to have been able to find out here that he is not ill, but think future guest hosts, if there must be some, need to have more personal presence than Ms. Watkins, who sounded nervous and more like guest than host. As heart and soul of this program, Mr. Keillor will only hurt the show by stepping back from the microphone, especially if “guest host” arrangements are as hasty and ill-fitting as this first one.

  • Rebekah T.

    Great article, but the hearing a guest host on PHC, even one so talented as Ms. Watkins, gives me a lump in the throat. I know it’s inevitable, but I hate the thought of Garrison retiring. We went though withdraw once before back in the 80’s I believe, when Mr. Keillor took a well deserved break from the show. My family started listening back in the early 80’s when I was just thirteen. I even had tickets to go to the after show cast party back in the 90’s when the show came to Raleigh. My “boyfriend” at the time came down with a mysterious illness and we couldn’t attend (a predicament I will regret till the end of days). Now I’m 40 with a small daughter that I hope will be able to enjoy PHC one day. My wish is that more people my age and younger appreciated the genius of his humor and his complex understanding of human nature and relationships.

  • Patricia A

    Thank you, Mr. Kerr, for your accurate and helpful review. Indeed, we will all miss Garrison Keillor whenever he decides to leave the show (even when he merely temporarily abdicates to a guest host). His voice, perspective and legacy are a valuable financial asset to MPR, so they certainly don’t want to see him leave, either. Sarah Watkins did a nice job, but she isn’t Mr. Keillor, and it will take time for all those impacted (Mr. Keillor, MPR, devoted “Prairie Home Companion” listeners, and other public radio stations’ programmers) to determine if the show can survive Mr. Keillor’s absence.

  • Dan

    Although I understand GK’s interest in wanting the show to continue on without him someday I was pleased to hear Ms. Watkins would not be his choice for host. Although I believe she is very musically talented, I was not impressed by her handling of the host job. She was a bit monotone and sorry to say, had boring dialogue. It will be a huge feat trying to fill Kelilor’s big red shoes!

  • Gary Thaden

    How is MPR covering one of their own shows any different that Fox9 News doing a “news piece” about a Fox TV show. Is is worth a note that a Minnesota celebrity is not doing his own show? Yes. But your extensive “coverage” is more like self-promotion. In the grand scheme of things going on in the world and in Minnesota, it is not worth the airtime you have given it.

  • Car Potato

    THIS guest hosting was a “success”???

    Sorry! She may sing well, but she lacks gravitas, personality and a sense of command to run this iconic program. I understand GK may want/ need to retire (God knows he deserves to,) but this lightweight is a curious and inappropriate choice.PLEASE look elsewhere!!

  • Jeannie666

    I totally agree with Car Potato, Paula, and Dan. This lovely singer does not have charisma.

  • Scot Billman

    I feel sorry for Sarah Watkins. She was assigned an impossible task: be Garrison Keillor.

    The script for this show was exactly the same as every other show for the past umpteen years. The only difference was that Ms. Watkins read some of the words. GK has shaped the rhythm & tenor of those words since before Ms. Watkins was born. It was very unfair to ask her to recreate that atmosphere. And we were reminded several times, GK is watching there from just off stage. CREEPY!

    The vital heart of PHC is “The News From Lake Wobegon”. Ms. Watkins was not permitted to perform this segment. (How? How about reading a letter from GK. Or blowing out a tire in Lake Wobegon.) When I heard GK perform this, I realized that “guest host” was a sham. I was looking forward to a close-to-home story from Ms. Watkins.

    This is undeniable: If PHC survives GK’s retirement, it will be a much different show, a show that reflects the persuasions of the next host. GK should disappear the next time there is a guest host.

  • Steve Cambron

    I’d like to compliment Garrison and the entire PHC staff on a job well done.

    When I first tuned in Saturday I was a little taken aback. But after a quick search on line I found Garrisons’ explanation and wish for the future. I applaud him, his decision, and the graciousness and humor (expected no less!) on the eventual progression.

    As I have been listening for most of the show’s history, it’s only natural that thoughts to change would be addressed. I was young when I started listening, and that was a long time ago.

    One of the things I was taken by was Garrsions’ description of what he wanted to see in the future of the show. (Paraphrasing) he spoke to the goal to have a musician as a host. If Saturday’s show was a taste of the future then I think the show will continue uninterrupted.

    Another item I thought healthy for the shows future was the relative youth of the host, Sara Watkins. Her musical peers, both focus and age, might afford the benefit of bringing a new audience perpetuating the show’s success and life for a long time to come.

    It was reassuring to have GK in skits and, of course, The News From Lake Wobegon. I hope he does that as long as he wishes to. It’s like a comfortable sweater. Never tire of it.

  • Martin Fass

    This is the message I sent to Prairie Home Companion after the January 8th broadcast ended. I’d appreciate your posting it here at your website:

    A little feedback from this listener:

    Tonight’s show had a great deal of good, funny material with Tom Keith and the three actors…and these elements saved the day. (I include the Monologue in this group. Sudden nightmare vision: what if the Monologue had been done by Sara Watkins!!!!)

    But the rest of the two hours–a “host” who simply cannot talk, and even if she does get past her vast problems with diction, is most inadequate in every department…a disappointing group of guest singers and musicians, topped by the drivel from Abigail Washburn giving us detail after detail about her set of accompanists.

    It does not work to push all the false cheerfulness and lame attempt at sounding spontaneous. Garrison Keillor clearly knows how to offer a beautiful two hours to listeners, (and can even get us through the mediocre comedy exchange tonight with Ms. Watkins) and we hope the program has few way off base evenings in the months and years to come.

    All the best.

    –Martin Fass

    527 Linden Street

    Rochester, NY 14620


  • G. H. Knutson

    I feel exactly like Mr. Fass. The show was just painful.

    I’ve listed to Keillor since he had his morning show in the 70’s, and attended one of his early live broadcasts when there more people on the stage than in the audience.

    I’m sure I’m not the only one who listens to the show for the humorous bits and not for the music. To think that the latter is the draw rather than the former is to confuse wheat with the chaff. (I have to use the mute button when he puts on those fetid hillbilly acts.)

    Thus his notion that a singer might be his hosting replacement is just fatuous. If he wants to kill the show, he should give it a proper Viking funeral pyre, not just let it drift away into a fog of mediocrity.

  • gail

    sad…listening this p.m. and realizing that G. is fazing himself out of the show…been listening 15+ years…last few shows seemed odd…not up to par w/guest you sooooooo much G…no replacement…broke my hand, typing not easy. God Bless

  • Caroll Vrba

    No one can replace Garrison, his ironic twist of midwestern humor with that “English Major” hint of the intellect and subtle pokes at the system cannot be matched by a novice of any ilk. It would be like trying to replace Mark Twain. However I do understand his wish to do something else, just turned 68 myself.

  • billy

    I am not interested in guest hosts that demonstrate how good Garrison is by comparison. I will not listen to anymore guest hosts. If I had bought a ticket to hear it live I would ask for my money back.

  • Elly

    I am 29 years old, and have been listening to PHC since before I can remember – my parents were fans from the beginning. I have to admit that I don’t tune in every week, but it brings back warm memories and lots of smiles whenever I do.

    I did happen to listen to this particular broadcast, and as a displaced Midwesterner living in San Diego, the last person I wanted to hear was someone FROM San Diego.

    I, like many others, turned to the internet to see what was happening. I suppose I understand that Keillor can’t host Prairie Home Companion forever, but I would vote for someone with more maturity…and someone from the Midwest, who “gets” the Midwest. Hearing about “trying to get used to the snow” or whatever she said wasn’t charming to me, from a host. Actually, there are a lot of things that may be charming about Sara…but not as a host.

  • Elly

    One thing I forgot to mention above…I actually really do LIKE Sara Watkins. I have long enjoyed her music. Just for the record!

  • vlc

    I know that it is human nature to resist change; when we grow to love something, we are upset when someone wants to make it different. And while I know I don’t want to ever see GK go, I am concerned about what may happen when he does.

    When I turned my radio on Saturday to the show hosted by Ms Watkins I was concerned that something might have happened to GK. When I heard GK’s golden voice and realized she was merely guest hosting, I was relieved, to say the least. I have to say, though, that the show was extremely painful to listen to and when it was broadcast that Sunday, I turned it off. I simply could not put myself through another 2 hours of listening to her monotone voice and poor sense of timing. She’s far too young and far too inexperienced to have been thrust before any audience like that, let alone left to maneuver around wearing the too big shoes of an icon.

    But, honestly, it’s not just her. I have a hard time imagining anyone doing the job. I completely understand GK’s desire to see PHC live on after he retires, but in my opinion, PHC simply IS Garrison Keillor. As much as I hate to say it, I think he should retire it with him. I agree with Scot Billman’s sentiment that “If PHC survives GK’s retirement, it will be a much different show, a show that reflects the persuasions of the next host.” And if it changes to conform to the next host, will it even be PHC??

  • aaron

    the thought of GK leaving is very sad. i actually turned off the show when i heard ms. watkins. i listened last evening, the 29th of january 2011, and when i think of GK departing, i know i will never listen to the show again. a shame really as i actually enjoy my saturday evenings listening to the show. looks like i will actually have a saturday free. too bad. i think MPR is doing a disservice to it’s listeners. better to shelve the show than painfully continue on with another ‘guest host’. what a disaster. then again, it’s just my opinion. i wonder if there are more of you out there that feel the same.

  • martha ann

    Like many others, I couldn’t listen to the program on the 15th, in part because of the inadequacy of the guest host and in part because of the surprise at the way she was presented. I would have liked a little warning of Garrison’s intent before the search began. Being Garrison’s age, the thought of retirement is no surprise. But in his case his absence will be a loss of one of our great enjoyments for the past 28 years, like the loss of a good friend.

    The vote is out on whether or not the show can go on without him, but I enjoyed the program on the 29th. As a former inhabitant of the Northwest, the Southwest, the Midwest, and transplant to the Northeast, I don’t think it’s impossible that there are charismatic hosts out there who can continue the humor, storytelling and some of the great music he has brought to us over the years. Some of his talent has been to tell the stories of the different cities and parts of the country he visits, and I love that about the show as well as his Midwestern presence.

    One of my highlights for 2010 was meeting Garrison, his daughter, and bandleader Rich outside the Town Hall in NYC after the show on December 18th (my son had to return to the theater to find his wallet which had slipped out of his pocket). Having finally seen and enjoyed a live show, after so many years of wanting to, it was just sweet to find that he is as personable in person, and quick with his humor, as he is on stage. Thank you Garrison for many years of enjoyment! From the Sims of Rush, NY, and Emily.

  • sandy

    I love PHC and I have been a fan of Ms. Watkins, but she was a fish out of water as a host of this show. She simply has no timing, and her comment to her friend and guest singer (don’t know name) was inappropriate. I am a female and am impressed that Garrison would give Sara a chance like that, but the mood and rhythm of the show truly should be with a person with a little depth of character and “midwest” experience–and timing, a sense of humor!!!

  • Marianne

    Might Harry Smith of CBS News make a return visit to APHC? When he appeared on the show last year, he seemed to have everything one might look for in a guest host: gravitas, style, a sense of humor, an acting ability, beautiful speaking voice, a Midwestern sensibility, (did I mention radio background?), a talent for singing and playing an instrument, and, a capacity to write and tell stories.