During Garrison Keillor’s Saturday night performance at the Starlight Theatre in Kansas City, he gave the news from Lake Wobegone, one of his long running standards, and awarded the audience with one laugh after another. He went on for at least fifteen minutes without a hesitation and without a script or cue cards.
A key to his hilarious (apparent) ramblings is that he’ll start a story, wander off on what seems like a rabbit trail, and suddenly come back to tie in the older story to the newest one. I won’t remember them all but during the course of his news report he spun tales that involved (1) Babe Ruth who came through at the end of his career playing on a traveling exhibition team and hit a homer so hard and far it cleared the park and landed in a cornfield and town kids searched for it forever but no one ever discovered it; (2) his first girlfriend when he was 13 and she was 14 with whom he had a one-time fling; (3)a statue on the public square that suffered damage during a tornado that blew a bean pod into its left ear and the plant took root and started growing there; (4) a man who flew 41 missions during the Vietnam war but upon coming home fell on hard times and into hard ways, eventually became the town drunk and wandered over to the next community and took up with a woman who had an artificial leg, no hair, and an eye that popped out, which caused his wife to leave him, whereupon he took up serious drinking, lost his house to the bank, and moved to the woods where he drank and lived as a hermit; (5) his Scout master taking him and other boys to the woods in January and left them to camp out and “toughen up” in a tent in 30 degrees below zero weather and during the night he needed to go to the bathroom but came from a family that valued modesty so he walked so far from the tent that he lost his way. There was much more but you get the idea.
My guess is that when Keillor sits down to create one of his shaggy dog reports, he might start by making a list of half a dozen or so totally unrelated and equally implausible situations. In this case a partial list might be:
1. Babe Ruth coming to Lake Wobegone and hitting a homerun so hard that the ball was never recovered.
2. A “wrestling” match with his girlfriend that turned friendlier than he’d expected.
3. A statue with a bean sprout coming out of its ear.
4. A war hero who becomes the town drunk and falls for an equally unfortunate woman in the next town.
5. A wacky scout master who leaves boys stranded in the woods in a tent in the dead of a bitter January.
Now imagine tying every one of those improbable yarns together in some way by the end of your report. That’s the genius of Garrison Keillor. He may or may not tell the story the same way every time but he knows where he is, where he is going, and how he is going to get there. It’s a brilliant form of entertainment.
It is also a tempting writing prompt! I think I’ll try this sometime — start with a list of off-the-wall posits and see if I’m clever enough to bring them together. Not to try to be like Keillor. I don’t think anyone can do that or should. But as Ruth Culham says in her book, WRITING THIEF, we learn from masters and so we get better.
All I know is that I had a fine time at the Starlight Saturday night.