If you know that "Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery" does not refer to the California supermarket chain, or that the maitre d' at the fictional Café Boeuf is Maurice, odds are pretty good that you're one of the 4 million devoted fans who spend Saturday nights with public radio's "A Prairie Home Companion." Since the show first aired in 1974, host Garrison Keillor and his "little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve" have acquired a fan base that borders on the cultlike. Devotees have been known to reschedule vacation plans and childbirth to worship at the shrine of what they see as a rare, sly humor.
Now Robert Altman's film, opening Friday, is poised to introduce Keillor and "Companion" to a potentially far wider audience. Some newcomers will find charm in the Norwegian bachelor farmers or the cowboy adventures of Dusty and Lefty. Others will learn why the show is named after a cemetery in Moorhead, Minn. But there are sure to be those, despite Keillor's seemingly inoffensive homage to Lake Wobegon, who will be added to the list of the humorist's critics.
When the show first went on the air, many listeners didn't know what to make of its slightly odd, understated tone, says Paul Croce, professor of American Studies at Stetson University, in Deland, Fla., "but it went from being old-fashioned to being retro-cool." He calls Keillor's deadpan humor and political commentary a combination of a modern Walter Mitty and a liberal Rodney Dangerfield. It appeals to cultural progressives who would like to change the world but understand that change is not that simple, according to Mr. Croce. "These folks just eat up the spoofing of political correctness in Guy Noir, the English Majors Association, and strong women and good-looking men in my hometown," he adds, listing recurring characters from the show. Perhaps most important, he says, Keillor's program is based on fundamental American values of small-town participatory democracy.
Keillor declined to be interviewed for this story.
Many listeners feel a lack of community in cities and appreciate Keillor's affection for it. " 'A Prairie Home Companion' succeeds because it makes the nation feel like a smaller, simpler place," says film historian Beverly Gray, who calls it the radio equivalent of a small-town bulletin board. "The heart of each show is Garrison Keillor reading messages, connecting friends and family members who live thousands of miles apart."
But for all those who call Keillor the Mark Twain of modern times - an American satirist with a keen eye for the human stories that tell a larger political truth - there are those who say the show patronizes rather than celebrates small-town values. Beyond that, it sentimentalizes a world that, for some, embodies the darker side of America. "If you actually encountered ... all the small prejudices that people have, you realize these things seem funny to those who haven't lived with them," says Elizabeth Zima, a hospital worker who grew up outside Des Moines, Iowa. "But if you live with them, they're tiresome and restrictive," says Ms. Zima, who now lives in Napa Valley, Calif. Idealizing small-town life is a mistake, she says, adding that the stories about Lake Wobegon "just make me sad."
Zima is certainly not alone. "The show has never appealed to me," says Brendan Nyhan, a grad student at Duke University in Durham, N.C. Mr. Nyhan has serious qualms about Keillor's political activism. As a former editor at the media watchdog website spinsanity.com, Nyhan once chided Keillor for making unsubstantiated allegations in a 2002 skit that suggested Minnesota senator-elect Norm Coleman was a suspect in the plane crash that killed his predecessor. "To suggest that it's even plausible that Coleman was linked to the crash without evidence is beyond irresponsible," wrote Nyhan in 2002.
Keillor has even been known to set husband against wife, though in true Wobegon style, never to the breaking point. In the Gussman's Philadelphia household, one woman's pathos is another man's pathetic, says Neil Gussman of his wife's obsession on Saturday nights. That's when he takes their four children out to dinner.
"You always know that the hero is going to have some pathetic thing happen to him, then they'll mostly just come back and be good Norwegian bachelors," he says. "I've tried several times to come to terms with it; I just can't." That doesn't deter his wife of nine years. She won't answer the phone during the broadcast, he says. "If the house was burning," he adds with a laugh, "she'd wait till she actually got hot to leave."