“The show must go on.” That is Chris Thile’s mantra as he brings the Radio Show Formerly Known as “A Prairie Home Companion” back to the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul this weekend.
Aside from brief comments at the top of the Dec. 2 episode, Thile has not publicly addressed the scandal. Don’t expect that to change when he takes the stage Saturday for the first of three Twin Cities shows. The others are March 3 at the Fitz and April 7 at the State Theatre in Minneapolis.
“I think people will have gotten their fill of thinking about it,” he said by phone this week from Los Angeles, where he had just wrapped up a recording session with his band the Punch Brothers. “Since I started hosting, I’ve become less and less interested in writing a song about something messed up in the world or lampooning a political figure. It’s not out of any mandate, but there’s so much of that in the world. It’s so easy to do.”
Still, Thile admits that the accusations have had a personal effect on him. He grew up in California and Kentucky obsessed with “Prairie Home,” and Keillor hand-picked him as the replacement host in 2016.
“It’s been really hard,” said Thile, who said he has not corresponded with his mentor since exchanging e-mails in November, when the Keillor allegations surfaced. “But I hasten to add that what I’ve had to experience is child’s play compared to the tons of people who had been eating, sleeping and breathing the show for years and years and years.”
Thile added, “I would look at those people’s faces that would make you want to cry as they sorted out their own feelings, but still decided that the show must go on. It took a monumental act of courage and focus to get them there when the news first came out.”
MPR’s decision set off repercussions that included the removal of “Prairie Home’s” online archive, a new theme song and a renamed website, LiveFromHere.org.
While plenty of Minnesotans still contribute to the show, including musical director Richard Dworsky and the troupe of actors, Thile acknowledges it has less of a connection to the state than it once did.
“I think y’all would smell a rat if I tried to make all kinds of Twin Cities references during the show. I’m not from there,” he said.
“I remember moving to New York City and being so proud of my apartment in the East Village that I started calling myself a New Yorker. Folks would say, ‘Wait, wait, wait. People don’t get to call themselves that until they’ve been here for 10 years, and with you, Thile, it’s gonna be 20 years because you’re never here.’
“You write what you know,” he added, pointing out that he just learned this week that the Andrews Sisters grew up in the state. “I don’t feel I can tell you anything about the Twin Cities. I can learn from you.”
The distance between the show and its Midwest roots grew wider before its second season, when Thile and MPR management decided in August to release longtime “Prairie” contributor Dan Rowles as the show’s head writer.
As reported by the Star Tribune last week, Rowles reacted to his dismissal by raising allegations that Keillor had behaved inappropriately toward a female co-worker.
Thile said last fall that while the show was heading in the right direction musically, it needed improvement in the comedy department. Staffers told the Star Tribune that Thile and Rowles differed about what was funny, with Rowles often second-guessing his boss. Some staffers also said Rowles was sometimes verbally abusive with subordinates.
The attorney who represents both him and the woman said Rowles “disputes those allegations” and other claims about his conduct.
Thile said he had never heard those allegations until last week.
“I was 100 percent surprised by them,” he said. “Imagine the expression of a cartoon character when I heard about them on the other end of a phone line. I was just frozen.”
The new head writer
Rowles’ replacement, comedian Tom Papa, had no strong ties to Minnesota before taking the job last fall. In fact, the New Jersey native has never met Keillor.
But, like Thile, he was a longtime fan of “Prairie Home” and said he understands how Minnesotans might feel that the new guard has forgotten about them.
“They should definitely still feel ownership of the show,” said Papa, who was a guest during Thile’s first season last February and has long called the Twin Cities one of his favorite places to perform stand-up. “It’s from there. It wouldn’t have been a thing without them.
“While we’re not talking about Lake Wobegon anymore, that sensibility is still carried on. If the show had started in New York or Chicago, it would have had a different tone. It still has Minnesota running through it.”
Papa also praised his colleagues for weathering the storm over the past four months.
“Everyone that listens to the show, everyone that works backstage, we all have the same love of what the show was and what the show is,” Papa said. “That’s our focus.”