Garrison Keillor to teach U students to write comedy

by Emily Kaiser

When someone offers to teach for free at the University, it’s an offer the school can’t refuse, Garrison Keillor said.

As a well-known comedian and comedy writer since his days as a University student in the 1960s, Keillor said teaching a class is an opportunity to put himself at the service of students.

During spring semester, Keillor will teach Composition of Comedy (Engw 3110), a creative writing course, in addition to hosting and writing his comedy radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion.”

Keillor taught the same class in spring 2001, which proved to be very popular with students, said Kathleen Glasgow, creative writing program coordinator.

The class is a unique opportunity for students interested in creative writing. The 103 spots in the class filled in three days, she said.

“It’s just good for students to work with people of this caliber,” Glasgow said.

Keillor said comedy is a “young person’s game” and one of the best ways to teach students composition.

“Young people are outsiders and they are pretty much, by definition, powerless,” he said. “Comedy is a tool; a weapon that appeals to them because the pen is powerful when it is dripping with irony, disdain and satire.”

Keillor said a student’s primary motivation in the class is the opportunity to read and enjoy their peers’ work.

“Comedy is the only branch of writing that is defined by the effect it has on people,” he said. “It’s no easy task; but you’re always able to tell if you’ve succeeded.”

Terri Sutton, an English department informational representative, said she was a teaching assistant for Keillor in 2001 and saw great improvements in students’ work during the course.

“I definitely saw students make amazing jumps in understanding comedy and being able to shape their words,” she said.

During spring semester, Keillor will take on multiple endeavors in addition to teaching. He said he will leave town most Saturdays for “Prairie Home Companion” shows, work on a book and screenplay and prepare for the release of his movie in June.

“It will be kind of a busy winter, but I like that,” he said.

Despite a similarly busy schedule in 2001, Keillor devoted plenty of time to the University position, Sutton said.

“I was kind of amazed how much effort he put into it,” she said. “Before every class, he had read everything the students wrote the week before and was ready to pull it out during class.”

Cultural studies and comparative literature associate professor Gary Thomas teaches a comedy text and theory course at the University and said Keillor is a good comedian, but he often holds back.

“I think he’s trying hard not to offend, and in my mind (offending is) one of the noblest things comedy does to get at the truth,” he said.

As an alumnus, Keillor said, he is partial to the school and said attending the University offered him a “life-changing experience.”

Coming back to work with young people is a “wonderful jolt,” he said.

“Your life sort of narrows in the professional world and you tend to be more around people like yourself,” he said. “To take your life experience, the way you earn your living every day of the week, and try to put that at the service of people who are 19 to 21 is a tremendous intellectual challenge.”

Despite the comedic writing focus of the course, the class is meant to improve students’ overall writing skills, Keillor said.

“It’s really to improve their writing skills and conceptual skills,” he said. “It’s a discipline, and the things that are useful in comedy are useful in other forms of writing whether or not the student intends to use it professionally.”