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Little Show on the Prairie

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I knew I was back in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Iceland when crossing past the friendly custom folks standing guard to make sure locals don’t smuggle in alcohol or nano i-pods, I noticed a driver holding a sign to flag down a foreign businessman. It simply read: Alcoa.

I could hear the Icelandic Prime Minister Halldor Ásgrímsson doing his best George Bush impression while courting heavy industry to this tiny island to help stimulate the economy:

“Bring ‘em on.”

My thoughts exactly. Keep the currency strong. What’s one more aluminum smelter in Húsavík, or Isafjördur, or Blönduós? As long as you keep the metal plants out of Reykjavik, you can still push this “Next door to Nature” and “Pure Energy” nonsense that the Icelandic tourist board loves to write about in its brochures.

Hey, if the tourists keep eating it up, why not? The tourist season has arrived. The Icelandair planes are packed.

I was a bit drowsy from my flight from SFO to JFK to KEF, but I still managed to make it to the “A Prairie Home Companion” show at Reykjavik’s national theater on Wednesday night. For those of you living in red states who make it a habit of avoiding NPR (It’s too Liberal. Yeah, and this porridge is too cold.), PHC is the Garrison Keillor variety show, which began airing in 1974.

Mr. Keillor packed up his Wobegon crew, brought along the actor John C. Reilly, and invited a few Icelandic guests to perform, a lovely singer named Diddú, a men’s choir and Bill Holm, a so-called poet who, after hearing him read his work on stage, has obviously ridden this my-ancestors-were-Icelandic thing as far as it can go.

The show was vintage Keillor, who is a tremendous storyteller. He poked fun at the audience while also pleasing the crowd by referring to Iceland as paradise, a wealthy, literate society full of writers, poets and artists. He mentioned the vast glaciers, the lava. There was even the ubiquitous George Bush parody.

In one story he talked about picking wood ticks from his body as a kid growing up in Lake Wobegon. He went on about the Minnesota cold, the snow. Our parents would comfort us by saying, it could be worse. At least you don’t live in Iceland. But maybe our parents were wrong. Maybe Icelanders were saying, at least you don’t live in Minnesota, he told the crowd.

The audience ate it up. People were buzzing. There was a grand function afterwards at the US embassy where everyone congratulated everyone.

Sure, it was a strong show, but unfortunately the majority of jokes on Iceland were tired clichés. There were the usual sheep jokes. The weather jokes. Missing from the show was any social satire on the problems Icelanders face. Alienated teens turning to drugs. (And according to our news they’re not eating enough fruits or vegetables, either. Oh, my.). A country where “one third might support a nationalistic political party,” according to a recent Gallup poll. A government that fails to adequately take care of it’s growing elderly population. A governmental policy towards immigration that can only be described as vicious, unless you belong to the one-third who might support a nationalistic party. A widening gap between rich and poor. A parliament allowing heavy industry to encroach upon Iceland’s greatest resource: nature.

But so many Icelanders belong to a choir that there’s no audience left over to attend concerts, Mr. Keillor said to laughter. That bartender is really an aspiring writer. More laughs.

Truth be told, Mr. Keillor, Icelanders eat pizza and burgers. The fish jokes are outdated. They aspire to work at KB Bank. They admire shiny SUVs. Instead of hunkering down to write the next Independent People, they’re watching “American Idol” and “Lost.” They’re like the rest of us.

Maybe it’s a bit too much to ask Mr. Keillor to have been tuned into Icelandic culture. He was here, after all, just a few days. PHC is entertainment first, social commentary second. But Mr. Keillor is a social critic, a so-called luminary. Shouldn’t we hold these types of people to higher standards? EW

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.