R.I.P. Stuart McLean

I started listening to The Vinyl Cafe because of a joke.

A longtime listener of the podcast The Irrelevant Show, which is a great sketch comedy show on CBC Radio, they had a segment a few years back called Stuart McLean gives directions, which is very funny and I won't quite do justice to it. Of course being American I had no idea who they were talking about but at some point between this and a few other Stuart McLean jokes, I picked up on the fact that this was a real person. So I looked him up.

For Americans it might be easiest to compare McLean and his radio show The Vinyl Cafe with Garrison Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion. It's not an exact thing, but they do have a lot in common on the surface. Both are Award-winning writers with good reputations. Both have music - though I would argue that McLean has better taste than Keillor (though not as good as Chris Thile) and is much better about letting them have fun. And unlike Keillor, McLean doesn't insist on singing every week. McLean does sing on the Christmas show, but he also has fun with it, and of course he's trying to get everyone in the audience to sing along so it works because he's getting into the spirit of things and having fun.

Also while Keillor had comedy sketches throughout the show - The Lives of the Cowboys, Guy Noir Private Eye, etc - most people know him for and remember Tales from Lake Wobegon. It's a mostly improvised meandering story in which Keillor talks about the lives of residents of this small town. In truth I long along lost track of just how many characters he tackles. But it's about mood and tone. McLean is quite frankly a better storyteller and he takes a lot of care in crafting a series of stories

McLean's main character Dave is a comedic figure, one that everyone who's ever seen a sitcom will recognize, as is his wife Morley, and McLean's world that he crafted around them is just as finely tuned and designed as any good sitcom. The neighborhood is filled with various foils and characters, there's a lot of confusion. It's not mean or cruel, though. It can be sentimental, but it often earns that sentiment. Right now the idea that kindness, that niceness, that being neighborly is not just a virtue, seems a little foreign, but it is also a comfort.

I think this is part of where it being a radio show really helps to define what the show is because this aired on the CBC and in a sense McLean was crafting a program that could be listened to by the entire family, that was offering a mirror of what Canada and Canadians were. Perhaps more accurately a funhouse mirror, slightly distorted, that showed what they could be.

There was an episode of the show from a while back where McLean discovered that some of his stories - there have been many collections of his stories published over the years - were being taught in schools. McLean was a bit flummoxed by this and when he was confronted by some questions about the symbolism of birds in one story, he responded, I saw the birds that day and so I mentioned it, which led his producer to joke that he would fail the test about the story he wrote. McLean then brought on two teachers and the conversation the three had was a fascinating dive into the story that McLean wrote, and really opened his eyes about what it meant. Not just to the teachers, but also to his own life in a way that surprised him.

It brought me back to why I first started listening to the Vinyl Cafe. Because it's one thing to listen to one episode and get the joke, but I remember the first story which really stood out to me. "Morley's Birthday Bash" was about Dave planning a party for Morley's 40th birthday and he had been planning in advance and invited friends and neighbors - but the caterers set up in the wrong house. So there was confusion and running around, the family that had just moved in tried to figure out what was going on, but in the end there were a few funny scenes, a great scene about their son trying a cigarette for the first time and his exchange with his mother, everything worked out okay, and Dave and Morley are dancing in the kitchen.

It earned its sentiment.

And that's not to say that McLean and the show always hit its target. It's a hard target to hit, but McLean understood how people listen to radio and he understood what it could do. And today a lot of could use that kind of story about how we can be kind neighbors and understanding people and how things can work themselves out. That's one of the things that stories can do. That's one of the things that we need from stories.

But no matter whether I found the musical guests lacking, had no interest in stories submitted by people or found the main story too maudlin or too cloying for my taste, the truth is that I always looked forward to hear what McLean would read. Before it became the new big thing, McLean did Christmas concerts and took the show on tour in Canada and the US. I never got to go to one.

Maybe there's a lesson in his work and life. About building a community and an audience. About engaging people. About using audio and stories. About what we want and what we want to be. I was, and remain, an unabashed fan of The Vinyl Cafe and Stuart McLean. And I miss his presence and voice on the airwaves.

Rest in Peace, sir.

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