Every family has their own holiday traditions, and one that my Mother and I have is going to see Kevin Kling’s show “Tales from the Charred Underbelly of the Yule Log.” I was probably about 14 or 15 when I saw “Yule Log” for the first time. I haven’t seen it every year since then, but pretty close, so I’ve probably seen it at least 10 times. I still laugh my head off at all the jokes, even though I know the punch lines. I still laughed in all the same places when we saw the show last night. Kevin Kling is one of Minnesota’s treasures; he’s a storyteller and actor who can often be heard on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” “Tales from the Charred Underbelly of the Yule Log” is his annual Christmas show, with stories about the holiday season. The show has changed over the years, as Kling adds some new parts and removes others, but the main part of it is his retelling of a Christmas morning from his childhood spent at his grandparent’s house in Missouri. “I was never further from fear than when I was sitting in the way back of my parent’s Chevrolet Impala station wagon, surrounded by presents, heading from Minnesota to Missouri.” Kling then tells us of his family’s quirks, like his Uncle Dale, “Who is a preacher in real life. When I told him I was going to become an actor he said, ‘Well Kev, you know the homosexuals are going to hell right after the Catholics.’ He had this list of who was going to hell, like he found it in God’s dumpster, and he was always letting you know where you were on the list.”
There is something magical about Kling’s storytelling. He invites you in, paints a picture, and you can see it in your mind. You can see the joy in Kevin’s boyhood eyes as he gets a model plane for Christmas, one that actually flies! But the joy turns to fear as he knows he will have to fly the plane later in the day, in front of everyone, including his Dad, who is a pilot. Kevin is sure that he will crash the plane and embarrass himself. But he’s spared that embarrassment when his Dad takes the remote control for the plane and crashes it on its’ maiden voyage. Kevin is overjoyed that he didn’t crash the plane himself.
There are other stories that make up “Yule Log,” some of them stay and some of them go, but one of the best is the story about Rose, an old woman in her 80’s that Kevin met in the Uptown bar during the holiday season. He sees Rose sitting alone and strikes up a conversation, figuring there must be a story here. He and Rose spend the rest of the afternoon talking. Kevin asks her about her sheep brooch, which has pearls for the sheep’s wool. There’s one pearl missing, in the middle of the brooch. Rose says that when something awful happens to her, she takes out a pearl. Kevin says “Rose, there’s one pearl missing.” Rose responds, “Yes, but look at how many I have left.” That moving moment makes me choke up every time.
The show last night was made even more memorable by the presence of the lovely and talented Simone Perrin, a singer with a beautiful voice with whom Kevin has collaborated several times. Simone sang several songs and was backed by the pianist Dan Chouinard, who told a childhood story of his own, and the virtuoso Peter Ostroushko on the violin and the mandolin. The Brass Messengers band played before the show started, getting everyone in the holiday mood.
Kevin Kling has one of the biggest hearts. He’s full of joie de vivre. He loves the little things in life, the little details that tell the larger story. He has such a terrific eye for the little details, and that’s what makes his stories shine. He’s more than just a funny storyteller; there is a heart to his stories that makes them so memorable. Kling was in a very serious motorcycle accident in 2001, and he almost died. He says that since then he notices the little blessings more in his life. I try to see Kevin Kling perform whenever I can, because I always treasure his wonderful mix of the funny and the profound.
Here are some of my favorite Kevin Kling quotes:
What Kevin describes as the perfect Minnesotan sentence: “I ain’t gonna pay no dollar for a corn muffin that’s half dough.”
“Sometimes my memory doesn’t always bring me what I ordered, but because I’m Minnesotan I figure it’s what I really wanted anyway.” I’ve used this line many times with friends, doing my best to imitate Kevin’s Minnesotan accent, and it always gets a laugh. Not wanting to make a fuss is a key ingredient in the Minnesota state character.
When Kevin was a child, the thing he most wanted for Christmas was a squirrel monkey. “So I pray to God to ask Jesus to tell Santa that I want a squirrel monkey. I feel like I’ve gotten through to the reasonable Jesus.”
“Oh, and I want a good squirrel monkey, not like the neighbor’s, who has ‘no sense of decency,’ according to my Mother.”
“Fear as a child is black and white, it’s not like when you’re an adult and its grey and just is there all the time.”