Thursday, October 4th, 2012

More Than 'A Christmas Story': Remembering Jean Shepherd, Radio's Great Teller of Tales

You probably know Jean Shepherd as the narrator and writer of A Christmas Story, the 1983 Yuletide comedy which is (over)played every holiday, and has become such a beloved classic that it’s easy to forget how cynical it is.  But as fans never get tired of explaining, there is a lot more to Jean Shepherd than that.

The reason so many people remain interested in Jean Shepherd, the reason the guy has inspired scarily-detailed websites and a full-length biography, is not because of one yuletide film. It’s his work on radio. He also wrote books, articles, and other films—but the best way to experience Shepherd was to hear him.
Even today, for a man who has been dead for 13 years, Shepherd’s influence still reverberates. Steely Dan co-founder Donald Fagen paid tribute to him in Slate in 2008. Jerry Seinfeld said on a Seinfeld commentary track that he “learned how to be funny from Jean Shepherd.” (And his son is, perhaps not incidentally, named Shepherd.)  He also narrated and wrote the story to “The Clown,” the Charles Mingus cut that inspired The Wrestler. (Other reputed fans included Andy Kaufman, and Penn Jillette.)

For two decades, Shepherd held court every night on WOR in New York. Introduced with “Bahn Frei,” a raucous piece of classical music that sounds like a rock song, Shep would generally spend the first 15 minutes reading bizarre news stories (he was kind of a predecessor to Fark), and then sound off about the world. He was sometimes glib, sometimes profound, and, usually pretty funny. Sometimes he even read poetry and short stories, which isn’t nearly as pretentious as it sounds. Not everything that emerged from his mouth was a gem, of course, particularly when listened to all these years later (some of his attitudes definitely reflected the Mad Men era). But when the man was on, he came across like the world’s most entertaining drinking buddy, or an impossibly hip older brother.

After the first commercials, Shep would generally tell a story, as if he realized that his audience—consisting of insomniacs, intellectual types, and kids like me listening past their bedtime—needed a tale to tuck them in at night.

Shep not only had the gift of gab, he had the ability to talk to every listener one-on-one: “Have I ever told you this story?” he’d ask, like he was a relative addressing to you across the table at Thanksgiving. His great radio voice, which occasionally betrayed an Indiana accent, was the icing on the cake.

It’s hard to pinpoint what makes Shepherd such an effective storyteller, but one thing I’ve noticed: He got the details right. He remembered what it was like to be a kid, to feel powerless in the world, to be so self-absorbed that the most important thing about Christmas was what toy you got.

Maybe it’s because of those details, and the incredible intimacy of his delivery, that he had the ability to make you believe even the tallest of his tales. In fact, he often registered annoyance when radio listeners assumed he was telling real stories, asserting over and over again he created fiction.

In his heyday, Shep hung around with just about everyone who could be considered a hipster (before that term was used ironically, of course), becoming kind of a Beatnik Forrest Gump. He raised money for John Cassavetes movies. When Jack Kerouac died, Shep eulogized him as a friend. And he was reportedly the inspiration for the hero of A Thousand Clowns and the song, A Boy Named Sue.

Shepherd lost his steady radio gig in 1977, though he appeared intermittently on NPR and PBS. In the 1980s, he and Porky’s director Bob Clark collaborated on A Christmas Story, which stands as kind of Shep’s “greatest hits,” featuring the most popular stories from his books and radio shows. (Shep was also involved in the not-that-bad but not-great follow up, A Summer Story. The less said about the about-to-be released direct-to-DVD sequel, the better.)

Shep radiated an immense joy when he was on the radio, not just for his work but for life itself. And yet those who knew Shepherd in his later years paint a portrait of a bitter soul who considered The Wonder Years a rip-off of his work. (David Cross agreed.) He died in 1999 at age 78.

WOR never recorded his shows, but his devotees did—and many of the Shep re-broadcasts floating around today were taped by avid listeners. So we still can hear memorable and bizarre stories like the one below, about how he and his friends stumbled on a Ku Klux Klan picnic. It’s suffused with keenly observed details: How a mother speaks to her child. How a child speaks to his mother. And how, as much as we idealize childhood, it can be a scary time.

Then there’s this army story, about a terrifying, but also quite silly, episode of bullying—leading to a typically cynical Shep moral:

And finally, there’s this story—one of my favorites—which begins at 24:45, about how we spend our lives trying to escape our past. It’s one of the few Shep tales that can be called hopeful.

All these tales are plausible enough to be true, but they’re also outlandish enough to make you scratch your head. You wonder: Was there really a Spitzer? A Nancy? Did they really serve potato salad at a Ku Klux Klan picnics? In the end, perhaps the most important thing here is that we are listening to a master story-teller at work.

For more on Shep, see this site and this podcast.

Rob Bates has contributed to Weekend Update, Jibjab, Mcsweeneys, comedycentral.com, New York Newsday, and a bunch of New York sketch shows. His Twitter feed is @Misterrobbates.

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  • bevwrox

    And let's not forget Shepard's influence on Garrison Keillor.

  • Eugene B. Bergmann

    Great essay on Shepherd! I've spent the last 13 years deeply devoted to learning more about Shepherd and writing about him. (I'm the author of the "biography" you mention, EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEAD! THE ART AND ENIGMA OF JEAN SHEPHERD.) I put "biography" in quotes because, despite nearly everybody calling my book such, I don't. The 495 pages, for me are mainly a description and appreciation of Shepherd's work in all media, especially radio, with a bit of bio where it mostly relates to his creative genius. I'm seeking a publisher for my follow-up book, which includes much newly discovered info and several fascinating interviews, including a long one with the smart, articulate, and enthusiastic Shepherd fan, front man of Twisted Sister, Dee Snider.
    As for Andy Kaufman and Penn Jillette being "reputed" fans, I've heard Penn say he is, and the Andy Kaufman quote, "I don't think any sense of humor is funny. Jean Shepherd is funny," comes directly from the book about him, WAS THIS MAN A GENIUS? One the bios of him also says he used to listen to Shepherd. The Seinfeld quote, which I carry around with me always, is, "He really formed my entire comedic sensibility. I learned how to do comedy from Jean Shepherd." Seinfeld also spent an hour at the Paley Center for Media (formerly the Museum of Television and Radio, the program titled a tribute to Jean Shepherd), talking about Shep's influence on him and how marvelous he was–the date was 1/23/2012, and a bit of this hour is at their site. To read about how the film A THOUSAND CLOWNS is a portrait of Shepherd's persona and comic style, see my book pages 176-177.
    Over the years since my first book was published, I've also had published several stand-alone articles on Shepherd, and I've written the nine sets of program notes for the boxed CD sets of Shepherd syndicated programs that were never released until a couple of years ago by http://www.radiospirits.com. Many Shep fans may not know of these CD releases. My next book about Shepherd is due out in March, 2013–it is my edited transcripts of some of his radio shows, with extensive introductions by me. Keith Olbermann has agreed to write the Forward.

  • Dalton

    Another "sequel" was Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ollie_Hopnoodle's_Haven_of_Bliss

    A Disney/PBS co-production that was mildly entertaining.

  • Donald Koenig

    I can tell you were and still are a fan. The excerpts you chose are terrific illustrations of Shep at the height of inspiration. Interestingly both these episodes deal with mass psychological manipulation, a theme Shep employed many times. I especially enjoyed his re-creation of a political convention on his first album Jean Shepherd and Other Foibles.

  • Stu Tarlowe

    Unfortunately, many of those who currently consider themselves Shep's most ardent devotees willfully ignore that Shep, in addition to being a humorist, was also, like his heroes Mark Twain and George Ade, a social critic and moralist.

    One of
    Shep's most prescient observations, which I often quote, was "In an amoral age, the man who is moral becomes [is perceived as] immoral."

    Far too many Fatheads extrapolate from Shep's hipness assumptions about his politics, believing that he would be among the Liberals of today. They bristle should anyone suggest otherwise, just as they bristle when I suggest that (irrespective of politics) I hear echoes of Shep in the style and mannerisms of Rush Limbaugh.

  • Burt

    I was one of the geeks who went to bed with my transistor radio under my pillow so I could fill my kid-brain, (which was mostly cottage cheese), with ol' Shep's musings, tales and rants. I bought his books, even have an autographed copy of "Wanda Hickey" from a Jersey mall book signing where I met him in person and was unimpressed… "Here ya go kid, now move along… move along."

    It was only when I re-discovered those old radio shows on the internet that I realized the insidious, subliminal early education I was getting. "Shep-isms" had crept into my head and stuck there during my feckless youth. Phrases, fake names, observations and dry humor that I've thought of as my own for so long, were his! Holy smokes, I laugh at fake pink flamingos and I go "BRAAACK!" when i clear my throat, for chrissakes,

    I'm sure Shep would hate that his voice is still heard late at night, played on MP3's lifted from the internet. But they are so timeless. "Oh well, kid… that's show-biz."