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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