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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.) READ MORE

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The Inspired Insanity of The Gong Show

Forget Pet Rocks and bell bottoms. If you want evidence the seventies were the strangest decade in American history, feast your eyes on The Gong Show, the brief-but-oh-so-memorable game show that aired from 1976 through 1980, in a daytime version on NBC and nighttime version in syndication. Even taking account Community, Conan, and all the other “off-beat” shows currently on TV, it still stands as among the strangest television programs of all time. And I would argue, among the funniest.

The Gong Show was initially dreamed up by mega-successful game show producer Chuck Barris (The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game) as a straightforward talent competition. But, the story goes, the first auditions didn’t unearth many good performers. It was then that Barris was struck by the epiphany that, three decades later, fueled the success of American Idol: Watching a person flop can be almost as entertaining as watching them soar. Watching someone act bizarre, even better. So the Gong Show not only featured a parade of bizarre and mediocre talent, it actively cultivated it (its promos called for “good or unusual acts”) — with the eponymous gong used to cut short acts so bad no one could take it anymore.

Like that other great 70s game show, Match Game, The Gong Show really wasn’t about the game, more the madness that surrounded it. By the end of the show, one or two acts stood heads and shoulders above the others, if only for sheer competence. They took home the unimpressive sum of $516.32, which according to one source, was the then-Guild minimum. READ MORE