The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
You may not recognize the name Jean Shepherd, but I'd bet that if you were growing up at some time during the last twenty years, you'd recognize his voice in a heartbeat. Despite the fact that you might not be recognizing his name right now, through the course of his long career which spanned from 1951 until his death in 1999, he deeply influenced the face of modern comedy and made an impact on a generation of comedians. Today, though, he's known as the guy who narrated A Christmas Story, but in actuality he was so much more than that.
Jean Shepherd first came into prominence on a medium that doesn't launch too many stars any more: radio. While rarely referred to as a comedian, the terms that do get attributed to him are in a similar vein: most commonly "storyteller," "raconteur," and the often loaded term "humorist." Working the overnight shift on New York's WOR, Shepherd would address his loyal group of fans and tell long, detailed stories that made mountains out of the tiny and insignificant and painted portraits of the experiences of growing up in America. He worked without a script, preferring to improvise his stories, embellishing details and weaving his narratives like a jazz musician. He never reached the prominence of the comedians of his day like Bob Newhart, Lenny Bruce or Mort Sahl and according to the author of the book Excelsior, You Fathead, Eugene Bergmann, this aggravated him greatly, but still his unique storytelling style and his ability to examine life through his specific lens affected much of the comedy that we enjoy today.
One such comedian who was influenced by Shepherd is a man by the name of Jerry Seinfeld, and on January 23, 2012 he appeared at the Paley Center in New York to speak with New York Times reporter and author Bill Carter to discuss just what sort of impact Jean had. One of the great things about Jerry is not just the fact that he knows comedy, and can craft a solid joke, but he also can talk about comedy, and analyze the nuts and bolts of how a pause improves a joke, or how trimming a word here or there can enhance a punchline. He is a true student of comedy, and has cracked the code, so to speak, and as such is able to specifically discuss the impact Jean had on his comedy, and what made him different from the other humorists of his time. READ MORE