NEW YORK CITY—THE LATER YEARS
1960-1977 The relative proportion of Shepherd’s early, “night people” adult fans diminished to the subsequent, much larger student population who listened and who attended his many high school and college appearances, and his many live talks around the country. He broadcast from the Limelight Café in the Village on Saturday nights from early 1964 through 1967. The basic week-nightly studio broadcasts were mostly 45-minutes long—in later years interrupted by too many *%@#*$$$$ commercials. One never knew what sort of subject or mood he would be in and what seemingly incongruent mix he might dish up on an evening. The variety and quality of the broadcasts remained very high. Sometimes he would tell a story or comment on the passing scene, read a bit from one of his favorite authors, sometimes play on his kazoo, nose flute, and jews harp, or head-thump a tune. Some programs mixed all of the above and more. As he loved traveling, by taking his tape recorder with him he would bring back audio samples and commentaries for his programs from such places as the Peruvian Amazon, Ireland, Indonesia, Germany, Australia, and the Windward Islands.
Several times over the years attempts were made to extend his listening audience by syndicating the programs nation-wide. In one instance, over 200 new programs were specially taped in 1964-1965, but little distribution was done before the project was lost and, for years, forgotten about in a warehouse. In other activities, Shepherd performed in several plays in the late 1950s and early 1960s. No record exists for any acting on stage after the mid-1960s.
For most of his career Shepherd concentrated on performing his own material on radio, television, and in live appearances. His early attempts to tell stories by simply facing into the camera on television were not successful. Later, he created, narrated, and performed in nearly two dozen half-hour programs for PBS, Jean Shepherd’s America. In those, for the most part, the small video crew traveled the country filming subjects that struck them as relevant parts of American culture (1971 and 1985). He also created Shepherd’s Pie (1978), a shorter series of half-hour programs featuring several subjects each, related to aspects of the culture that interested him. He created three humorous, hour-and-a-half television dramas based on groupings of his originally published stories. Most of his television work included Shepherd himself as narrator, and he often appeared on-camera. He also created and appeared in a number of other individual television programs from the 1960s on.
Although his short stories told on the air were so good and so popular, it seems that only a concerted effort by friends Shel Silverstein and Lois Nettleton convinced him to write them down and submit them to Playboy. (He felt that the human voice was the most direct medium, and therefore best, for telling tales.) The first printed story appeared in June, 1964 and the last of the twenty-three in August, 1981. He also wrote one humorous commentary for the magazine, and, despite his antipathy toward rock-and-roll, Playboy sent him to the British Isles in 1964 for their Beatles interview, which appeared in February, 1965. Read all about it here—one can picture him scampering down fire escapes fleeing the Fab Four’s fans. Playboy gave him its “humor of the year” award four times.
Over the years, Shepherd wrote scores of articles for diverse periodicals, and wrote forwards and introductions to books that related to aspects of his wide-ranging interests regarding American culture and mores. Many of his short stories and some of his articles were published in his popular books. He inevitably created odd and funny titles for his stories and books, using such phrases as: Infamous Jawbreaker Blackmail; Gravy Boat Riot; Banjo Butt Meets Julia Child; 47 Crappies; and Miss Bryfogol and the Case of the Warbling Cuckold. Although some of the names in his stories refer to actual people of his childhood, Shepherd’s short stories are mostly fiction. Flick’s family insisted that he had never had his tongue stuck to a pole. And devious Shepherd sometimes tripped us up with the names—there actually was a Hammond school teacher named Miss Bryfogol. Shepherd claimed that the themes of some of his tales were metaphorical. For example, he noted that the BB gun story was an anti-war metaphor, and one finds an anti-war message in “Murderous Mariah,” his story of two battling, toy tops. Readers of the present volume will encounter, further down the road, his self-reflexive, bloody fish tale.
Shepherd loved radio, but its importance began to decline in the 1950s with the coming of television. His creative interests in other media expanded and his WOR Radio work ended April Fools’ Day, 1977. Upon leaving WOR, he and his new wife, Leigh Brown, moved to Florida, and in 1984 they bought a house on Sanibel Island, on the Gulf Coast, where they lived, becoming increasingly isolated, even from friends, for the rest of their lives.
1978-1999 Shepherd resented the inadequate renown he received from his years on radio, and he frequently reacted with hostility when, in later years, he was questioned by his many enthusiastic fans regarding his radio work. You’d be disgruntled, too, if people focused only on your past, rather than on your wonderful present and your fantastic future. He best expressed his sorrow and well-deserved hostility toward the not-very-smart public in a rare and wonderful, vicious little animated cartoon for Sesame Street called “Cowboy X.” Deep in the depths of this current quest-filled book, find it, read about it, and weep.
Although he did some very short commentaries for several radio stations in the last two decades of his life, and over the years frequently appeared on radio discussion programs, mostly to promote his newest book, he concentrated on combining his existing stories into longer works for video and film. His most popular and commercial success is the 1983 movie based on several of his short stories, A Christmas Story. He co-wrote the script with wife Leigh Brown and the movie’s director, Bob Clark, he narrated the entire movie, and has a cameo role in it. He’s the guy in black who tells the kids where the back of the line waiting for Santa is. His narrative style in the movie was appropriated—but not credited—for the popular television series, The Wonder Years. A Christmas Story, almost ignored when it was theatrically released, is now seen yearly by over fifty million people during its continuous 24-hour run on cable television beginning each Christmas Eve. All that, yet even with the enormous audience for the movie, and despite the fact that his name is plastered all over the opening credits, few who watch it can answer the simple question “Who is Jean Shepherd?”
Shepherd participated in a number of television programs on varied subjects and he narrated a video about the Chicago White Sox. He appeared in several documentaries as one of many commentators, giving his thoughts on such Americana as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Babe Ruth, and Norman Rockwell. Near the end of his life he claimed to be working on a major motion picture.
Upon his death from natural causes on October 16, 1999, many tributes to his work appeared in the media, mostly concentrating on his radio work. Many hundreds of his radio shows, on cassettes and CDs, originally recorded by loyal fans at the time of broadcast, continue to be widely distributed freely or at little cost, especially through the internet. By far the best of the websites devoted to him is http://www.flicklives.com, containing loads of fascinating information about Shepherd that you didn’t even know you didn’t know. He was posthumously inducted into the national Radio Hall of Fame in 2005, the same year that saw the appearance of Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd. An email discussion group, internet blog commentaries, mentions of his movie A Christmas Story, and other references, continue to keep his work alive in the American conscience. And yours truly does his best, too. Read on—I even manage to bring ol’ Shep back from the dead.