“I’m thinking of having an exam for the show. Would you guys like to take an exam? We’ll have the exam for Shepherdiana.” (Jean Shepherd May 14, 1963)
People who talk and write about Jean Shepherd, including professionals in the media who should know better, innocently repeat false information about him. There seem to be two main causes: basing comments on a limited knowledge of his work; once stated, misinformation is perpetuated by people who simply repeat it without checking primary sources to verify its truth. I have discussed some of these myths before, but I thought it useful to gather them together, so here are some of them:
MYTH: Jean Shepherd was on the air 45 minutes a night.
PERPETRATOR(S): Mostly people unfamiliar with his whole career.
CLOSER TO THE TRUTH: In New York, beginning in 1956, he was on from 1 A.M. to 5:30 week-nightly; then on Sunday 9:15 to 1 AM; on Saturday morning, then Saturday afternoon for more than an hour; on Saturday night live at The Limelight Café for well over an hour; and, for many years, in the format most people remember him, on weeknights for 45 minutes in a variety of timeslots.
MYTH: Jean Shepherd broadcast on AM radio.
PERPETRATOR(S): Mostly people unfamiliar with his whole career.
CLOSER TO THE TRUTH From early 1955 he broadcast simultaneously on AM and FM—until July 28, 1966 when federal regulations required separate programming on AM and FM, causing his program to be dropped from FM.
MYTH: He talked about his real life.
PERPETRATOR(S): Shepherd himself in the very deceptively personal way he told his “stories.” Also, his listeners were to some extent self-deluded if they did not pay attention to the disclaimers in his books.
CLOSER TO THE TRUTH: Shepherd made most of it up, using some real-life aspects, changed and elaborated-on as he felt necessary to create his art. This he freely admitted—and insisted upon—in later interviews.
MYTH: Shepherd wrote a “novel.”
PERPETRATOR(S): Shepherd called In God We Trust a “novel” on the air various times. Ads for it, and copy on the dust jacket refer to it as a novel.
CLOSER TO THE TRUTH: His books are compilations of short stories (and later, also articles), and the short linking chapters between the short stories do not overcome this fact—the stories are self-contained, with no continuity, sense of progress, or other criteria for even loosely calling the books “novels”.
MYTH: He disparaged nostalgia.
PERPETRATORS: Shepherd himself and many others.
CLOSER TO THE TRUTH: Although he rightly insisted that most of his stories and comments on the past were anti-nostalgic, sometimes a bit of nostalgia does slip in. As with so much else, he simultaneously loved and hated it.
MYTH: He had no call-in phone calls and no guests.
PERPETRATORS: Mostly people unfamiliar with his whole career
CLOSER TO THE TRUTH: He had only four guests that are known of, all from 1960 or before: John Cassavetes, film actor and independent film-maker; Arch Obler, radio script writer of sci-fi and horror stories; S. J. Perelman, humor writer; Herb Gardner, cartoonist and later stage and film writer (A Thousand Clowns and others). As for callers, occasionally he asked for some listener to call in to respond to a subject he was discussing, and on rare occasions one can hear a few words of the caller. Most prominently, in the 1950s, actress Lois Nettleton would call (known only as “the listener”), leading to their meeting and eventually marrying.
MYTH: He was never a “disk jockey.”
PERPETRATORS: Mostly people unfamiliar with his whole career, but also Shepherd himself, who was understandably hostile toward any reference to him as a “disk jockey,” because it implied that this was the focus of his art—thus negating the fact that he primarily used pre-recorded sounds (including music) only as adjuncts to what he was saying.
CLOSER TO THE TRUTH: Although during most of his New York radio career he rightly fought against being referred to as a “disk jockey,” in his early days (including in New York) he did play much more music, and on one early program, caught on tape, he says at the beginning of a broadcast, “We have records.”
MYTH: M. McLuhan wrote that Shep created a “new kind of novel.”
PERPETRATORS: All those who repeat the original person who misread Marshall McLuhan’s book, Understanding Media.
CLOSER TO THE TRUTH: McLuhan did not state that as a fact, but made reference to Shepherd having regarded it thusly. The wording in McLuhan’s book is: “Jean Shepherd of WOR in New York regards radio as a new medium for a new kind of novel that he writes nightly.”
Jean Shepherd was an enigma. What exactly do I mean by that and what are the enigmas he embodied? A dictionary will tell you that an enigma is a puzzle, or is something ambiguous or inexplicable. To my thinking the word also suggests something that might also be beyond everyday logic because it might seem dichotomous and even self-contradictory. Jean Shepherd was an enigma.
Some might feel that the titles and the contents of both of my books suggest a negative moral judgment, but that’s not the intent. That some ways in which Shepherd was an enigma, and indeed seemed to embody negative attributes, is unavoidable, but part of the fascination with him and his art was his complexity, his nature of holding the good, the bad, and the self-contradictory within himself—a trait he shared with many, if not most, of those whose high level of creative ability we esteem. My purpose has been to find, describe, analyze, and celebrate his art, and, in describing his enigmas as I see them, to tie them to that art.
He seemed to be telling fact but it was mostly fiction.
He seemed to be telling the truth, which he may have been doing about his thoughts and feelings, but as for his biography, he frequently made it up.
He seemed to have an extraordinary memory, but it was of two kinds. He confused many simple facts about his own life, yet he remembered to an extraordinary degree ”what it was like to be….”
He seemed to be revealing a lot about himself, but he was very private and secretive—even toward those to whom he was closest.
He seemed to be everybody’s pal, but he wouldn’t let most people get near him.
He seemed to be a mentor for young people (and indeed, he was), yet he avoided his own two children and usually denied their existence.
He seemed so self-sufficient, yet at times he showed a strong need for encouragement from those around him.
He seemed joyous about life to those who feel, and despondent about life to those who think. For those who feel and think at the same time, he sometimes seemed to be both simultaneously.
He seemed to be telling entertaining stories, yet—as for his art—more often than we realized, he was speaking in parables. As for his life, he may or may not have realized that it epitomized “Jean Shepherd’s American Life of the Artist.” A Gordian Knot, a parable itself from which he couldn’t disentangle his high level of success from his feelings of failure to succeed at his highest potential. Somewhere in that mix we have his art and his enigma.