Hurray, Shepherd! There’s nobody in the world like you!
In a 2008 article for the Website “Slate,” Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, refers to Shepherd’s subtle art as of “intrinsic marginality.” My Excelsior, You Fathead! discusses some ways in which this is true, but the subject needs to be described in more detail. In what ways is Jean Shepherd’s art intrinsically marginal?
I’ve quoted Ron Della Chiesa, WGBH broadcaster and Shep’s friend for decades, as having commented that Shepherd would hear his material being culled from his radio show by other performers and they would be far better known than he. As Della Chiesa went on to say, “He became well known among people who knew Shepherd’s work, and who revered him as a cult… He would say to me, ‘What do you mean a cult, Ron?’ He would be offended by that, as opposed to being universally known, like a Steve Allen.” Why a cult?
I’ll pat we cultists, we Shep-kooks, on the back, by suggesting that, as many media professionals and others have said, Shepherd enthusiasts tend to be, as kids, the nerds, the loners, the intellectuals, the more sensitive thinkers among our chronological peers. According to numerous media personalities, many of those who listened as youngsters with their transistors under the covers, in their maturity tended to become part of the media themselves, onstage or behind the scenes. To mention other loners and sensitive observers of the passing scene, three other, disparate, Shepherd enthusiasts are comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Andy Kaufman, and U. S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, who said, “He actually made you feel that you weren’t alone… I think he had the best influence on my sensibility. And I think it helped me kind of pursue that sense of being different, being an individual.” Not the kind of mentality that afflicts millions.
Most listened to him alone—especially because he seemed to be talking to each individual by himself (much more himself than herself, for whatever causes). Much less the mass-market consumer/follower. Not the kind of mentality that afflicts millions.
His style requires quiet contemplation—sensitive, intelligent, thoughtful concentration. He doesn’t deliver jolting punch lines every ten seconds, as Shepherd himself would differentiate his style of humor from that of most of his contemporaries’ fast patter. (Other than his live, on-stage performances, such as those broadcast from the Limelight Café on Saturday nights for a couple of years.) His style requires understanding and deeper mining for truths. As well as his frequent laugh-out-loud comments, his humor not only goes deeper, but last longer, leaving lifelong changes in attitudes. As I like to say, he tickles the better parts of our minds. Not the kind of mentality that afflicts millions.
Jean Shepherd’s essence is an acquired taste accessible to the relatively few, sort of like a taste for olives, and rare wine to be sipped with understanding and an appreciation of its subtle quality. An audience measured not in the millions, but, one can hope, in an optimistic assessment of humanity, of upwards of—dare I say it—only a few hundred thousand poor fatheads.
Radio, despite what some talents have brought to it, has never been given the respect it deserves as a medium. Shepherd recognized this. As I put it in Excelsior, You Fathead!:
By the 1960s, radio was in decline and television became increasingly dominant. Barry Farber comments that “Radio was just bypassed prestige-wise by television. And Jean said something I’ve quoted many times: ‘You could be on New York radio for many years and be widely unknown.’”
Shepherd had, from time to time commented on the potential of radio as he had observed it in the recent past. There were such great writers, performers, and sound effects people who had done marvelous work in radio and now the entire medium was losing out to television. Yes, radio had been the dominant medium for some years, but its very nature—sound over the airwaves that then was lost, despite someone making a recording of it, made it too evanescent to accumulate any enduring prestige. The echoes of forgotten stories and commentaries. Quoted in my book is Fred Allen’s comment from the last page of his Treadmill to Oblivion:
When a radio comedian’s program is finally finished it slinks down Memory Lane into the limbo of yesteryear’s happy hours. All that the comedian has to show for his years of work and aggravation is the echo of forgotten laughter.
To quote myself again (EYF! p. 419): “He wanted it all, grasping for the solid gold merry-go-round ring in every media beyond radio—high on the belief that he could create masterpieces in all of them that would achieve artistic, popular, and financial success.” Where’d that optimism come from, Shep? Not gonna happen.
Music is also a medium of sound, but one can listen to music many times over through live performance or recordings, while words in stories and commentary do not lend themselves as well to repeated listening by large audiences.
SHEPHERD’S STYLE OF HUMOR VS. SNAPPY LINES EVERY 10 SECONDS
Shepherd’s style requires minds willing and able to contemplate and appreciate subtleties of ideas and humor, willing to permit one’s mind to be tickled, not just open to someone being wacked with a slapstick or a wise crack. It also requires a certain, slower mindset capable of relaxing for more than a minute and allowing another mind to gently captivate you.
My belief for most of my life has been that education is a supreme virtue. That it leads to greater understanding and appreciation of life and art. That once we have basic requirements such as food, water, warmth and shelter, we move up in our desire for such achievements as comfort, the pleasures of using our minds, esthetics appreciation and creative endeavors. There is a greater ability of the individual and society to grasp at a higher degree of our human potential—toward which evolution has been moving us out of Shepherd’s “muck and mire.” That quality that makes us superior to lesser beings, improving our joy in living and our ability to improve everyone’s life (Abraham Maslow—look him up and see what he had to say about “self actualization.”).
But poor Shep, with all that, still feels relatively neglected, though he can express his feelings with comic style. Jean Shepherd speaking in a much-exaggerated, mock-sorrowful, pleading voice on a Friday night broadcast, March 5, 1965:
I want to hear one person. Just one small person. That’s all I need. Night after night I wring my poor bones dry. Night after night, out of this turnip—this me, out of this rock—this me—I try to draw a little blood—for you. For what? For what? Do you think it’s to sell Miller Beer? Eh? Do you think I get satisfaction out of selling Miller Beer, eh? Eh? You’re doggone well tootin’ dad, you’re doggone well tootin’! [A Miller Beer commercial follows, and Shepherd then continues.]
Ah! That’s all I need. Just one little word—of encouragement. A small word. All I want is just to hear one voice crying out of the wilderness, “Hurray, Shepherd! You’re fantastic! Hurray, Shepherd! There’s nobody in the world like you! Hurray, Shepherd for the president of the world!”
That’s all I want. Just one little word here and there, of encouragement. That’s all we only want—all of us. Just a little cheering, just a little solace from time to time. Just a little indication. Just the smallest clue! That somebody cares. That somebody [said with a sob] cares. That somebody cares [he is crying, pounding on his table]. I sang my heart out for ya just about five minutes ago. I almost blew a gasket for you. For all of you—out there on the Island, for you, you slobs in Staten Island, and for that nothing bunch up in the Bronx.