Home » Improvisation » JEAN SHEPHERD WHEN NOT IMPROV part 2 of 2





archy and m

Shepherd also read on the air other material  that some call poetry. The lives and times of Archy and Mehitabel consists of mostly short verse by newspaperman Don Marquis. Archy is a cockroach who lives in a newspaper office and has learned to use a reporter’s typewriter, but he can’t depress the capital key, so he only writes in lower case.  Mehitabel is a devil-may-care alley cat, who, to be polite about it, one could call trash. Archy’s stuff is funny, with an observant, mordant wit regarding the human condition. Shep loved it and read some on the air, maybe as frequently as once a year.

Service. Shep reads

Robert W. Service is most well-known for his rhymed story verse such as “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” Shepherd’s 1975 LP album for Folkways Records contains eleven of Service’s poems. On the air, Shepherd read some of these with such over-the-top exaggeration and glee that he seemed to feel obliged to disparage as “slob art” and yet he apparently enjoyed them tremendously, a mixed attitude that Shepherd reserved for a small number of such common-folk-type creations.

A few other poems he enjoyed reading included “Casey at the Bat,” Longfellow’s “Excelsior,” “Evolution,” “The Hellbound Train,” and “The Curfew Shall Not Ring Tonight.” The last two fall under a category called “recitations,” which folk in the 19th century used to read and recite at local gatherings. As I’ve previously commented, he read this overly sentimental and moralistic material in his self-consciously, overly dramatic fashion that perfectly fit the corn. Material full of platitudes and tears. Enjoying and disparaging slob art and trivia, he had it both ways. After one reading on the air of “The Curfew Shall Not Ring Tonight” he commented, “Oh, that’s a magnificent piece of glop, I’ll tell you!” One Christmas Eve he read a long epic, “Rattling Home for Christmas,” complete with railroad sound effects.  He commented that only an American could have written it. “You can hear echoes of Thomas Wolfe, echoes of Wordsworth, echoes of Edgar Guest, echoes of Jack Kerouac, echoes of protesters everywhere.”

Another favorite of Shepherd and his listeners was Sax Rohmer’s tales of the fiendish Dr. Fu Manchu, which also got the over-the-top treatment on the air.

In contrast, one weekend during a New York newspaper strike, just as New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia had done decades before, Shepherd described and read the Sunday funnies on the air.



fables upright

Turn-of-the-19-20th century writer George Ade was best known for his fables written in slang.  They were funny and cynical, and Shepherd loved to read them on the air. For his 1960 book, The America of George Ade, Shepherd edited and wrote the enthusiastic introduction, indicating his affinity toward Ade’s ironic attitude toward his culture.



vic and s

Paul Rhymer’s fifteen-minute slightly bizarre, slyly witty, and dryly amusing sitcoms of  1930s and 1940s radio concerned a Midwestern, married couple who live a very, very ordinary life “halfway up in the next block,” with quirky twists in the action and dialog that only the scriptwriter and the listener recognized. The characters take their situations very seriously indeed—while listeners shake their heads in disbelief, chuckling at what silly folk we mortals be, though recognizing that such simple-minded foolishness is part of everyone’s life. In his foreword to a book of “Vic and Sade” scripts, Shepherd described Rhymer’s style thusly: “He did not deal in jokes, but human beings observed by a sardonic, biting, yet loving mind.” Shepherd occasionally read parts of the scripts and made use of a few bits and pieces of Rhymer’s comic style in his own performance, such as using the saying of Vic’s lodge brothers at The Sacred Stars of the Milky Way, the ersatz Latin, “In hoc agricola conc.” Shepherd loved the absurd-but-possible names of people concocted by Rhymer such as Slobert Hink, Y. Y. Flirch, and H. K. Fleeber. (Shepherd frequently used odd names in his own stories.) Sade, the prototypical housewife, sometimes slyly amusing, but rather witless, had one great enthusiasm—she had an extensive and actively evolving dishrag collection.

Ade and Rhymer are two of Shepherd’s favorites. Shepherd reverberated to their humor. Obviously, with their clever observations and pointed satire, they were among his forerunners and probably influenced his turn of mind. He paid tribute to both in print and on his broadcasts.

Reading the works of all of those mentioned above, Shepherd  probably spent on the air far less than one-percent of his time, but the renditions entertained and intrigued the minds of many of his listeners, who were hungry for the intellectual nourishment that he provided through his own improvisational talents and through exposing listeners to his enthusiasms.  He influenced many to go out and buy and absorb works by many whom they may not have been aware of elsewhere. He was a mentor and a Pied Piper of the best kind.



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