I just got a letter from Beetle Bailey.
(Here’s part of the envelope.)
For those who might wonder if Beetle’s creator, Mort Walker,
really did spend time at Camp Crowder.
And whether he indeed did name Crowder in the comic strip “Camp Swampy,”
I present the following part of Walker’s letter to potential
doners to support the building of
the National Museum of the U. S. Army.
Camp Crowder Case Closed.
(I wonder if Shep and Mort ever crossed paths there.)
(Note that there are now 2 forewords to this book,
the one by me as indicated above and, on the newer,revised cover,
showing a shorter foreword by actor Will Wheaton.)
The new A CHRISTMAS STORY book has arrived. The entire title is A CHRISTMAS STORY: BEHIND THE SCENES OF A HOLIDAY CLASSIC. Below is the basic description of the book:
<The definitive guide to everything fans want to know about A Christmas Story shares the inside story behind the film’s production, release, and unlikely ascent to the top of popular culture. From Jean Shepherd’s original radio broadcasts to Bob Clark’s 1983 sleeper hit film and beyond, A Christmas Story has become a beloved Yuletide tradition over the last three decades. In conjunction with the 30th anniversary of its theatrical release, this is the untold story of the making of the film, and what happened afterwards. Ralphie Parker’s quest for a Red Ryder air rifle didn’t end with the movie’s release; the tale inspired massive VHS sales, a Broadway production, and a mountain of merchandise. Complete with rare and previously unreleased photographs, now fans of the movie and film buffs alike can lean all they didn’t know about the timeless classic.>
My extensive foreword focuses on Jean Shepherd (Surprise!). I’ll post more on the book closer to Christmas along with more on the holiday season.
I think that many/most creative people who lived in the New York area, or congregated in New York’s Greenwich Village in the late 1950s and early 1960s (and, of course, many who encountered Shep in other ways in other places), listened to Jean Shepherd. Many of them, even those still alive, are hard to contact, separated from we who quest to get past multiple layers of gate-keepers and unknowledgeable assistants, so their enthusiasm for Shepherd cannot be confirmed). But the following accounting of known enthusiasts, partial as it is, gives an idea of the influence of Shepherd on so many of those whose works we admire. A large percentage of people influential in the media claim to have been listeners. Just the other day, on West 60th Street, NYC, as I sat in a six-by-nine room waiting to be interviewed by a notable Sirius broadcaster who was on the other end of microphones and earphones in Washington, D. C., I found out that both he and his producer were Shepherd enthusiasts. Most interviewers and others in the media I’ve met are listeners.
Playwright, film script writer. (Network, in which TV newscaster telling watchers to open their windows and yell, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore!” Shepherd claimed that Chayefsky asked him if he could use his idea of “hurling an invective.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ThB0uAbjhGY). The publisher of my Shep’s Army confirms that Chayefsky, whom he knew, told him that this claim is true.
Director of the films Porkys and A Christmas Story described how, as a young man he first heard Shepherd on the radio and vowed to make a film of Shepherd’s stories someday.
Poet and U. S. Poet Laureate, told me that he could not imagine growing up without listening to Jean Shepherd. He also said, “Shepherd had the best influence on my sensibility.”
American monologist, raconteur, whose current work is a series of evenings (each what one might think of as a “chapter”) in a work called “All the Faces of the Moon.” He sits at a table and talks. The New York Times reviewer comments, “His facility for impromtu asides and entertaining digressions is formidably effective.” His answer as to his knowledge of Shep: “I’m a huge fan of Shepherd—he’s absolutely one of a kind, and wonderful.”
Musician with Steely Dan wrote that “I was a spy for Jean Shepherd.” Wrote that his song “Nightfly” refers to radio talkers he listened to in his adolescence, and that “The greatest was the monologist Jean Shepherd.” He wrote an extensive essay on Shepherd for the Internet’s Slate website.
Radio broadcaster and friend of Shepherd’s. In the early days, Shep was Farber’s mentor at WOR. When Farber won 500 pounds of candy/cough drops and he said he wanted them delivered to former headhunters in the Peruvian amazon, Shepherd agreed to go in his place, resulting in several of Shepherd’s best, most memorable travel narratives.
Friend of Shepherd’s from the Village Voice and early Village days, commenting that, although Lois Nettleton always asked him about himself, Shepherd only talked about Shepherd. Shepherd on occasion described and read a Feiffer cartoon from the Voice on his broadcasts
Radio and TV broadcaster knew Shepherd and talked about him during the times he interviewed me about my Shepherd books.
Friend of Shepherd’s, one of the very few guests on Shepherd’s broadcasts. He wrote the play and film, A Thousand Clowns, in which the main character was modeled after Shepherd and his radio traits, about which Shepherd complained bitterly. The publisher of my Shep’s Army confirms that Gardner, whom he knew, told him that this claim regarding the character’s attributes is true.
Comic strip creator of Zippy the Pinhead. Did a tribute strip after Shepherd died, in which he wrote, “His wit was like a life raft to me, adrift as I was on the sea of Levittown. I confess…I was a cultist… and Jean Shepherd was my guru. Who knows what deep subconscious effect his late-night loquaciousness had on me.”
Publisher of Playboy, published 23 Shepherd short stories and his interview with “The Beatles” in the magazine. Hefner told me that Shepherd “was a tremendous addition to [Playboy] and a part of Americana, and I loved his work.”
New York Daily News entertainment columnist, said, “His nightly suggestion that laughter is the only real defense against the shrapnel of life was memorable largely because he shared it in language and tone quiet enough that his voice could be heard.”
Radio broadcaster who several times has expressed his admiration for Jean Shepherd, including this on his program, referring to Shepherd: “A genius! A genius!”
Radio broadcaster, comic. Washington Post, 9/3/2006:“Jillette says he patterns his approach to radio after the work of Shepherd and his other spoken-word hero, the great satirist and parodist Stan Freberg. Jillette considers himself lucky to have seen both his heroes make speeches to college audiences: “Freeberg told the students, ‘Do not make fun of anything unless you hate it,’ and Shepherd said, ‘Do not make fun of anything unless you love it.’ “
Comic, performance artist, he listened to Shepherd as he grew up.. “I don’t think any sense of humor is funny. Rarely. Jean Shepherd is funny.”
Video comic. He and Shepherd were friends and Kovacs had him on The Tonight Show as a guest. They must have had a mutual admiration based on very different but wondrously quirky and inventive creative styles.
Actress, wife of Shepherd, 1960-67. She was “the listener,” whose comments appeared on Shepherd’s early New York broadcasts. She recorded his shows and they would discuss them when he returned home at night. Upon reading my Excelsior, You Fathead! she wrote me, “I think what he was doing, was so—it was unique and it was profound and it was real genius!…I really want him to be recognized for what he was,” and here she gropes for the right words, “a brilliant genius. The wonderful, wonderful unique—the wonderful thing that he was.”
Television commentator on politics and sports. Among other comments about Shepherd, on the air, he said: The immortal humorist and sometimes Chicagoan Jean Shepherd put it best,” and on Countdown: “Well, we had some doozies in this 21st week of 2005, more examples what the late, great Jean Shepherd used to call ‘creeping meatballism.’” Olbermann wrote the foreword to my Shep’s Army, describing how he and a friend once met Shep.
Free-form radio broadcaster. “Ain’t no one else ever gonna come close to what the man accomplished…in the dark…with a microphone, a kazoo and 50,000 watts!”
Stand-up comic, television sitcom creator/comedian. “He really formed my entire comedic sensibility. I learned how to do comedy from Jean Shepherd.”
During his tribute to Shepherd at The Paley Center for Media in January, 2012, among many other things, he said: “I saw him at Carnegie Hall….I just was in love with the guy. Still am.” “He could go into his own mind as if it’s this attic of wonderful thoughts. And he would take you through it.” “…there was that great wonderment and he saw that exciting, cataclysmic drama in the ordinary. And that was really the same way my mind had always been set up and I didn’t know it until I kind of saw him and I thought, ‘Yes, that is exactly t way I see things as well.’ So it really excited me to watch him work, and I saw just a way for myself to think and perform and do everything that I do.”
Comic, actor. As narrator of the NPR 2-hour tribute to Shepherd, he said, “Jean Shepherd invented a form of radio storytelling to which all of us still on the air are indebted.”
Cartoonist, song writer, writer of books of children’s poetry. He once called-in to Shep’s broadcast and got to say a word or two by phone. Shep’s best friend in the early days. They wrote forewords, liner notes, etc. for each other’s works.
Musician, front man for rock group Twisted Sister.
He spent three hours in my “Shep Shrine” with me, talking about Shepherd. Here are excerpts: Dee says he listened to Shepherd broadcasts from the late ‘60s until about 1974, when he became a full-time musician. These days he’s catching up, listening to tapes of Shep’s shows. “Now he’s my radio guy—he’s who I listen to.” “Jean totally affected my storytelling ability. I think it was by osmosis. “
“I adore his books. I think his writing is so much more focused than his talking—when he put pen to paper he was able to refine his rhythm—and you heard his voice, you knew his voice, unlike other authors where you kind of fill your own voice in. When you read Jean’s books, you hear his voice and he had a great-sounding voice.” He said that part of what attracted him to Shepherd on the radio was the cadence and tonality of Shepherd’s voice: “I think I’ve stolen this from him in my own way. There was something very alluring. The way he phrased, there was something going on there that was hypnotic and it pulled you in.”
R. L. STINE
Author of the popular “Goosebumps” series. Says, “My job: to terrify kids.” He knows what kids will laugh at, as well as what will frighten them. He commented that listening to Shepherd helped lure him to New York City.
Anyone with verifiable information regarding other well-known fans of Shepherd, please contact me.
In the four paragraphs below,
Shepherd musing, December 22, 1964.
Comments made toward the end of a broadcast.
(Every so often we get a straight piece of Shep-philosophy–
this idea he’s presented before, so he obviously feels
that it is a constant for him–but is it?)
It’s a rarefied world. It gets more fun by the instant. You know, a lot of people–funny how many people will write–this is by the way, I suppose, a personal comment. How many people will write and will somehow imply, because you comment on things–you know–that are happening in the world–you are necessarily angry. They really will. And I think you’ll agree, Skip [his engineer that night], that I’m one of the least angry men around this station.
I think that the world is far more amusing than it is irritating. I think it’s far more funny than it is tragic. That is, personally–to me. I’ve always felt a little sorry for people who see the world as a tragic place. Who see the world as a serious, unhappy thing. To me, the more ridiculous we get, the more–the paradoxes pile one on top of the other, the more the–I suppose you say–the tragedy gets more poignant and the comedy gets funnier, the more amusing I find this fantastic potpourri.
I could not imagine a world duller than one in which it’s all straightened out–in which everybody thinks good thoughts, where there’s nothing but love, there’s nothing but beauty, nothing but truth, nothing but sensitivity, loveliness, and joy forever. Oh, forever and ever and ever. Oh, what a drag.
You now what you do? Within ten seconds after you arrive in such a paradise, you start lying like a nut–just to get some excitement going. I’m sure of it! After four eons of this kind of paradisiacal pap you’d have to hit somebody on the mouth: “Ah, it’s heaven, is it, Charlie? Well, they never figured on this, did they?” Pow! Right in the mouth. Now what are you going to do? You’re waiting for the action to begin. Believe me, it would begin. Like a vast crock of root beer.
Shepherd’s musical theme, in all its pompous, self-important bombast,
insinuates itself toward the end of this comic, philosophical excursion.
His idea here is certainly a fairly constant underlying current
in much–but not all-of his forays into mankind’s
foibles and futilities.
recognizes that “brouhaha,”
a word that would have fit right into the foregoing
discourse, a word describing turmoil and struggle, is
itself a funny-sounding word, ending in a self-nullifying chortle: “haha.”
That broadcast was made only a year after President Kennedy was assassinated,
an event that strongly moved Shepherd. Only a couple of years later came
the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.
Not long after came a horrific series of mass murders
in this country.
Would Shepherd still have made the statement
that life was so
Would he have,
had he lived
Two of my close friends were great enthusiasts for the city of New York,
as was Shepherd.
The only good thing about their deaths was that each died
a relatively short time before September 11, 2001.
They were spared having to experience
that terrible event of
smoke, fire, death, and destruction.
We all have our defense mechanisms. They help keep us relatively sane and on a relatively, socially acceptable, course. In the Shep’s philosophy chapter of my EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEAD! I quote him as having said, “I’m only going through this life as an observer. I have no desire to influence or change anything.” I quote Whitman’s “Song of Myself” where he wrote, “Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,/…Both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it.” We know that on occasion Shepherd’s usually hidden emotions emerged. Wife Lois Nettleton commented in an interview regarding JFK’s assassination, “The three of us watched that whole thing and Jean was absolutely absorbed. We even went down, walked around, went over to St. Patrick’s and saw all the people sitting on the steps and everything. And he was—he had a very emotional side—very strong feelings, but I think you have to know that if you know his work.”
Mostly–maybe self-defensively– he kept that hidden.
Here is more visual material that relates to my SHEP’S ARMY. In the introduction I say that I have strong feelings that Shep’s “Company K” is probably a reference to William March’s episodic novel published in 1933 titled COMPANY K. Here is the apparently gone-through-the-trenches dust jacket of my used copy, bought after I made the discovery of the probable connection between it and Shep. It’s a fine, powerful book! (Click on image to enlarge the flyleaf text describing the book. Yes, I paid lots more than the original $2.00 cover price.) Note that the text mentions that the book’s chapters follow a chronological path from training, through “active fighting, and back home again.” I only became aware of this particular connection to my own organization of SHEP’S ARMY long after I’d completed and submitted my manuscript. What a delight when I did discover this coincidence!:
Many images that I’ve accumulated seem to concern Camp Crowder, the Missouri post where Shepherd received much of his training in Signal Corps activities.
Shepherd frequently disparaged Camp Crowder because of its weather and much else. Mort Walker, creator of the long-running comic strip “Beetle Bailey” spent time there, and because of its poor drainage and resultant pools of water, he dubbed it in the strip “Camp Swampy,” where Beetle spent his time. The green text on the cover of this paperback reprint of strips says “Welcome to Camp Swampy”:
Among those others who, in real life, were stationed at Camp Crowder was actor Dick van Dyke, who, in his sitcom’s first-season episodes, several times alludes to the Camp. As emcee of the entertainment for the troops at Crowder, he meets a singer/dancer played by Mary Tyler Moore, whom, in the sitcom, he will later marry:
The bizarre and ungainly apparatus in the next photo is an early radar unit, the kind Shepherd occasionally talked about regarding his Camp Murphy, Florida days on the edge of Florida’s Everglades:
In the SHEP’S ARMY story titled “Lister Bag Attack,” a story also located in Florida, Shepherd describes the strange canvas bag hung outdoors so that soldiers could access its chemical-full, tepid water, should they so desire:
In the SHEP’S ARMY story titled “T. S., Mac,” the letters stand for Tough Sh**.” Shepherd once commented that at least one army unit actually had small cards printed for soldiers’ use–“T. S.” cards. Here is George Baker’s “Sad Sack” cartoon strip version:
The insignia for just-about-to-be released and honorably discharged soldiers, the “Ruptured Duck,” previously seen on this blog in its brass pin form, could also be worn on the uniform as a cloth patch:
In the introduction to SHEP’S ARMY I mention cartoonist Bill Mauldin’s darkly grim war-time humor as depicted by his two anti-heroic GIs, Willie and Joe. The opening captioned image of them in Mauldin’s book, UP FRONT, shows them resting (the image here is cropped):
“You’ll get over it, Joe. Oncet I wuz gonna write
a book exposin’ the army after th’ war myself.”
( : ________________________________________________________________ : )
Shepherd enthusiasts are very familiar with the improvisational nature of his work. To grab a bit of what I wrote in EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEAD!, “What his engineers, coworkers, and other observers all tell us is that he had nothing with him in the sound booth, or only a few notes, maybe a news clipping, a couple of items appropriate to the themes he intended to deal with–but never a script.” Barry Farber commented to me, “Never had a script or anything. Good Lord! Don’t ever use the word ‘script’ anywhere in your book! Jean would be so offended. Everything was off the top of his head.”
Also in EYF! I wrote, “Shepherd was not the only monologist ever to sit at a table and talk about himself–and make a living at it. Others followed this public journey into self-absorption and analysis. For example Spalding Gray, twenty years younger, sat before audiences performing his theater pieces.”
Every so often I encounter an article about some other performer who does a similar thing–talk about himself, gripe, improvise. The New York Times of September 12, 2013 has a theater review by Charles Isherwood titled “What’s Bugging Me? How Much Time You Got?” He writes about Mike Daisey’s “All the Faces of the Moon” performances in a review.
See if you recognize Jean Shepherd in what Isherwood says of Mike Daisey:
He writes, “His facility for impromptu asides and entertaining digressions is formidably effective. the aplomb with which he could weave his way back from a seeming dead end almost felt like a magic trick. His sheer storytelling prowess ….”
Isherwood continues: “Mr. Daisey does not work from a prepared script….It became clear early on that he wasn’t necessarily going to connect the dots between his stories….If you let go of any expectations of linear progression, it’s pretty easy to lose yourself happily in the eddying rapids of Mr. Daisey’s endless flow of anecdote and reflection. The most pleasurable aspect of the performances was the sense of spontaneity he managed to sustain.”
On the internet page, Mike Daisey–“His Secret Fortress on the Web,”upon clicking on an audio intro to his “All the Faces of the Moon, a voice says, “As a theatrical novel told over 29 nights.” [Remember that McLuhan wrote that Shep referred to radio as “a new medium for a new kind of novel that he writes nightly.” ]
Info on web page about Daisey:
“He’s been a guest on Real Time with Bill Maher, the Late Show with David Letterman, a longtime host and storyteller for The Moth, as well as a commentator and contributor to The New York Times, The Guardian, Harper’s Magazine, The Daily Beast, WIRED, Vanity Fair, Slate, Salon, NPR and the BBC. In a brief, meteoric career with This American Life, his two shows are the most listened to and downloaded episodes of that program’s eighteen year history.”
“He’s been hailed as “the master storyteller” by the New York Times, and compared to a
modern-day Mark Twain for his provocative monologues that combine the personal
and the political, weaving secret histories with hilarity and heart.
Free ipod audios of his recent stage performances, under a heading,
“ALL STORIES ARE FICTION,” begin with a 21-minute intro
titled “HOW TO BEGIN,” of Sept 3, 2013. I recommend it
–similar in kind to one of Shep’s more “philosophical” broadcasts.
When I read something like this Times review about a creative art, I’d like to see some reference to the background out of which it arose–its antecedents, rather than an implication that Daisey just jumped all the way from Mark Twain to himself in our time. I’d like to see even a small reference/tribute to what Jean Shepherd did. Something that connects to predecessors, something that might include such names as: Twain, Shepherd, Gray, Daisey. None of what I write is a criticism of Daisey–The little I’ve read and heard him, I like–I should pursue his audios. I’ve listened to a bit more (admittedly not enough, so I withhold any judgement) and it all seems, so far, of a consistent story-telling mode, without the incredible variety and unanticipated mind-tickling variety of Shep–commentary, grumpiness, kazoo, jews harp, nose flute, etc., etc., etc.
I’m still hoping to find a possible connection between Shep and Daisey. and I seek a response
from Daisey to my question on his facebook page regarding his familiarity with Shep’s work.
(As Shep is so different so frequently night-to-night,
I’m wondering–how many Shepherd broadcasts would one have to hear
in order to get at least some overview–some feeling for what
makes us so rabidly enthusiastic about him?
Certainly at least 50 to 100?)
FLASH! Comment from Mike Daisey:
“I’m a huge fan of Shepherd—he’s absolutely one of a kind, and wonderful.”
I’m so delighted!
Most people, upon seeing or hearing a Shepherd kid-story, get nostalgic
and even teary-eyed, especially when viewing the movie
A Christmas Story.
Shepherd often seemed to them to be dealing in nostalgia,
but he strenuously insisted that it wasn’t so.
Feeling nostalgic, in spite of the fact that it might not be at all appropriate, is endemic among the many thousands of Shepherd’s enthusiasts throughout the land. Consider A Christmas Story, a movie he not only created but narrated, the story of the kid who wants a BB gun and, when he gets it, nearly shoots his eye out. The legions of people who know little if anything about Shepherd don’t need to be reminded of their nostalgic reaction to “the good old days”in the movie:
[Sign, in the movie turned sideways, upon which Ralphie
had placed his BB gun target. One only sees it for less than
a second= “GOLDEN AGE”
–what an ironic comment on nostalgia!
The sign’s words, which rebound the BB and almost shoot his eye out!]
but even those who do know a great deal about Shepherd and his wary attitude toward nostalgia get teary-eyed at the memory of the film. In it, Shepherd plays on the nostalgia embedded in the very fiber of our being (the days we gamboled in the snow and, secure in the bosom of our family life, waited for the presents that were sure to shower down upon us) even as he besmirches this rosy image with the mundane turmoil and conflict he depicts. Friend Flick gets his tongue stuck to a frozen metal pole; the longed-for secret decoder merely decodes “a crummy commercial”; Santa shoves our hero down the slide with his big, black boot; the father’s “major award,” a sexy piece of “slob art” in the form of a curvaceous female leg lamp, is “accidentally” broken; dogs make off with the family’s Christmas dinner; and the kid, after all, almost does shoot his own eye out. The simple truth is that Shepherd, in his work, sometimes used nostalgia only to undercut its sentimentality with sardonic humor. Indeed, he viewed nostalgia with considerable ambivalence.
Shepherd objected to the label of nostalgia, saying that his hundreds of extemporaneous stories about childhood told on the radio, published in Playboy, in books, and many of them later transformed into television stories and movies, were not about the good old days, but about how we humans have always been, and always will be, flawed. Nevertheless, Shepherd fans as well as the millions of others who simply enjoy his work, while maybe understanding his argument, still find something in many of his creations that indeed does strike a nostalgic chord that tugs at our hearts. Whatever Shepherd’s intention, he seems unable to avoid sounding a note of yearning when he talks about the days that are no more. We have a sneaking suspicion that, in fact, he wants to sound that note. At the end of A Christmas Story, the kid does get the gun, he doesn’t really shoot his eye out, and his parents, who had been at odds throughout, sitting before the Christmas tree at the end, contemplate the beautiful tree, the night, and the gently falling snow outside as, now at peace with each other, they snuggle up contentedly. They are happy in their world—and we respond accordingly to a fondly imagined past.
In most of his work, in fact, Shepherd treated his past with the same mocking tone that barely concealed his fond memories of it. His radio work, which thousands of diehard fans such as myself, still consider his finest achievement, began in Indiana where he grew up, an Indiana which, for good or ill, he often derided but could never get out of his system. By 1956, often describing the act as an escape from the Midwest, he had moved to his intellectual and emotional home, New York City. There, in the twenty-two years of his New York programs, we find his stories, commentaries, anecdotes, his expertly rendered snatches of tunes played on kazoo, jews harp, or nose flute, and his infectious laugh and joy in life. Though his talents burgeoned in the Big Apple, the background, inspiration, and joy for all of this grew out of his Midwest past, and he both knew it and appreciated it in a way that was, but that he would not have wanted described as, “n*******c.”
In his New York City years, mixing great pleasure and enthusiasm with his irony and his put-downs, his spoken and written tales, as well as the television stories and films based on them, emphasize that even through all the travail, we’d not only muddle through and live to tell it, but even laugh at it too with more than a bit of warmth in our hearts. At the end of one of those TV tales, after all the minor tragedies have ended on happy notes, Shepherd, as narrator, ties it all up in a comfy bow with the story’s final words:
“Those thanksgivings at home were what Thanksgiving is all about.
Mothers, fathers, brothers, the family dog, and Time,
like a gray shadow pursuing us all.
But those Thanksgiving drumsticks were the sweetest of all.
Even Time can’t rob you of those memories.
They are forever.”
We don’t know whether he said those words under some TV-production arm-twisting or spoke them freely with an acceptance of their comforting truth, but we certainly know that despite his complaints, he found joy not only in his life as he was then living it but also in his life as he’d experienced it from childhood on—and he had an appealing way of describing not only his own life but of also capturing the customs and lives of all of us.
* * *
His stories and articles, many of them anthologized or collected in books, the videos, the films, and several thousand of his radio programs of extemporaneous outpourings that were recorded and preserved by adoring fans, are all readily available and are appreciated by a growing multitude who had no experience of his work when it was originally presented to the world. And therein lies a difference. Although the words and images are the same for us older folk and for newbies alike, there will always remain for me and those others who heard him on the radio as he originally spoke to us from out there in studioland, when we were young, impressionable, and eager for intellectual companionship–the realization that we were hearing, off the top of his head, a jazzman’s improvisations in words—magic being made nightly—live—right before our ears.
“HE WAS IN STUDIOLAND,
AND I WAS LISTENING TO HIM OUT THERE IN RADIOLAND
ON MY MAROON PLASTIC ZENITH AM/FM RADIO
WITH THE BIG SIMULATED GOLD DIAL.”
In this we have an advantage over his newer fans—we were there when it happened, and through our recognition of that gift from ol’ Shep, we now enjoy special feelings that can only be described as gratitude and nostalgia.
New York Times 8/26/2013
Olbermann Set to Return to ESPN and Sports News
So Keith Olbermann is back as a sports guy. I’ll miss his political commentary, but I’m glad he’s overcome whatever he’s overcome.
There are several connections between Olbermann and Shepherd. Olbermann is a Jean Shepherd fan who over the years, on his sports programs and his political commentary programs has given tributes to Shepherd.
On the internet I’ve found several transcripts of his sports programs in which he has expressed his admiration for Shep:
<The immortal humorist and sometimes Chicagoan Jean Shepherd put it best:>
On Countdown Olbermann said, “Well, we had some doozies in this 21st week of 2005, more examples what the late, great Jean Shepherd used to call ‘creeping meatballism.'”
For a period on his Countdown MSNBC television program, he alternated his signoff between Edward R. Morrow’s “Good night and good luck” and Shepherd’s “Keep your knees loose.” When he changed to the unaltering “Good night and good luck,” he kept a reference to Shepherd with the faint-but-discernable Shepherd theme song, “Bahn Frei” playing nightly under brief video-clip segments of ridiculous human foibles.
When the “A Christmas Story House” opened, Olbermann interviewed the owner, mentioning Shepherd.
When the director of A Christmas Story, Bob Clark, died, Olbermann did a commentary.
He wrote the foreword to my Shep’s Army: Bummers, Blisters, and Boondoggles, indicating that he has been a Shepherd fan since his youth.
Shepherd and Olbermann have a long history together
–and that includes their mutual interest in sports.
(Here’s where I segue into Jean Shepherd-and-sports.)
Shepherd played football in high school. As he was a ham radio operator at this young age, he was given the job of commenting on high school sports for a local radio station.
Shepherd claimed that as a young broadcaster he did radio commentary for part of a season for the “Toledo Mudhens” baseball team. He often mentioned his baseball-playing days as a kid. He also claimed that he played third base for “The United Brethren” team. The guys were hired to play for the church. In the video drama, “Phantom of the Open Hearth,” in a game against “Immaculate Conception.” Ralphie is seen playing third base. In one of his radio stories, Shepherd talks about soldiers carving out a baseball field in Florida’s jungle, and, it being so hot, they played in the nude. It’s said that Jean Shepherd played professional ball, but this may not be so–his brother Randy, it’s reported, pitched for a minor league farm team and maybe played in spring training in the Majors.
During the year of the “Miracle Mets,” Shepherd did a couple of enthusiastic broadcasts about them. Shepherd made the quasi-documentary video for Major League Baseball about the favorite team of his youth the “Chicago White Sox.” He told several stories on his broadcasts about his father, in the stands, razzing Yankee players. During a World Series, for its first satellite broadcasts, he did short commentaries for the Armed Forces Radio Network.
Will Keith Olbermann comment again
on his enthusiasm for Jean Shepherd?
Let’s hope so, sports-fans/Shep-fans.
Keith Olbermann, Shep-fan.
What’s true and what’s fiction or even fantasy have always been a major component regarding how we interpret Jean Shepherd and how he regards his own attitude toward truth and fiction. And this is true in all his stories, including those about the army. In the introduction to Shep’s Army: Bummers, Blisters, and Boondoggles, my book of Shepherd’s army stories, I quote him from one of his broadcasts: “You continually see stories and movies and plays about the army, but I can tell you, I have never seen anything that even remotely resembles the real army.” Shepherd more than once has commented that much fiction he’s encounters is not true to real life. He continues the thought in an army story about a young corporal who “says beautiful things and writes poems, and he’s gonna have a little grocery store on Flatbush Avenue when he gets back. And you know he’s gonna get killed.” The suggestion is that this is a cliche that doesn’t actually happen in real life.
I’ve recently re-encountered another of Shep’s similar thoughts about being in the army. He comments that:
“Most people don’t know what they talk about in the barracks. You never see in army movies guys just sitting around–just sitting there rapping. Shooting the breeze. What do they talk about? Whenever you see a movie where they purport to be telling you what they talk about there’s always a scene where Donald O’Connor takes out his wallet and shows his girl’s picture to Van Johnson. You know, that kind of thing. I never once, in all the years I was in the army–and I was in longer than I care to even think about–I never once saw anybody whip out the picture of his girl and say, “Here, this is Emily.”
Yes, army movies and most movies about everything have traditionally been full of cliches. But Shepherd seems to imply that fiction should portray the minor, day-to-day matters such as waiting for your clothes to dry at the laundromat–the kinds of matters out of which he creates his humor. As Ron Simon, curator of Television and Radio at the Paley Center for Media wrote in connection with its Jerry Seinfeld tribute to Shepherd, “The late radio raconteur Jean Shepherd and the master of his domain, Jerry Seinfeld, are obsessed with the minutiae of daily life. Nothing is too small in the detritus of human existence for contemplation. For Shepherd and Seinfeld, meaning is not found in pondering the huge metaphysical questions that have perplexed Plato onward; life is discovered in the lint, that small detail that informs us who we really are.” As Simon notes, their peculiarity is in their comedic genius of encountering the significant in what most of us pass over as insignificant. What a marvelous turn of mind!
The problem with incorporating much of insignificance into “serious” fictional prose is that it tends to take up time and space where the creator is focusing on making every word and incident count–making them signify and be in some sense symbolic of the large issues he’s getting at. In a specific instance of Shepherd’s complaint, on one program, he criticizes Norman Mailer’s An American Dream for inaccurately depicting American Life, as though it was meant to be a “realistic novel.” Not so–in fact, I’d describe An American Dream as depicting more of an American nightmare, a strong metaphor for neurotic fantasy. Much fiction is not a depiction of the events of “real life,” but constructs a truthful metaphor for what real life is like. The familiar problem, as I see it, is that there are different methods/strategies for arriving at different aspects of what is “truth,” and the proponent of his/her methods tends to be critical of differing paths through fictional woods.
As an enthusiast of the works of both Norman Mailer and Jean Shepherd, I’d say that, in their explorations of the America they love, they each take a different path–through different forested American landscapes.