J. S. The other thing that struck me about it is—the recall of childhood that so many comedic minds seem to have. I guess it’s because—most comedians I know are able to not leave their childhood behind. I think that’s essential if you want to work in comedy. You cannot leave the—it’s a self-absorbed freedom that children have, which makes them fun to be around. But they get to a point when they just leave it behind to deal with the adult world. Comedians never leave it behind.
B. C. ….. Did you ever talk at other times about Jean Shepherd?
J. S. I don’t know many who are familiar with him—I think I had, I can’t remember on the spur of the moment. But I saw him perform a couple of times. I saw him at Fairleigh Dickinson’s, I saw him at Carnegie Hall…. I just was in love with the guy. Still am. It’s so much in the eye. You see a guy like that—those eyes are just saucers, you know. It’s all in there. And he brings you in through his eyes. And through his voice. This is a guy—without ever seeing him—on the radio—can make you just freeze on the spot for two hours.
B. C. Yes, well, that’s what it used to be. That work that you see in the film—he only narrates. No way to convey completely the story—telling strengths of his voice.
J. S. Right. Yes. And that strength is a tap of—And another thing you must have—any performer has—is you must have access to a tap of genuine enthusiasm. As a comedian you can become quite polished. I mean, I can do a routine—I can do bits from my show which you can take as recordings and you can type them over each other and there would be a millisecond of difference in how the routine is performed.
But the enthusiasm behind it is not cant. That has to be genuine. Now we’re getting into the art of stand-up. So the art of stand-up is: the routine itself has a metronomic precision; the enthusiasm behind it is completely innocent and pure.
B. C. So performing mechanically is not going to work.
J. S. If you manufacture the enthusiasm—it’s not genuine, the routine dies. You could do it exactly right—it just dies. And you go, “I said it the exact same way last night.” But you didn’t think it or you didn’t feel it. So, it takes all those ingredients. I mean, as I was watching that, I couldn’t help but think—you know, if I was directing him, and we’re looking at this piece, I was going to say, “You know, this line has got to come out, it is repetitive, or this doesn’t advance the narrative—it’s got to come out. It’s going to suck the air out, you know. It would kind of rob it of its charm. So I don’t know the man, but I do sense that he was kind of caught between parts you know. So he had this enormous gift of radio. But in this culture they wanted comics. Comics who went up on the stage and stood in that spotlight and stared it down, and played the dragon, you know. And it wasn’t that he wasn’t cynical enough. And it wasn’t that he wasn’t perceptive enough. But—I don’t think he wanted to be as draconian—in other words, I’m not going to use that word [audience laughter] as a stand-up needs to be.
B. C. Do you think he was a cult artist? Like in a cult bottle.
J. S. To me a cult just means a group of people who are very enthusiastic about what you do and there are not that many of them.
I know, it sounds like it means you gotta be special to get it. Which I would disagree with that aspect of the word cult. I think he just didn’t have—we just didn’t have—the industry—let’s say show business or media—didn’t have the container that fit the amazing skill set that he had. Except radio—late-night radio, which is not a celebrated container….
B. C. And I assume, like many others, you were impressed by [A Christmas Story].
J. S. Yes, I thought it was a nice movie. The stuff that’s in it….Those things that were the essence of him, I really love. I love the whole thing.
B. C. Of course he did the BB gun thing. Another clip of him, sort of a very early version, telling his BB gun story, which winds up being the essence of the movie. So this is December of 1964, when he’s at the Limelight and he later did this as a short story. This is him telling the story to an audience for the first time. [Audio of Shep—Limelight, “Duel in Snow” 12/1964.]
B. C. That didn’t sound like him very much.
J. S. Really?
B. C. That was a little more like he’s performing in front of an [audience]….
Here’s what was great—he could paint something so small, he could make a beautiful painting on a postage stamp. And then he could paint this giant thing—“And I’m going to tell you what being an American is about.” You know—these art installations that people do—these giant things. “And now, I’m going to make something for you that’s that big.” That is what made him so remarkable.
B. C. I also think, the idea of being on the radio in the middle of the night, when a lot of people are not—and you’re by yourself, you’re a kid and you’re by yourself in your room in your home—and in my case in Brooklyn—and you have your transistor radio. These guy’s—there’s something magical, old fashioned, almost Homeric-almost way. Here’s this guy who’s telling a story—the most fundamental kind of communication that you have—one guy tells another guy—mesmerized listening to it.
J. S. It had an incredible intimacy that only radio had. Like someone whispering in your ear.
B. C. Yes, yes. I don’t know if you have thought about your own voice that way, and the way you use it. But I know you have a great way of modulating when you perform. You hit things and don’t hit things, right? That’s all part of a practice that you have—like, you’ve practiced that.
J. S. Well, it’s kind of—I don’t really think about it. I don’t think about it but, I mean, I think about what I feel about this subject, and it’s just how it comes out, you know. But you do with jokes. I recall: a joke is math and music. You have to have notes and it has to have mathematical progression. But I don’t really think about—maybe I do think about the notes—there are certain notes when I say words—this note is funnier than this note.
B. C. Do you think a guy like that was fundamentally happy or unhappy? Can you tell?
J. S. Yes. I can tell. He’s unhappy. And I saw something the other day—someone sent me some study about the—if you have a tendency toward depression, one of the things that they find in the brain that kind of comes with that—you don’t get just that, you get the other thing, which is an ability to concentrate for a long period of time on a problem. Which is the act of writing, really, and a lot of other creative pursuits and so—And it made me feel great—about being depressed. [laughter]
….So he clearly has that, and you can also see that release of depression that a performer feels. I can see that in his eyes. When you’re a performer, one of the great things it gives you in that moment, you’re fine, you’re flying through the air and for that period of time your feet are not on the ground. And afterwards you come back down to earth and there’s a happiness that you feel like—you know—well, I’m happy now. I’m happy. All performers feel happy when they’re performing and then they get depressed….
I think I’m less depressed than most. But I have it. It doesn’t bother me. I think everyone’s depressed, essentially. I mean. I was talking the other night on stage about all these ads that we see for depression. The man says these people are special. Oh, you’re sad, you’re special, you’ve got problems. We’re all depressed. [laughter]
And I hate the lady that has the little cloud in her house. If you have a miniature weather system in your house—the coolest thing! A tiny raincloud this big, in your apartment—and you’re bugged out! [laughter]
B. C. I don’t know about Jean’s troubles, but we have some people here who do know his life, and I want to ask his biographer—tell us what your perspective is—was Jean a depressed guy, a happy guy, a struggling guy?
E. B. Bergmann I think he was to a large extent a depressed guy. With all his success, it did not measure up to his ideal of where he felt he should be. And I think that made him rather sad. And from what I’ve heard from people I interviewed, they pretty much go along with that.
EBB: “Would you sign this for me? I could
say it’s for my son, but actually it’s for me.”
A few other comments were elicited from front row guests. After the event, some people from the main audience and some from the TV-annex room, gathered to talk to me about Shepherd, including fans and his general manager, Herb Saltzman, who knew him well, and whom I’d interviewed for my first Shepherd book. We all talked, and it seemed as though our old friend Shep was still alive and among us.
Alive and among us, on the air,
shown when he was typically very happy.
B. C. So, you’re like what age when you’re discovering him?
J. S. Fourteen, sixteen.
B. C. So, are you already thinking of yourself—comedy—as something you’re interested in?
J. C. I was introduced to him in this magazine, Car and Driver, where he had a column.
B. C. Was it humorous?
J. S. It was humorous. And that was the first thing I wanted to be. I wanted to be an automobile writer. I was a car person anyway, and I wanted to write amusing columns for a car magazine the way he did….
B. C. When you hear him narrate and it really does have a way of making—I’m sure you know, delivery is really important to this kind of thing—
J. S. Yeah, but he’s working in the studio and he’s working alone, and he’s working without a script. He had a whole other gift for—he could go into his own mind as if it’s this attic of wonderful thoughts. And he would take you through it, and, you know, I can’t do that. People always say that sometimes, you know, “Tell me a story of something crazy that happened to you on the road.” And I go, “Nothing’s ever happened to me.” [audience laughter]….
J. S. Apparently The Wonder Years, the TV show. They completely ripped off from his whole mind-set.
(Paul, Kevin, and Winnie)
B. C. Yes, even the narration….
J. S. Most comedians go, “You know what I hate about,” and you fill in the rest. Can I take, “You know what I love,” and then do a routine in that vein. The other thing is, can I—like the thing about the beer that you saw [in a video clip].
He wants you to look in the beer and think about the number of events that are in and around this drink, you know. It’s kind of philosophical in that—like, let’s explore life. Everything is about this trying to make sense of life and being kind of up-front about that.
The very first clip that they played, that it’s hard being an American—that’s a philosophical tack. And I do a piece in my act where I—and I worked very long on this. Again, it’s a thing that I picked up from him that I have some similarity [to him]. I do this thing in my act that—to make judgments that people make about things—that this sucks and this great. And I do quite a long routine about these two things. Sucks and great are really much closer than—they are really right next to each other. A lot of things that are great actually suck, and a lot of things that suck are kind of great.
The essence of the routine is the baseball game hotdog. If I could draw a line from that to beer. So, the baseball game hotdog to me is the most perfect example of something that sucks and is great. You’ve got a baseball game and the hotdog is cold and the bun is not toasted and the vendor is an ex-con in a work-release program. And this is the greatest thing!
And that is so Jean Shepherd. And honestly, I don’t really think about him that much, but thinking about tonight, I start to think of ways that explain why I’m here—I mean, that, really, is as good as anything. And I say it in my show. I say, the greatest lesson that I’ve learned in my life is that sucks and great are pretty close you know. And I’m not ashamed to say that. There’s a lot in that.
B. C. And I think he’s interesting because he’s not doing a routine, he’s a raconteur….
J. S. When I do that bit I’m doing it to get laughs, but if you want to think about it afterwards and go, “Maybe he had a point there!” [pause] Now it’s a point on a very stupid thing [pause] but that’s some of the best points that there are.
And that’s the other thing—these stupid things—small and big are the same. It’s very prismatic—if that word isn’t too—in fact, if I can’t use that word here, I don’t know where I’m going to use it.
B. C. Would you consider him a humorist? I mean, people often use the word humorist for guys who can’t actually perform comedy.
J. S. Well, we are going to have to use that word because humorism, which is probably not a word, is comedy but it is free of the brutality of discipline of a stand-up performer. Stand-up performance is a martial art—yes. This is not a game. One of us will win, one of us will lose here this evening. This is the difference in what a stand-up is forced to do and what Jean was able—was free to not do in his radio performance, which are absolutely, equally as brilliant….
Now, to fill four hours a day, that’s not about density, that’s about—what is the opposite of density? Expansion? If you have a thought you want it to last as long as possible. Because you’ve got four hours—till you’re off the air. For a comedian, if you have a thought that takes you seventeen words to express, and you can get it down to fourteen, you’re doing something! And then, from there, can I get it to twelve, can I get to eleven with an “of” and an “a,” you know.
Stand-up is a much more rigorous—and I think that was—from what I know of Jean Shepherd, I think he had some difficulty with the fame and fortune that stand-up—American stand-up was really exploding in the 60s, around that time, and he certainly had the ability, the skill-set and beyond any stand-up comic of his era. But he was not enjoying the fruits of that in the same way and I think that may have frustrated him—from something that I’ve read and heard, and his reason is, they’re as opposite disciplines as they could be. There’s nothing more wonderful—I can’t think of a stand-up comic, really, that could sit and fill that much time. They’d just bore you to tears. So the one is filling space and the other is compressing words and space.
B. C. We have an interesting clip of him doing kind of like a stand-up and it’s a different form. And I think it’s never been seen.
J. S. Well, someone’s seen it. [laughter] Well, someone’s seen it….
B. C. What do you think of it as a stand-up piece?
J. S. It’s not a good stand-up piece. It’s a wonderful story. And unfortunately, you know, I was thinking as I was watching, you know, he’s sitting down—this is great, if he’s standing up, he’s wrong. And I don’t know why these rules exist—and they’re brutal and they’re not fair, but they are the rules. If you’re standing up, people just expect a faster frequency of punch lines….
[See EYF! Bottom of page 124-125. As Shepherd once put it, you’ve got to have a rapid-fire approach of laugh lines—snap, snap, snap with the fingers, as he put it.]
B. C. Yes. I thought his delivery was interesting because unlike his radio delivery, which is a little more measured, he was a little more in your face with this.
J. S. Well, he’s got the camera to deal with, and you have to—you can’t take as much time. But still, you know, he has patience. He’s just a wonderful performer. A performer….
B. C. … went back to the same material all the time. That’s also kind of interesting to me. That this story—and he used variants of this story many different ways.
J. S. Good material is hard to find. [Laughter]
B. C. Well, it is, but I guess he particularly—something about his childhood really resonated about his childhood, really resonated, and he felt it. That’s his real address, I’m sure—what he said there.
J. S. Right.
B. C. You know what I mean? Exactly where he lived.
(This is a recent photo of the actual house where Shepherd grew up–
2907 Cleveland Street in Hammond, IN. He refers to it in the subtitle of the
BB gun story, “Duel in the Snow or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid.”)
More Shepherd & Seinfeld to come
Jean Shepherd was honored by Manhattan’s The Paley Center for Media (Formerly the “Museum for Television and Radio”) on January 23, 2012 in the program, “Remembering Master Storyteller, Jean Shepherd, with Jerry Seinfeld.” For its public program, the Center’s curator, Ron Simon, wrote a short introduction on its website, noting that Jean Shepherd and Jerry Seinfeld are both “obsessed with the minutia of daily life… . 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.” Commenting on Shepherd’s “Duel in the Snow, Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid,” the base tale of A Christmas Story, Simon writes that “Jerry Seinfeld is equally obsessed with the absurdities and incongruities of everyday life. Like Shepherd, he possesses that gimlet eye for revelatory detail.”
Shepherd enthusiasts have been hoping that The Paley Center would publish
a DVD of its tribute to Shepherd, as it has of scores
of its programs. Even though other Center programs subsequent
to the Shep tribute have appeared in DVD for sale, so far this one has not.
A four-minute video clip is available on the Paley Center website.
One can only sadly assume that the tribute is
locked away in a secure repository–
available to almost no one.
here are parts of the Tribute–
cobbled together fragments of the proceedings.
Before the program, the principles and several others involved in Shepherd’s world, met in “the green room,” where I, introduced as “Shepherd’s biographer,” met Seinfeld and we shook hands.
He: “I love your book.” Me: “I love your TV show.”
The public event consisted of Bill Carter of The New York Times interviewing Seinfeld for about an hour in the Center’s theater, the overflow crowd watching the event on television monitors in an adjacent room. (Originally, Seinfeld was to talk with Keith Olbermann, but because of illness, the political commentator had to cancel.)
The program began as the Center‘s curator, Ron Simon, held up a small transistor radio, commenting that probably most people in the audience first listened to Shepherd on just such a radio. The audience laughed in recognition of this truth. He played several short video and audio clips of Shepherd. The first clip was of Shepherd in (director/producer at WGBH) Fred Barzyk’s mock-documentary for television, “A Generation of Leaves.” [The title is from Homer’s The Iliad – “A generation of men is like a generation of leaves; the wind scatters some leaves upon the ground, while others the burgeoning wood brings forth – and the season of spring comes on. So of men one generation springs forth and another ceases.” This is a marvelous program, for Shep talking on-screen, and for the entire story. Some years ago I saw it in one of the Center’s public screening booths. I’d love to have a copy.]
In an early scene of the documentary, Shepherd, sitting against a white background, comments:
“Hello fellow Americans. Fellow travelers on the yellow brick road of life. Do you ever have a secret ambition to have your birthday announced on television? [laughs] Wouldn’t that be great? Charlie Gutstop of Dayton, Ohio is 47 today. Happy birthday, Charlie. You know it ain’t easy being an American. Have you ever tried to explain it to somebody? I mean, just being an American.”
Then Simon introduced the two guests and they began.
Bill Carter: I did know you were a fan, but I didn’t know that you said something like you learned everything that you knew about comedy from Jean Shepherd. Do you remember making that quote somewhere?
Jerry Seinfeld: Yes, I have said that and I still say that. I mean, I don’t know about if it’s possible to know everything, but I think what struck me about him—I first discovered reading him in car magazines [Car and Driver, 61 columns and several articles from 1971-1976], and then I found some of his shows and the movies, but there was that great wonderment, and he saw the exciting cataclysmic drama in the ordinary. And that was really the 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 the 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.
I mean, [it’s] actually quite easy if you look back at my standup, my TV series, and everything that I’ve done, that it is all about the dramatizing of the ordinary. People like to call it a “show about nothing.” That was, of course, the idea—that, let’s take the smallest possible thing and make it as big as we can. And you can see in that series of clips—you see is that he had a similar gift.
B. C. Shepherd said that “the reality of what we really are is sometime found in the small snips way down at the bottom of things.” And that does seem also to describe some of your comedy….
J. S. Yeah, we did that endlessly in the TV series. It wasn’t funny to us unless it was essentially a trivial event—that we could explode into a cataclysm.
But, thinking about him today, obviously, coming over here, there’s this bit I’ve been doing in my stand-up act recently about Pop-Tarts, and I’ve been doing it for a little while now, and I talk about what breakfast was before the Pop-Tart. That it was just—we had shredded wheat—and—it’s just that the world was so primitive. We were just chimps playing with sticks in the dirt, and then the thing came—this Pop-Tart came to us, seemingly from some advanced, alien civilization, for some reason based in Battle Creek, Michigan. And I talk about the pack—it was some silver lining that clearly had to have been from NASA that had evolved in this. This was just too far advanced, you know, to have just not have been from the highest levels of—
And I’m thinking of all the—as I’m talking about it now, and you can hear—even in this little thing, it’s all him! This so is the way he would look at something like that….
And the other thing that I got from him, which is a very, very big thing—for me, and a very important thing is—like talking about beer. Now, most people—certainly most people in the comedic arts—what comedians like to do, is they see something and they want to make fun of it or they want the audience to have fun with the subject. Well, what they do is they will talk about what’s wrong with it and why it’s stupid. And he did the exact opposite in so many cases. And it’s kind of what I’m doing with this Pop-Tart thing.
It’s a very difficult trajectory in comedy is to say, “Isn’t this thing wonderful”—you’re mocking it. You’re celebrating it. Which is—it’s much more difficult. So that was another big, big thing that I got from him, is that you—now the reason I do it with the Pop-Tart, or the reason I wanted to talk about it, was because I knew I didn’t have to manufacture my appreciation of it.
B. C. You actually do like it.
J. S. I do. And so, if it’s sincere, it’s funny. So everything he talks about, he talks about with sincerity and appreciation and wonder, and maybe go off, you make it funny—which is another skill-set….
Stay tuned for more short excerpts of Shepherd & Seinfeld
New information about Shepherd’s life and work continually arrives. And existing information continues to be continually roadblocked. This is caused by people who have the info but who, for one cause or another, don’t come forth with it for the world to see.
BETTY BALLANTINE, wife and editor for Ian Ballantine, publisher of Shep’s hoax book, I, Libertine (1956), claimed to have written the final chapter of the book when sci-fi author Theodore Sturgeon, who reportedly wrote most of it, fell asleep while working toward the publishing deadline. She was interviewed about the book a couple of times, I’m told, though I’ve seen nothing in print, but when I’ve tried to speak with her for publication of what may well be previously unknown aspects, she reportedly said that she was “tired of talking” about the subject. Thus, whatever she knows of importance, she will take to the grave with her.
JOAN WARNER, Shepherd’s second wife and mother of his two children, is aware of my EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEAD! their son Randall says, but has not read it and refuses to talk about Shepherd. She’s not interested in that chapter of her life, she said. More info headed for the grave.
OLIVIA TAPPAN, an important associate of the television director/producer of much of Shepherd’s television work, refused my requests to talk about him.
INHABITANTS OF SNOW POND LAKE, vacation home of Shepherd’s whom I have corresponded with for a number of years, say they have some of his material found in the house when they bought it.
Jean and Leigh’s Maine retreat as they abandoned it
Sometime in the 1980s, Jean and Leigh stopped going to their summer place in Snow Pond, Maine. When they last left it, they probably expected to return, because they left parts of themselves there that they would have taken with them if they’d known better. As time passed they must have forgotten their treasured possessions. So eventually the house and its furnishings could be thought of as abandoned until Leigh died and Jean became ill and it was time to sell. A few months before Shepherd died a married couple bought Jean and Leigh’s summer home, not knowing who the seller was: “When we bought the camp we didn’t appreciate who Gene Shepherd was so got rid of a lot of things we should never have sold. The spare bedroom in the camp was filled with all his ham radio equipment. Everything from microphones to call cards to the radios themselves. Wires were hung by nails all over the walls with a large desk on one end loaded with the equipment.”
They found an Audubon Field Guide to North American Birds, with an inscription accompanying an ink drawing of flowers, a bird, and a butterfly. An unexpected encounter, a loving piece of warmth, endearing, and, yes, sweet:
To Little Leigh….”A brightly colored wife-bird noted for its faithful loving habits and cheerful song.
Your hubby with much love, Jean, July 31, 1981. Snow Pond, Maine.
The camp (as such places are referred to in Maine parlance) had been abandoned thirteen years before and was in very bad shape according to the new owners, but instead of tearing it down they spent years repairing it. They found a number of puzzling items that those original owners had left there, some of which, a leglamp, a Red Ryder BB gun, manuscripts, audio tapes, and other material, they shipped to the seller’s representatives in Florida.
Other items remained: duck decoys scattered around the grounds, a baseball bat, a walking stick, ham radio equipment, a collage made of many different beer bottle labels, and a large sign hanging from the rafters—on one side it said EXCELSIOR and on the other side YOU FATHEAD. They had no idea what it meant. Enigmatic indeed! Only when they happened upon a book with those words as title did they discover who Jean Shepherd was:
(I covet this sign)
Year after year, despite my requests, they have done nothing to examine the possibly valuable stuff they say they have stored in a relative’s closet. Who knows what may be there? Maybe a box of very early tapes? Maybe even Shep’s travel diaries? We may never know.
SALVAGE GUY–on Sanibel Island, he had the contract to clear out Shepherd’s final home. He found numerous items of interest, for a few of which he sent photos, including the bronze plaque with which Hammond, Indiana honored Shepherd (photo from http://www.flicklives.com):He found Jean and Leigh Brown’s wedding certificate among many other objects, and now he has disappeared with all the stuff. Will it all end in a dumpster?
WGBH-TV, BOSTON, has much Shepherd material, including all episodes of “Jean Shepherd’s America,” “A Generation of Leaves” mock-documentary partly narrated by Shepherd, Shepherd’s three long-form TV dramas, etc. It’s all locked in their vault. One excuse given is that the rights to use the music remain too expensive to permit re-issuing. Will this or some future generation ever get to see these works?
The second series of “Jean Shepherd’s America” has long been available
in video recordings made with imperfect home equipment–this includes a couple
of the first series episodes that were repeated
for the second series. The rest of the first series (other than the audios)
is only available in WGBH’s vaults.
PALEY CENTER. On January 23, 2012, the Paley Center performed an act for which all Shepherd enthusiasts, now and into the future, must be exceedingly grateful–they presented a tribute to Jean Shepherd with Jerry Seinfeld talking for an hour on the crucial importance that Shepherd had been to his entire comedic career. Their auditorium could not contain their overflow crowd. Numerous people have implored them to deliver a DVD for sale. Despite the unquestioned renown of Shepherd as a radio performer, and Seinfeld as a major media star, they have yet to produce for sale a DVD of the occasion. They have, however, produced, as of this counting, over one hundred DVDs of such stuff as “The Vampire Diaries” (two DVDs), and “Freaks and Geeks,” along with scores of other crud subjects I’ve never heard of. (Maybe I am remiss and should catch up with all the recent dross available in the vast wasteland.) Maybe there’s some copyright or other issue holding them up? Some material can be viewed in little cubicles at their facilities.
JAZZ AUTHORITY. A major jazz authority (several published books) is quoted by a Shep-fan friend of his, as saying that he had taped some of Shepherd’s overnight New York broadcasts in early 1956. But he has been “too busy” to make them available. So they lie, one imagines–tape crumbling into plastic dust, Until his heirs sweep them out into the trash. I have always suspected that if anybody had audios of those early shows, it would be a musician who had a tape machine in those early days of nearly-affordable recorders to capture music of his own and of his/her contemporaries. No one else has ever even said they had such recorded material–these holy grails of early Shep–and maybe no one else ever will. What had been life and art–then sound disassembling into silence, into death.
We capture and hold onto what we can, staving off what Fred Allen described:
“All the [radio] comedian has to show for his years of work and aggravation
is the echo of forgotten laughter.”
Shepherd’s art has been served better than that, we know.
We grasp and hold what we can.
He lives on, at least for now.
Is all this typical of most of those we revere? Or has Shepherd been cursed more than most?
P. Press: Has interviewing so many people who both knew and worked with Jean given you any profound insight into what drove this intensely gifted man to work so tirelessly for the better part of his life in any medium that would accommodate his abilities?
Bergmann: I simply believe that Jean Shepherd was a great creative force in many media, and like other driven artists in whatever field, he did what he did out of intense feelings of power, pleasure, and ego. He wanted it all, including widespread recognition for his art.
P. Press: He spent the last years of his life–after the passing of his fourth wife, Leigh Brown–in relative seclusion on Sanibel Island, Florida. What role do you feel Leigh played in facilitating his work?
Bergmann: Leigh Brown seemed to be the force that supported, protected, and held him together. She was his enabler. In my book I quote Laurie Squire, Jean and Leigh’s friend and their radio producer for his last year on WOR [1976-1977]: “She could hold her own! The power behind the throne. He was the creative genius. She knew how to operate in the real world.” He died just a bit over a year after she did. It seemed as though he couldn’t live without her. By the way, not many people are aware that Shepherd was married four times, not just three. There was a short and mysterious marriage (known of by his son, Randall, and by Lois Nettleton). Second, he was married to Joan Warner, mother of his children Randall and Adrian, third to actress Lois Nettleton, and finally to Leigh Brown.
P. Press: How far along are you on your current book and do you have a publisher committed to releasing it?
Bergmann: I’m waiting for some final private editing of my manuscript before submitting it to my publisher or to whatever publisher might like to look at it. [That manuscript still quests for a publishing contract. Shep’s Army was published in August of 2013] I’m also hoping that a proposed, major documentary on Shepherd, with a major role for me, would greatly enhance the prospects of this book in finding a publisher and a market far greater than simply that of Shepherd’s many enthusiastic fans.
P. Press: If there’s one story, radio program, drawing, monologue, or secondhand recollection about Shepherd that crystallizes his genius to you, what would it be?
Bergmann: Three of his monologues stand out in my mind, and I discuss them in Excelsior, You Fathead! The first is the 1957 excerpt from his four hour Sunday night programs in which he is in his early, laid-back mode, building up to his jazzy interaction with a Duke Ellington song, “Blues I Love to Sing.” I still find the few pieces of his early, longer-form work to be examples of his most innovative style, all of which we have far too little to listen to. The second is from his 45-minute programs, a finely honed broadcast about “being a sorehead,” and how there will always be some people who can outperform you, no matter how good you are. The third is his extraordinary elegy broadcast when he got back on the air after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. This melds together his introspective style, his insights into our common humanity, the nature of America at the time, and his acute ability to recognize the seemingly insignificant detail that says more than anyone else would have imagined. He had that whole horrible weekend in November, 1963 to feel and think about it, and though it still must have been improvised, it was so well-composed that I wouldn’t change a word of it!
P. Press: I’ve visited Jean’s boyhood home in Hammond, Indiana–a locale he almost exclusively used to weave his stories—on several occasions, and have talked with local residents about Shepherd. I can’t help but think Shepherd would get a real kick out of their largely indifferent/unaware view of his cultural status. Would you agree with that assessment?
Bergmann: I think, Ryan, he would have been both amused and sardonic in his attitude.
P. Press: Shepherd loved the work of men like Robert Service and George Ade, opposed to contemporaries like J.D. Salinger and Woody Allen. Can you think of instances where he was capable of acknowledging the work of his peers?
Bergmann: I can’t think of instances of his praising his contemporaries. He did have good words to say about some of his friends such as Shel Silverstein and a couple of comics, but most of those he admired came a bit before him, such as Jack Benny.
P. Press: What is it about Jean Shepherd after all these years that keeps you so engrossed in his legacy?
Bergmann: His mind is a fascinating thing to hear at work, his improvisations tickling the listener’s ears and sensibilities. He continues to entertain me and make me laugh. And that’s just his radio shows. New and fascinating material continues to emerge! New aspects of his creative talents. Recently I’ve written a couple of articles about different areas of his interests. An essay about his drawing of a Bugatti limousine and devoting a broadcast to a Bugatti sports car, the rare and transcendent 57SC Atlantic, described by some who, considering it the finest, wondrously-strange of vehicles, refer to it as “evil” and “wicked.” The American Bugatti Club expects to publish my piece in their magazine in September. [Indeed, it was published.] Another article I’ve based on his almost unknown ink drawings, many of which have recently emerged from Lois Nettleton’s closet after her death last year. [in January 2008] An article about his ambiguous relationship to nostalgia is scheduled for some future date by a nostalgia magazine. Another article almost ready to seek publication is about Shepherd’s many forays into the joys and significance of baseball. For me, Shepherd’s world is ever-expanding and ever-fascinating.
I also write all the program notes for a continuing series of CD sets of nearly unheard syndicated recordings Shepherd made in 1964-1965, done exactly as he did his WOR broadcasts, but the audios of which were lost in a warehouse for decades. They’re being produced in 4-and 8-CD boxed sets. There are over 250 of the shows and so far only 48 have appeared, released by www.radiospirits.com. I get to be nearly the first to hear them. It’s almost like turning on the radio nightly when Shepherd was there, live and funny as hell!
[Oh, yes, and as of 2/2013, I also post a blog about Shep.]
P. Press: I grew up reading Shepherd’s first books, In God We Trust: All Other Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters. To me they represent the pinnacle of his storytelling abilities, largely honed on his radio program. Where do you feel Shepherd ranked his books in lieu of his expansive creative output?
Bergmann: Because Shepherd more than once on the radio commented on how important the written word had been in his youth, and how important all through his life, I believe he was always proud of his published work. I’m sure it was why he insisted on referring to his book of linked short stories, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, as a “novel.”
P. Press: I know Jean wanted to be discussed in the same manner as one talks about Mark Twain and only in later years came to acknowledge that he would be forever wed to the movie A Christmas Story. Though he had a few movies produced for PBS, do you feel he was pleased by the final product of the movie?
Bergmann: Shepherd was certainly very happy about his movies. As he wrote in a book commemorating the twentieth anniversary of Videography, a magazine for the professional video production industry, “But when I’m asked what I’ve enjoyed most, I must say big-screen movies beat them all.” He loved to hear the audience laugh at the humor in his movies. I don’t know specifically what he felt about A Christmas Story, but I know that, although I didn’t like it much at first, after watching it many times, I now consider it a masterpiece.
P. Press: Jean Shepherd’s wit and comedic sensibilities seem to have been more influential—I’m thinking of far flung personalities from Jerry Seinfeld to Keith Olbermann—than appreciated today. How do you think he would have assessed his legacy as it stands?
Bergmann: Despite all those in the media who were obviously influenced by his work, it doesn’t measure up to what he felt was his rightful place as a major American creative force.
P. Press: I know that you’re currently at work on another book about Jean Shepherd. Curious to know why you feel compelled to write a second volume about him and what the book may entail?
Bergmann: [The following describes my book manuscript that indeed, still seeks a publishing contract, but my next Shep-book is my Shep’s Army, published August 2013.] I knew that as people encountered my book Excelsior, You Fathead! many would emerge with previously unknown material. Not only that, but I’ve quested onward and upward on my own. My main project has been the gathering of this new material and my further ideas for my follow-up book on Shepherd. I’ve incorporated it and other unpublished material about him into a format that conforms to the organization of the first book, and I’ve written it in a way that illustrates my quests as a Shep enthusiast (aka Shep-cuckoo) to locate Shepherd’s earliest nightly New York broadcasts, and which details my picaresque encounters with much unexpectedly important and fascinating information. The manuscript is ready to submit to publishers. Among the subjects included:
—Extensive written and telephone comments to me about Shepherd and his work from his third wife, actress Lois Nettleton.
—Letters from Leigh Brown, Shepherd’s producer and fourth wife, regarding her early relationships with Shel Silverstein and with Shepherd, and her intense fascination with Shepherd’s mind and body. The letters, written in 1961-’62 to her best friend, describe her emotional turmoil and then successful maneuvering to steal him away from his wife, Lois Nettleton (Miss Chicago of 1948).
—An interview with an early romantic interest of Shepherd’s, whom I refer to as “The Vampire Lady,” that led to a search for Shep’s earliest New York broadcasts. Through talking with graphic novelist Harvey Pekar (American Splendor) and working with his wife/collaborator, Joyce Brabner, we searched for Shep’s early broadcasts, ending with the probability that the missing tapes are lost in the underground vaults of some middle-European Dracula museum.
—Shepherd’s real attitude toward his highly regarded kid stories and his 45-minute radio broadcasts.
—The meaning of his Sesame Street animated cartoon, “Cowboy X,” (narration, Cowboy X, adult male and female and kid voices all by Shepherd) and its significance to his entire career.
—Excerpts from a three-hour recorded discussion with enthusiastic Shep fan, lead singer/songwriter of Twisted Sister, Dee Snider.
—The complete script of my full-length, one-man play about Shepherd, which had a couple of performances in a tiny theater on Long Island, and for which I’m eager to find other venues.
More to come
In three parts, here is an extensive Internet interview of me in Ryan Glazer’s Perishable Press (several times it’s changed its name since then.) Whenever I’m reminded of it I realize that it’s a good, comprehensive overview of my relationship with Shep’s legacy, and therefore, I believe, worth presenting and preserving here.
P. Press: You met Jean Shepherd in 1957 at one of his old haunts, the Horn and Hardart Automat. This was a period where he was more of a cult radio figure and perpetrator of the great literary hoax, I, Libertine, than the television and film personality who later took great pains to distance himself from his WOR radio days. Are there any immediate memories that come to mind from that first encounter?
Bergmann: My only face-to-face encounter with Jean Shepherd was when he suggested that listeners meet at a Marlboro bookstore in April of 1957. After awhile some of us gathered on the balcony of the nearby Horn and Hardart restaurant. I had my paperback copy of I, Libertine with me and I asked him to sign it. As he was signing, I snapped a flash picture in his face. He probably silently cursed me out for that. But the photo is now a permanent part of my book about him as well as it being on the flicklives.com site.
And I still have the book. The pages are too brown and brittle to open and read, but I now have a good hardcover copy of the book also. Only in recent years was it known by most Shepherd fans that hardcover copies were also produced (in a very small print run). And only within the last couple of years did I discover a British paperback and a British hardcover edition. I have both of them, too. As a fan, it was a great experience for me, but I don’t remember anything else about it. I’d kept the photo along with a number of Shepherd clippings in a folder, saved through various moves over the decades.
P. Press: The breadth of Shepherd’s work is staggering, including his output in the 1950s. Were you solely a fan of his radio work from that period or were you aware of his myriad magazine articles and humor pieces as well as his work with jazz musicians such as Charles Mingus?
Bergmann: The only thing I knew of Shepherd’s work in the 1950s and 1960s was his radio work, his first television show, his first short story published in Playboy (which I still have, torn from the magazine), and a couple of his first television programs in the Jean Shepherd’s America series. I didn’t much care for any of them because they were not the Jean Shepherd I knew and loved on the radio. I remember when he said that his narration of “The Clown”
[EP stand-alone version of “The Clown.” Lois Nettleton
told me that she had been present at the recording,
an “all-night” affair.]
with Charles Mingus was to be aired on some radio program and I recorded it reel-to-reel, as I had recorded his radio broadcasts in the 1950s and early 60s. Only in recent years, as I began to study his work, did I come to admire the broader range of his output.
P. Press: I know you mention in your book that you’d stopped paying attention to Jean Shepherd for a number of years before re-familiarizing with his work. What sparked your interest some years on in Shepherd and what ultimately led to the writing of the only comprehensive biography available, Excelsior, You Fathead!?
Bergmann: I’d nearly forgotten about Jean Shepherd from the mid-1960s [except for watching some of the Jean Shepherd’s America early series] until I read his obituary in the New York Times in October, 1999, and, as I mention in my book, I realized that I’d lost an old friend who’d been so important in shaping the person I became. I began to listen to Max Schmid’s rebroadcasts of Shepherd on WBAI FM in New York, and I joined a Shep discussion group, email@example.com. I began to comment about Shepherd’s radio content to that group and got some very positive feedback. Then I heard that West Coast radio broadcaster Doug McIntyre was beginning to write a biography of Shep, and, contacting him, I began giving him my thoughts and copies of my clippings. I started writing notes about Shepherd and filing them in many labeled file folders when, somehow, Doug could no longer be contacted. I got frustrated—so many ideas and nowhere to put them! I realized that I could write the book I’d thought should be written. [Not so much a “biography” as a description and appreciation.]
When my book was published in March 2005, Doug contacted me, congratulating me on the book which he’d tried to write but had given up on. I think he found that a strict biography was not something that could be done successfully. Note that, as I write on page 14 of my book, it is NOT a biography. As I say in part, “… it works toward several related ends. It documents and describes what he produced in many media, and it is an appreciation and analysis of what he accomplished. And, importantly, it attempts to impart to the reader some measure of the great pleasure Shepherd’s art gave to his audiences.” My publisher insisted on calling it a biography and most interviewers, reviewers, and readers call it that. A biography would have had to dig into much more personal matters that I didn’t think were the most important thing to get down on paper for the historical record. At most, the book is organized in part on a biographical framework, because he told so many kid stories, then some army stories, followed by early radio days, etc. Much of this material is fiction, not biography, but it gives some sense of a life in progress, mainly lived as an artistically constructed fabrication by Shepherd.
P. Press: During the research for the book, was it difficult to focus mainly on the art and output of Jean Shepherd opposed to the scattered and enigmatic, if not somewhat unsettling, aspects of his personal life?
Bergmann: My research mainly consisted of studying his artistically created works. When my publisher asked me to interview people who knew and worked with him, I discovered much of the biographical bits in the book. Thus, I had to determine where this “real” material fit and gracefully insert it, leading to various modifications because of the way this material from interviews altered what I’d written about his work. I did find that the biographical material, as it revealed some unpleasantness, was rather unsettling, but I’m glad I encountered it. I do believe that the interviews and other modifications make it a stronger book by relating his life to his very personal-seeming radio style.
P. Press: There’s mention in your book of his son, Randall Shepherd, working in the same building as his father, who had long since abandoned the family. Having spoken with both his son and his daughter, Adrian, did you get the sense there is any affinity or appreciation for his work from his children, or has the fact he had little to do with them or their mother superseded his genius in their minds?
Bergmann: Randall Shepherd is a sensitive, articulate guy who had wanted to write about his father, but apparently he’d found it too emotionally difficult except in a couple of short pieces he did. I feel lucky that he had thought about the material and was thus able to respond so well to my questions, most of which were through email correspondence. Adrian had found it even more difficult to accept her father’s poor behavior, but, as I describe in my book, she did come to some sort of acceptance of him and at the time of the book’s publication, she was listening to and enjoying recordings of Shep’s broadcasts.
P. Press: Shepherd’s work spanned many disciplines: from radio, to books, to television work, to writing screenplays. You interviewed friends and coworkers from every stage of his career; can you offer any insight into why Jean was so flippant about disassociating himself from his previous work?
Bergmann: Jean was very resentful that radio as a medium he’d loved and which had such possibilities for him and others, had failed to continue providing the opportunities for him to fulfill himself artistically. Then WOR chose to change formats and cancel his radio career and those of several other major, longtime broadcasters, a bit before he was ready to make the final decision himself. That his fans continued to focus on his past radio work instead of sufficiently appreciating the new artistic projects that were occupying his heart and soul was to him good cause to become hostile when his radio work was mentioned. It rubbed salt in his wounds and denied his then-current achievements.
P. Press: As a follow-up, I can recall numerous instances where Shepherd claims he was brought to New York and WOR by an agent keen on getting him work on Broadway opposed to on radio, disregarding the fact he’d worked heavily on the radio in markets like Cincinnati and Philadelphia. Even in one his last interviews, with Alan Colmes in the ’90s, he claimed radio was but a steppingstone to greater pursuits. Was it merely that he felt pigeonholed by his cult status as a radio personality/inventor of talk radio or had he outgrown the medium as a means of storytelling?
Bergmann: The chronology of his arriving in New York and how he began on WOR as it related to his other media possibilities (such as the “Tonight Show” sequence of events) seem clearly to indicate that radio, not TV or the stage, was what drew him to the Big Apple.
|Week of April 20, 1955 to May 13, 1955||Weekday Shows – WOR New York – Mon – Fri 11:15pm to 11:30pm
(Source: NY Times Radio Listing)
|June 14, 1955 to December 2, 1955||Weekday Shows – WOR New York – Starting in the 5:30 to 5:45pm time slot and ending in the 4:45 to 5:00pm time slot.|
[Shedule above–from http://www.flicklives.com–indicates that Shepherd
was broadcasting in NYC well before the “Tonight Show”
began seeking a replacement for Steve Allen.]
There is even a major story he told on radio that indicates the undeniable pull that New York radio had had on him when he worked in the hinterlands. I quote some of it my book: he had the opportunity to manage radio stations in Alaska and three of his fellow broadcasters say, “If you go anywhere, man, the only place to go—New York! I mean, the Big Apple—that’s the big time!” and Shepherd says to them, “You’re right!” Shepherd never got over his resentment over how radio mistreated him in the final years and he never was reconciled to having people remind him of that past. He liked what he did later and he wanted accolades for that more than for his past. He always said that he looked forward, not backward, in his life.
[In interviews over the years, Shepherd had several times
misstated that he began NYC radio broadcasting in 1959, when
he obviously began in 1955, and had been through the
I, Libertine and the being-fired/rehired-from-WOR affairs, in 1956]
More to come
As some Shep enthusiasts may remember, among his acts of what may be described as a form of “performance art,” he invented “mills” which consisted of suggesting that listeners to his broadcasts gather at some public location and just quietly mill around and eventually disband as casually as they had assembled.
The ultimate example is when he was being fired in August 1956 and he suggested just such a gathering–at an empty parking lot near the then recently-burnt-down Wanamaker Building in lower Manhattan.
(Click on the images to be able (one hopes) to read the newspaper text.)
Subsequent to Shepherd’s early mills, a somewhat related fad called “happenings” started. The first ones were semi-planned gatherings that were somewhat scripted by what might be described as early “performance artists.” However, the participants being manipulated as part of the event, were unaware of what was planned. They were intellectually entertained by participating in an experience roughly arranged for their benefit. (Later the word came to mean any unexpected occurrence.) Recently, some extraordinary events were planned and executed–some involving professional musicians gathering in public places and gradually beginning to perform, to the amazement and entertainment pleasure of the general public there. At least a couple of these have appeared on YouTube. I easily encountered some by typing FLASH MOB MUSIC on YouTube.
Now, in our absurd and crass times, a bastardization of the form has begun. Paul Krassner, founder and editor of the underground REALIST of the 1960s-? and friend of Shepherd’s, just wrote an article about it:
How Corporations Co-opted the “Flash Mob”
Many companies are now producing flash-mob happenings.
September 16, 2013
And God said, “Let there be co-option.” Corporations are currently hiring flash mobs for marketing purposes. It was inevitable. Those rehearsed gatherings of fake spontaneity in public places were fun for the sake of fun — mostly featuring musical instruments, singing, and dancing –- that served as magnets for inadvertent audiences with smartphone cameras, helping to push such heartwarming events into viral cyberspace.
Trending is the new fad. What were once free flash mobs have been blossoming into an industry. Many companies are now producing flash-mob happenings, charging from $2,000 to $4,000, even as much $10,000. In fact, last year at a conference of pharmaceutical executives in Las Vegas, Flash Mob America was paid $35,000, in the hope, said Elizabeth Marshall — vice president of marketing for Decision Resources Group, which organized the confab — that such a happening would “get our clients excited so that they would tweet or discuss it on LinkedIn.” Ask your doctor if flash mobs are right for you.
Krassner goes on to describe the pure and non-commercial predecessors: Shepherd’s mills and other events, and adds in broadcaster (and Shepherd listener) Bob Fass and his similarly improvised events.
Why didn’t we anticipate that what started as performance art would now be debased into the inevitable commercial garbage?
My SHEP’S ARMY contains two stories in which Shepherd refers to army slang: “Army Phraseology” and “Casual Company Education,” suggesting that some of it could not be said on the air. In the book’s appendix, linked to those two stories, I give some mentionable and unmentionable terms I could find on the Internet.
I’m ever grateful for proffered info from what one could refer to as “Shep’s Spies.” Shepherd enthusiast Joel Baumwoll, on the Facebook group “I’m a fan of Jean Shepherd” led me to the Internet page: The Palm Beach Post of October 20, 1941, featuring an article by John Ferris titled “Military Slang Of 1941 Makes Things Different.” Although none of the slang terms are unprintable, they add amusing info regarding words probably familiar to Shepherd while in the army. I mainly limit this list to food-related terms, as Shepherd had focused on them in “Army Phraseology.”
KP conscript pearl diver
KP dishwasher bubble dancer
Coffee battery acid, bootleg, blackstrap, ink, java
Beef canned willie, tiger meat
White fish sewer trout
Chicken and turkey buzzard meat
Canned milk armored car [typo? should this be “armored cow”?]
Rolling kitchen bean gun
Commissary officer beans
Solid matter in soup bug
Hash slum gullion
Cook slum burner
Mess sergeant belly robber
Cold cuts horse meat [navy term, but also army as well?]
Non-food terms too good to omit:
Letter from girlfriend sugar report
Letter in reply behavior report
Reportedly a navy expression, but maybe army also?:
Changing underwear without taking a shower is referred to
as “taking an electric light bath.”
No wonder that Shepherd, lover of words, enjoyed such slang!
Everyone who has had any contact with me–personally, through my books, through my emails, through this blog–must know what a strong enthusiast of Jean Shepherd’s work I am. So why is it, that at times, I get so disappointed?
Why? In relation to what I believe are tens of thousands of Shepherd fans still alive and being born and converted to the cause, why are there still: not enough book reviews and sales? not enough visitors to this blog? not enough general discussion and even controversy regarding Shepherd’s life and work through the blog, emails, and Facebook pages devoted to him? Yup. All that.
Here’s a bit of what I wrote on the home page’s “ABOUT” part of this SHEPQUEST blog:
“I encourage everyone to submit ideas, information, and questions to this blog
so we can all learn by participating
in open discussions regarding every aspect
of Shepherd’s creative world.”
Where are the ideas, information, and questions? I’m grateful for the few Shep fans, such as Joel Baumwoll, who sometimes respond with comments. Regarding my post about Shep maintaining his comic take on the world around him,
“This aspect of Shep’s work had a huge influence on me from the age of 15, to now (73). He taught me to see the world as a giant circus, with humor in so much of it. This has sustained me and given me the ability to enjoy the most mundane experiences, like riding on a bus and watching and listening to people around me. I am grateful to Shep for this gift.”
“I like your comment. I just remembered a ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ cartoon strip panel I’ve been saving for many years. Hobbes, the toy tiger, says to Calvin, ‘I suppose if we couldn’t laugh at things that don’t make sense, we couldn’t react to a lot of life.’ ”
Little things like these interactions,
plus my tenacity, pure pleasure I get out of it,
and the strong superego instilled in me by my parents,
keep me invigorated and keep me plunging ahead
with my trusty EXCELSIOR banner held high.
(Part of Shel Silverstein’s drawing for Shep’s LP
“Jean Shepherd and other Foibles.”)
Gang, what got me started on this? The other day, being the self-centered egotist that I am, I checked out (not for the first time, as one might imagine) the Customer Reviews of SHEP’S ARMY on http://www.amazon.com. As I encountered a reader’s statement I saw was inaccurate, I responded. Several comments volleyed back and forth across the net. What follows is the reader’s review followed by some further comments. The reader calls himself “Phred.” Phred is unknown to me–he is a listener and a reader.
Enter the storyteller. It is his job to remember not merely great events or funny punchlines; but also to make real the common events that remind the old and illuminate for the young what the business of living is about. This is the role that Jean Shepherd took up and in which he excelled. Most people met Jean Shepherd via his very successful movie Christmas Story A Christmas Story . The movie is drawn from several of his published short stories and is narrated by Jean AKA “Shep”.
I had first come to know of Jean Shepherd either through his brief television show Jean Shepherd’s America or the WOR New York portion of his radio days. His was a time when talk radio did not have to be shock jock or political storm and thunder. The great skill of Jean Shepherd both in his published works and in his live radio broadcasts was not merely that he placed you into a world you may not have known but you share his passion for that world.
Shep’s Army is a set of transcripts from Jean Shepherd’s radio shows focused on his Army experiences in World War II. He served as an enlisted man about as far from the fighting front as anyone stationed in America could be. Transcript editor Eugene B. Bergmann writes the introduction Shep’s stories are not to be read as strictly autobiography. Even so the apparent confusion over whether Shepherd served in the Army Signal Corps or the occasionally mentioned `mess kit repair company’ is clearly confusion on the editors part. Anyone with direct military experience would recognize that the mess kit repair company was an inside joke invented by someone in his company to cut off the repetitive questions civilians might ask of a Signal Corps Radar operator.
In roughly 30 stories Shep relates the boredom, the largely unwanted alternatives to boredom and the arbitrary existence of a war time EM (enlisted man). Because these were radio broadcasts he works hard to avoid the authentic crude language of that life. Even so you come to feel the cold and the tension of his experience.
Shep’s Army is not humor. It can be funny, it is also disconcerting. The two things come across consistently . Firstly, how completely different being in uniform is from being out. Secondly, Shep’s loneliness. Nowhere in here is the talk of instant, lifelong comradeship. This is not the stuff of typical military hijinks that might lampoon his disordered experiences. This is the panoply of human reactions to a highly ordered life that was meant to prepare you for unexpected events.
Shep’s Army allows you to experience the humorous and the ordinary. Lighter stories tend to be highly detailed and explained. Tragic and near tragic events tend to be more simply described, allowing you to see them in stark contrast. This is good story telling. These are the honest tales of an observant story teller.
COMMENTS POSTED REGARDING THE REVIEW
Again, thank you for extensive comments on the book. EXCELSIOR! Eugene B. Bergmann
I look froward to reading more of the newly published transcriptions of Jean Shepherd’s radio broadcasts.
There is a lot of experience that suggests that dialog between a reviewer and a writer,or in your case an editor is fraught with the most likely outcome being tears.Luckily we both share a respect for and a certain nostalgia for Jean Sheppard. To the degree one can rely on memory, there are a number of Jean Shepherd collections beyond the two or three others I have read. My reading list is long but thanks to you I am more likly to get back to JS soon. From your remarks, I am guessing that there exists nothing like a true JS biography(?) Some one out there is missing the chance to travel the heartland of America to gather the documents and interview the few remaining who can remember. JS cared for lots of what America was like as the “Great Generation” crossed the digital divide. I suspect he had little patience for the first term and had a love hate relationship with the later. Likewise I suspect he had fierce political opinions and little tolerance for a politics of no middle ground. Anyway thank you for sharing in such a positive and helpful manner.
As for a straightforward biography, I don’t believe a comprehensive one could ever have been done, and I don’t believe it would have much of interest to say beyond the great creative life he had. (Shepherd did a very good job in hiding and distorting the straight biographical facts of his life.)
On the other hand, a documentary film maker is indeed doing extensive interviewing these days in order to preserve good material about Shepherd for all of us who would enjoy additional biographical material. I help him in whatever way I can, and I hope he will produce a work that will measure up to his dreams! FYI: For more of my thoughts and info on Shep, see my blog, which I’ve now posted on over 70 times since February–http://www.shepquest.wordpress.com