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