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