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.