Home » Curmudgeon » JEAN SHEPHERD–the Atlantic=wrong

JEAN SHEPHERD–the Atlantic=wrong


The Atlantic magazine, from what I remember, is an intelligent periodical with smart, accurate stuff. What happened? Below is most of a sloppy and ignorant article encountered on the internet.

the Atlantic

The Largely Forgotten, Cynical Genius Behind A Christmas Story

Jean Shepherd was an icon in his time. Now he’s not. What happened?


….Today, it’s difficult to imagine a holiday season in America without A Christmas Story. More than 48 million people watched a 24-hour Christmas Story marathon last year, which airs annually from Christmas Eve until the evening of Christmas Day. It was adapted into a seasonal musical in 2011[2012], with productions that appear every winter up and down the East Coast[It’s the non-musical play that appears up and down the coast these last few years]. There’s a Christmas Story museum in Cleveland, across the street from the house where the movie was filmed, stuffed with props, collectables, and other sorts of on-set ephemera. Fans can buy official Christmas Story leg lamps, vintage Red Ryder BB guns, and adult-sized bunny-rabbit onesies inspired by Aunt Clara’s “deranged Easter Bunny” pajamas. The movie even casts a cultural shadow as long as Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, according to a recent Marist poll.

While it’s all but impossible to make it through December without encountering A Christmas Story, though, relatively few know about the man who’s behind the story. His name was Jean Shepherd. An unconventional icon of the 1960s, Shepherd developed a cult following on late-night airwaves with his eclectic collection of improvised stories about childhood in the Midwest, military service during World War II, and life as an infamous radio personality[Plus many other amusing bits and pieces of his wide-ranging sensibility]. He was, in every sense of the word, a raconteur. Shepherd wrote bestselling books, two of which inspired A Christmas Story; he published columns in the Village VoiceMad Magazine, and Playboy [NOT COLUMNS IN MAD AND PLAYBOY, BUT WROTE FOR]; and he starred in[MORE THAN THAT, HE CREATED] two television series. Comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Harry Shearer idolized [ IDOLIZE=PRESENT TENSE, PLEASE] him. His storytelling defined a style of radio that was later adopted by the likes of Garrison Keillor. A wave of nostalgic sitcoms, epitomized by The Wonder Years, owe a significant debt to Shepherd’s work. His influence alone should have made him a pop-culture icon.

It didn’t. Now, as Shepherd’s greatest success celebrates its third decade of relevance, a question remains: Why did the man’s legacy fade away [DIDN’T] just as his story joined the pantheon of Christmas classics?…

Shepherd’s famous wit soured into pessimism as he aged, too. During one of his last radio interviews, according to Time column published soon after his death, he repeatedly dismissed his radio years as “just another gig.” (In an essay for Slate, longtime fan Donald Fagen guessed that Shepherd “succumbed to that very real disease of self-loathing.”) At the very same time that A Christmas Story was growing into a latter-day cultural phenomenon, Shepherd was downplaying the bulk of his career. He sarcastically criticized his “night people”—the late-night devotees who listened to his wild, rambling stories [HIS STORIES WEREN’T RAMBLING. HE CRITICIZED THOSE WHO FOCUSED ONLY ON HIS RADIO WORK–MANY OF WHOM WERE ADOLESCENT FANS OF HIS OF THE 60s AND 70s. “NIGHT PEOPLE” SHOULD MAINLY BE THOSE WHO LISTENED TO HIS OVERNIGHT PROGRAMS–1-5:30 a.m.]—and disavowed radio as little more than a stepping-stone to television and film. To borrow his favorite slur, Jean Shepherd had become a fathead.

Longtime fan Donald Fagen guessed that Shepherd “succumbed to that very real disease of self-loathing.”

Mercifully, A Christmas Story doesn’t share even a smidge of that cynicism [WRONG-HAS LOTS OF CYNICISM, OR WHAT HE CALLED ‘REALISM’]. The movie embraces all of Shepherd’s warm humor—tinged by the horror of childhood, of course—without any maudlin sentiment. Perhaps the movie outlasted the man because it’s bigger than he ever was, an ideal way to tell the stories he created decades earlier. It takes the greatest parts of Shepherd’s routine—his inimitable wordplay, the way he measured his voice to match a story’s mood, that friendly chuckle—and enhances them with on-screen magic. “The Old Man” and “Ralphie’s Mother” are ever-present in Shepherd’s work, but as played by Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon, they’re brought alive in a way they couldn’t be in print or on the radio. That’s what makes A Christmas Story special. Just as Shepherd narrates the movie as an adult, director Bob Clark presents it through the eyes of a young boy. This allows for a depth to Ralphie’s naïve viewpoint, while also making gags out of the things he doesn’t understand. When The Old Man wins a “major award”—a crude lamp shaped like a woman’s leg, which he won for reasons unknown [NOT UNKNOWN–HE WON A NEWSPAPER CONTEST PRIZE]—Ralphie lingers in front of it, smitten by the “the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window.” It’s a bizarre mixture of adult temptation and childish fascination, and it epitomizes the movie’s conflicted, nostalgic perspective [NO NOSTALGIA EXCEPT WHAT VIEWERS MISTAKENLY BRING TO IT. ONLY NOSTALGIA IN THE LAST 2 MINUTES].

The differences between A Christmas Story and Shepherd’s stories are largely insignificant, for what it’s worth. If you listen to “Duel in the Snow, or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid,” you’ll hear some many of his best lines. If you read In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, you’ll see that the movie is basically a collection of vignettes, inspired by his funniest work. The effect is clear: Without Jean Shepherd, there would be no Christmas Story—and the movie resonates so strongly because he had a unique talent for making his audience feel like his stories were their own. “You can tell a story about anything,” he told an interviewer in 1971, “but the only stories that have any fidelity, any feeling, are stories that either did happen to you or conceivably could have happened to you.”

Eugene B Bergmann

6:18pm Dec 25

I’VE TRIED TO COMMENT ON THE ATLANTIC’S WEB PAGE FOR THE ARTICLE BUT SIGN-IN HAS BEEN BLOCKED BY STUPID ELECTRONIC NONSENSE–SO HERE’S WHAT I WANT TO SAY: Jean Shepherd is not largely forgotten. Besides all the popularity of A CHRISTMAS STORY the movie, there’s the straight play and the musical based on the movie.

There’s Jerry Seinfeld (“He formed my entire comedic sensibility. I learned how to do comedy from Jean Shepherd,” See Seinfeld’s Paley Center tribute to Shepherd in January 2012), Billy Collins (U.S. Poet Laureate) Donald Fagen, Dee Snider, Don Imus, Harry Shearer and most of those in the arts and media today who consider him their master and still discuss him.

Among us regular folks, over a thousand audios of his 45-minute radio shows are easily and cheaply available by the hundreds per CD–captured and preserved by dedicated enthusiasts over the decades. How many comics/humorists have so many dedicated to them decades after they left the spotlight? There are three websites (check out, two email groups, a blog with extensive illustrated essays about him (I’m the creator of this, There are two major books about him–both by me: the 500-page appreciation and overview of his career, EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEAD! THE ART AND ENIGMA OF JEAN SHEPHERD (Applause Books), and the 2013 book of my transcriptions of almost 3 dozen of his army stories told on the radio, SHEP’S ARMY–BUMMERS, BLISTERS, AND BOONDOGGLES (Opus Books), for which I’ve been interviewed numerous times since publication in August–twice by NPR, once by CBS TV, etc. A documentary about his work is being worked on these days. I could go on for hours–and frequently do. Excelsior, you fathead!

Deborah Cote-Deitz

6:21pm Dec 25

Hurrah, Gene! I knew this would get a rise out of you!



[To repeat]

“That’s the difficulty with anecdotes. One cannot determine nuance.”

–Norman Mailer in 1962 reprinted in the 2013 selected essays

 Mind of an Outlaw.


Worthwhile response on the email group–

especially the portion I highlighted in red:

Problem is, that the author is right about Shep’s work being out of the public eye.  It has nothing to do with Shepherd’s personality, cynicism about radio, or attitude about the public.  First, the vast majority of his work was broadcast to New York and the handful of stations who syndicated him throughout the years.  I tell people I’m a big Jean Shepherd fan and the usual comment is, “Who’s he?” (I’m from the Boston area).  If you couldn’t pick up WOR, you really had to look for this stuff.  Hell, my wife’s from New Jersey and never heard of him until we started dating.  As far as the PBS shows are concerned, try finding them.  Outside of a few bootleg videos they are nearly impossible to get.  I think the biggest problem is,though,  you have to pay attention while listening to a Jean Shepherd radio show.  Long form entertainment like Shepherd’s radio shows just doesn’t translate well to many from today’s generation.  A while back I tried to get a 20 year old co-worker to listen to a Shepherd show.  She told me, “I’m not going to sit for 45 minutes and listen to that.  I lose interest after 10 minutes.” It’s a shame. I could (and have) listened to the man for hours at a time.

Mark Parisi    Malden, MA




  1. mygingerpig says:

    Gene, you remind me of an outraged parent whose child was criticized by a teacher. 🙂

  2. ebbergmann says:

    Ah yes, but the question is–do my objections and comments have any validity or, as the Mailer quote suggests, are Fagen and The Atlantic basing their half-truths on valid evidence or on anecdotes without some human/humane understanding of the context?

  3. mygingerpig says:

    Understanding context doesn’t matter, IMO. I just listened to Barry Farber talking about Shep on the Flick Lives archives during a OTR convention tribute to Shep. He said in very uncertain terms that Shep sabotaged his own career, was afraid of success, was a masochist, would rather insult people than bend a little to his own gain. He also said he was “Jean Shepherd 24/7” not just a stage personality. While he praised Shep’s great talent, he said he could have achieved all he wanted if he wanted to. Implied that his gripes about not gaining the recognition and success of his lessers were disingenuous, because he himself refused to do what he could to gain that success. And he wasn’t talking about selling out. Just bending a little.

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