My recent “Mad As Hell” post focusing on Shep’s invectives inspiring a scene in the film “Network;” scenes in “A Thousand Clowns;” and, maybe as a second generation/once removed from “Network,” Dee Snider’s Twisted Sister mega-hit “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” inspired Joel Baumwoll to post, in part, “‘Hurling invectives’ was one of several ‘pranks’ in which Shep cajoled his listeners to participate as co-conspirators. As far as I know, this was unique among radio or television performers. He made the listeners feel they were part of his act, and I think that created a strong bond between him and the ‘kids’ who listened to him.” [I emphasize in red some of the aspects of Shep’s clever ways to bring his listeners into participating, exploiting his followers into upsetting the domestic tranquility of the nation’s creeping meatballism.]
Joel goes on to mention several of Shep’s other pranks.
[I’d like to have a word other than “prank” but there may not be a better]:
PRANK, CAPER, LARK, LEG-PULL, PRACTICAL JOKE
Many of us, of course, are familiar with most of these maneuvers, but it took Joel to point out their relatedness. I’m going to elaborate on them, and I hope others will add to the list and elaborate on what I have to say.
HURL AN INVECTIVES
Although well-known as a major caper of Shepherd’s, very few have been noted down or even been available to hear. The most extended, as far as I’m aware, is the one I recorded on my reel-to-reel and quote in Excelsior, You Fathead! in which he builds up to it in part with the prototypical, “Put your radio on your windowsill now!” (Here–top one–is part of the quote from my book):
Myrtle! This is the third time you’ve come home drunk again. What about the kids? What about the kids, I ask ya? How long is this gonna go on? How long?
You don’t think for a moment you’re fooling anyone, do you?
How long do you thin you can get away with this? The jig is up!
You filthy pragmatist!
All right, you guys! Fall in. The doctor will be along in ten seconds. The uniform will be helmet liner, raincoats, and GI shoes, and nothing else! Let’s go!
Drop the gun, you rat! I’ve got the drop on you! Move one more time and you’re gonna get one between the eyes!
The “pragmatist” one was remembered by editor/publisher Paul Krasner. “Drop the gun” was Shep years later quoting himself on the Alan Colmes call-in program in 1998.
Hoax regarding fooling the book-buying-and-selling public by many listeners asking for a non-existent book has been discussed numerous times–here and elsewhere. The book’s afterword is a sly reference to the perpetrators–Sturgeon, Shepherd, Shepherd’s Night People listeners. Of course only those who were aware of the hoax would understand it.
In these, Shepherd asks his listeners to gather at a particular place and time and just quietly walk around aimlessly (“mill”), which, just by its non-confrontational manner, would gently disconcert the clueless. (Later fads maybe mill-inspired: “happenings” and “flash mobs.”)
Burned-out Wanamaker store when he was fired.
Marboro book store.
Early days at “The Limelight Photography Gallery and Coffee Shop.”
Washington Square to fly tiny kites.
Wave a white towel at the beach or flick your light switch off and on at night and look to see how many others (fellow listeners) are doing it.
Related to “mills,” reportedly Shepherd fantasized that many listeners should run to one side of a building to tilt it, or that they jump up and land at the same time to move Manhattan Island.
During a live-at-the-Limelight broadcast, he would sometimes ask attendees to yell in unison to the radio audience:
THIS IS W-O-R AM AND FM IN NEW YORK.
WE BUY SOAP AND WE TAKE BATHS
When being considered “not commercial” by WOR’s management Shepherd suggests that listeners go out and buy Sweetheart Soap, not a sponsor.
WOR management is outraged and fires Shep.
Sweetheart Soap offers and provides sponsorship.
There are a couple of other ways that Jean Shepherd promotes
a sense of community among his listeners:
Refers to them as ” Gang,” “Listeners,” “Fellow Sufferers”
Those who send in interesting comments/news-clippings that might seem to indicate a burgeoning trend: “cracks in the sidewalk,” or “straws in the wind,” he calls:
Although it’s well-known that Shep’s was not a “call-in show,” he did receive from time to time calls from listeners–most prominently from Lois Nettleton, then an aspiring actress–they eventually met, dated, married, and divorced. Usually one did not hear the caller’s voice, but sometimes one did, especially when Shep requested a particular response from the caller. One time he did a kind of communal celebration when he asked and got from the caller, on the air, “Merry Christmas, Mr. Shepherd.” Shepherd also sometimes took calls during commercial or news breaks–then I once got to talk to him but was so nervous, I sounded like the klutz I was at the time (I think I’ve improved a bit over these many decades.)
Shepherd encourages his listeners to listen to and read various works of literature that he likes–at least in part so that they will feel this bond of mutual enthusiasms: including haiku, Thomas Wolfe, Robert W. Service, Don Marquis (Archy & Mehitabel), George Ade, and various specific books which he discusses on the air with enthusiasm.
SUPPORTING THE ARTS
A major form of assisting “the arts” includes his discussions with three of the rare guests on his show, the projects in which they are involved: Herb Gardner, Arch Oboler, John Cassavetes.
Drawn and widely popular before his soon-to-be-produced
play and film, “A Thousand Clowns” was to destroy their friendship.
I heard Shep’s broadcast with Gardner
discussing the Nebbish phenomenon–and I bought a ceramic tray of the above image
and a soft, white statuette of a Nebbish. I still have them.
“Night of the Auk”
I heard Arch Oboler, the well-known radio scriptwriter of such shows as
and various suspense dramas with Shep discussing on his show in 1956,
Oboler’s soon-to-open dystopian sci-fi drama. I attended one of the previews.
An opening title of John Cassavetes’ Shadows.
Shepherd and Cassavetes, actor and aspiring playwright, discuss his need for money to make the
film–so Shep’s listeners send in small amounts totaling about $2,000.
PLEASE CONTRIBUTE MORE COMMENTS TO THE ABOVE IDEAS
→ 2 more appropriate additions from Joel←
SPIES: The very idea of calling us “spies” is so loaded with the us vs them feeling, which is so much a part of Shep’s attraction to adolescents who had any sense of humor. He really was an innovator in the art of getting his audience to feel they were part of his act. In fact, I can’t think of anyone today who is doing anything like this on TV or radio. The internet has created a great wave of participation. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram with followers and likes and such give users a sense of belonging. But a single performer creating the kind of true followers as Shep had has never been duplicated.
AWARD BRASS FIGLAGEE: Another technique he used was awarding a brass figlagee to anyone who could tell me the name of..the color of…the program that did…etc. This was Shep’s version of a tv quiz show, with some long forgotten esoteric person or even as the answer. He would take calls, but rarely put the caller on the air.
I remember one where he described a favorite childhood toy, a metal taxi cab painted in the yellow checkerboard colors and with two characters inside. I knew he was talking about Amos and Andy. He offered his prize to anyone who could name the cab or the program. I shouted at the radio “Sunshine Cab Company–Amos and Andy.” Almost always, the program would end without the answer ever being revealed.
Yet another technique was deliberately getting a name wrong, knowing that many of his listeners would know what he was doing and feeling in on the joke. He often called the Dickens character Ebineezer Stooge, and deliberately got the first name wrong for some famous character like Madeline Monroe, knowing it would drive some in the audience nuts wanting to correct him. All effective ways to make the “in group” feel in.