A SHEP’S ARMY Customer Review on www.amazon.com that I posted about recently, focused on Shep’s negative view of the military. Most are aware of the wry attitude Shepherd often took (although we are also well aware of the great joy he frequently expressed about much of life).Recently I encountered two items on the Internet that focus on Shepherd’s humor as a pessimistic take on life.
First, the Los Angeles Times obituary. October 17, 1999, “taken from Times Staff and Wire Reports.” As do most descriptions of Shepherd’s life, this report is full of inaccuracies. I excerpt just a bit of it here that relates to negativity.
He would talk about whatever came to mind, and those tales often celebrated the hopelessness and haplessness of the human race and the total absurdity of life on Earth.
….”Most people think of life as some kind of never-ending struggle, a tragedy,” he once said. “To me, life is a vast, cosmic, shaggy dog story, a giant, curiously unresolved joke with an infinitely long punch line.”
….To Shepherd, humor was a disposition rather than a simple line.
“Comedy sets up lines; humor is an attitude, and much harder to sustain,” he once told a reporter.
“When you’re doing humor . . . the life you’re leading is the joke.”
The same day, googling “Jean Shepherd,” as I often do, I encountered a site devoted to bassist Charles Mingus, a good friend of Shepherd’s for a while. They collaborated on the extended music and narration for the title piece on the Mingus album, “The Clown.” The site contains a short quote from Mingus regarding the gestation of the piece and a transcription of the narration. Shepherd’s narration proceeds in segments and pauses a number of times for the music.
[Full album cover. Note wrinkled brow, the down-turned
real eyebrows, and the sad look of the clown’s real mouth.]
CHARLES MINGUS: “I felt happy one day. I was playing a little tune on the piano that sounded happy. Then I hit a dissonance that sounded sad, and I realized that the song had to have two parts. The story, as I told it first to Jean Shepherd, is about a clown who tried to please people—like most jazz musicians do—but whom nobody liked until he was dead.”
Extended play edition
[Very minor editorial adjustments in the narration have been made
to match the actual audio on the site.
JEAN SHEPHERD NARRATION: “Man, there was this clown. And he was a real happy guy, a real happy guy. He had all these greens and all these yellows and all these oranges bubbling around inside of him. And he had just one thing he wanted in this world, he just wanted to make people laugh. That’s all he wanted out of this world. He was a real happy guy.
Let me tell you about this clown. He used to raise a sweat every night out on the stage and just wouldn’t stop. That’s how hard he worked. He was trying to make people laugh. He used to have this cute little gimmick where he had a seal follow him up and down a step-ladder blowing “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean” out on a B-flat Sears-Roebuck model 1322 plastic bugle, a real cute act. But they didn’t laugh. Well, you know, a few little things here and there, but not really. And he was booking out in all these tank towns, playing the Rotary Clubs, and the Kiwanis Clubs, and the American Legion hall. And he just wasn’t making it, but he had all these wonderful things going on inside of him, all these greens and yellows and all these oranges. He was a real happy guy, and all he wanted to do was to make these people laugh, that’s all he wanted out of this world, to make people laugh, and then something began to grow, something that just wasn’t good began growing inside of this guy.
You know, it’s a funny thing. Something began to trouble this clown. You know, little things—little things once in a while would happen that would make that crowd begin to move, but they were never the right things. Like, for example, the time the seal got sick on the stage, all over the stage, the crowd just–just broke out, little things like that. And they weren’t supposed to be in the act, and they weren’t supposed to be funny. This began to trouble him. And this little thing began to grow inside of him. And all those greens and all those oranges, all those yellows, they just weren’t as bright as they used to be. And all he wanted to do was to make that crowd laugh, that’s all he wanted to do.
There was one night in Dubuque when he was playing at the Rotary Club. All these dentists, these druggists, all these postmen sitting around, and they were a real cold bunch. Nothing was happening. He was leaving the stage when he stumbled over his ladder, fell flat on his face, just flat on his face. When he stands up and he’s got this bloody nose and he looks out at the crowd and that crowd is just rolling on the floor, he’s just knocked them flat out. This begins to trouble him even more. And he begins to see something, he begins to see something.
And right about here things began to change, but really change. Not the least of which, our clown changes his act. He bought himself a set of football pads, a yellow helmet with red stripes, hired a girl who dropped a five pound sack of flour on his head every night, from maybe twenty feet up. Oh man! what a bit, that just broke them up every night. But not like Dubuque. And all those colors, all those yellows, all those reds, all those oranges—a lot of gray in there now, a lot of blue. And all he wanted was to make this crowd laugh, that’s all he wanted out of this world.
They were laughing alright, not like Dubuque—but they were laughing. And all the dough started coming in. He was playing the big towns. Chicago, Detroit. And then it was Pittsburgh one night. A real fine town, Pittsburgh, you know. About three-quarters of the way through his act, a rope broke, down came the backdrop, right on the back of the neck. And he went flat. And something broke. This was it. It hurt way down deep inside. He tried to get up. He looked down at the audience. And man, you should’ve—you should have seen that crowd. They were rolling in the aisle. This was bigger than Dubuque! This was bigger than Dubuque! He really had ‘em going. But this was it. This was the last one. This was the last one. Yeah. This was the last one. He knew now. Man, he really knew now. But it was too late and all he wanted was to make this crowd laugh. Well, they were laughing, but now he knew.
That was the end of the clown. And you should have seen the booking come in. Man, his agent was on the phone for twenty-four hours. The Palladium, MCA, William Morris. But it was too late. He really knew now. He really knew. He really knew now. William Morris sends regrets.
“The Clown” was recorded and release in 1957. Lois Nettleton wrote
to me that she was present at the all-night recording session.
[Jean and Lois were “a couple” from some time in mid-1956.
This photo, the only know one of them together–showing
both faces–is dated circa 1962. They
were married in December 1960]
More perceptive comments from Joel Baumwoll:
Comment 1 You know, I got that early in the game with Shep…That humor was a way of life, a way of living and a way of looking a the world around me. It wasn’t a punch line or funny bit. It was the absurdity that could be found in the most mundane events or things. it’s like saying “He’s a good athlete.” It is part of who you are. I suppose I had that in me but Shep gave me a model and it has been with me and part of me ever since.
A girlfriend said of me when I was 17; “You had a kind of smile that looked like there was this joke and only you got it. It was like you were in on something that other people weren’t.” That was Shep’s influence on my take on the world. I don’t think it was sad, or tragic, personally, but i appreciated the sadness or futility in some lives around me. And also the ability of people to fool themselves.
I remember stories like Zudock (I think) who bought this house in parts from Sears with this dream of assembling it and having a real house to live it. He hadn’t thought through what was involved in getting it from the train depot to his lot. It turned into a disaster, a total loss, with his friends useless or worse. So sad, if you think that this blue collar guy had a dream and saw it turn to crap in front of him. And yet, there is a kind of Edgar Kennedy humor about this, like watching someone slip on a banana peel.
It is hard to believe that a guy talking on the radio at night could have that effect, but why not? Authors and books have done that for millions over the years.
Comment 2 One of Shep’s comic geniuses was Edgar Kennedy. He was the poor soul, whose life was a series of assaults. he had a kid of bewildered look, as if to say “why is this happening to me.” His wife was a selfish harridan, who brought her brother in their home. The brother was a total sop, lazing round living off the fruits of Edgar’s work, leaving Edgar the peels. Every time Edgar had a moment of joy, as when he brought a new car home, the wife’s brother and she would destroy it for him. And he scratched his head and looked puzzled. He never got mad, which was the thing. He just endured one blow after another and kept coming back with another hopeful thing, only to be dashed. I think Shep saw in this a model for how he viewed life. Triumphs, crashes, short lived joys, interspersed with set backs. Yet he went after life with gusto and enjoyed new experiences, travel, homes. An enigma indeed. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edgar_Kennedy