HOME RUNS AND A FIELD GOAL
Here’s another one, recently re-broadcast. Remember the three versions he told of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Marius Russo hitting home runs and in each case almost clobbering Shep’s old man with the ball. I have suggested that these tales were less than truth. (Talk about diplomatic!) Here’s another ball tale. Shepherd on the air has just read a newspaper story about a baseball fan who had caught ninety-nine foul balls. He’s reminded about having gone to a Giants vs. Colts championship football game. Shep and his friend want a snack so he heads down around the end zone, getting hot dogs and coffees. The score is 20-18, Giants trailing near the end. They call for a field goal. Shep hears the ball kicked:
And all I felt was this fantastic shot. It was like somebody really hit me from behind….And the coffee flies all over the place. I look around. I have been hit by the damn football! Now if there’s one thing the football fan wants it’s a football getting hit into the stands! Shepherd gets hit with it! And I’m lookin’ the wrong way!! The ball hits Shepherd, bounced up, and seventeen guys fought over it.
I coulda caught that thing and had it in my hip pocket! I lost the coffee, I lost the hot dogs, and what’s worse, I lost the damn football! [End theme begins.] .…I coulda had the ball that was kicked by a Giant kicker that beat the Baltimore Colts for the championship of the NFL!! What did I get? I’ll tell you what I got—coffee all over my pants. I got some mustard on my new coat. That’s what I got. (September 29, 1972)
Okay, fans, anybody who thinks this really happened, raise your deluded hands. But, playing around with truth and fiction, Shepherd sometimes came out and told some truth. He did not do this when telling a story directly—in his normal way of first-person narration on the radio, he told stories as if they were true. But when discussing his writing, he would insist that he had really created a fiction, as in this introduction to reading the Ludlow Kissel story from his book, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash:
The “I” in the book is not “Jean Shepherd.” I’ll warn you of that right away. It is an “I.” His name is Ralph Parker. It’s not Jean Shepherd. A lot of you have written and asked me why I’m different in life than I am in the book, but it’s not me. It’s a fictional character and he has—he lives in Manhattan. (July 4, 1972)
That what Jean Shepherd said and wrote could not be relied on as real-world-literal-truth is well substantiated. This could be caused by any combination of the following: conscious creation of an artistic fiction as he said above in reference to In God We Trust; conscious deception in order to give a false image of himself; faulty memory.
Excerpt of comment by Joel
A simpler explanation is that fiction allowed him to create a much broader and more humorous narrative and effective parables than he would have been able to write had he only used truthful anecdotes.
Shepherd enthusiasts may not be aware of some of the introductions and forewords he wrote for a variety of publications–all related to strong interests of his. Even for those aware of them, I thought it good to list and provide parts of them as well as some comments. Here they are:
THE AMERICA OF GEORGE ADE
Fables, Short Stories, Essays
The front jacket cover of the hardcover also states: “The Great American Realistic Writer who in the early Twentieth Century created Modern American Humor.” The back cover, with a photo of Ade also has a photo of Shep, captioned: “One of the most prominent of the young American social critics and commentators, Mr. Shepherd has made a special study of the life and works of George Ade.” Listeners to Shepherd are aware that he sometimes spoke of his admiration for Ade and read some of Ade’s fables.
Shepherd both “edited,” wrote the preface, and introduced the book. We don’t know what, in this instance, “edited” means other than choosing which pieces of Ade’s to include. The preface begins this way:
One night after a broadcast on which I had performed one of the lesser-known Fables by George Ade,I took a phone call which turned out to be from S. J. Perelman. He was practically in tears. We exchanged Adeisms for over an hour. It was his considered opinion that Ade was undoubtedly one of the greatest American humorists, if not the most outstanding, humorist, America has yet come up with.
The preface is followed by Shepherd’s fourteen-page introduction. I hadn’t read it in a few years, so recently I was especially struck by its second and third paragraphs:
Eugene Gant, Holden Caulfield, and Ahab were all blood brothers. The Great Gatsby, wandering through his Long Island parties always alone in the midst of revelry, personified The American. He was beaten by his white whale too, and Nick said about all that could be said when Gatsby’s coffin was lowered into the rain-soaked American earth at a funeral no one had time to attend: “The poor son of a bitch.” He might as well have been speaking of Willy Loman, who never did get that final Big Order or really learn the territory. Kerouac’s Dan Moriarty, meandering off into the night lit only by the buzzing neon lights of The West Side, was fighting the same nebulous desperate war that James Jones’ Private Prewitt fought and lost too. The list goes on almost endlessly, since there are 180 million American wanderers. We secretly feel that we are about to be lowered into a lonely grave unsung, to be forgotten in three weeks or three minutes. The knowledge that we are all in it together does make it easier to take, if not more understandable.
Some writers weep over the plight of man while others laugh. Many more ignore it altogether and become wealthy. It takes a particularly wide perspective and more than the usual amount of love of mankind to be able to laugh. It also involves a certain quality of detachment. And that is where George Ade and the Midwest fit into the literary battle of the individual caught in the maze.
I was struck again because I realized anew how much of what
Shepherd wrote here he was applying to himself.
“NOW HERE’S MY PLAN”
A BOOK OF FUTILITIES
by Shel Silverstein
Shel and Shep, according to an interview of Shel, were best buddies–at least from the late 1950s into at least the early 1960s. We just don’t know much more about it than that, which is a shame. Lois Nettleton is quoted as saying that while Shep was on the air, sometimes she and Shel would wander the streets of Manhattan together, and I’m told by Leigh Brown’s best friend that Shel introduced Leigh to Shep (In the mid-to-lat 1950s, which began a personal and professional relationship crucial to Shepherd’s life and work.)
Shep and Shel wrote appreciations for each other’s early creations. Before any intros or forewords, they wrote the liner notes for each other’s early records. Shel wrote the wacky/funny one for Shep’s first comedy album “Jean Shepherd and Other Foibles” and, it seems, Shep shortly after retaliated with goofy words for Shel’s first album, “Hairy Jazz” later in the same year, 1959:
The storied technical prowess and magnificent control that has long made Silverstein’s name a byword in the Green Rooms of the world are still here and in full flower. Attention is called to the lacelike delicacy of the attack shown on “Go Back Where You Got It Last Night”….
One needs to be aware that Shel’s voice and style–attack–would make a grown Pavarotti choke. Here’s a bit of Shep’s foreword for Shel’s book of cartoons, Now Here’s My Plan:
Since Shel Silverstein is a close friend of mine, I would very much like to be able to recommend him to everyone without reservations of any kind. This I cannot do. For one thing, he is not for children.
Obviously this was written before Shel became the darling of the pre-teen crowd–and their parents–with his books of quirky kid-poems, after which he became so rich and famous he could do what he wanted when he wanted.
….In appearance he is Neanderthalic: stocky, bearded, vaguely stooped, and unbelievably sloppy. Yet there is also a distinct air of imperious Edwardian dignity about him….Shel is the only continuously funny man I have ever known. Ideas for humor flow from him in such a rich, prolific stream that he frightens most of the rest of us who work in the field….I am proud he is my friend.
THE NIGHT PEOPLE’S GUIDE TO NEW YORK
[no authors listed though authors of the preface are
June Wagner, Gilman Park, Jack Rennert]
Jean Shepherd, once he began living in Manhattan, considered himself a true New Yorker, and, though he traveled widely, lived for a bit in New Jersey and had a summer house in Maine, and couldn’t imagine living anywhere else than NYC. It does make one wonder why, after his radio days were over, he chose to move to Florida. Here’s part of his intro to The Night People’s Guide:
As an old New York hand, I have just about given up any ideas that I might have had about what the city is or isn’t, what it has or hasn’t, what it can or cannot do, since I have come to realize that it can do everything and is everything and will always be.
It’s a great town to live in, and a great town to flee from but once you have really tasted it you can never forget it completely, or even drive away that insistent pull from inside that says that you’ve got to go back just once more.
JOHNSON SMITH CATALOG
Reproduction of 1929 edition,
introduction by Jean Shepherd.
In his essay titled “Mail Order America,” Shepherd wrote an appreciation of all the strange, goofy stuff one could buy–especially if one were a true American slob. (In another–but similar–context, he once said, “I like this vitality! there are those who think Shepherd is against the slob. Not at all! I think the slob gives spice and the piquant–just the piquant savoring of life.”) He wrote in part:
Johnson Smith & Co. is and was as totally American as apple pie; far more so in fact, since they do make apple pie in most places in the civilized world. Only America could have produced Johnson Smith. There is nothing else in the world like it. Johnson Smith is to Man’s darker side what Sears Roebuck represents to the clean-limbed, soil-tilling righteous side. It is a rich compost heap of exploding cigars, celluloid teeth, anarchist “stink” bombs….
Students of the future, in deciphering it, will learn far more about us through its pages than through any other single document I know of. Read it, enjoy it, and honor it. It is about us.
Stay tuned for Part 2
HUNG UP ON NORMAN MAILER—A CONTINUING SAGA
I’ve quoted before a number of disparaging Shepherd remarks about Mailer. If all references to Mailer so far encountered represent the frequency of their occurrence throughout Shepherd’s WOR broadcasting, he mentioned him on average once a month for 22 years. I find Shepherd’s obsession with trashing Mailer fascinating.
Several times Shepherd mentioned that he and Mailer had conversations at the offices of The Village Voice. They’d known of each other during the early days of the Voice when Mailer was a part-owner and writer for it and Shep was a columnist for it. In a broadcast dated August 14, 1960 Shepherd, as a lead-in to a Voice commercial, talks about the early days when the Voice was struggling financially and was on the verge of going under because of its small circulation. He says that Mailer, one of the founders and still working there to help out, took a carload of the papers and drove from newsstand to newsstand giving stacks of them free to whichever stands would accept them. Shepherd speaks of this act in an admiring, totally positive way, so I guess that whatever happened between them in fact or in Shepherd’s mind, was still to come.
Yes, tonight it’s the human comedy hour—tonight. And would you please bring a little human comedy music in there if you will, please. [Scats] You have no idea what I was doing today out there in that human comedy of which we are all a part. You cannot escape. Even you, Norman Mailer, you’re part of the human comedy. Even though you take yourself awful seriously. And that’s what makes you so funny. (March 23, 1965)
Man is always attempting to make a statement. Trying to grab ahold of those brass rings of reality. How are you doing out there, Norman Mailer? Got ahold of them brass rings of reality okay, heh? (November 25, 1967)
Shepherd and I had both been hung up on Norman Mailer for decades. I admire Mailer’s writing. Shepherd, I believe, envied his success, and there also must have been some personal clash that led Shepherd to carry on a continuing vendetta on his broadcasts. I’ve quoted some of his comments about Mailer before. J. Michael Lennon, editor of several books on Mailer and his authorized biographer, in an exchange regarding a Mailer book, asked me twice about why I thought Shepherd disliked Mailer, and I gave the subject more thought:
Mailer and Shepherd are both “performing selves” in that they are self-observing of their real-life activities—their creative lives feed on their real lives. Yet the two, in their ways of handling their lives as lived and as recreated in art, differ profoundly.
Mailer observes, analyzes, and is open and confrontational in his relationship to the world, and he expresses his more political and psychologically considered relationship to the world in his work. He has a deeper, more complex vision of his life and the world he lives in than Shepherd, and an urge to explore it for himself and for his audience. He exposes himself, puts himself into the rough and tumble of life—in his way of writing and reacting to life, he prescribes by example. He promotes conflict, doing his best to stir up emotional reactions. He’s an expounder and dialogist. His life and art seem very much of an integrated piece.
Mailer’s approach to both his place in the world, as well as to his way of writing about it, is described by perceptive Mailer critic Richard Poirier in his Norman Mailer. He writes:
A combative eagerness that takes him against many a windmill, an acceptance of the chance that the enemy may be within as well as outside himself, a bodily commitment to the contests of life, a willingness to meet the enticements of drugs, drink, and pop culture, a wasteful playfulness and the courage to be a fool half the time if that is the price of being more than that the other half…..
I”ve recently read the most marvelous biography of Norman Mailer by Lennon: Norman Mailer–A Double Life. Barely a sentence goes by in this 800-pager without some significant connection to Mailer’s art. As another indicator of why the two would be opposites despite their similarities, here’s a bit from the book–Mailer describing himself:
“I am a phenomenon to myself….I always was my own experiment, and that is such a simple way to live, and no one could ever comprehend it. I don’t even think it took great guts, just my intense scientific curiosity about one’s subject, myself and the bizarre phenomenon of myself.”
Shepherd observes and describes human foibles. He is very open to life and new experiences, promoting such to his audience, but, as he has said, he’s just going through life as an observer and doesn’t want to get involved other than for his private experience/enjoyment. Shepherd has at least two separate personas—there is the public one that he creates, producing a strong sense that it’s his real, full, complete one he is exposing nightly to his audience. That life as shown to his audience may be basically true, but it’s only a segment of himself. He also lives a private life that is very different, full of secrets and enigmas that he fiercely hides from his public. He’s self-contained—a monologist who expresses his take regarding his observations, seeking no opposition but expecting devoted listening followed by applause.
This very different approach to life and self-expression in art makes Mailer and Shepherd fundamentally, psychologically, opposites. Considering Mailer’s deep and quick-witted mind, one can’t image him putting up with Shepherd’s extended, self-absorbed monologs for long, and Shepherd doesn’t seem aware of the causes behind Mailer’s extroverted, confrontational, and seemingly erratic behavior. Whether for Shepherd this contrast between the two of them is recognized or not, one would think that the dichotomy must affect his attitude toward Mailer. Among other differences, I’d imagine that Shepherd’s egotistical insistence in holding the stage and not letting another get a word in, would have been unsupportable for an egotistical force with such a powerful mind and analytical prowess as Mailer, to suffer much of Shep’s monologs. He must have exploded with hostility in a way that Shep never forgave. My wife, a Victorianist with a strong dislike for what she knows of both men, suggests that the inevitable conflict might be between what she refers to concisely as “egotistical bastards.”
Norman Mailer, pugilist
In Shepherd’s straightforward way, he probably could not understand Mailer’s frequently outrageous attitudes. As seen below, Shep obviously believes that Mailer’s An American Dream is supposed to be a “realistic” depiction of life, while I see it as a fantasy-like tale–a parable–an American “dream.”
Now on the other hand, let’s take serious things. A—what we call—so we don’t put much stock in the movies you know. Let’s face it. So they go out and they take a novel, let’s say An American Dream, by Norman Mailer. You really think that’s the way life is, Norman? In these United States in 1965? Or is this part of Norman’s fantasy—about life in 1965?…Now what is this urge on the part of man to top all other men? Well, it finds its expression in many ways. One way, it finds its expression in the tall story. Another way it finds its expression in—a tall, fantasizing of the individual himself—and so Norman Mailer spins endless stories about what a fantastic person Norman Mailer is. (August 25, 1965)
Shepherd and Mailer both loved America greatly. During America’s outrageous ’60s, Mailer, in An American Dream, Mailer expresses that in outrageous fashion. Both attempted to criticize their country in the context of their love, but they did it in decidedly contrary ways. Ways of Mailer’s that Shep apparently failed to grasp.
While working on my Excelsior, You Fathead!, after having managed to contact and get a bit of a written response from Mailer about Shepherd, I waited for my chance during a book reading-and-signing session at the Union Square Barnes & Noble. As he was signing my copy of his new book, I thanked him for his response to my query. He looked up and said words to the affect: “Just make sure you express all the truth you can about him.” Enigmatic that, but with a crowd behind me waiting for Mailer’s name inscribed in their book I didn’t feel I could ask him to elaborate.
illustrates his acuity and bravado.
“I am a phenomenon to myself.”
Mailer, the wild man actor-protagonist/self-analyzer.
Shepherd, the more laid back and self-satisfied entity.
I think you have captured the essence of the issue. Shepherd was an observer who used what he observed to create his art. Mailer was a participant who often created the events or amplified them. Mailer was self-referential while Shep stood outside himself as he commented.
Wikipedia contains this about him “Along with the likes of Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, Mailer is considered an innovator of creative nonfiction, a genre sometimes called New Journalism, which superimposes the style and devices of literary fiction onto fact-based journalism.”
According to Wikipedia, Mailer attempted but failed to avoid being drafted, and served mostly as a cook in the Philippines. Yet he wrote what became a seminal book about WW2. I suspect Shepherd envied and resented Mailer’s using his military service to score such a giant literary hit, considering how important Shepherd’s army stories were to him. Yet their approach to applying their art to the military was so different. Mailer’s was blood, guts and heroism. Shepherd’s was about small things, KP, cleaning latrines, exhausting hikes, crappy food, indignities and mundane experiences. In Shepherd’s view, that is the reality and Mailer’s was the fiction. Yet grown-ups went for Mailer’s fiction over his reality.
So, on the same playing field–the Village of the 50s and 60s, Mailer became the adored one and the celebrity of the adult world, while Shepherd became a cult celebrity among adolescent boys. Easy to see whose was bigger!
Jean Shepherd sometimes mused aloud on the nature of art and of his own art of radio. Although I haven’t done any formal research on it, I have the impression that he may well have done such musing more often on his earlier, longer programs, when, maybe, he felt his mind could more casually roam and improvise less fettered, with less a need to provide more meat and form in a 45-minute show. Here are some of his thoughts and my comments about his thoughts. He speaks of the nature of art and of the single-minded intensity of his creative essence when he is on the air.
Occasionally Shepherd expresses what it feels like to be on the radio and a sense of his joy in broadcasting. The piece is another evocation of his real love for the medium. The excerpt is from 1974, but sounds much like the earlier, Sunday night Shepherd. He had been speaking over music by Vivaldi—using classical music was something he rarely did after 1960—then the music stops and he talks:
Do you realize, of course, that the concept of what I do here is by almost definition—romantic. The idea that I’ve become—and all these thoughts are churning in my head all the time and all these things that come together— curious little bits and pieces of half-seen images scurrying through the night. And I come every night and put them together and I put them into this mechanical contrivance that has a germanium crystal in it. And I do it in a room that’s enclosed by glass. That’s a romantic concept….I would have to say that this medium is quite possibly the most romantic medium—there is—as it floats out over the darkness. Just the concept of it. (January 10, 1974)
From Lois Nettleton’s tape of Shep, 11/16/1958, tape 29, side 2 about 45:00.
The tape was encountered by her friend and executor, in a box of hers marked “antique dolls.”
I get this feeling from time to time that I don’t even exist at all except when I’m on the air. That I am a nonexistent cipher, a kind of zero hanging against the eternal heavens of all time. And this, I’m afraid is also a thing which many people have also as part of their lives. When you’re doing something which is very important to you, is the whole you, the entire, total you, is focused and seems to make some kind of sense. It’s like drawing it all together and putting it into a clear sort of lens so that you can look at it and see it and understand it.
And all the rest of the time it just sort of drifts out in a kind of swamp—like miasmic, indistinguishable, tenuous, drifting fog. It’s the life that everyone tries to pull together.
This is the function, I suppose, of the artist—to try to pull it all together. To try to look at it. And this is why people write novels, this is why people do radio programs such as this, I suppose. There’s no accounting for it. Here it is, it’s late—in six or seven minutes it will suddenly be nothing again. And we will no long exist. I will disappear. I will not be. And it’ll be gone.
He must be remembering Fred Allen’s comment on his radio career at the end of his book, Treaedmill to Oblivion, in which he wrote, “Whether he knows it or not, the comedian is on a treadmill to oblivion. When a radio comedian’s program is finally finished it slinks down Memory Lane into the limbo of yesteryear’s happy hours. All that the comedian has to show for his years of work and aggravation is the echo of forgotten laughter.” –see my EYF! index for more on Fred Allen, and the chapter titled “I Can’t Tell a Joke.” Shepherd continues:
I know a singer, a girl who sings in nightclubs. And the only time—the only time that she is there, the only time that she feels that she is real—is when she is really belting it out. And she really feels those waves of a kind of ecstasy go through you when you know that you’re belting it out. When you know that you’re making it, when you know that it’s all adding up and little blocks are falling into position and there is shape and form and substance.
Shepherd during the 1998 Alan Colmes radio interview: “Some of my shows that I did that sounded the most casual, I’d work two or three weeks into it. And that was really my style. My style was an off-hand style. And I suppose in some ways that worked against me, because it made it seem to people who were listening that it was all accidental.” As I put it in EYF!: “What is most important, he considered humor, as he practiced it, a higher form because it dealt with insights into human nature…”
In Shep’s book on George Ade, discussing a character by him: “What happened to her? You guess. But whatever did or did not happen is exactly true to life. This is a key to Ade as well as any other true humorist.”
The joy that Shepherd had in his creative work is the sign of a true artist. Died at only 78? — ars longa, vita brevis.
There is all the humor in all of mankind, all the sadness,
all the greatness, all the gladness, and all the idiocy of all man
–within five feet of you. Just look around.” –J. P. Shepherd
Comment from Joel
“I get this feeling from time to time that I don’t even exist at all except when I’m on the air.” Shep was a solipsist!
Very revealing statement….I imagine this is true for so many performers in every realm. Except how many get such fulfillment performing to an audience of one or two, as did Shepherd on the radio? Even recording artists have a robust live performance career. On balance, the Shep I knew was a radio performer who went before an audience once a week.
On the radio, he could imagine his audience and so, totally control it, which is something I think he’d want to do. His ability to laugh convincingly when telling a story was impressive. I have heard few who do that well. He was, in effect, his own audience. Solipsism indeed….
I’ll add to that, his success as a writer as well as radio performer. This is another media that does not have a live audience in the presence of the artist at the time of creation. So his two arguably greatest media do not have him performing in front of a live audience. This fits my perception of his consuming egocentricity and narcissism.
LISTENING TO SHEP
From his earliest days, right through to the end. Listening for the sound, listening for the word. The sounds of Shep—always exciting, even when he was just gently tickling your mind. Listeners to Jean Shepherd are a varied sort. The pre-New York, Cincinnati and Philadelphia crowd and the one to five-thirty a.m. WOR night people—very few of these listeners have come forward and the ones who have remember very little. Few remember his Sunday night shows from summer 1956 to 1960. I’m one of those lucky ones.
Those who began listening in the mid-1950s were without a doubt almost all adults, including some college students. These were indeed, by inclination or profession, creatures of the night—jazz musicians, artists, writers, Beats, hippies, late-shift workers, insomniacs. Those programs were more slowly paced, more contemplative, I believe (Often referred to as among his more “philosophical” programs.)
Listeners in the 1960s and 1970s didn’t hear the overnights or Sunday from nine p.m. to one a.m. programs, but heard the mostly forty-five-minute programs that ended before midnight, the earlier times more acceptable to parents of school-age kids. These fans were more likely to be college students and younger, including many high school and some grammar school students, most with small, inexpensive transistor radios. (The newly developed transistor sets, available by 1954, only became cheap enough to become common by the end of the 1950s and early 1960s.) These radios were widely remembered by listeners as having been hidden undercover to avoid detection by parents trying to wrangle kids to sleep early on school nights. So common, amusing, and nostalgic to contemplate was the transistor-under-the-pillow image that it became the cliché for describing Shepherd’s listeners. I feel left out, as I listened first on Sunday nights in the kitchen after homework was done while my parents watched TV in the living room.
All those listeners had the special experience of hearing Jean Shepherd in real time—when Shepherd would be there live (or seemingly live but occasionally taped because of a short trip out of town) talking to them. Listeners who only hear him on recordings are also entertained, but they can never know the feeling that a man was creating and giving them new and unpredictable moments of radio right before their very ears.
MUSICAL TRIVIA MYSTERY STORY
From time to time, Shepherd ridiculed the trashy nature of his theme song, yet listeners were delighted when they heard “Bahn Frei” at the beginning of each show, and Shep knew it. Here he delivers an ironic riff as the opening music plays:
Oh boy! You’ve got to admit that when you hear those first thunderous tones of this deathless theme, little tinkles of excitement, anticipation, run up and down your backbone, your spine, right, gang? [Laughs.] Right? Oh boy.
It’s certainly an exciting world. All you have to do is hang onto the old hanging straps, keep your knees loose, and keep those old onions skinned. Watching that arcing, curving sky overhead there, just ahead. Just at the other end of the turnpike. Yes, press down on that vast accelerator of existence. Pick up steam! Oh! Listen to that theme. Ohhhhh! For the next forty-five minutes really live, friends! Bring it up there! All the way up, Skip. Listen to that. Isn’t that fantastic music?!!! [Scats along.] The thunderous, feckless, racehorse of life!
(Bahn Frei images from http://www.flicklives.com )
The momentous question of when and why his voice, with the enigmatic “Ahhhh,” was added to the ending of his theme song has bedeviled Shepherd freaks for decades. (Yes, I know—don’t we have better things to do with our time than worry over such minutia?) We knew it wasn’t there in the 1950s and into 1960, but there it was starting sometime in the mid-1960s. Engineer Herb Squire had been told that the original record had broken and they had to make a copy from an old show, from which they didn’t quite manage to remove Shep’s voice, and they decided to leave it in. Shepherd on the Alan Colmes interview show of 1998 kiddingly said the “Ahhhh” had been added on purpose because “I thought it was interesting.”
Here’s more info—direct from the horse’s mouth as heard on a recently discovered Shepherd program when it was sold on ebay. On December 10, 1962, as he goes on the air he has a problem:
The way to do this is to sneak in quietly and pretend that everything is okay. Now as a matter of fact, that is the American way. [Shepherd and his engineer laugh.] You can be no more American than to try to phony-it-up. You know that, Bob, don’t you? Try to pretend? [Laughs.]
This is one of the wildest things that’s happened to me in a long time. I’ll tell you what happened. I might as well let you know. We have my theme song—the little thing that comes on—ricka-ricka-ticka… You know that thing that comes on. It’s the theme. Well, we have that on tape. And so tonight, or sometime, we don’t know when, somebody expeditiously erased the tape. [Laughs uproariously.]
We have been bedeviled by this for decades. You see the sort of thing that has us kooks pacing the floor in the middle of the night—why, why, why? Are we about to find all the answers to the mystery? That night they find the tape of an old show that has the music on it—note that Shepherd doesn’t give its title. They play it and he scats along. The following night, and from then until the show leaves the air in April 1977, the Bahn Frei theme song, used at beginning and end of nearly every program, has the added “Ahhhh.” So now we know the when and what the problem was, yet not exactly why they didn’t simply find an old copy from a show that didn’t have the added voice. Maybe, as he said, he just liked it. Maybe it just became one more little piece of enigma. As for me, though, having that part of the puzzle solved, I sleep a lot better.
MORE ON THE LISTENING EXPERIENCE
From Frank Reck: Much of the charm of listening to Shep, or for that matter most any broadcast media back in that time, was that you had to make a choice to either listen to (or watch) it right then or miss it entirely. While taping was theoretically possible, it was not practical; at least not with the transistor and cassette that I had at my disposal. So if you had to work late, you missed Shep. Or had to study for a test the next day, had a game at school, a family or social commitment, etc., you missed Shep. Even worse was a phone call, when there was no caller ID, that made you miss the end of a show that you had been listening to since Shep usually saved the best for last. You spent the next day asking all of your fellow Fatheads if they had listened to the show so you could hear how it ended. When I was old enough to drive I really enjoyed the chance to get in the car by myself, turn on Shep and just cruise around uninterrupted for 45 minutes while he wove his magic. I still enjoy listening to his old shows in the car. Today the ability to listen to or watch virtually anything online has removed that element from modern media and with it I think that something has been lost.
“AM I BORING YOU?”
Contact for Shepherd seemed to be exclusively a one-way street—he expressed himself ceaselessly to others. Most people found this fascinating, but on occasion, did he wonder if it was boring them?
Although I’ve encountered this Shepherd query on his programs various times, it only recently made an impact on me as an ongoing concern of his. On a few occasions he would ask people in the control room, “Am I boring you?” “Do you find this boring?” “Is this boring?” One might wonder if those he asked were not paying attention, or if he thought the subject at hand might not be of sufficient interest. Although a couple of instances of non-broadcast insecurity were previously noted, it seems atypical of him to exhibit a lack of self-confidence on the air. In general, we acolytes have always unquestioningly believed that insecurity was not Shepherd’s MO. He knew his worth, and his ego frequently manifested itself in personal encounters. Here’s a rare and blunt example of it on the air:
…I’m a professional, I do what I do, and I do it better than most anybody else in the business, let’s face it. And that is unique. (September 17, 1969)
In another form of commenting on his style, after one of Shepherd’s well-known and well-beloved digressions, he occasionally says to those in the control room that they probably didn’t think he would get back to the thread of his original anecdote. He says this kiddingly and with pleasure at his unfailing ability to surprise them and continue true to form. He knew he was damn good—except on the rare occasion when he feared that he wasn’t.
FACT OR FANCY
Shepherd once quoted a woman talking in a Village coffee shop as saying, “Suburbanites are all dead from the neck up.” In the same breathe he said of that woman, “She’s now living in the suburbs and is dead from the neck up.” With some relevance to his own creative liberties, he then said: “You know, a comic cannot resist a good line, even if it’s completely untrue.” This is probably true for many comics and storytellers, and that’s usually the end of the story. What intrigues some of us Shep-heads, though, is that Shepherd’s merging of the true and the fabricated drives much deeper into his essence—his self-image and his relationship to his world.
A good friend of Shepherd’s and a former stand-up comic himself, Murphy Grimes contributes this comment, based on personal interactions with Shepherd over many years:
One thing I have noticed in many postings [on the e-mail shepgroup] about him is references to his lying. I do not believe they were deliberate. Usually he believed at the moment what he was saying to be true even if down deep in his heart of hearts he knew it was not. Call him pathological or whatever. This is also why his stories are so great when he is telling them—he believes them and that they really happened that way. While in many ways his memory was incredible, in other ways it was not that good. This may be why there are sometimes inconsistencies in his interviews. Plus, like all of us, our opinions change over time, as do our recollections. I think a lot of stuff Shep claimed to have done and did not do may have fallen into this category. When he was telling a story, fact or fiction, it was real to him and he honestly believed it. Accuracy of a few facts one way or the other was irrelevant. I also feel he wanted everyone to believe that he was a whole lot more intelligent than he really was. One thing that never ever changed was a huge ego.
Regarding the comment in my Excelsior, You Fathead! that Shep often lied, his third wife, Lois Nettleton wrote to me in one of her notes about my book: “–he lied a lot to me,…” (“p.102” seems a mistake on her part. See my book’spages 37-38 for her possible reference.)
Lois’ last sentence on the bottom of this note
is a very strong psychological comment
about him, written by someone who
admired him and cared about his legacy
as a person and as an artist.
After hearing Seinfeld and other stand-up comedians describe their work as combat, one can see how starved Shep would be for feedback. Except for his “concert” and limelight performances, his radio show had a live audience of one or two. And Shep, being a believer in the commonalities among mankind, took their reactions not as singular but representative of his audience. So no wonder how upset he got when they were not paying attention.
Lois’ comment about him being a confused and desperate personality is telling. I think about Andy Kaufman, who seemed above all, desperate to get a laugh and get his humor across. Though Shep was outwardly cool, the inner man was constantly seeking approval, admiration, response and validation, yet he also wanted to see himself above most others, or at least, detached enough so he was not like them (the ones he lampooned at least)…. [above two¶ from Joel]
“I don’t think any sense of humor is funny.
Jean Shepherd is funny.”
–Andy Kaufman from
Was This Man a Genius? by Julie Hecht
…[she] shared [Andy’s] passion for Kerouac and
radio humorist Jean Shepherd.
–from Lost in the Funhouse:
The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman by Bill Zehme
What is it about Andy Kaufman? I think Kaufman did some of the most entertainingly startling and outrageously hilarious bits I’ve ever seen. But why did he especially respond to Jean Shepherd? And why does my own sensibility respond to Kaufman’s best and most of Shep?
Jean Shepherd, in 1959, after his Look, Charlie performance, invited the entire audience to go across the street to a deli for coffee. Twenty years later, after Andy’s Carnegie Hall performance he invitedthe entire audience to get on buses and go with him for milk and cookies–a wonderful and well-known piece of Kaufman’s performance art. Andy would have been about ten years old at the time of Shep’s invitation. Maybe a tribute, with several embelishments on Andy’s part? Certainly an indication of Andy and Jean’s similar turn of mind to insinuate a bit of performer/audience, human-to-human closeness with an after-the-performance commonplace: a cup of coffee/milk and cookies before bedtime.
Andy is best known for his very funny and quirky performances as the “foreign man” Latka Gravas, on the sitcom Taxi. It’s said that he disliked doing this as it meant repeating a character over and over (I imagine it was the making of his quirkily unexpected into a repeat occurrence). Apparently on the set, as well as elsewhere during his brief career, he would disrupt the expected commonplace and aggravate all and sundry–from audience to actors to producers.
He was a strange person. He seemed incapable of continuously normal, “civilized” behavior–he loved to stir the pot with the unexpected and exasperating. Was he disturbed? Was he simply an oddball genius? Asocial? Merely quirky?
What an extraordinary experience it must have been for anyone who, not familiar with Kaufman (or maybe being only aware of his Latka Gravas persona), to encounter him in performance as he set himself up as the odd and innocent foreign man with the funny accent; to see him do the ridiculously bad “impersonations” of several well-known people and then to have him say he will then do an impersonation of Elvis. The audience sets itself up for laughing not with him–but at him. He turns his back and readies himself and finally faces those rather hostile expectations, to see that he has the Elvis-look down perfectly. And then he begins to gyrate and sing–he is a perfect “Elvis”!!!! Said to be Elvis’s favorite impersonation of himself.
Andy has defied everyone’s expectations. At the end, as he has transformed their image of him into the perfect Elvis persona, he acknowledges the audience’s appreciation by again defying their expectations–with his foreign-man’s “Dank you veddy much!” (Reminding them and bringing them back to the “reality” of his supposed persona, the simple-minded-foreign-man-imitating-Elvis–while, of course, the real person is an additional step back–he’s Andy Kaufman, performance artist.)
One might go on to other brain-twisting feats of Andy Kaufman (such as inter-gender wrestling).
Besides the women he usually wrestled, for the February 1982 Playboy, a pictorial feature shows him wrestling Miss September 1981, Playmate Susan Smith (above right). Which wrestler won depends on whom one asks. Actually, Andy “won” because it became a feature article in Playboy (and got it mentioned on the cover!) as thus was a promotional furtherance of his act–and besides, he enjoyed grappling women. Wrestling a Playmate must have been a special thrill!
One might then describe how some of his actions fell totally flat (his internal editor sometimes could not keep some necessary reality in mind). But the suppleness of the performances elude simple words. Watch him on YouTube, and get some fictionalized idea in the film Man on the Moon.
So where’s the relationship to Shep? Shepherd perceived connections between everyday things that most of us don’t notice or notice-and-dismiss, and need prodding to recognize–he called some of these “cracks in the sidewalk” and “straws in the wind.” Unexpected relationships in odd commonplaces one might say. But always based on a one-plus-one-equals-two reality if we only could recognize it with Shep’s acuity. He expressed these perceptions in comments and stories. Andy grasped onto the commonplace of most of us and concocted a bizarro experience we both recognize, and at the same time, experience as a dreamlike, yet for the moment, accepted, unreality. He has us mentally leaping through puzzlements and slipping head first on dadaist banana peels. What differences and yet some intangible similarity!
I wonder what Shepherd would have thought of Kaufman’s finer moments. Here are a couple of comments discovered on the Internet–excerpts from GQ magazine’s 12/1999 interview by Don Steinberg:
Penn Jillette: All he was was passionate and honest and pure. Maybe Andy had something that someone wants to label a personality disorder, and if they want to do that they can just go f… themselves and…. Because what Andy did was really beautiful, and I don’t care what was wrong with him…. The fact of the matter was he did great stuff for the world, and it seems like on every level he told the truth as he saw it. And that’s all that we’re all aspiring to.
Penn Jillette: I remember when he did the TV special that had him interviewing Howdy Doody. Teller came to me afterwards saying how he was just sobbing uncontrollably, how it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, the love for Howdy Doody and the way he was willing to completely capture dealing with Howdy Doody as a real person when you’re a child. With no apology and nothing to protect him. It was just so moving to Teller. I don’t think there’s a month that goes by when Teller doesn’t mention the interview with Howdy Doody as the only moment on television that really moved him.
Penn Jillette: Andy made us be able to just do whatever we wanted and know it was going to be okay. I think if he didn’t come along I would have been a little more afraid to do big hunks of our show that weren’t funny and didn’t have magic in them…. We had headroom all of a sudden. He had pushed the ceiling so much higher that we had plenty of room to jump around as much as we wanted to.
Danny Devito:: He would come into a room, no matter where, and the psychological room would become his room. You were participating in his drama. Whether he was going to pick a fight with a waitress or whatever. It was always exciting. If there was anybody who manifested the phrase, “all the world is a stage,” this was the guy. Everything he did was his art.
Andy Kaufman is quoted in http://www.imdb.com as saying:
•Whenever I play a role, whether it’s good or bad, an evil person or nice person, I believe in being a purist and going all the way with the role. If I’m going to be a villainous wrestler, I believe in going all the way with it and not breaking character and not giving away to the audience that I’m playing a role. I believe in playing it straight to the hilt.
•I’m not trying to be funny. I just want to play with their heads.
•What’s real? What’s not? That’s what I do in my act, test how other people deal with reality.
•I just want real reactions. I want people to laugh from the gut, be sad from the gut, or get angry from the gut.
Tell me please, anybody, what and where are the connections
to Shep, and what the hell was Andy Kaufman, anyway.
By “connections” do you mean actual connections between Shepherd and Kaufman where Shep’s work found its way into Kaufman’s head? Or do you mean the qualitative similarities between Kaufman’s and Shepherd’s humor? The difference between them, I think, is that Shepherd, off stage, saw and comported himself as a “professional” artist doing his work, while Kaufman had a harder time containing the inner madman that drove his humor.
Seinfeld is a lot more like Shepherd, in that he stands outside himself, objectively evaluating and honing his “act.” Kaufman, though a performer, gave license to his inner demons. In that, I think he made contact with his audience on a very deep level. Shep’s story about Randy beating the bully Farkas almost to death is a good example of his recognizing that we all have an inner demon who might be unleashed at any moment. This is a very profound revelation in service of true humor. Joel
What was Kaufman? I don’t know enough about him or his work to say, but I would venture that Kaufman connected with the vestigial child in each of us. A child is capable of innocent, yet truly horrific acts. We used to call my grand daughter the “tiny tyrant.” Kaufman, by acting out this aspect of our nature, which adults learned to keep in a cage, made us recognize that it lurked inside us. In that sense he was scary, aggravating and hard to take, yet incredibly funny. Joel
Remember the Twilight Zone episode of the child who possessed powers to transform adults into anything he wanted, and he kept all about him living in terror if they did not satisfy his every whim? That was the unfunny side of this aspect of human nature. Joel
“That’s what I do in my act, test how other people deal with reality.” What is more Shep-like than that? Joel
[Encountered from a Rolling Stone article by Judd Hirsch, who was the main star of Taxi.]: “And he was a humorist, but his humor was more a lightness of air than any comic design (or delivery). But to be absolutely accurate, Andy Kaufman was amused. He was so amused by his own characters that I believe most people who did not know him or his illusionistic process thought him a little bent. You see, Andy’s gift was not his talent or his skills – it was his genius, the genius of what he dared. His was a rare spirit – an indomitable one. He gave himself the right to fail – and much more courageously than most.”
Commenting on the search for a name for a new Indiana Tollway in the region of
Hammond, Indiana, Robert Blaszkiewicz, in his column for the
Northwest Indian Times (April 30, 2006),
suggested a Shep connection. The road is leased to
“the Cintra-Macquarie consortium.”
With his permission, I quote from his column:
“A highway name should be something that evokes the local history and character of the region. It also needs to roll effortlessly off the tongue of a traffic reporter.
“I’d like to take columnist’s license to toss one out there myself: ‘The Jean Shepherd Memorial In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash Tollway.…’ The book title is the ideal sentiment for a road where we’ll be forking over an ever-increasing amount of money to some faceless foreign entity.
“Yes, the name is a bit long. No problem, in traffic reports it will simply be called ‘the Shep.’
[Blaszkiewicz comments that Shepherd often disparaged his hometown]
“So call it payback to attach his name to a strip of concrete that many of us will end up cursing:
” ‘Why are you late?’
” ‘I got stuck on the (bleepin’) Shep again.’
“But I think even Shepherd would appreciate his name as an object of derision. After all, it was Shep, himself, who immortalized his Old Man’s tapestry of obscenities still hanging over Lake Michigan.”
Several Shep fans have also suggested titles for the road, including these of mine:
J. Parker Parkway
Og and Charlie Turnpike
Loose Knees Speedway.
Jean Shepherd was formed by growing up in the Midwest—Hammond, Indiana—and by his stateside Signal Corps duty during World War II, as well as by his early radio years before he arrived in New York City where he “burgeoned.”
TOUGH TO BE A KID NAMED JEAN
Shepherd from time to time commented on his problems as an American male named Jean, a name many assume is only for females. Here’s a news story of April 2004:
Matthew Jean Rouse doesn’t like his middle name and he’s letting you pick a new one. The 31-year-old father of two is selling the naming right on eBay. The “Buy It Now” price is $8000. As of early Monday, there had been a total of 30 bids, with the high bid $2,175….”If he wants to walk around with ‘Fool’ as his middle name, that’s his problem,” said Rouse’s wife, Corinna Rouse. “If someone changes his name to ‘Poophead,’ he may decide it’s a little more important than he thought.”
Although Jean Shepherd occasionally implied that it was tough to be a kid, most of the stories he told involved minor problems or near-disasters. Very rarely did he describe any horrible incidents, but on a program of August 29, 1966, he told what happened one day while, as a teenager, he was working a summer job at Inland Steel. A stack of exceedingly sharp sheets of tin was knocked loose and sliced three men to death. He noted how strange the large pool of blood looked in the steel mill light. From time to time Shepherd would insinuate some startlingly unpleasant, true-to-life detail into his stories. As one such Army story had led to protests from listeners, one can imagine that protests would have kept Shepherd from edging into these realms as much as he may have liked. Maybe the stark “realism” was an authentic part of Shepherd’s makeup, or maybe the starkness was a bit of a Shepherd poke in the collective ear of his listeners, who didn’t want to hear about the realities of war.
MISCELLANEOUS TADPOLE TRIVIA
As a kid, Shep’s first call sign as a ham was W9QWN. And he said he didn’t listen much to radio when he was a youngster. Note that in the late 1920s and early 1930s, radios were expensive, the reception was usually poor, and only a few kid programs were on the air. Here is a comment about it:
I have to clear up a misconception. I was not a radio fan as a kid. Fact, I rarely listened to the radio. That’s right. I was a radio equipment freak. That’s a very different thing. You understand that many hi-fi people can’t stand radio. [Laughs.] Yes, oh yes. (Syndicated, April 23, 1976)
At various times Shepherd expressed his early need to escape the Midwest. From time to time he would comment on that “Great inverted bowl of darkness that is the Midwest.” Recently encountered is this:
Why do you think so many great writers come out of Indiana? You notice they come out? Let me tell you they split out of there like big fat speckled birds, I’ll tell you. They just don’t hang around. They get away as far as they can about it—they go to Paris—and then write about Indiana—in Paris [laughs]. They go to New York—and do radio shows—about Indiana—in New York [laughs[. You know there is a certain thing—but Toledo is just like swimming underwater in a gigantic bowl of lukewarm Cream of Wheat. (June 4, 1965)
Some comments in the media about Shepherd’s kid stories:
“Many of Mr. Shepherd’s creations involve vivid tales of his own childhood or ‘kidhood,’ to use his word….”
“Mostly, though, it was the incredible stories, based on his youth….”
“Many of Shep’s tales centered around a fictitious boyhood ….”
Comment about Shepherd’s kid stories by Shepherd (A. P. story):
“I don’t know why that is,” he said. “I’ve discovered that any time you mention anything to do with childhood on the air, that’s as powerful to people as sex. The next thing you know, they think that’s all you ever talk about.”
Sometimes Shepherd told of playing baseball as a kid, and as one of the older boys of summer, he also played, but we don’t know much about it other than guessing that he might have exaggerated his prowess. The only reliable information we have about Jean’s ball-playing is his coworker Barry Farber remembering Jean coming into WOR’s Manhattan studios in full baseball regalia, sweating after playing somewhere. Jean sometimes related baseball stories about himself, but, although there is rumor that he played in the minor leagues (Shepherd said so), there is no proof of this. However, his brother Randy said he played for the Cincinnati Reds organization, and it’s said that Jean sometimes took stories and sports-ability attributes of his brother onto himself in his own tales. Might be true, but in defense of such “theft,” remember that–as I’ve mused over Shakespeare’s appropriation of old tales–it ain’t what you steal, it’s the way that you deal it.
♠ ♦ ♣ ♥
CONNECTING TO LISTENERS
Jean Shepherd enthusiasts are drawn into his talk by the intellectual and emotional connection they feel with his way of conveying himself to them—in large part because of the immediate spontaneity of his very personal expression, apparently before self-imposed, editorial filters have time to intervene and alter the truth-to-life of what he is expressing. But Shepherd’s stories and anecdotes might be fictional, so one must always question their veracity. Yet in twenty-one years on New York radio he sometimes revealed a personal characteristic—sometimes a foible— that with some certainty we can interpret as parts of the “real” Jean Shepherd, and thus maybe discover how he worked his magic. Let’s start with the magic and related pleasantries. Later in this commentary, when everyone’s lulled into a false sense of security and has forgotten to keep knees loose, we can bring on the mixed blessings of his flawed psyche—the sometimes unsettling aspects of the “real.”
Note how the following can just as easily refer to Shep, his emotional attachment to talking on the air, and to his listeners in their feelings about belonging to a real community. Susan J. Douglas, in Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination, talks about the nature of DJs, a phenomenon that mainly developed in the 1950s. She describes how kids, listening to rock, began to dominate radio listenership. With regard to listeners, the DJ Wolfman Jack*, talking about his own experience in Tony Pigg’s Have Mercy (1995), is quoted by Douglas:
“I wanted an alternative world to live in, someplace more to my own liking. Radio and records gave me a cool world to belong to.” Again Douglas, quoting from Ken Tucker’s 1986 Rock of Ages, talking about disc jockeys and the way some wove their radio spell: “…talking into your ear, like a co-conspirator. He knew who you, all of you, were—the ‘late people’ who stayed up to hear the show, to groove on this weird stuff. It was your own secret society.”
Douglas also comments that shrewd DJs developed verbal “identity marks.” One remembers here the many special words and phrases Shepherd used, such as “excelsior,” “keep your knees loose,” “night people.” Of special note is her comment that DJs sought to give listeners a feeling “…that they and others were mutually present during a show, that even though they were invisible to each other, they constituted a vibrant, energetic community that mattered.…”
That fits Jean Shepherd to a T so well that one might wonder if Susan Douglas got some of these ideas from some knowledge she might have had of Shep.
Despite most Shepherd-cuckoos’ conviction that only we and Shep had those traits Douglas talks about, we learn that such was not unique to our fandom. Rock-and-roll DJs’ fans were encouraged and bonded on the common teenage hysterical level of raging hormones typical of their age. Yet what Shepherd did was more complex and played out on a far deeper and more creative level, and we weren’t just there with him, we were bonded intellectually—in our very consciously determined attitudes toward life. Shepherd fans tended to be encouraged and bonded into a more thoughtful, intellectual world of future thinkers and movers on a cultural plane. There, I’ve said it and I’m proud! We were then—and grew into—a cut above the norm. (Yeah, I realize how pretentious that seems, but it’s true.) For all that intellectual encouragement, thanks, Shep!
Regarding Shepherd’s lifelong obsession with talking on ham radio, on broadcast radio, and also in every other waking moment, this comment by Douglas about ham radio talk seems apt for all of Shepherd and his flock:
Communication—or, more accurately, contact—matters to hams on some almost mystical, metaphysical level….the intense desire for coupling that drives ham radio. There is an eroticism here, but let me be quick to emphasize that this is disembodied eroticism, not at all of the flesh but of the psyche.
* I think this excerpted piece about Wolfman Jack (1/21/38- 7/1/95)
has some relevance to Shep and all of us:
An Early Top 40 Pioneer By Corey Deitz
This subject is central to Shepherd’s success as a radio persona. He created, among kids who wanted to be hip, a secret club, with passwords, code and a style of observational humor. I learned to adopt this humor as I listened to him. Just as Little Orphan Annie had a decoder ring, Shep created an inner circle. “Excelsior, you fathead” was his password. “Seltzer bottle” was the acknowledgement. Anyone who listened to radio programs of the 30s and 40s will recall how many of them used the device of “belonging” as a way for listeners to feel connected.
That Little orphan Annie’s device disalusioned young Randy because it was a “crummy commercial” is interesting. I recall Shep telling listeners to go into his sponsor Prexy’s and whisper “Excelsior you fat head” to the counter guy and they would get a free side of fries. He created his own jingle for Nediks (“Nediks, schmediks, double bediks, pitkins all agree…).
But, as you write, Gene, Shep went beyond these superficial devices to shape listeners way of looking at their worlds. he often referred to the world a “vast circus,” among other descriptors. which I found very useful as a way to separate myself from all goings around to be an observer, and to see the humor in the events that others didn’t. That’s why a teen girlfriend told me many years later “you had a kind of smile that looked like there was something funny going on that you saw and no one else did.” I was amazed when she wrote that to me in an email, because it is how I felt, being a part of Shep’s inner circle. My friends would often exchange stories of behaviors and events that we though were the kind of humor Shep would appreciate.
This capacity to appreciate the absurdities around us all the time stuck with my my entire life. In fact, it is a characteristic I think my daughter and even my older grand daughter inherited from me. They immediately pick up on anything that is slightly askew, off beat or strange and see the humor in it.
I believe what few of us appreciated at the time was that this was a persona Shep used as a performer. The “real” Shep was much more than this guy. he was a shrewd, crafty, serious professional, honing his craft with the precision of a successful performer (Jerry Seinfeld described in a NYT article the incredibly precise process of honing a story, playing with timing, words and expressions that made big differences in audience reaction). The man behind “Shep” was indeed a major league player.
He once said that he had very little in common with his fans who wanted to talk with him. They saw him as a funny story teller of tales of his youth, and didn’t appreciate that he was as much a pro at what he did as a major league shortstop was at playing baseball. He was no sandlot player, is what he was saying. But like all great ball players, they make it look supremely easy, as though anyone could do it.