“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]