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.