COMPARISON AND CONTRAST
Shepherd was described in the New York Times obituary headline as a “Raconteur and Wit.” Another raconteur and wit I remember was Alexander King, who died 50 years ago, having just turned 66. (I find this difficult to believe because I always thought of him as a spry and wildly energetic old codger, and I am now ten years older than that and don’t feel like a “spry old codger.”) The Times obit for King is titled “Raconteur, Author and TV Figure, Is Dead; His Pungent and Irreverent Commentaries on the Jack Paar Show Made Him a Celebrity.”
He had been, according to the Times obituary, “…virtually unknown beyond a small circle of friends who called him ‘a genius,’ ‘a great individualist,’ ‘a remarkable personality.'” Sounds like Shep, who, however, never became what he probably, secretly, wanted to be: a “celebrity.”
The Times continues, “Then in 1958 the disarmingly gentle author published a book of memoirs, Mine Enemy Grows Older and appeared on the Jack Paar Show on television. The appearance startled Mr. Paar, captivated the audience and turned Mr. King into a nationwide celebrity.”
Shepherd had appeared on Paar’s “Tonight Show” a year or two earlier, but failed to become a nationwide celebrity. Shep’s was a long-form, gentle style, usually gently humorous, while King’s style was sharp, pungent, sometimes outlandishly acerbic. That made the difference. They both had wit, but Shep’s could go by nearly unnoticed to many, while King always startlingly jolted your mind.
I remember, as a college student, being one of the captivated audience–so much so that I convinced a friend to let me join a personal interview session with some of her classmates, during which I got to ask King at least one question, and he autographed my copy of his book:
[I still have, shown here, my personally autographed copy ]
The Times continues: “What the artist, book-illustrator, magazine editor and playwright did on the program–and on many later television shows–was to provide a witty, pungent, irreverent and continual outflow of comments on life, art, women, sex, psychiatry, celebrities, narcotics addiction and just about any other topic that happened to annoy him at the moment.”
King is quoted as having said, “I have no great messianic desire to talk. I just do it to sell my books….I used to throw away all this stuff [his comments] for nothing, and now I get paid for it.” His book is described as “a melange of reminiscence, outrageous anecdote and uninhibited invective.” Shepherd enthusiasts will recognize some aspects of these descriptions.
Another book reviewer is quoted as having described King’s talent as boisterously uninhibited. “Beneath the shock and surprise there are occasional glimmerings of perception which, combined with a simplified version of its possessor’s dramatic sense, might have produced a fine short-story writer.” It’s reported that King once said: “There’s no limit to the tastelessness of a sponsor.” Other than “boisterously uninhibited” and “shock and surprise,” one again encounters some Shep-like characteristics.
All in all, there’s some similarity and some contrast between King and Shep. I wonder if they’d ever met. I would imagine that they would have had a certain amount of respect for each other’s style and content, but would each have been exasperated by their mutual conflicts of attitudes as each chose to express them in public.
They would have hated that they each would have insisted on doing all the talking.
Portrait of Alexander King on the back cover of
Mine Enemy Grows Older.
(The young woman, far younger than he, is
undoubtedly his third and last wife, Margie.)
Jean Shepherd might well have been pleased that–
compared to King, the celebrity–in our time,
our Shep has scores of thousands of times more hits from
a Google search. Regrettably, as for the Internet, King has virtually disappeared.