Home » A Christmas Story » JEAN SHEPHERD, MIKE NICHOLS, and improv



I thought that it would be instructive for my own benefit and maybe for others, to think about the nature of putting together an improv bit as I discussed in my post relating Shepherd to Mike Nichols. What, indeed, might be a sequence of thoughts that would lead, at the end, to an improvisational piece by Nichols & May or any other improv group, or by Shep himself?

The November 23, 2014 obit of Nichols, which I discussed, commented on  what seemed to be a crucial aspect of a Nichols and May performance that I found related to, but different from, what Shep did.  It’s said that those two honed their improv into set performances. I wrote:

I have a feeling that Shepherd’s radio material also began with improvisation within his own mind–and that he worked on it in his mind, sometimes more, sometimes less, before he presented it script-less, improvising from some sort of mental base, on the air.

What follows is my own idea of what a sequence of thoughts might have been for Shep. I’ve chosen for its ease of applicability and its brevity, the short story/transcription of a broadcast of “GI Glasses” from my book Shep’s Army. Once he would have had the original ideas, he would then have given more thought to further elaboration, and then, on the air, improvised from such signposts (that he may or may not have noted down on paper) that he intended to form the basis of the piece. Shep once commented that his radio MO was similar to that of a jazz musician. In the manuscript for my unpublished follow-up book to my EYF!, I noted:

<Shepherd confirms the strong link his work has to jazz.  In response to questions about how he prepares for his own broadcasts, he gives what seem to be straightforward, truthful replies.  Truthful at least as far as his thinking about what he was doing on his regular 45-minute shows from 1960 on:

Sometimes when I go in to do a show—of course every time I go in to do a show—I have a complete outline in my mind and quite often on paper about what I’m going to do.  But the way it comes out is ad lib.  In other words, it’s like a jazz musician who will have—let’s say he’s going to improvise on “Tea For Two.”  He knows the tune.  But it’s according to the inspiration of the moment as to how it comes out.  Do you follow me?  And I do have a plan and a pattern for every show that I do.>

Let’s see what one form of a creative process might have been:

(1.) Go from an original idea Getting army glasses);

(2) Structure it  Note how he organizes even the first paragraph by repeating the word “glasses,” and how he finally describes his use for the useless glasses at the end;

(3.) Relate it to a familiar Shep-subject  Army and humanity’s general incompetence–commentary on some aspect of life, using the glasses as a general circumstance);

(4.) Incorporate by elaborating instances of incompetence and inhumanity  As an extreme instance, the army mentality’s failure to act humanly toward a dying soldier);

(5) Conclude with the implied commentary/criticism.



[My transcription from Shep’s radio broadcast follows.]

Somehow or another they’re going to give me an eye examination and to decide if I need glasses.  (1.) Glasses.  All right, okay.  Somehow the idea of getting a pair of glasses that you never had before is exciting.  So I’m sitting in the clinic, about to get an eye exam.  Incidentally, this is a place that later grew to rival in infamy, Pearl Harbor itself.  A place called Camp Crowder.  Oh, it’s incredible!  And I’m sitting there in the Camp Crowder clinic.  I’ll never forget it.  There are about forty-five guys around me, and all of these goof-offs are on sick call, but (2) I’m here to get a pair of glasses. 

Suddenly they wheel in a G. I. on a stretcher, and we look at him.  He’s watching us, and he says, “Hey fellows, will you call Company D and tell ‘em I’m really sick.  This is Olsen here.”

I figure I’m going to do something about this guy, so I say, “Hey, doctor, this man is talking.”

The doctor says, “Oh, don’t worry about it, he’s finished.”

I say, “What?”

He says, “Yeah, (4) he’s got some rare disease.  He’s done.  Don’t worry about him.  Next!  Who’s next?”

They give me an eye examination with a machine.  With the little red crosses and yellow crosses.  The technician says, “Tell me when you see the two lines come together.  Tell me now when they cross.”  The crosses move.  It’s very official.  A few minutes after I finish the exam a captain comes over to me and he says, “Okay, soldier, here’s your glasses.”

I put them on and they’re really tight and (3) they pinch my nose, and for the first time in my life, I can’t see.  I absolutely can’t see!  I walk around a bit and I say, (3) “I can’t see!”

“Ah, let’s go, G. I.,“ the doctor says.  “Next!”

I walk out into the sunlight and I take these things off and then I can see.  As soon as I get back to my company area, the First Sergeant calls me into the orderly room and says, “We’ve got a message from the clinic.  You gotta wear your glasses all the time.”

I say, “What do you mean?  I can’t see out of these things!”

(3) “Wear the glasses!”

I walk out.  The next day we’re on the rifle range.  I’m with my glasses.  I can’t see anything—there’s three people moving around in front of me all the time.  And they keep hollering, “Stand still, Shepherd, you’re at attention!”  This goes on for a week.  (3) I have a splitting headache!  And every time I’m out with the company, the sergeant says, “Shepherd, (3) you got your glasses on?  After that week, I finally go back to the clinic.  I go in and see the captain and I say, “Captain, I can’t see out of these glasses!”

He says, “Lemme see ‘em.  What’s your name?”

“Shepherd, J. P., 11098946, sir.”

He says, “No, you’re not.  (3) You’re Simonson, L. P. 350981642.”

I say, “No, no!”

He looks at me for a bit.  “I gave you the wrong glasses, soldier.”

I say, “Oh!  Now that solves the problem, sir.  Please give me my glasses.”

He gives me my glasses.  They are dark green.  (3) I put them on and the world is black.  For three-and-a-half years I carry these green glasses at the bottom of my army trunk.  (3) They cost the U. S. Army seventy-five dollars, I understand, and (2) today I use them as a paper weight

This is only an idea of how Shep (or anyone) might go about coming up with a few prominent signposts such as the foregoing four, and with those four, in creating a story or other performance. There must be many other/different possible steps in such a process.

ralphie glasses

Oh, no! I broke my glasses!

Will my parents notice?

Should I blame Randy?

Should I claim an icicle did it?

Should I use the broken glasses as a paperweight?

ACS Ralphie smiles at us

She bought it!




  1. mygingerpig says:

    If you think about a story you tell often to new people, a story that always gets a laugh of they find fascinating, you have probably honed and refined it over the years to its optimum form. Hearing Seinfeld talk about his bits, he has them refined and polished to the split second, with the order of the words, timing and inflections precisely determined. The opposite of improvisation.

    Shep often repeated his stories verbally, and in writing. So I imagine you are referring to the first time he tells a story on air. I imagine he has thought about the deflections and diversions he wants to insert as well as the trajectory of the story. I’ve learned from listening to Seinfeld talk about how he does his work that, like Fred Astaire, he performs the bit hundreds of times, testing empirically to see what works best. Once he has the formula, he doesn’t deviate from it.

    Shep was a consummate professional and I am sure he went through a similar process, though, like all greats in their field, this work never shows. Willy Mays said of his famous back to the ball catch of Vic Wirtz long drive that he knew the second the ball left the bat where it was going to come down, and he ran to that place, put his glove out, and “plop” the ball fell into it. It looked like he did it in the moment, yet it was a predetermined result based on his skill, experience and ability to understand the physics of baseball line drives.


  2. mygingerpig says:

    Wayne Gretsky was quoted as saying “I skate to where the puck is going to be.” Another example of a professional whose brain is trained to do something that looks easy but requires tremendous training and experience.

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