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JEAN SHEPHERD Night People and “The Nervous Set.”

HIP AND “NIGHT PEOPLE”

It appears from circumstantial evidence of his early activities in New York, that Jean Shepherd was the essence of “hip.”  With the change to shorter programs earlier in the evening, he probably didn’t seem as hip except in the minds of what was becoming his predominantly younger audience.  He remained extremely intelligent, knowledgeable, entertaining, and sometimes arcane, but not what the cutting edge of hip would still call hip.  (Don’t get the impression that I was ever hip—the most I can claim is that because of Shepherd’s recommendations I was an early and long-time subscriber to The Village Voice and The Realist.

1960-10-dd_010_realist_20_cvr

As a member of the “predominantly younger audience,”

I found Shepherd hip then, and, in a modified way, I still do.)

Yes, Shepherd was hip, so he must have been aware of and curious about the nature of a Broadway musical of 1959, The Nervous Set.  Based on an autobiographical novel by Jay Landesman, with lyrics by his wife Fran Landesman, it seems a witty, cynical send-up of both the hip and the square.  With characters said to portray Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg among others, set in New York in 1950, it’s described as “the intensely cool, hopelessly hip jazz musical about the Beat Generation,” and “a loving evocation of the Beat Generation, with all its warts and contradictions,…”

Connections to Shepherd include his affinity for the Beats, his friend Jules Feiffer’s promotional artwork for the play, and more directly, by one of the songs.  Titled “Night People,” it repeats Shepherd’s “night people” phrase, which he’d used at about four years before the play opened.  The phrase had been in the air since Shepherd described characteristics of people who were awake in the middle of the night, and who were by implication, his early hip radio listeners.  [Actress Lois Nettleton, eventually Shep’s third wife, was one of those early listeners.] Although I’ve suggested the following before, I’ve never fully articulated it.  My sense of Shepherd’s use goes something like this:

1) In early 1956, when he broadcast nightly from 1:00 to 5:30 A. M., he must have begun referring to those who were awake late at night, and many of whom listened to his program, as “night people,” giving the sense that they were a special breed who, through inclination, occupation, or other imperative, felt more comfortable in the dark, less-inhabited hours, when they could be more open to their less-conforming temperaments.  He may have put it a bit too strongly, specifically referring to a “wild tossing of the soul and brooding.”  Yet even these tendencies would have been found among the rarified and embattled souls whose affinity toward Shepherd’s style and tone led them to cling to his word as balm and sustenance.  Ah, those lucky few who heard him then!

2) Then came the firing/rehiring of September 1956, when the renown he thus achieved and the Sunday evening hour, promoted a larger audience, including an intelligent and perceptive majority of them maybe not brooding with a wild tossing of their souls, yet (ready for a pun here?) attuned to him and more likely seated at the kitchen table, homework done, listening on a maroon plastic Zenith AM/FM radio with its big, simulated-gold dial (See my EYF! page 18).

With this audience, he must have seen the need to expand the meaning of “night people,” so in part he promoted an aspect of it, a distaste for what he called the “creeping meatballism” of the mass culture’s conformist and consumer-oriented pressures.  Near the beginning of the earlier-in-the-evening broadcasts (beginning in September, 1956), his article, “The Night People vs. ‘Creeping Meatballism’” appeared April 1957 in that phenomenon of kid-revolt against the conventional culture and consumerism, Mad Magazine.

1957-04_Mad_page_41

In the article, he referred to Night People as “…people who refuse to be taken in by the ‘Day World’ philosophy of ‘Creeping Meatballism.’”  For “day people,” read “conformists.”  At the end of the article, he gathers all perceptive Mad readers and potential listeners into his arms, commenting that no matter how consumer-addicted, one is still an individual, and “every one of us, I don’t care who he is, has a certain amount of ‘Night People’ in him.  And once a person starts thinking and laughing at the culture,…he can never go back!”  Indeed, who of us ever went back?

3) By the time he began broadcasting earlier in the evening, although he may have continued to suggest that his listeners were “Night People,” he didn’t use the term as originally defined but left its understanding open to wider interpretation.  I asked Shepherd fans about his post-overnight usage and reports suggest that later acolytes were not referred to as afflicted with a night person’s wild tossings.  Personally, despite a bit of sleep apnea with mild limb movement, I’ve never tossed wildly.

Without being able to listen to any–much less all–of Shepherd’s overnight broadcasts, we can’t know the whole truth, but in numerous articles the media promoted Shepherd’s use of the term.  An interviewer in 1964: “You referred to your audience as ‘night people.’”  Response: “Well, not really.  That’s not as simple as it sounds.  In fact the phrase ‘night people’ came out of that show that I did.  I never called my audience ‘night people.’”

In response to my 2006 query by email to The Nervous Set’s author, Jay Landesman, he neither confirmed nor denied a connection between Shepherd’s use of the term and the song, but merely promoted to me an expected new production insipidly re-titled Fun Life. (It never happened.)

the nervous set art

LP recording. Note Feiffer drawing on left.

The song can’t be interpreted as a positive comment on what Shepherd meant by the phrase.  The ironic and pompous orchestration and the original cast’s ironically smug rendition make it a two-edged sword—putting down both day-people blandness along with the play’s idea of night people who have a superficial enjoyment of such stuff as neon lights.  Certainly the lyrics of the song don’t evoke what Shepherd felt were serious, highly intelligent, and sensitive people seeking solace, if not fulfillment, in the night.  The song refers to the night people as “restless neon light people, the bright people.”  Sneering at “sober little clay” day people because they never have time to play, the song ends with “We always run before the sun can spoil our fun.  Because we’re night people.  Night people.  Night people.” Listen to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EsKc8i8yOx4 

The impression is of superficial, late-night party animals.  Neon lights and the lyric’s tinsel stars have nothing to do with the Beats or Shepherd’s term.  We know Shepherd disapproved of superficial uses of his phrase, as indicated in the broadcast segment below.  He must have been incensed at the distortion of his idea and the use of the term, and he might well have been referring, at least in part, to the play here—his comment occurs within about a year of the play’s opening:

And you know, incidentally, it has bothered me so much what has happened to the term “night people,” which I have always regretted coining.  This was a term which I coined, and I will stand accused and guilty of it.  And I notice that people have taken it up and used it to cover all sorts of sins of omission and commission.  It has nothing to do with Walter Winchell’s world of bus boys—nothing to do with Walter Winchell’s world and Damon Runyon’s world of cab drivers.  This is not the night people that I’m referring to.

I’m talking about people with that wild tossing in the soul that somehow makes them stay up till three o’clock in the morning and brood. (June 4, 1960)

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3 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    Gene, Excellent. To me that is what Shep was about.
    Lou the Jazz Guy

  2. Steve says:

    Now in a lock, working our way back to the Netherlands. To some of Shep’s young ham-radio listeners, “night people” referred to those who chased DX (long distance) radio contacts late at night, when the ionospheric conditions were most favorable. I slept through many first-period classes because of it.

  3. Steve says:

    Now docked in Amsterdam harbor. Today’s fun (but obscure) Shepherd fact: Flick’s full name was Jack Noble Flickinger.

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