Illustrating the difference between comedy and humor might most easily be done by using Shepherd’s most popular creation, the movie A Christmas Story, and from short stories related to the movie. When little Randy can’t get up after falling in the snow, the image is funny, as it is when he raises the lid of the toilet seat (“the pot”) and the visual cut to the kitchen where what’s being raised is the lid of a pot of red cabbage. The old man getting his Christmas present gift, a bowling ball, dropped a bit too heavily in his groin is comic, as, on the crate carrying his leg lamp, the stenciled sign is missing the initial “T,” reading “HIS END UP.”
A great comic description from the short story “Duel in the Snow or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid,” upon which the movie is largely based, includes:
Scattered out over the icy waste around us could be seen other tiny befurred jots of wind-driven humanity. All painfully toiling toward the Warren G. Harding School, miles away over the tundra, waddling under the weight of frost-covered clothing like frozen bowling balls with feet.
This is a funny image, but doesn’t achieve humor as here defined. But rising to that level, incorporating Dorothy Parker’s requirements, is the moment that Ralphie decodes the Orphan Annie message and decries, “A crummy commercial?”
Criticism and “a disciplined eye and a wild mind.” We recognize the criticism of the deception inflicted upon Ralphie; his realization that show biz, even that directed at kids, is a commercial scam; and his dawning realization that the world he is growing into is one filled with manufactured illusions—deliberate deception. The immediate audience reaction is a laughing out loud at the pointed joke; but, for me, the humor in it is that Ralphie encounters and recognizes that the world is full of two kinds: those who dupe and those who are duped. We retain the realization that life is full of subtle and not-so-subtle deceptions.
In the end, from a deceptively innocent, nostalgic past, the grownup warning that even some minor desires are dangerous, will need to be faced. (“Be careful what you wish for.”) Yet even now, Ralphie’s golden-age-of-nearly-innocent-fantasy—of killing the bad guys with his gun—will have a near miss, a non-lethal twist: ready to fire his first shot with his present, Ralphie has attached the paper target to an obviously discarded but salvaged large metal advertising sign. A sign that will ricochet the BB back at him, nearly shooting his eye out. But before that near-fateful shot is sent winging toward the bull’s eye, the sign itself—which may be plotting revenge for its eventual, ignominious demise—bent out of shape and turned on end, can be seen for an instant by the sharp-eyed movie maven (Quick! look at it! Read it sideways!), its beautifully scripted, two-word, return-to-sender proclamation ironically says it all with its simple-minded, nostalgic, not-so-innocent manifest: “Golden Age.”
By the end of the film, we adults recognize the overly-cautious, yet truthful saying that, with a weapon, “You’ll shoot your eye out!” And, making the entire film’s quest for a gun into the overriding humor, we recognize the truth that the cliche of shooting your eye out, overprotective as it is, might–in the real world–also be an important, universal truism–the BB might ricochet–be careful with that dangerous weaponry!
For all his wit and humor, Jean Shepherd has also be described as childish and even silly. For example, a Shep-fan wrote:
Here is a grown man sitting in a little studio at night telling fictitious bedtime stories, playing really obscure music while he beats on his head or plays along with such classical instruments as the jews harp and nose flute. Mature? I think being immature was what appealed to kids. With Shep we saw it was cool to be an old kid and we didn’t have to worry about becoming old, boring, cookie-cutter people like those we were in contact with every day. Shep was like that wacky favorite uncle you would only see at family gatherings who would be the life of the party… .I enjoyed being a kid and to me Shep was still one too.
Yes, Shep was sometimes a kid at heart. Sure, Shep was silly at times—when he did some of those things for which he could be called “immature.” But it seems to me that most of the time on the air, Shepherd was a mature adult telling us things about himself, life, and our culture and our humanity. And to be “immature” at times is to have the self-confidence to be able to play, to be “silly,” to see the surreal and to summon it up with the wonder and innocence of childhood. Picasso said it took him a lifetime to recapture the visual attributes of childhood, and the well-known photo of Einstein with his tongue out shows the recognized genius with the self-confidence and understanding of the broad range of human nature to be at times “silly.” Especially in public, silly is funny and silly is valuable in expressing our wonder (and dawning skepticism) toward the world as experienced by a child. To be so silly is to perceive the richness and complexities of our human condition and to even so, stick one’s pointed essence at it. Maybe such silliness is the highest form of humor. Oh, powers that be, forever preserve in me the life-enhancing ability to be at times silly–eb