Home » General subjects. Excelsior, you Fathead! » JEAN SHEPHERD–Invectives and other Communication–Part 2 of 2

JEAN SHEPHERD–Invectives and other Communication–Part 2 of 2


In Network, the film in which the television newscaster, Howard Beal, having a nervous breakdown, tells his audience to open their windows and shout “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.”  The whole piece of business is the equivalent of Shepherd’s “hurl an invective,” except that on Shepherd’s broadcasts, he did the actual hurling, not the audience.  Broadcaster Doug McIntyre suggests that “Howard Beal is Jean Shepherd.”  California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, quoted by Time magazine in 2005, hurled an invective a la Beal when referring to his 2003 electoral campaign anthem, Twisted Sister’s invective against the status quo, “We’re Not Gonna Take It Anymore.”  As the rebellious, if not quite as fluent, governor put it, “I was sent by the people.  We are mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any longer.”

There have been several variations on Shepherd’s “hurling an invective,” including a few in which mere communicating one’s bond with other Shep fans—without a word said—is the point.  In one, Shepherd tells listeners to blink their house lights on and off, and in another:

…take a white towel or handkerchief and wave it in the air.  Just get up and wave it in the air, you know!  And signal down the beach to the guy—you’ll see another guy a couple of miles down waving and you’ll know that he’s with you. (July 2, 1960)

Nonverbal is the exception—Shepherd fans are familiar with his pleasure in words.   Some fans remember his fondness for the word “hairy” and have heard him refer to some music or activity as having “hairy vitality.”  That his close friend Shel Silverstein, who sported a dark, unruly beard and head of hair, named his first album Hairy Jazz (1959), suggests that Shepherd’s use of the word is no coincidence. One can imagine the two of them tossing the word back and forth between them in those hairy, late 1950s.  One might wonder but never know who first uttered the immortal word hairy.

When it came to words in all their manifestations—from the single word to the full-blown story, Shepherd was a master.  We’re familiar with how he would diverge from the main thread of a story and, with only moments remaining, bring it all back home, concluding the tale.  Here’s a variation I’d have to re-listen to many programs to confirm—it’s a subtle variation.  Soon after Shepherd died, a listener wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Times, commenting on a major piece about him published in a March 2000, “Week in Review” section, titled “’Creeping Meatballism’ and Other Peculiar Riffs on America.”  The fan comments that sometimes a Shepherd story was nestled inside another, one starting before the previous one ended.  Useful resources for investigating such profound matters are the many thousands of Shepherd enthusiasts—I asked members of the Shepherd email group what they thought.  Suellen, a frequent e-mailer, responded in a way I thought had it right:

“It was his way of linking apparently unrelated subjects seamlessly one into another, not only creating yet a third (or fourth or fifth) subject but bringing everything back together at the end and having it all relate and make some ridiculous kind of sense, making me wonder why I never saw it like that until Shep put it all together.”

As with most musings on the particulars of his art, that supreme egotist and Shep-Cuckoo, Shep himself, had something to say:

Thought I wasn’t going to get back to that [subject]!  You guys just don’t realize you’re dealing with a pro.  You don’t!  My work is highly complex.  It really is.  Weaves in and out.  Themes weave in and out.  A vast basket weave of conflicting emotions and sensuous, subtle narrations, and you’ve got to know it!  You don’t read James Joyce sittin’ there and working the Daily News crossword puzzle at the same time.  No sir! (June 29, 1973)

At least for now, some final words on Shepherd’s words.  He loved the old radio program Vic and Sade.  There are many examples of the program’s mix of authentic and dog Latin used to comic effect.  A rather elaborate one comes from Vic and Sade: The Best Plays of Paul Rhymer, edited by Mary Frances Rhymer, foreword by Jean Shepherd.  Vic’s wife, Sade, who enjoyed poking fun at his lodge and its Latin mumbo jumbo, read from a pamphlet advertising a book of rules for wives of lodge members:

“Yp voomer in pluribus hunk.

In hoc signo veni vidi Webster stockdale horse.

Ip extra-curricular feep.”

End of Part 2 of 2



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