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The film, annotated, in part.
Years ago I wrote and submitted to a movie magazine, my overall description and commentary on that great American Christmas movie. But it was rejected, the editor said, because the mag had published a general article about the movie a few years before. Here’s a slightly-edited part of the introductory matter I wrote, plus a paragraph from the 2016 holiday issue of the magazine Vanity Fair.
• • • • • • • • •
“Was there no end to this conspiracy of irrational prejudice against Red Ryder and his peacemaker?”
In case the reader doesn’t know, A Christmas Story (1983) is the movie about a kid who wants a BB gun for Christmas. His mother, teacher, and even Santa Claus, tell him that he’ll shoot his eye out. He (a cute kid with glasses), his kid brother (very whiny), his parents and friends, live in the steel mill town of Hohman (actually Hammond), Indiana. Their world is just as we remember life used to be or feel it should have been. Yet almost every incident in this sort of picturesque, just-like-it-should-be world, ends in disaster. But then the kid gets the gun and the parents show mutual affection, so all imperfections convert to life as we dream of it. The End.
• • • • • • • • •
NOSTALGIA (Jean Shepherd: “Get it out of your skull!”)
Although director Bob Clark once said that they worked hard to give A Christmas Story a recognizable sense of what many people would remember from their past, he did not suggest that the film was seriously meant to be an exercise in nostalgia. Clark called it “an odd combination of reality and spoof and satire.” That is not nostalgia.
Jean Shepherd, for all the humor and joy he expressed in his decades of nightly radio programs, had a negative view of life’s ultimate meaning, and often expressed an intense dislike of nostalgia. From his earliest radio days he insisted that, despite evoking the past, his stories showed that the past was no better than the present. On one radio program he put it this way: “My work, I think, is anti-sentimental, as a matter of fact. If you really read it, you realize it’s a putdown of what most people think it stands for—it’s anti-nostalgic writing.”
A QUOTE FROM THE VANITY FAIR HOLIDAY ISSUE, 2016
Shepherd’s biographer [sic*] Eugene Bergmann points out that the line in the film that best describes Shepherd’s attitude toward life is when they’re getting ready for Christmas dinner and the Old Man is sitting in the living room reading the funny papers. “The viewer can see the Bumpuses’ hounds starting to trot past him, but he doesn’t see them, because the paper is blocking his view. And, of course, we know what’s going to happen—the hounds are going to get hold of that Christmas turkey.” So Shepherd says, in his voice-over narration, ‘Ah, life is like that. Sometimes at the height of our revelries, when our joy is at its zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us.’”
*As I continually explain, my book is not and never was intended to be a “biography.” It’s a description and appreciation of his art.
With all of this, A Christmas Story is the funniest, most enjoyable, wittiest, clever and most satisfying film you’re ever likely to see yearly for twenty-four hours straight starting Christmas Eve.
Over fifty million people watch at least parts of it every year as it’s shown on Turner Cable television. Some families, in their Christmas passion, have memorized the dialog and the narration, repeating them along with the film. (Despite watching it yearly and remembering most details, my wife and I laugh unfailingly at the same places.) Most watch it yearly, filled with the teary-eyed nostalgia they bring to it, though most of them undoubtedly do not know what the film is meant to be about and that there is only the tiniest bit of authentic happy-days that I think was probably (through a producers’ arm-twisting of the script-writers) tagged onto the end. The viewers’ ignorance is bliss. Yet, they might increase their pleasure in this delightful creation by understanding more about the film, because knowledge and insight, as we know, is a very satisfying sort of adult bliss worth adding to one’s heretofore innocent enjoyment. Viewers will come to understand why the kid nearly shoots his eye out.
• • • • • • • • •
Let’s follow A Christmas Story
from its opening titles to its picture-postcard, sugarplum end.
Of course not enough people read opening titles, but in this case, it’s worth taking the trouble,
because who created the film and narrates the entire thing is of much relevance to what it’s all about.
Probably a vast majority of viewers don’t know who Jean Shepherd is, despite the fact that,
prominent among the opening titles they would read the following four:
Metro-Goldwyn Mayer Presents
A film from the works of Jean Shepherd
• • • • • • • • •
Ralphie as an adult
• • • • • • • • •
Based upon the Novel
In God We Trust
All Others Pay Cash
By Jean Shepherd
• • • • • • • • •
Jean Shepherd & Leigh Brown
& Bob Clark
• • • • • • • • •
The title “Ralphie as an adult,” refers to Jean Shepherd doing the entire narration we enjoy so much. He had previously used this narrative style in his 1970s television drama, “The Phantom of the Open Hearth,” and he described the style in his introduction to the published script of it, writing: “The Narrator is actually the voice of Ralph, grown up, but at the same time he is somehow mysteriously in communication with the viewer.” Fans of the 1988-1993 sitcom, The Wonder Years may well recognize that form of narrative. Shepherd, who, because of his use of it for A Christmas Story in 1983, had been considered for the narrator role in the sitcom, but had then been turned down, apparently because his adamant beliefs regarding his creative endeavors were considered too difficult to deal with. Bitter for many years, he claimed that The Wonder Years producers had stolen from him not only his technique, but some plot lines.
For those unfamiliar with Jean Shepherd, note that he improvised his nightly radio program in the 1950s through early 1977, and that most of the film’s content was told by him on his shows in the early 1960s without a script. Then he wrote down the stories and they were published in Playboy, then in his books In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey’ Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters. Shepherd, a major jazz personality in the late 1950s, is also known for his other films, several television series he created, as well as for hundreds of live performances around the country for decades, and for perpetrating one of the great literary hoaxes of all time: the I, Libertine affair. (You can look it up.)
Merry Christmas to all,
and may none of you ever
shoot your eye out.
• • • • • • • • •
Here are ways that I have promoted my work regarding Shep:
•Interviews: on Internet, radio, one on TV, and Paley Center appearance.
•Responded to reader comments on Internet sites referring to Shep.
•Authored several articles about Shep in print publications.
•Appearance and talk at Hammond’s ACS festival.
•Contributed paragraph about Shep for Hammond’s ACS brochure.
•Discussion on two panels at the Old Time Radio Convention
(Thanks again to Jackie Lannin for the Excelsior banner).
•Two talks at public libraries.
•References on my blog, www.shepquest.wordpress.com .
•My occasional comments regarding some Customer Reviews
on www.amazon.com and my “Author Page”on that site.
•In all nine CD sets of Syndicated Shep,
my text about the audios and info about EYF!
(Shep book info layout by Radio Spirits).
•My Shepherd play, “Excelsior,” (2 performances!)
•My EYF! pin worn on very rare occasions.
(I designed it with my computer drawing program, printed it,
and took it to a pin-maker at the mall.
It’s 3.5″ diameter so ya can’t miss it!)
•The sweatshirt I designed and occasionally wear.
(Photo taken in front of my Shep Shrine wall in my study.
Note Shep-poster, excelsior bottles,
Shep drawings on paper towel, etc.)
•As always, I thank Jim Clavin for his constant promotion
of my work on his site, www.flicklives.com
Among the unpublished chapters in my book manuscripts, I encountered a chronology that, in its concentrated form, might be worth contemplating as a very short description of Jean Shepherd’s activities from 1960 on. It’s not complete or definitive, but should probably exist in some form other than in electronic blips on my computer and CDs.
The relative importance of his early, “night people” adult fans diminished in proportion to the subsequent, much larger student population who listened and who also attended his many high school and college appearances, and his many live talks around the country. He met Leigh Brown, the cute, young, ambitious chick from the Village in the late 1950s, their relationship developing more strongly when she began working at WOR in the early 1960s. His live broadcasts from the Limelight Café in the Village on Saturday nights began in February, 1964 and ended in December, 1967. The basic week-nightly broadcasts were mostly 45-minutes long. One never knew what sort of subject or mood he would be in and what sort of seemingly incongruent mix he might dish up on an evening, and the variety and quality of the broadcasts remained very high.
Sometimes he would tell a story or comment on the passing scene, read a bit from one of his favorite authors, sometimes play tunes on kazoo, nose flute, or jews harp, or knock out a tune by thumping on his head. Some programs had all of the above and more. As he loved traveling, by taking his tape recorder with him he would bring back audio samples and commentaries for his programs from such places as the Peruvian Amazon, Ireland, Germany, Australia, and the Windward Islands.
Several times over the years attempts were made to extend his listening audience by sending tapes of the broadcast programs around the country by syndication. In one attempt, over 200 new programs were specially taped in 1964-1965, but little distribution was done before the project was lost and forgotten about in a warehouse. Recently, these recordings, four and eight at a time, had been produced and sold in boxed CD sets. Then, more were released one program at a time at a much more expensive rate per show.
Shepherd performed in several plays in the late 1950s and early 1960s, apparently wanting to concentrate on acting, but his then-wife, Lois Nettleton, noted years later, that as his natural style was improvising his own material, he had trouble remembering scripted lines. No record exists for any acting after the mid-1960s. Of note, “Asylum,” which never opened, was an original play by Arthur Kopit, not a revival, so that its failure to open is doubly unfortunate for New York theater as well as for Shepherd in particular.
Regarding live performances, for most of his career he concentrated on performing his own material. His attempt at doing his own storytelling by facing into the camera on television was not successful. He did create, narrate, and usually perform, in nearly two dozen programs of two series of half-hour shows for PBS, Jean Shepherd’s America, in which, for the most part, the small video crew traveled the country filming subjects that struck them as relevant parts of American culture (1971 and 1985). He also created Shepherd’s Pie (1978), a shorter series of half-hour programs featuring several subjects each, again mostly related to aspects of the culture that interested him. He created three hour-and-a-half stories based on groupings of some of his originally published stories. Most of his television work includes Shepherd himself as narrator, and he often appears on-camera. He also created a number of other individual television programs that appeared from the 1960s on.
Although his short stories told on the air were so good and so popular, it seems that only a concerted effort by friends Shel Silverstein and Lois Nettleton had convinced him to write them out and submit them to Playboy. (He had felt that the human voice was the most direct, and therefore best, medium, for telling tales.) The first story appeared in June, 1964 and the last of the twenty-three in August, 1981. He also wrote one humor piece for the magazine. Despite his antipathy toward the Beatles in particular and rock-and-roll in general, Playboy sent him to the British Isles in 1964 for their Beatles interview, which appeared in February, 1965. Playboy gave him a “humor of the year” award four times.
Most of his short stories and some of his articles were published in his popular books. He inevitably created odd and funny titles for his stories and books. Although some of the names in his stories refer to actual people of his childhood, Shepherd’s short stories are mostly fiction. (For example, Flick’s family insisted that he had never had his tongue stuck to a pole.) Shepherd claimed that the themes of some of these tales were metaphorical. For example, he noted that the BB gun story was an anti-war tale. One might also find an anti-war message in his story of waring tops, “Murderous Mariah.” Over the years, Shepherd wrote scores of articles for many diverse periodicals, and did forwards and introductions to books that related to one or another aspect of his wide-ranging interests regarding American culture.
Shepherd loved radio, but its importance in the culture began to decline in the 1950s with the coming of television. His creative interests in other media expanded and his WOR Radio work ended April Fools Day, 1977. Despite his love for New York City, he and Leigh Brown moved to a condominium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. In 1984 they bought a house on Sanibel Island, Florida, where they lived, becoming increasingly isolated, even from friends, for the rest of their lives.
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
A CHRISTMAS STORY
The book of assembled A Christmas Story stories is promoted as “The Book That Inspired the Hilarious Classic Film,” though, deceptively, the book contains the previously published film-related stories from the books In God We Trust (1966) and Wanda Hickey (1971). The A Christmas Story play, of several years’ seasonal duration makes the rounds. The musical based on the movie is good.
Every year one encounters news stories about kids getting tongues stuck to frozen poles, and they refer to the movie. “I decided to try it because I thought all of the TV shows were lies, but turns out I was wrong,” said one kid. Kids, want to prove it’s true without ripping skin off your tongue? Touch your slightly moistened finger to an ice cube. Sticks, doesn’t it?
Yes, ACS again. I capitulated to its popularity long ago, giving prominent references to it in my own writing about Shep. I’m an idealist and a realist. We need whatever promotion we can get. Especially as there seems to be some jinx working against Shep, with inadequate, inappropriate, and inaccurate Shepherd knowledge insinuated into the American cultural makeup. ACS indeed! (As wonderful as it is.)
Talk about cultural makeup–as with many movies, it has a couple of subtle jokes. A minor one, probably meant more for the movie makers’ own enjoyment than for its viewers, because it’s only seen in full for less than a second, is what’s either a sweet bit of longing for a bygone age or another example of skewed nostalgia: Ralphie has attached his BB gun target to a large, vertically propped-up advertising sign which proclaims in big, bold letters, “Golden Age.” Those idyllic words are partly obscured by that symbol of symbolic hostility—the target. The “golden age” advertising sign, apparently metal, is indeed the obvious cause of the BB ricocheting back, nearly shooting Ralphie’s eye out.
This great family movie, watched every year by millions as it’s played twenty-four hours straight on cable television, also has a couple of sneaky off-color references. Probably not one in a million is aware of them even after many viewings.
A minor gag involves the poorly positioned stencils on the wooden crate containing the leg lamp. The missing part of the F in FRAGILE on the top is not relevant, but above it, instead of THIS END UP, the missing T leaves a probable reference to the old man’s posterior: it reads HIS END UP.
A visual piece of fun happens when Randy finally gets into the bathroom after Ralphie deciphers his decoder message. Randy lowers his outer pants and then, as he lifts the lid on the pooping “pot,” the camera cuts to a close-up in the kitchen of a lid being lifted on red cabbage in a cooking pot. When the fuse blows while the old man is working on the Christmas tree lights, narrator Shepherd comments that his old man “can change a fuse faster than a jackrabbit on a date.” One only has to remember that rabbits are famous for reproducing rapidly in the time-honored way, and especially that they would be doing such on “a date.” That’s the most startling, and it’s my favorite.
The movie looms so large in Shep’s legend. One cannot get away from all things A Christmas Story. The house used for the movie exterior shots, located in Cleveland, Ohio, bought on ebay, has been turned into a museum of the movie. They spent thousands returning it to the look of the movie inside and out, making it a tourist attraction. They contracted four of the former child actors for the opening, and a Chinese restaurant has a tie-in regarding the Christmas duck dinner featured in the movie. A leg lamp dominates the window of the house, and they’re selling all the collateral merchandise. May The Christmas Story House live long and prosper.
Among the fairly new A Christmas Story products is a snow globe, a board game, a Monopoly game, a jigsaw puzzle, and the siding removed from the original A Christmas Story house sold in a collectible shadow box. Obviously a major subject for millions of A Christmas Story enthusiasts, the leg lamp looms large. But despite the growing popularity of blow-up décor for every conceivable holiday season in my Long Island neighborhood, please don’t anyone buy me the recently available five and-a-half feet tall by two feet in diameter inflatable leg lamp lawn ornament. (I think it’s no longer available.)
I’d love a photo of one taken on a lawn!
And as for some of the new variations, don’t buy me the Leg Lamp Soap-On-A-Rope, the Leg Lamp Head-Knocker, or even the Leg Lamp Wall Clock, with its pendulum like a leg, perpetually swinging back and forth, as, on the hour, the clock announces that immortal exclamation, “Fra-gee-lay!” And don’t get me from the catalog this new one for 2015:
I’d rather drink my sweet vermouth on the rocks
out of a plain glass tumbler.
For the 2006 holiday season, the wireless phone company, Cingular, broadcast a TV commercial replicating parts of the movie with Ralphie requesting a particular model cell phone, wearing the pink bunny suit, and Santa shoving him down the slide with his big black boot. Instead of “You’ll shoot your eye out!” the admonition is “You’ll run the bill up!” A full-color editorial cartoon by Mike Thompson in the Detroit Free Press soon after the November 2006 elections in which Democrats gained control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives, replicates the scene in which Santa is asked for the BB gun, but Ralphie is replaced by a Democratic donkey, saying “I want an official full-blown Congressional investigation into the Bush administration’s conduct leading up to the war [in Iraq] with simultaneous passage of a wildly ambitious domestic agenda!” Santa, about to send the Democrat donkey down the slide by shoving him in the face with his boot, says, “You’ll shoot your foot off, kid.” An extensive New York Times article on the commercial and related A Christmas Story matters in their Business Section quoted a Turner Broadcasting executive as saying that for the twenty-four hour showing of the movie during Christmas, 2005, 45.4 million people watched at least part of it. More recently, the count has gone well over fifty million.
I just noticed that the entire movie now appears on YouTube. But, after it being
a freebee, now one has to pay to see it!
A Christmas Story loomed large in the spring of 2007 with the news that on April 4th, the film’s director, Bob Clark, and his son were killed when an illegal alien without a driver’s license, allegedly drunk, driving on the wrong side of the road, hit their car. Readers of the obituary were informed that the director had a cameo role in the film—when the old man goes outside to admire his “major award” leg lamp in the window, Clark is the man who questions him about it. On the day of the accident, Shepherd fan Keith Olbermann, star of television news and sports commentary programs, did a short piece on Clark and A Christmas Story.
In 2008, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the movie’s opening, the A Christmas Story House
Gene B.’s contribution to the above brochure
(I may have posted this before):
“Jean Shepherd talked and wrote a lot about Hammond. He might sometimes disparage the place, but in his heart and mind the tribulations and joys of his childhood were inseparable from his hometown. Though he might attempt to disguise some connections, he kept letting them sneak in. Two examples: The town he wrote about called ‘Hohman’ he named after a street of that name in Hammond. In the movie A Christmas Story Shepherd’s fictional character Ralphie wants a BB gun as he also did in the earlier published version originally titled ‘Duel in the Snow or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid,’ and we know that Jean Shepherd grew up on Hammond’s Cleveland Street. In some undeniable, enigmatic way, Jean Shepherd was the Cleveland Street Kid. He never got Hammond out of his creative works or out of his blood.”
As no one offered to cover all my expenses to Hammond or Clevland, I was forced to observe the occasion in my own very private—and enigmatic–fashion.
One year I was interviewed for a newspaper article about ACS, commenting in a way I’ve long felt but may not have quite articulated before: “Because it’s so funny, I think people don’t realize that the funniness is in the bizarre negative outcome of so many incidents in the movie. Shepherd’s philosophy tended to be that most things in life were going to end in disaster. In this movie he was able to present that in an acceptable form, a form that makes people laugh and makes them not realize the darker undercurrent.”
A dramatic example of this is when the old man is reading the newspaper,
the neighbor’s dogs, heading for the Christmas turkey,
start tramping through–unseen by him
because of the newspaper blocking his view–
and Shepherd as narrator wryly comments:
“Ah, life is like that.
Sometimes at the height of our revelries,
when our joy is at its zenith,
when all is most right with the world,
the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us.”
[Joel comments on many of the positive/caring acts that occur in the film. Although comments appear on the blog where they are indicated, many may not look at them, so I’ve sometimes revised the basic post to include them, as I do here:
I think the observation that so many of the incidents in the movie end in disaster, yet are done so we laugh is the banana peel phenomenon. But the other thing that rescues the movie from the darkness is the love that is shown in the family. The scene of the ride to get the Christmas tree, singing in the car is one such. The father’s love when he points Ralphie to the treasured BB gun after all the presents are unwrapped (“well,” he says, “I had one when I was a kid.”). The mother’s tender care when she thinks an icicle wounded Ralphie. Her soothing him after his explosion beating up Scut Farcas, and not telling the old man about the episode… The scene in the Chinese restaurant where they laugh and enjoy the experience as a family (Shepherd remarks that the meal became know long after for the duck). The closing scene showing the warmly lit quiet house and the tree with the kids in bed, Ralphie caressing the BB gun and the snow falling outside is a real Christmas card.
I find it interesting that the movie portrays such warmth in the family home and among the parents and kids, when Shep’s reality must have been anything but that, given his father’s abandonment of the family.]
Gang, this is an extra and important
Shepherd-related blog post.
Steven Glazer continues to devote his time to researching and distributing much relevant information about Jean Shepherd’s life and work. His December 16 illustrated lecture about the movie A CHRISTMAS STORY is bound to be exceptionally informative and entertaining. I hope that I and many others will continue to benefit from this and all of Steve’s future work on behalf of Jean Shepherd’s legacy.
Have a Merry!
Although Shepherd didn’t seem to discuss food often, he did so more than I’d remembered. Enthusiastic Shep fan, Steve, commented that there is an extensive description of food in Shepherd’s fictional tale, “The Grandstand Passion Play of Delbert and the Bumpus Hounds,” the opening story of Shep’s book of stories, Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories–and Other Disasters (Doubleday, 1971). This is of special interest because it is the lead-up to the theft of the family’s holiday dinner by the neighbor’s dogs–the Easter ham in the book, transformed in the A CHRISTMAS STORY film into the Christmas turkey.
“Don’t Touch that Turkey!”
The book’s description of preparation for the holiday surely shows the delight Shepherd, as author, had in the anticipation and consumption of food:
When we got the ham home, my mother immediately stripped off the white paper and the string in the middle of our chipped white-enamel kitchen table. There it lay, exuding heavenly perfumes–proud, arrogant, regal. It had a dark, smoked, leathery skin, which my mother carefully pealed off with her sharpened bread knife….It just sat there on the stove and bubbled away for maybe two hours, filling the house with a smell that was so luscious, so powerful, as to have erotic overtones….The ham frenzy was upon him….
Grunting and straining, my mother poured off the water into another pot. It would later form the base of a magnificent pea soup so pungent as to bring tears to the eyes. She then sprinkled a thick layer of brown sugar dotted with butter, over the ham. She stuck cloves in it in a crisscross design, then added several slices of Del Monte pineapple, thick and juicy, and topped it off with a maraschino cherry in the center of each slice. She then sprinkled brown sugar over the lot, a few teaspoons of molasses, the juice from the pineapple can, a little salt, a little pepper, and it was shoved into the oven. Almost instantly, the brown sugar melted over the mighty ham and mingled with the ham juice in the pan….
All night long, I would lie in my bed and smell the ham….
By 1:30 that afternoon, the tension had risen almost to the breaking point….Finally at about two-o’clock, we all gathered around while my mother opened the blue pot–releasing a blast of fragrance so overwhelming that my knees wobbled–and surrounded the ham with sliced sweet potatoes to bake in the brown sugar and pineapple juice….
My father picked up his carving knife again, for one last stroke on the whetstone. He held the blade up to the light. Everything was ready. He went into the living room and sat down.
His eyes glowed with the primal lust of a cave man about to dig into the kill, which would last for at least four months. We would have ham sandwiches, ham salad, ham gravy, ham hash–and, finally, about ten gallons of pea soup made with the gigantic ham bone.
When it happened….It was going to be a day to remember. Little did I suspect why.
We know what happened because we’ve seen the movie every year. We have been built up to the glory of the feast by the careful preliminary descriptions so that the invasion of the Bumpus hounds, exaggerated in their act–the slavering gustatory delight anticipated by the family: …the hounds–squealing, yapping, panting, rolling over one another in a frenzy of madness….
Ham anticipated by Parker family.
Ham devoured by Bumpus Hounds.
From Ham to Hohman.
The same Shep story about Easter/Christmas feasting includes his classic description of his hometown, Hohman (aka Hammond, Indiana). Just reacquainted with it, I feel that it deserves more recognition:
Ours was not a genteel neighborhood, by any stretch of the imagination. Nestled picturesquely between the looming steel mills and the verminously aromatic oil refineries and encircled by a colorful conglomerate of city dumps and fetid rivers, our northern Indiana town was and is the very essence of the Midwestern industrial heartland of the nation. there was a standard barbershop bit of humor that said it with surprising poetism: If Chicago (only a stone’s throw away across the polluted lake waters) was Carl Sandburg’s “City of the Broad Shoulders,” then Hohman had to be that city’s broad rear end.
Hammond Steel Mill.
NEW (WIMPY) KID IN TOWN
Diary of a Wimpy Kid and its many sequels as kids books (originally composed with adult readers in mind, so the author says) have, reportedly, 150 millions copies in print and been made into a movie. An article about him in the NY Times says “the illustrated diary of an acerbic and devious middle-school boy named Greg Heffley. The stories were semi-autobiographical, loosely based on Mr. Kinney’s childhood and ‘put through the fiction blender.'” Thus, author Jeff Kinney’s work would seem to have some similarity to Shepherd’s.
I’ve skimmed this first volume and find it witty and well done, though not, as it claims on the cover, “a novel.” (Remember that Shep’s IGWT is described on the cover–and by Shep himself–as “a novel.”) Wimpy does follow the kid through his first year at middle school, seems not to have the structure of a novel, but, indeed, has, one after another, dozens of individual bits and pieces, each quite good as stand-alone, funny vignettes. They do add up to a volume that keeps one’s interest through funny little episodes and funny kid-like comments by the wimpy kid.
Neither does the book seem to be told through the drawings on every page (Described on the book cover as “cartoons.” The drawings are really very funny illustrations to the text. Altogether a well-done creation.
Does author Kinney have any acknowledged debt to Shepherd? I hope to find out.
An interview by David Hiltbrand posted online in March, 2010, comments. “Jeff Kinney had a clear template when it came time to adapt his wildly successful Diary of a Wimpy Kid children’s books to the big screen. ‘I went right to A Christmas Story,’ says the author, citing the 1983 film based on the stories of radio humorist Jean Shepherd.‘ ‘In most kids’ movies, the stakes are very high,’ says Kinney, 39, in Philadelphia this week to promote the movie, which opens March 19. ‘The world is going to end or somebody is going to die or something awful is going to happen unless the characters do such and such. In this movie the stakes are incredibly low. There are two friends who break up and you want them to become friends again. In A Christmas Story, the stakes were perhaps even lower. A kid wants a BB gun. We kept reminding ourselves when we were working on the film that you can tell a good story even on the big screen with really low stakes as long as the emotional part of it works.'”
In another interview he says, “I see my books as joke-delivery mechanisms. I’m trying to get as many laughs as I can per page. And if I can figure a way to get a good story out of it or something credible then I’m very satisfied, but really, I’m trying to keep the kid laughing, and often, if I have a lot of plot, it gets in the way of the joke and it burns through too many pages so I will sacrifice a good story for a good joke any time.” So we see that his intention is not the same as Shep’s long-form humorous tales (Though A Christmas Story, not a Shep-alone but a joint-creation, is constantly laugh-out-loud funny for me and my wife every time we see it.)
By the way, I also like the weird, kid-like drawing style of Wimpy Kid–it also has its appropriate, funny look to it.
Kinney is opening a large, independent bookstore in his home town. He’ll have a special spot for all the Wimpy Kid books and ancillary, money-making by-products.
Imagine how envious Shep would be regarding all this!
(Although there’s no focus on Shep’s total creative output
at the A Christmas Story House’s store,
maybe it’s the best we should expect.)
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Jean Shepherd was an icon in his time. Now he’s not. What happened?”
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Photo by Dan Beach
What!– ME largely forgotten?!
The author of The Atlantic article, shown above, is wrong–as I trust we all know. Jean Shepherd is not largely forgotten. Let us begin by admitting that even at his most popular, it was, relative to big celebrity fame, a “cult” enthusiasm. So there were never many millions who knew his name and appreciated what he did. Many aspects of his life and work that are a part of American culture remain, by the majority of Americans, unnamed–unrecognized. For example, we can imagine that the vast majority of those who love A Christmas Story have no idea of the name of the creator and narrator. But, besides all the popularity of A Christmas Story, the movie, there’s the straight play based on it shown in innumerable tiny town throughout the land, and the musical based on the movie.
There’s Jerry Seinfeld (“He formed my entire comedic sensibility. I learned how to do comedy from Jean Shepherd,” See Seinfeld’s Paley Center tribute to Shepherd in January 2012) Billy Collins (U.S. Poet Laureate) Donald Fagen, Dee Snider, Don Imus, Harry Shearer and most of those in the arts and media today who consider him their master and still discuss him. New essays and comments about Shep continually appear on the Internet.
Among us regular folks, over a thousand audios of his 45-minute radio shows are easily and cheaply available by the hundreds per CD–captured and preserved by dedicated enthusiasts over the decades. There are three websites (check out www.flicklives.com), two email groups, a blog with extensive illustrated essays about him. There are two major books about him–my 500-page appreciation and overview of his career, and the 2013 book of my transcriptions of almost 3 dozen of his army stories told on the radio, for which I’ve been interviewed numerous times–twice by NPR, once by CBS TV, etc. Shep’s own books continue to sell, as can be noted by checking the colophon page of the top 2 trade paperbacks, where one sees that the re-printings have gone into well over two-dozen each. (From time to time I check this out at my local B & N, where I inevitably find one or more of Shep’s books for sale. IGWT has now reached 46 re-printings). A documentary about his work is being worked on these days by Nick Mantis. I could go on for hours–and frequently do.
See the list of dozens of 1960s then-renowned comic figures in the book Seriously Funny and ask how much celebrity and fan-enthusiasm they have today. Some of the very greats from the golden age of radio–Fred Allen, Jack Benny–how much interest in them, listening to them, reading them, watching them– is there today compared to Shepherd? In terms of current enthusiasm, aren’t all of them more “largely forgotten” than Shepherd is?
How many comics/humorists have so many
enthusiasts dedicated to them decades
after they left the spotlight?
Excelsior, you fathead!
A recently discovered parody of Playboy from an issue of Punch in 1971 contains only the beginnings of a story, “How Pliny Fluck Nearly Got What He Wanted and Almost Lost a Finger,” tagged as “humus, americana, and naustalgia by Genes Sheepherder. “ That a humor magazine published in England chose to include Shepherd’s work suggests that he must have had at least some degree of renown there. The opening paragraph:
“Crash! CRUNCH! KAVOOM! BAM!” sang the scissors in Pliny Fluck’s freckled fingers. It was Saturday afternoon in Bedspring Falls and all the boys were hanging around Pliny Fluck’s Barber Tonsorium, Pool Hall and Weltschmerzerie, swapping dirty stories and baseball cards. Except Marv Kluntsch and Jeb Phrigg who were saving time by swapping dirty baseball stories.
There are not many parodies of Shep (is there more than one?)–and not too many attempts to analyze his writing or his style except for Professor Quentin Schultz, who has taught courses in Shep. (A student cheat-essay for sale noted below may be another “parody.”) Some might think that Garrison Keillor must have been influenced and others would say that Keillor goes his own way. Probably most Shepherd fans would disparage Keillor as inferior. There was a moment, however, when Shep himself admired the early Garrison Keillor. See below.
A Website containing thousands of high-school-level essays for sale to student cheats gives, as an example, an essay illustrating comparison-and-contrast titled “Gene Shepard’s In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash vs. The Christmas Story.” Eagle-eyed and even bleary-eyed Shep fans will note that his first and last names are both misspelled, and the movie is incorrectly titled.
HAPPY TO BE HERE
— A Garrison Keillor ANECDOTE—
Thoughts on another literary matter. According to people I’ve interviewed, Jean Shepherd hated Garrison Keillor “with a passion,” and Keillor was “the person he was more embittered toward than anybody.” Obviously Shepherd envied the accolades Keillor got for his radio storytelling. But before all that happened, Shepherd wrote one of the blurbs for Keillor’s first book of stories, Happy to Be Here, published in 1981:
“I welcome Garrison Keillor to the ranks of a very endangered species.
Keillor makes you laugh, and that ain’t easy these days.”
Later on Shepherd seemed to feel that he had much cause to be embittered. He did not achieve the acknowledgments for his work that some of his peers he considered his inferiors got. His first and greatest love, radio, during the years of his most important broadcasting, did not have the capacity to allow him to achieve nationwide acclaim. (Not just school kids, damnit, but a wider listenership among literate adults.) Some of his later television and movie work did not even get produced, some did not turn out as well as he had expected, and he did not achieve the break-through popularity he wanted except for the later television re-broadcasting of his A Christmas Story. Most of the millions who love the movie are probably not even aware of who created and narrated it. Who reads those opening titles, anyway? Even if four of them refer to Shepherd’s important role in the film.
Irony is never far away in the world of Shep.
(Once, just a couple of years ago, Garrison Keillor,
on a radio program devoted to important dates,
mentioned Shep in what must be recognized as a positive way.
I think it was his birthday.)