Home » Curmudgeon
Category Archives: Curmudgeon
Is my book SHEP’S ARMY—BUMMERS, BLISTERS, AND BOONDOGGLES mostly funny or something else? Some people have commented that there are many negatively-focused stories. To me, despite some downers, they’ve seemed funny. I decided to do a self-survey of the stories and grade them myself, in order of their sequence in the book, giving each a very short description. Remember that no matter how negative a story is, Shep’s approach, in telling, usually has a feeling one might call witty or funny or humorous–maybe entertaining in a humorous way.
PART 1: YOU’RE IN THE ARMY NOW
“Induction” Disappointment—he expects a patriotic ceremony NEGATIVELY FOCUSED
“Shorn” Outrage at being shorn of his “ducktail”– ego NEGATIVELY FOCUSED YET IRONICALLY FUNNY
“D is for Druid” He fakes-out the authorities regarding his religion FUNNY
“Being Orientated” Disparaging, with Broken Illusions NEGATIVELY FOCUSED
“Army Phraseology” He encounters soldiers’ wild vocabulary FUNNY
PART 2 ARMY HOSPITALITY
“Shermy the Wormy” He and his fellows are very cruel NEGATIVELY FOCUSED
“GI Glasses” He can’t see out of army glasses. Authorities are incompetent NEGATIVELY FOCUSED & FUNNY
“Lieutenant George L. Cherry Takes Charge” Disparaging authority NEGATIVELY FOCUSED & FUNNY
“Pole Climbing” Sad/frightening description of pole-climbing danger NEGATIVELY FOCUSED
“Service Club Virtuoso” A “folk” piano player NEGATIVELY FOCUSED & FUNNY
“Fourth of July in the Army” He describes an army parade PATRIOTIC FUNNY
“USO and a Family Invitation” He’s given a sexual treat FUNNY
“Shipping Out” He leaves “Camp Swampy” for a tropical hell NEGATIVELY FOCUSED
PART 3 WARTIME IN FLORIDA IS HELL
“MOS: Radar Technician” He realizes that pole climbing is death-defying NEGATIVELY FOCUSED
“Radar at 15,000 Volts” Shep and fellow soldiers are afraid of radar equipment until someone plays a practical joke. FUNNY
“Swamp Radar” Military incompetence results in enormous loss of lives. NEGATIVELY FOCUSED
“Night Maneuvers” Goofing off during night training DISPARAGING & FUNNY
“Lister Bag Attack” Soldier in need of anger management stabs water bag. SAD & FUNNY
“Boredom Erupts” A fight over the meaning of “time” FUNNY
“Code School” Military incompetence results in code school students playing joke. DISPARAGING & FUNNY
“T/5” DESCRIPTIVE of his rank FUNNY
Stay tuned for part 2
I am a fanatical enthusiast of Picasso’s work (No, I don’t like it all, and, give me a particular example to defend, I may fail miserably).
After the first 8 of my ARTSY FARTSY essays, I got my first comment about them. Joe Fodor, in the facebook group, “I am a fan of Jean Shepherd,” said he appreciated my invention of the Guernica Coloring Kit. This stimulated me to add additional comments regarding a coupla Artsy encounters with “Picasso.” (Everybody must have encountered Picasso in one manner or another, but a couple of my connections are surely rare.)
Years ago, attending an exhibit of ceramics in a Spanish museum (I think it was in Madrid or Barcelona), I encountered a small plate propped upright in a glass case with a caption indicating that the drawing on it was by Picasso, titled “Abstraction.” As he virtually never did anything totally “abstract,” I studied it a bit–and realized that it must have seemed abstract to whoever described and installed the piece, because it was mounted upside down.
Visualizing it the other way around, I saw that it was a sketchy image of a man on a horse (Don Quixote?). I wrote a short note to that effect and slid it between the front panes of glass, in front of the piece, and went on my way. I trust that some museum person would eventually see my note and correct the error.
Some years later, attending the large, 1980 Picasso retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, I encountered an etching of his with the wall label titled “image of the artist holding mask in center.” A quick glance told me that it was not a mask he held but a bellows camera. That night I wrote a note to the Museum and posted it regarding their error. The next time I visited the exhibit (I went five times), they’d corrected the wall label. (The catalog, published before the exhibition opened, retains the error.) I felt delighted that I had improved the content of this major Picasso exposition–if not the immemorial catalog.
Illustration in my copy of the catalog
(Part of my Picasso collection.)
[Music stops.] Now look. Now look–we’re gonna level, we’re gonna level here. Just for one minute. And don’t you think that I’m here just–night after night just to entertain you, do you?
The more I read and type this Shep-rant the more I see that this form that he’s using is so very different than that of his more familiar 1960-1977, 45-minute programs! I’ve said this before? I’m saying it even more vociferously now!
As much as I like this free-er form Shep, I wonder. Is this earlier Shep actually the more unforced, just talking, just musing, “letting it all hang out,” unstudied Jean Shepherd persona that Lois Nettleton and he preferred–sustainable? When he switched to the 45-minute format, did he realize that not only did a 45 minutes format work against this unguarded Shep, but, if one was going to continue this radio gig for untold years, one could probably not keep this mock-hostile (?) attitude up.
You can’t improvise one’s (rather nasty) curmudgeonly self five nights a week for years. Is it too much all of a sameness after a while? One has to have a format that allows one to bring forth and attach ideas to (improvising in a more controlled format environment). In that one can expand one’s attitudes–downer, funny, informative, mix-em up more.
Is this what I’ve been grasping for in each attempt to analyze and distinguish Shep’s performance variations over the years?
And furthermore I’m going to tell you another thing. We’re gonna have to–this is a moment now, since its almost time to quit. Almost time to quit. We might as well shell it out. I’m not here to play for laughs. I’m not here to entertain you really, you know? I’m here for a much more devious purpose than that.
To begin with, many people here at this very radio station do not even know I am here. They just see it on the log–“The Jean Shepherd Show.” They’re all home there watching television. Doesn’t make any difference. They don’t know.
But I’ll tell you what I’m here for. I am here, and am an extension of–your conscience itself. I am here because I know where you went wrong. I know where you went wrong. The reason I know where you went wrong is because I know where I went wrong. And since I know where I went wrong, I know darn well where you went wrong!
[All this is spoken in mock-argumentative terms.]
So don’t give me any of that jazz! Do you hear me? Any of you! You have fouled up too! You are caught in the same thing. All of you. So don’t–give–me–any–of–your–lip.
STUDY THIS REMINDER!!!
That’s what I’m here for. [Music starts.] So play it cool and easy. I know. You know. We should be honest for the first time. You are not fooling me and I am not fooling you. The thing to remember most of all is that you’re not fooling me. Just because I come out of that crummy little plastic box on the top of your refrigerator does not mean you can push me around….The wrong spot! Yes, by the short ones. So–you know– in the end you’re just gonna have to rely on style. Because you got no content! So don’t try to get by with a message–you ain’t got it….
I am not here to play those old familiar melodies that all of you whistle in your sleep. Not a bit of it. Not a bit of it. I am not here to mouth those old familiar platitudes that fall like autumn leaves from the bottom of bank calendars. Oh no.
Enough? He goes on and I’ve got a bit more transcribed, but enough. I know he had to quite this earlier style, or maybe even I could not have followed him, with all his incorporated funny bits, into the future.
Even so, he could not last forever.
He let go in early 1977.
Have you stayed tuned?
Are you in tune?
How about twanging your tuning fork!
Before we get back to Shep–By sheer coincidence, I recently decided to get two big used books of cartoons by Matt Groening. They are repros of the Life In Hell cartoon he did before starting the TV Simpsons. The opening one seems to me similar to some of Shepherd’s humorously hostile style I’m transcribing, which is more gently, mock-confrontational–Groening’s is more in-your-face nasty/funny. I wonder if Groening is a Shep fan. (Groening seems to have started the series in 1977, and this opening one in the book is copyright 1980, while Shep’s broadcasts ended in April, 1977).
Top 2/3 of the opening cartoon in the book.
And look at him there–with his compassionate gaze. You know, one of the Eastern colleges is not teaching a course in compassion 1 and 2? [Shep’s voice is rising mock-dramatically.] You have to have a course–two or three preliminary courses. One of them is creative friendliness, 1 and 2. And, of course, after that two courses in adjustment. And you’re ready! So burn that incense, and burn it clean and hard.
Just keep–what’s the matter, Eddy?! [Shep is talking to his engineer.] Just bring it up! What’s the matter? Is it running out?! Oh, there we go. So keep it going, keep it going. Never stop, for crying out loud. [That, he says, as though not only talking to his engineer, but in tone as though it’s a wider–a universal–comment.] It’s like the time–but then again I suppose the time always shall be the time, the time, the time, the time. Pick it up, Stan. Up over there on top again. There’s always one above and one above that, and one above that. Now look–I’ll tell you how to straighten it out, mac! You’ll have slipped again. Again and again and again. Can’t you see Pandit Nehru, coming home after a hard day as a statesman–there must be somebody, there must be somebody who says, “You’re getting commercial, Pandit. You’re fooling again. Now get back on that–.”
And there always has been and there always will be. You’re doing it wrong! Ah. A. A, you have made another mistake.
Did I ever tell you the time that I saw a guy caught–held in security–in fact pinned to the wall–by a ditto machine. It was operated by an eighth power modem and it used gelatin rolls. Ever seen a guy with a gelatin roll wrapped around him from a ditto? Ever see it? Do you know what a gelatin roll ditto machine is? You haven’t even seen one. [I have no idea what he’s talking about.] I know a guy who tried to eat one once. The gelatin just looked good. You know–I mean, you know–an old paste eater–returning to the scenes of his old triumphs.
Oh, but there were two types of paste eaters in my youth. There was the kind of guy who ate it raw–as it came out of the can–right out of the jar, right out of the tube. these were the hard drinkers. And then there was the aficionado, the gourmet who liked it when it had a thin crust over it. He liked the crunchiness of it, the aged-ness of it. The cheddar-cheeseness of it. So, you know, we shall split off into two ranks every time, every place, no matter what we do. So don’t–don’t worry.
Shep on the back of Wanda Hickey.
Not worrying a bit.
Just–just cling as hard as you can to that water wing. That water wing. The one that’s taking in water–fast. That hasn’t done much flying. But nevertheless–is there waiting. So come on, daddy-o, let’s do it, you know? I know how you’ve gone wrong! I know how you’ve gone wrong!
Third third of first Life in Hell.
You have come to the right man–for the first time in your life. I–know–where–you– Yes. I know, you have done it again. You are wrong again. STOP!
The music stops.
The engineer has been un-tuned
and stopped in his tracks.
STAY TUNED FOLKS!
So I’m this 63-year-old guy and I’m in a booth at the Museum of Television and Radio on 2/15/2002, listening to a Shep program broadcast 12/20/1959, and I’m doing my best to transcribe it. No, actually–I’ve caught myself–I’ve got a small cassette recorder hidden there in the dark and I’m recording it to transcribe later. Not many of this sort have surfaced yet. It’s one of Shepherd’s really laid-back, ironically amusing “philosophical” broadcasts that I like so much.
Now, about fourteen years after I’d recorded and transcribed in longhand (it’s now early 2016), I look over the eleven pages of script on ruled yellow paper. That’s only about 12 and-a-quarter minutes out of one of his extended programs. I know about how long because I just read it aloud–trying to give it the pacing Shepherd had–timing it with a stopwatch. (I do what I gotta do to get these blogs down right.)
This program of his really is a downer, but, remembering how ol’ Shep can tell it, I know just the kind of amusingly ironic tone he’s giving it, so I know I laughed while listening then just as I’m laughing now. (I hope this hint has readers also listening to Shepherd in their minds as they read.)
Now I’m wondering how much of it I can put down here without losing the audience. I’ve got to give it a try, and maybe break it into a number of separate posts. I hope that will keep the readers/listeners glued to Shep’s philosophical rant–(with the help of a meaningful simile-cum-pun) like bubblegum tossed on the sidewalk now stuck to the souls of their psyches.
…each one of us. Someone who stands off to one side and tells us how we can get it all straightened out. How we are going wrong. How we faulteringly missed the step, the eternal roadway of damnation. Always. I think there is a giant monkey on the back of everyone. It is truly. It is the individual corrective agent. The giant monkey of “Now look, you’re going wrong, and I know how to fix it up. I know how to cure it.” It might be a man, it might be a woman, it might be an incense burner for all I know. But there is that monkey on the back of everyone.
And nothing seems to deter them. They’re always there. They’re always waiting for their moment. And it’s no wonder–it’s no wonder that a good portion of mankind continues to believe in black magic of one kind or another. That the woman who looks out of the television screen, out of that commercial with the great flashing teeth, and she says, “I have just discovered the new wash-day miracle.” It’s going to straighten it all out! All of it! Happiness will flow through your family like a great river of Karo Syrup. A new miracle. And somehow it seems to be true–there is a new miracle. Until the next miracle. Until the next miracle. Until the next miracle. The next miracle, and the one after that.
Yes, be the first one in your neighborhood, friends, to burn Lucky Me-Joe Incense three times a week. according to the directions on the box. The sweetness will last for days. Your friends will love to visit you–and remark on the delightful perfumed fragrance that fills your home.
The burning of incense for luck was a secret belief known to the ancients and people of many different ancient, ancient, ancient, long-forgotten cults. It drives away your enemies and brings out those who will, in the end, be your true loves. Now–there is no guarantee that this will happen. We only say that it has happened in the past. So burn it, burn it, burn it.
To be continued.
Yes, Shep knows how we have gone wrong.
Will he reveal his secret verbal ingredient?
Why do people exert the considerable energy required to create stuff? Why did Shep?
What follows are my thoughts/interpretations of why Shepherd did what he did, in part contributed by my own attempts at self-interpretation. Any comments and additions are welcomed.
Looks great, doesn’t it!
Relates to left-brain/right brain.
(I made the mistake of checking the googled source:
it’s about ads and marketing. Wooden cha know!)
For me, there is a great enjoyment I have in giving expression to my ideas and feelings. This is irrespective of the possible quality of the result. From following Shepherd, I believe without doubt that he got great joy in self-expression. I believe that most artists in all fields enjoy expressing themselves. Some claim that this amounts to an obsession. Sometimes I feel this–I don’t want to stop for food or sleep.
PURE ESTHETIC PLEASURE
There is pleasure in creating something that one considers to be “a work of art.”
PURE ENJOYMENT OF PROVIDING INFO/EDUCATION/ ENTERTAINMENT
Shepherd, along with most other creators had this joy.
The above categories involve “self-actualization,” the being at one’s
best/highest level that humans are capable of.
See Abraham Maslow–including my post on his work.
This ain’t so bad. All of us need some of this, and artists tend to have it to a very high degree. It may even help them achieve all the other attributes listed here.
YA GOTTA MAKE DOUGH
This ain’t so bad. Most all of us gotta do this–unless born rich or happen to fall into it. One of the issues most artists have in life is how to balance the need to create with the necessity to make money to obtain food and lodging and a few goodies.
I don’t know how Jean Shepherd could have balanced art and money in any other way than he did. He might have continued–until he died–with his great art of improvised radio work at the sacrifice of more money and renown–but this would probably have driven his ego mad. I think that one of my heroes, Norman Mailer, determined and succeeded in promoting himself to the crass, real world in ways that for him, allowed him to write even his lesser writings in ways that, on some level, also produced work that had artistic as well as monetary value.
♥ ♥ ♥
I’m fascinated by raven rattles. These are objects used in ritual ceremonies by Northwest Coast Indians. They are carved with a raven and several lesser figures on or incorporated into it, using the typical, stylized shapes of Northwest Coast art. Ravens are usually depicted with something in their beaks. This is a “box of sunlight,” which the mythological trickster-bird opened and gave to humans (in a similar way to Prometheus giving light–fire/knowledge–to humans in the Greek myth).
The main part of the body is the raven. On its back there is usually a red-colored, naked human with his tongue out, being given (at the tip of the giver’s tongue,) some important attribute. Sometimes the giver is a bird, sometimes a frog, etc. On the bottom side of the rattle, carved in slight relief, is a bird’s head with large eyes and various abstract shapes in typical Northwest style.
Vancouver Museum exhibit.
When I was designing “Chiefly Feasts,” a large temporary exhibit of Northwest Coast art that would travel to several other museums in the U. S. and Canada, I flew and drove to see and consult at other museums, with Allison and our young son. I’ve seen many actual raven rattles in museums such as the American Museum of Natural History, Chicago’s Field Museum, Vancouver University Museum Victoria.
My design sketch for one section of the exhibit.
For several years, every time I walked through the Northwest Coast permanent hall of the American Museum of Natural History where I worked, I’d stop and look at the good one on display. When our museum did a temporary exhibit brought in from another museum, I had the chance to hold a fine example during set-up time.
When I had more brown hair than white.
I’m holding it upside down
as one does during a native ceremony.
A conservator will tell you that the white gloves
are to protect the artifact.
From books, magazines, catalogs, I collect photos of raven rattles by the score.
Clockwise from lower left: At auction, $30,000-50,000;
Three views of a specimen at AMNH; For sale at a gallery.
In my belief, many I’ve seen are not well carved. I imagine that a good one would go for many times what I ever could afford. As much as I try to collect real stuff, a few years ago I encountered a replica for sale on ebay, thought it compared very well with photos of really good ones, and bought it for $125. The seller, owner of a NW-Coast gallery, had commissioned a half-dozen, made by a family of Indonesian carvers!
A major issue for me is: I’d rather have an authentic one carved by and used by the actual people of the Northwest Coast. But considering all the inferior specimens, actually distastefully/poorly carved authentic ones I’ve seen (even those beyond what I might one day be able to afford) would I really want such a poorly done job facing me nightly? Other than its aura of authenticity, it would be one that fails in all the visual attributes that make raven rattles in the ideal such a joy to behold. My Indonesian replica is better made than most authentic ones I’ve seen—it gives me an esthetic pleasure I’d never get from a badly carved authentic one that visually offends me. Faced with the reality, I’ve denied my ideal principle. I’m very pleased to view nightly in front of me in our living room, my Indonesian replica.
MY RAVEN RATTLE
Jean Shepherd loved
to hate New Jersey.
“New Jersey–the most American of all states. It has everything from the wilderness to the mafia. All the great things and all the worst, for example Route 22.” –Jean Shepherd
Most everybody who lives in New York City and vicinity loves to hate that country-bumkin-and-gas-refinery-state. We all hate “Jersey drivers” and disparage those gigantic summer insects we refer to as “Jersey Mosquitoes.” (Yes, I know that Jersey-ites call ’em “Brooklyn Mosquitoes.”) As Shepherd prided himself on being a cosmopolitan, sophisticated city-guy, this may have been part of why he disparaged New Jersey frequently on his broadcasts. When he was doing his faux-run-for-emperor, he promised to set up gigantic fans along the Manhattan side of the Hudson River in order to blow the Jersey odor away from The City. He said that, while in the army, he spent some time in Fort Monmouth, NJ.
When Shepherd first moved to New York and began broadcasting on WOR from 1 to 5:30 AM,WOR, to save money, the station kept the 1440 Broadway studios closed and had him broadcast from their transmitter in Cartaret, NJ. He claimed on the air that he would race his Porsche down the Jersey Turnpike to get to work and once said that he’d accidentally driven the Porsche into the transmitter’s cooling pool there.
1955 to 19?? New Milford, NJ. This was the period when he had just moved to the New York City area. Dates may or may not represent his actual, continuous residence.
1977-1984? Lived on a three-acre farm in Washington, NJ. It’s said that, when their apartment in the Village was ransacked, the police suggested that Shep and Leigh Brown move away, so this may have been when they moved to Jersey. Leigh was brought up in Jersey and had ridden horses on a farm there, so this may have been at or near where they lived for a time.
PASSING THROUGH AMERICAN CLUTTER
Jim Clavin’s www.flicklives.com describes a Jean Shepherd television special this way: “On October 19, 1984 ‘Jean Shepherd on Route 1’ premiered on New Jersey Public Television. Shep sits in the back seat of a limo and discusses such things as drive-in theaters, the George Washington Bridge, traffic circles, diners, road signs, junkyards, bars, Route 22, and the art of shaving.”
Shepherd in limo discussing Jersey.
Shepherd: “This is the road that is truly the road of American clutter. We have right now, for your edification and your artistic enjoyment, a picture of American grubble at its most beautiful development, its fullest. The vines are rich and growing along this stretch of road. Everybody in his soul—at least in his American soul, has a Route 22—that extends right out of New York City into New Jersey. It’s the true bastion of the slob road in America in full-flower. And it’s got it all goin’.”
Shepherd delights in making fun of Jersey’s Leaning Tower of Pizza and the Margate Elephant:
“Creation of Pizza” mural at Leaning Tower of Pizza Restaurant.
Lucy, Jersey’s most famous hotel.
Shepherd did a program featuring the Margate Elephant.
Shepherd performed at Princeton University 30 times, giving New Jersey a yearly thrill. Gatherings of Shep-enthusiasts, called “Shepfests,” occur from time to time. Shepfest #4, 11/9/03 took place in the Triumph Brewing Company micro-brewery in Princeton:
Some Shepfest participants in Jersey.
Shepherd appeared several times at New Jersey’s Clinton Museum, giving live performances.
NEW JERSEY RESTAURANTS
Jean Shepherd loved food and sometimes talked about it on his show. Lois Nettleton, his wife from 1960 to about 1967, said that he was a gourmet cook and that after one of his great meals, she was happy to clean up and do the dishes. In the late 1980s, Shepherd wrote the intro/foreword to a book. One wonders if he delighted in or disparaged New Jersey restaurants. As of now, here is all we know about it:The New Jersey Restaurant Guide w/ Ruth Alden, 1989. Hdl Pub Co. ISBN #10: 0937359459
Further Shepherd commentaries on the great state of Jersey will be welcomed.
(Actually, I’m from Queens–eb.)
The Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa are probably the best-known artworks in the world. And they are thus, probably the most cliché images of what art is in the world. I suppose they represent, to many people, “the beautiful.” A recent column by a very intelligent and learned and witty fellow who writes for the Wall Street Journal commented that people go to museums to look at beautiful things. Considering the nature of much modern art, isn’t that idea strange? Isn’t it strange that an ancient statue with its arms busted off is so glorified?
I believe that in part this is because its silhouette is so compact—and thus has such visual strength, and a sense of primitive elegance. (In my attraction to the tiny Japanese traditional sculpture called netsuke, I almost exclusively prefer the pieces that don’t have parts sticking out of them—much better are pieces that are compact and powerful in their essence. Besides, considering their traditional use as part of one’s apparel, parts sticking out would easily break off.) Imagine the Venus de Milo with its original arms, as some have done:
I doubt that I’d give it even a second look. It certainly would not be glorified as it is today–armless. It would still be “classic” historically, but would not be as highly regarded. We’d pay it little if any attention. What is “classic” anyway? As classic as is a classic portrait of Santa Claus. Having spent most of my life as a lapsed Lutheran, I still much enjoy the Christmas season, and I much prefer the traditional, classic Santa Claus. At home we always have a classic Christmas tree (I insist on a real one) and set out the nativity crèche my wife loves so much.
But sometimes I like to fool around designing a card.
Decades ago, when I made the card, the surround was white.
Santa de Milo card closed Santa de Milo card when open
with round cutout showing Santa’s head. showing entire image.
SANTA DE MILO
by Gene B. 19??
Maybe such universally admired images we think are so classic deserve to be played with once in a while so that we are shocked into a new/fresh way of thinking about how much we adore their classicism.
MONA LISA WITH MOUSTACHE
by Marcel Duchamp
“One fun way of exposing students to famous works of art and studying the essential identifying features of the piece (style, subject matter, art material, technique, use of art elements/principles) is through remixing. An art parody, a type of remixing, often takes a famous artwork, recreates many of its elements, but through changes and additions, results in a comic effect or mocking of the original. Sometimes the parody is meant to send a political statement; other times it’s purely for entertainment.” –Melissa Enderle
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.]
[Our mentor is talking to an engineer–we presume–and Shep is, in a sense, as we are “listeners,” talking to us also. He is pissed.]
So come on now, you know. Let’s can this. You know what the phrase is. Man, you are like all the rest of us. You are up the same creek. And you know the name of that creek. We all do. And we have all lost the same paddle, man. So don’t give me any of that jazz.
[<A Scottish slang term meaning to be stuck in a bad situation without any way of fixing it. The bad situation being ‘**** creek’ and the ‘paddle’ being the solution.>]
I am not being fooled for one minute. That is, no more than you’re being fooled, Mac. Which is to say, most of the time. But at least I have the good grace to be with–a certain style. So let’s cut it, you know? All of you.
[See, he is also talking to us. Pause. Loud piano chord.]
Eh! Now I want to do it once–I want to do it. ‘Course I’m not going to do it tonight. So you might as well knock off. It is not going to happen tonight. But sometime, somewhere, someplace, somebody somehow is going to say it–for all of us–not me–I’m chicken!
But then again, who are you to say I’m chicken? You slob! Sitting out there throwing your beer cans into the air shaft, waiting for Gisele McKenzie to do it for you on The Hit Parade. It ain’t going to happen. So I mean, you know–and by the way, don’t–don’t be without next week’s TV Guide. You gotta have some kind of guideposts in this world. So what are you trying to say to me, you know, are you trying to tell me? Because I’ll tell you one thing, daddy-o, I’m not trying to tell you–I am just trying to tell me all the time. Me. And if you happen to stick your miserable eves-dropping ear into this thing, don’t come around and tell me I’m getting commercial with me. Because if I’m fooling me, that’s me that’s going down the tray [“tray”?], and not you–except the sad part of it is that I’m only joining all the rest of you because–you know–it’s the same problem with the creek. You know the old creek, man. So do I.
It’s–it’s, you know? Let me tell you this–ah–what’s the point, you know? I know–you know. So who’s kidding who? You think that little old lady there made entirely out of celery and Brillo pads is….The only thing she’s doing is she’s taking a different tack, man. She is trying to make a paddle out of crochet needles and it ain’t gonna work either.
[Is this incoherent–or stream-of-consciousness, or has he begun celebrating New Years Eve a night early? CHAOS? WHAT IS “CHAOS THEORY” ANYWAY?*]
I mean, you see, each guy makes it his own way. And goes down his own way–that’s the thing. So if you think you’re gonna make a paddle out of –no–it ain’t gonna work. It’s been tried before by better men. By better men! That one’ll strike right down in there like it’s made from a soldering iron. Pow! Better men. Than any of us can ever hope to be. And where did they go? Yeah. So, you know? Don’t give me any of your lip, Mac. None. N–o–n–e–e–e–umlaut. [Piano. Cymbal.]
[That seems to be the end of that evening’s rant–at least as it appears on this particular recording. Because what follows immediately, about Little Orphan Annie and her dog and her propensity to say “gloriosky,” is surely an audio-recording-error by the original listener/recording person, splicing a different program segment here–reminding us of Shep’s engineer’s errors earlier in the program. What an ironic, appropriate way to end this particular, chaotic audio. Little Orphan Annie. Leapin’ lizards! This whole magillah will probably forever remain a mystery–what happened, what was he thinking–what is going on here in The World of Shep–in The Voice in the Night?]
I can’t say that I’d want to hear too many strange and incomprehensible
programs end-to-end. But this one, beyond total understanding,
with all its surrealistic mystery, remains with me
a thrilling jolt of chaotic pleasure.
“Chaos theory” is a scientific principle describing the unpredictability of systems. Most fully explored and recognized during the mid-to-late 1980s, its premise is that systems sometimes reside in chaos, generating energy but without any predictability or direction. These complex systems may be weather patterns, ecosystems, water flows, anatomical functions, or organizations [Such as monologs?]. While these systems’s chaotic behavior may appear random at first, chaotic systems can be defined by a mathematical formula, and they are not without order or finite boundaries.>
End Part III
No more Parts
(in the foreseeable future).
[We’re “listening” to a Shep broadcast dated 12/30/59, in which he is making references to incense and silly college courses. He is having some sort of problem with his engineer who is doing things wrong. We are hearing it all–at least Shep’s side of it, as he integrates his annoyance at the broadcast situation with the stream-of-conscience style he is pursuing. Is he been over-the-top crotchety?]
….Just–just cling as hard as you can, to that water wing. That water wing. The one that’s taking in water–fast. That hasn’t done much flying. But nevertheless, is there waiting. So come on, daddy-o, let’s do it, you know?
I know how you’ve gone wrong! You have come to the right man–for the first time in your life. I–know–where–you– Yes. I know, you have done it again. You are wrong again. You are wrong again. STOP!
[Music stops.That damn engineer from Part I is still making mistakes! Why can’t they give Shep engineers who know their jobs? Love to know just how the guy is fouling up.]
Now look. Now look–we’re gonna level, we’re gonna level here. Just for one minute. And you don’t think that I’m here just–night after night just to entertain you, do you?
[It really does feel as though he’s talking to me, the listener, but he’s really talking eye-to-eye to that klutz of an engineer, right? Or he’s talking to both of us, right?? He is here night after night to entertain the finer parts of our minds and sensibilities, right? He is the only friend I have–as a new college graduate–who talks to me and tickles (entertains) the better parts of my mind. He is my soul-mate pal, my mentor–and forty years from then I’d realize how important he’d been and I’d begin writing a book about him begun soon after he died in 10/99 and finally published 3/2005.]
And furthermore, I’m going to tell you another thing. We’re gonna have to–this is a moment now, since its almost time to quit. Almost time to quit. We might as well shell it out. I’m not here to play it for laughs. I’m not here to entertain you, really, you know? I’m here for a much more devious purpose than that. To begin with, many people here at this very radio station do not even know I am here. they just see it on the log–“The Jean Shepherd Show.” They’re all home–they’re watching television. Doesn’t make any difference. They don’t know.
But I’ll tell you what I’m here for. I am here, and am an extension of–your conscience itself. I am here because I know where you went wrong. I know where you went wrong. The reason I know where you went wrong is because I know where I went wrong. I know darn well where you went wrong! So don’t give me any of that jazz! Do you hear me? Any of you! You have fouled up too! You are caught in the same thing. All of you. So don’t–give–me–any–of–your–lip. That’s what I’m here for.
[Music starts again. But he is entertaining me, at least! Take that last paragraph–please! He is simultaneously humorous and deadly serious. He is deadly serious. Deadly serious. That is what he is here for–to make us think, to make us feel, to make us laugh while seriously examining ourselves. I’m reminded of–regarding the clever twist of laughing and serious thinking–the opening scene of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, in which we see bombers erotically refueling and then a bomber pilot in closeup, very serious expression on his face–we are proud and confident in our security from all dangers–especially war. Then we see what he is concentrating on–not safety-from-war but sex–it is an open copy of Playboy.]
Major “King” Kong Concentrating on Business
So play it cool and easy. I know. You know we should be honest for the first time. You are not fooling me and I am not fooling you. The thing to remember most of all is that you’re not fooling me. Just because I come out of that crummy little plastic box on the top of your refrigerator does not mean you can push me around. It is quite the opposite, you know. You have come to the wrong spot–if you think you’re gonna get off the hook, Mac. Baby. The wrong spot! The wrong spot! Yes, by the short ones.
[“The short ones.” A rare sexual reference from Shep?]
So, you know–in the end you’re just gonna have to rely on style. Because you got no content! So don’t try to get by with a message–you ain’t got it. Just learn technique-that’s all. And don’t come around here telling me, “Shepherd, I know you’re going wrong, you’re gettin’ commercial.” Ha! I’m getting commercial! Have you ever looked at the lining of your necktie, Mac? [Laughs.] Oh! Come Kerouac me no Kerouacs, Mac. I’ll take none of your lip. None of your lip. I am not here to play those old familiar melodies that all of you whistle in your sleep. Not a bit of it. Not a bit of it. I am not here to mouth those old familiar platitudes that fall like autumn leaves from the bottom of bank calendars. Oh no. I know where you fouled up. Because I know where I fouled up. And I know where we’ve all done it. Just like everything else you’ve done in your miserable, sneaking, crawling life, you’ve come to the wrong spot again.
This not your friendly station when I’m here. [Did the wrongdoer comment to Shep that he should be as friendly as their station claims to be? WOR during one period claimed to be “the friendly station,” and “the family station,” and Shepherd, from time to time would claim that WOR was hypocritical when it said it was friendly and like a family behind the scenes.] Oh no. Not bit of it–any friendlier than you are! Look at your own reflection again. You are not friendly–so why should we be friendly? Give me one answer to that–that makes any kind of sense and I will concede, I will toss in and we will deal them again. And we will play your game this time. Personally I’m a pinochle man.
[We are listening to our intellectual/artistic hero who, at the moment,
is being over-the-top-crochety.
Is he using the engineer’s error as a jumping off point?
Is he just really focused on we listeners and the life-lessons
he sometimes imparts about the fallibilities of all of us—
especially as we face the insistent finger-pointing of our revered mentor,
who knows none of us individually,
but who “knows” intuitively, our collective imperfections?
How far is this going to go?
Will he totally self-destruct in Part III ?]
Shep’s “philosophical broadcasts” are some of my favorites (if that’s an adequate description for a somewhat varied grab bag of delights), and I know that for others, different sorts are preferred–for example, his stories (which, of course, I also like a lot). I recently encountered a transcript I’d made on 2/15/2002 at the then-named Museum of Television and Radio. The program is dated 12/20/1959 (so it’s an early, Sunday night, 9-1 AM, NY one–before he began his 45-minute nightly broadcasts). Reading it now I laugh out loud numerous times–it’s that good–for me. For me, Shepherd’s philosophical comments and attitude when he is very laid back is one of several forms in which we can really get some inkling as to his way of thinking and his personality–even when, as in the following, he is being serious, humorous, and a lot cantankerous.
At the Museum, now called the Paley Center for Media, one sits in a dim room in a line of listeners’ open booths, each listener/viewer with earphones and silently serious expression, trying to catch every word.
I had to pause the machine scores of times to write it all down on the eleven pages of 8 1/2 X 11″ yellow ruled pad. I must have missed the beginning. Reading this transcription, try especially hard to imagine his voice saying this mock-curmumudgeonly stuff.
[Remember that 1959 was near the beginning of the strange phenomenon we call “The Sixties” with its flower children and incense and holy community–its college courses in significant-if-unexpected subjects to help you become one with the universe. Also remember that Shep’s programs back then sometimes had a more insistent stream-of-consciousness, “rambling” style that flowed along at a more leisurely and–dare I say it–gently humane–pace. So relax. Slow down your intake control. Try hard to comprehend this early version of Shep’s style, from 1956 to 1960, only four years–that led to what we are more familiar with for the next seventeen years. (Fewer of these were recorded for later contemplation–not many inexpensive recorders were available then; the style is harder to remember in its details; and many enthusiasts were too young to hear these early shows when they were originally broadcast.) Note Shep’s considerable annoyance with a control-room problem and we have here a kind of controlled pandemonium afoot]:
…each one of us. Someone who stands off to one side and tells us how we can get it all straightened out. How we are going wrong. How we faulteringly missed the step on the eternal roadway of damnation. Always. I think there is a giant monkey on the back of everyone, It is truly. It is the–it is the individual corrective agent. The giant monkey of, “Now look, you’re going wrong and I know how to fix it up. I know how to cure it.” It might be a man, it might be a woman, it might be an incense burner for all I know. But there is a monkey on the back of everyone.
And nothing seems to deter them. They’re always there. They’re always there waiting for their moment. And it’s no wonder–it’s no wonder that a good portion of mankind continues to believe in black magic of one kind or another. That woman who looks out of the television screen,
[Grasped out of the googlesphere= “The Black Magic Woman”–by ‘inspizel’ ?]
out of that commercial with great flashing teeth, and she says, “I have just discovered the new wash-day miracle.”
It’s gonna straighten it all out! All of it! Happiness will flow through your family like a great river of Karo Syrup. A new miracle. And somehow it seems to be true–there is a new miracle. Until the next miracle. Until the next miracle. The next miracle and the one after that [piano music starts], the one after that!
Yes, be the first in your neighborhood, friends, to burn Lucky-Me-Joe Incense three times a week. According to the directions on each box. The sweetness will last for days. Your friends will love to visit you–and remark on the delightful perfumed fragrance that fills your home. The burning of incense for luck was a secret belief known to the ancients and people of many different ancient, ancient, ancient, long-forgotten cults. It drives away your enemies and brings out those who will in the end be your true loves. Now, there is no guarantee that this will happen. We only say that it has happened in the past. So burn it, burn it.
And look at him standing out there. Look at him there–with his compassionate gaze. You know, one of the Eastern colleges is now teaching a course in compassion? “Compassion I and II.” [Shep’s voice is rising mock-dramatically.] You have to have a course–two or three preliminary courses, I and II. One of them is “Creative Friendliness I and II.” And, of course, then comes two courses in “Adjustment.”
And you’re ready! So burn that incense and burn it clean and hard. Just keep–what’s the matter, Eddie?!
[We interrupt this program to point out here that Shepherd seems to have begun to react to something unexpected and annoying occurring in the control room. He is talking to an engineer one supposes, yet, knowing that he is also talking to his radio audience, he blends his attempts to control the control room with his broadcast patter–Oh, if only I could plug your ears into Shep’s sweetly curmudgenly, broadcast-theme-oriented, universal-continuum as he plays his two disparate, yet simultaneous, communications! His repeated words and phrases suggest that he is really upset, yet the effect is rhythmic and, indeed, poetic.]
Just bring it up! What’s the matter? Is it running out?! Oh, there we go. So keep it going. Keep it going. Never stop, for crying out loud. It’s the time–but then again the time always shall be the time, the time, the time. Pick it up, Stan. Up over there on top again. There’s always one above and one above that, and one above that. Now look–I’ll tell you how to straighten it out, Mac! You have slipped again. Again and again and again.
Can’t you see Pandit Nehru coming home after a hard day as a statesman. There must be somebody. There must be somebody–there must be somebody who says, “You’re getting commercial, Pandit. You’re fooling again. Now get back on that–” And there always has been and there always will be. You’re doing it wrong! Oh, a…a….You have made another mistake.
End of Part I