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KID STORIES—FOR GOSH SAKE!’
I believe that among many Shepherd fans, his kid stories are the most popular. Among the hundreds that he told on the air, only about two dozen ever appeared in print—mostly in In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories. We’re familiar with Ralphie wanting—and getting—a BB gun, and we thrill just to hear reference to various other stories. What about so many others that he told—we can access the audios to many of these, and listening to his compelling voice, for me, is the best, most authentic way of enjoying them.
But, as the astronomical sales of those first two books attest (well over two-dozen printings each of the two), there is something special (and undoubtedly more convenient) in holding a fistful of them in a book and reading, pausing, going back, re-reading them at one’s eyes and mind’s ease and speed.
As comparison shows, Shepherd added considerable text to the audios when he presented his stories for print. In Playboy, for example he added what he obviously felt necessary for that audience—expletives in army stories. In addition, he just beefed out the stories in ways that, for the most part, I feel are unnecessary. (Which is to say, in terms of conciseness and effect, I’d prefer that he hadn’t done it.)
For me (ego-centric that I am), that is one of the reasons I enjoy reading my transcriptions from his radio audios—which I very gently edited to retain his “voice,” not adding any words to his immortal voice-on-paper. I do very keenly feel his spoken voice in these transcriptions–see his travel narratives on this blog. Also see my Shep’s Army. I’m most proud of the Publishers Weekly review of it, which includes: “…a presentation that, against the odds, captures the energy of an oral telling.”
For the feel of his voice and existence in print—a medium that Shepherd felt was supreme in his life from childhood on—I’d like to see as much as possible of Shep’s really good stories immortalized in book form for the historical record. So one can see why I want my manuscript of Shep’s kid stories published in printer’s ink on good old book-paper. And hey, publishers and agents, I believe the book would make:
Photo courtesy of Steve Glazer and Bill Ek.
It’s a book full of minor despair and revelatory joy: left-handed disability and decayed teeth, crashing waves of words and Tinker Toys, April fool, dots and dashes, Mark Twain, Roman candles, pharmaceuticals and worms, steel mill with a tornado and catching rats, a date with flies and scragging, digesting snails and a Bugatti—putting hair on the chest and mind-broadening whacks on the ol’ noggin—encountering “an alive, magnificent, evil, sensual machine that lay low.…” All told*, making the kid a man.
What will happen to all the kid-story transcriptions
beyond their appearance here?
(Yes, this also is part of the “Rant.”)
Recently it looked as though the kid-story mnuscript might get published, as an associate at a publishing house read the manuscript and told me it was so funny and enjoyable that it led to laughing out loud and that publishing it was a no-brainer. But at an editorial meeting, it was turned down, surprisingly, by those who’d never heard of Shep and who doubted its sales possibilities despite the connection to the movie A Christmas Story and sales of In God We Trust. They also feared regarding rights to publish even though the Shep estate had researched the issue and had said to me in an email that it was their understanding that Shepherd’s radio broadcasts were in the public domain.
There’s no way to describe what I do. It’s just me. —Andy Kaufman
When I perform, it’s very personal. I’m sharing things I like,
inviting the audience into my room.
“Andy’s gift was not his talent or his skills-it was his genius,
the genius of what he dared.” –Judd Hirsch
“He made it virtually impossible to distinguish between
his performing and his life” — Steve Bodow
The above, with some slightly differently translated words,
might well be attributed to Jean Shepherd.
I first posted on Shep and Andy on April 12, 2014. (You can find it by clicking on KAUFMAN, ANDY in the list near the left edge of this blog.) There may be a bit of repetition between that earlier one and these current three–I think that reading them all together might be the best way to gather what I hope to express about Andy Kaufman–and the artistic comparison with Shep. I’ve recently become (additionally) obsessed with Andy and I want to write about him to confirm, as far as possible, my own understanding of what Andy is and in what ways I vibrate to his essence. (Actually, I hope to understand better what his essence is.) I do believe there is something of value to fix in my mind in a communicable form regarding connections and differences between Shep and Andy. I hope I can find and articulate them. I discuss here only the radio-Shep because I believe that it is there that the two are most closely aligned.
Jean Shepherd often captured our interest by telling us truths that he encountered and that we probably never realized were true, and he told them in unexpected ways—we are unexpectedly confronted by them and this little shock of recognition is often where the humor and our smile come in.
A major aspect of one’s attachment to Shepherd is the sense that he is “telling it like it is,” truthfully in a way that few others can or do. There is also very much the feeling that Shepherd is speaking directly to the listener as a friend, and not doing a performance (even though in later years, commenting on his radio work, he said that he was indeed, a performer and a fictional-story-teller). Shep’s stories (and even his comments?) had us bamboozled into thinking that they were all true.
Andy in public (dare I accurately say “in performance”?) often presents himself, giving a real sense that he is being the way he really is—truthfully, in a way that no one else does—that he is what one sees and that he is not giving a “performance.” The more I see and understand Andy, the more I’ve become aware of this aspect of his public persona.
Andy Kaufman often disturbed us by poking us in the ribs in a way that we might find at first unpleasant, but which, upon reflection, we realize has fooled us by exposing our own mistaken or limited sense of reality. What an extraordinary experience it must have been for those who, not knowing Kaufman’s “act,” first saw him do his imitations as the “Foreign Man.” At the beginning the audience laughs at him–all the more powerful then, when he transforms himself into Elvis.
“Now, but not to be the least,
I would like to imitate
the Elvis Presley.”
“Dank you veddy much!”
With his innocent-sounding foreign accent, he says he will do imitations. He does a very unfunny one of Ed McMann, and we laugh not at it, but at Andy (“Foreign Man”) for being so awful at it. We feel superior to him. He does one of Archy Bunker, equally bad and we again, with our feelings of superiority, laugh at Foreign Man’s innocence/ignorance. He says he will imitate Elvis and we again expect the worst possible imitation–an oafish result. We are shocked when we find that his Elvis is extraordinary. He has become Elvis. Andy has played with our minds and expectations. He ends by accepting our applause, but not as performer Andy Kaufman—he confounds us again—he switches our expectations by changing his perceived persona, again being Foreign Man with his “Dank you veddy much!” He is not Kaufman, the performer, who thanks us for applauding–it is Foreign Man who has done the great Elvis imitation thanking us! Andy imitating Foreign Man imitating Elvis.
Time Mag: He is continually questioning then undermining the idea of what is funny. “Andy takes a lot of risks,” Zmuda [AK’s associate] says. “What performer in his right mind would go onstage and deliberately bomb?”
Shepherd often commented that his presentation was as a humorist, who builds up a story or commentary slowly, expressing some aspect of the human condition, and that the humor grows out of the situation, maybe producing laughter, rather than telling a joke as do comics. “Well, comedy is a process whereby you’re aiming at making a person laugh, and the end product is the laugh. With humor however, the laugh happens to be the byproduct of what you’re doing.”
Shep said: “There are guys who tell jokes, and those who don’t. I am not a teller. I can see the humor in the world. I deal in humor but I can’t tell jokes. I have never told a joke successfully, ever.”
Kaufman insisted that he was not a comedian—he did not tell jokes. Andy said: “I never told a joke in my life.”
Aspects of this similarity between Shep and Andy may well be why, in Was this Man a Genius? a book of interviews of Andy by Julie Hecht, he said: “I don’t think any sense of humor is funny. Rarely. Jean Shepherd is funny.”
In another one of Andy’s successful strategies to confound his audiences, he created the obnoxious lounge singer, Tony Clifton. Once a good percentage of his enthusiasts were aware that Tony was actually Andy, while his audience, watching “Tony Clifton” on stage and thinking they knew the truth–that it was really Andy–he double-crossed them by appearing as himself while someone else was doing the Tony imitation.
Doing his best to make audiences dislike him, he began wrestling women. He crowned himself Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion.
Why was Andy a Shep enthusiast? How was Andy inspired by Shep? Because Shep projected a sense of his real self. Jean Shepherd endears himself to us by being honest, perceptive, telling it like it is, a mentor—real. Andy Kaufman forces unexpected reality upon us by messing with our minds—by making us feel uncomfortable. They both tickle our minds, but in different ways.
One of the ironies in Andy’s professional life is that the Taxi people wanted his “Foreign Man” persona in the sitcom. Accepting the gig, Andy was forced to accept his character being hijacked into a rigid script, saying lines that he had not himself created. That is probably one of the reasons that Andy was so annoying to the others involved in producing that show. It’s said that the feature players complained strongly about Andy’s behavior at the time–but after he died, they seemed to be reconciled to his behavior because they recognized the quirky genius behind what he had put them through. It’s said that Andy, to get out of the straight-jacket of Latka, got Taxi producers to have Latka sometimes afflicted with “multiple personality disorder” so that Andy could enact other characters on the show.
Andy as Latka Gravis in Taxi
Unless otherwise noted, the quotes from Shepherd are from his radio shows;
the quotes from Kaufman are from http://www.andykaufman.com and other sources.
Stay Tuned for Dead Andy & Dead Shep
( aka “Live Andy & Live Shep.” )
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.)
It’s the old crowd! It’s everybody again! It’s everybody I’ve ever known again!…Oh! They’re all here again. All of them. All of them. I mean, why? Look at the confetti!
—-September 4, 1960. Jean Shepherd imagines
looking out of his window in the middle of the
night and seeing a procession passing by.
Was it the parade of his real/fictional life–
was it a dream, were they illusions,
shades out of his past?
Many listeners owe Shep their life
and a debt to him
because of what he gave them.
I am one of those listeners.
My first debt to Shep
There are many of us. When I was a sophomore in college I began listening to him in the early fall of 1956, just after he began his Sunday evening broadcasts. I sat in our kitchen and listened on my AM and FM, maroon, bakelite radio with the big simulated gold dial.
I was sort of a loner. I didn’t have many friends. I read a lot. All kinds of serious literature. Shepherd talked to me alone. He made me think and laugh–tickled my mind. He influenced me to subscribe to The Village Voice and The Realist. He was the next step up from Mad, which I’d been reading from the first issue. He got me to read what he suggested and listen to what he liked. He was my mentor.
My mother thought he was literate and witty. My father thought he was subversive. They were equally right.
An elegantly composed message says that Shepherd’s broadcasts taught listeners that observation and clear expression could be great rewards, that language was a vital thing when used both precisely and as spontaneously as one dared, and that the most sensible topic was the commonplace–which is full of nuance, humor, and grace. Many people express how wonderful Shepherd was for them, selflessly giving of himself through personal contact and through his program. Among these tributes are comments of many who found Jean Shepherd a guide and a comfort throughout their teenage years, such as one fan who remembers how she was struggling to survive adolescence, and through listening to him, Shepherd gave her a sense that she belonged to a sympathetic group who understood him as she did. She comments, “He saved my life.”
He didn’t save my life but he made my life better in many ways–in my way of thinking, my way of observing, my way of comprehending the world, and in other ways that I can’t even begin to grasp, though a friend of mine commented that Shep also must have made me a better speaker and story-teller. For all these probable and possible ways I’m grateful.
Back in 1956 I’d bought and had him sign my copy of I, Libertine. I continued recording and listening to him into the 1960s. I began watching his first series of “Jean Shepherd’s America” in 1971, but, because “it wasn’t like his radio programs,” I gave up on it. (Years later I’ve come to recognize the series as an imperfect, incomplete beginning of a potential Great American Television Documentary.)
After that I mostly forgot about him, I’m ashamed to say. Then, in October, 1999 (yes, 28 years later) I read his obituary in The New York Times and immediately realized that I’d lost an old friend.
My second debt to Shep
In late 1999 I began to listen and research and read a lot more about Shep. I made contacts with people in the world of Shep. I began to write hundreds of notes and stashed them into file folders because I was beginning to help accumulate information for a biography about him. Soon the author of the proposed biography disappeared from view (and, I later found out, had given up on the project) and I began to write–not a biography, but much more important, I believe, a description and appreciation of Shep’s work. Going through an arid period in my professional career, I spent much time working on my Shep-manuscript. It kept me occupied and excited.
Through that work on Shepherd, in 2005 I became one of my life-long dreams–a published author! I’d gotten to do fascinating research and learn lots of stuff I hadn’t known before. I got to meet and correspond with lots of interesting people. I got reviews, and media people interviewed me. I got royalties. I got compliments and appreciation for what I’d accomplished. I got cards and letters from people I don’t even know! I felt that I’d contributed to humanity!!!
I got another Shep book published!
I even got on TV!
My third debt to Shep
So far I can’t get another Shepherd book published, although I have a couple of completed manuscripts ready to go. I don’t know where I’ll be going from here. What will I do to keep my mind sufficiently occupied? Gee–with all my further ideas about Shepherd and the additional info I’m accumulating about him, why don’t I continue contributing to the Shep-world with a blog?
It keeps me researching and learning and keeps my aging mind active. I don’t know what I’d be doing with myself if I didn’t have my Shep.
59 years, Shep.
and seltzer bottle, too.”