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Here is my ever-growing list of well-known people in the entertainment world who are/were listeners to Jean Shepherd. Following includes those who can be rather positively believed were listeners, either because they themselves claim they were or through other rather definite evidence. I note just one or two prominent fields for each listing. This list is not definitive–it’s just of those I can think of. I’d appreciate hearing about others–with source of the info.
Penn Jillette (Comic, magician–Penn & Teller)
Andy Kaufman (Performance artist)
Ernie Kovacs (Video innovator)
Bruce Maher (Comic, “the Rabbi” in Seinfeld)
Henry Morgan (Comic broadcaster)
Roger Price (Comic, author, editor of Grump magazine)
Jerry Seinfeld (Sitcom and standup comic)
Harry Shearer (Broadcaster, “Simpson” voices)
Bob Brown (Editor: Car and Driver)
Milton Caniff (Comic strip artist–pre 1955 “Terry and the Pirates”)
Billy Collins (Poet—U. S. Poet Laureate)
Kate Collins (Writer– humor/crime books—(“Flower Shop Mysteries”)
Ed Fancher (Publisher: Village Voice)
Herb Gardner (Cartoonist, playwright—“A Thousand Clowns”)
Jules Feiffer (Playwright, cartoonist)
Bill Griffith (Cartoonist–“Zippy the Pinhead”)
Hugh Hefner (Publisher: Playboy)
William Hjortsberg (Author–Gray Matters, Toro! Toro! Toro!)
George S. Kaufman (Playwright)
Jack Kerouac (Author–On the Road)
Paul Krassner (Writer, publisher)
S. J. Perelman (Comic writer)
Shel Silverstein (Cartoonist, writer)
R. L. Stine (Goosebumps book series)
Dan Wakefield (Author: New York in the 50s)
Tom Wolfe (Author: Bonfire of the Vanitites, etc.)
George Antheil (“Ballet Mécanique”)
John Cage (Shep describes him as early listener he talked with various time by phone)
Donald Fagen (Steely Dan)
Mitch Leigh (“Into the Unknown With Jazz Music,” “Man of La Mancha”)
Charles Mingus “The Clown”)
Dee Snider (Twisted Sister front man and songwriter)
Fred Barzyk (Video director–major Shepherd TV)
John Cassavetes (Actor, Director–Shadows)
Ron Della Chiesa (WGBH Broadcaster)
Bob Clark (Film director—Porky’s, A Christmas Story)
Bruce Conner (Avant garde film maker, sculptor)
Art D’Lugoff (Concert producer)
Barry Farber (Broadcaster)
Helen Gee (Founder of “The Limelight”)
Larry Josephson (Broadcaster)
Larry King (Broadcaster)
Arch Oboler (Playwright)
Lois Nettleton (Actress, wife)
Keith Olbermann (Media–politics & sports commentator)
• • •
There are also many who had connections to Shep and/or were described by Shep or others as having been his friends, but we can’t know which of these people were indeed friends or which of them may or may not have been listeners. For example, Bob & Ray were fellow broadcasters and friends of Shep; Shep claimed to be friends with Jack Kerouac; Lois Nettleton said that from time to time Shep went on sketching expeditions not only with Shep Silverstein, but with watercolorist Dong Kingman and Playboy illustrator LeRoy Neiman.
I also tend to think that a good portion of those connected to the Village, creative, and intellectual scene in New York City in the late 1950s and into the 1960s were likely to have been Shepherd listeners. These would include people like Laurie Anderson, Bob Dylan, and Woody Allen.
Please let me know of others, giving me whatever evidence you may have of connection to Shep.
Many well-known people in the media have commented that they are fans of Jean Shepherd and many have been influenced by him. Among them, as we know, are Seinfeld, Bill Griffith (Zippy the Pinhead comic strip), Penn Jillette, Andy Kaufman, etc. Most of us feel that Garrison Keillor has also been influenced by him, although it’s said that he has denied it. However we have some ambiguous pieces of evidence regarding this:
Good to see that Keillor, in public, recognized Shep’s existence on his radio program, “The Writer’s Almanac,” and on its accompanying website–nice to see that Keillor recognized Shep on his birthday.
But in his “Tanglewood’s 2008 Season” appearance, his little ditty printed here contains an ambiguity–or rather, an ironic denial. The ditty suggests that people who remember Allen, Bob and Ray, Benny–and Shepherd, claim he, Keillor, imitates them. And it’s only when those (misguided) old fans are dead will his true value (reputation) be secured. Really?! Not nice–especially in suggesting that fans of those older comics claim an influence (I never heard these claims), thus undercutting Keillor’s much closer resemblance to what Shepherd did.
To repeat from an earlier blog, here’s Shep’s blurb for Keillor on the back of Keillor’s 1981 book, blurbed before Keillor became too big for Shepherd’s itches:
“I welcome Garrison Keillor to the ranks of a very endangered species.
Keillor makes you laugh, and that ain’t easy these days.”
I’d like input as to what ways Keillor may be similar in style to Allen, Bob and Ray, and Benny. And what about to Shep? (Enough to be considered “influenced by.”) Is it just because they both talked, sometimes with a touch of humorous irony, about the old days when life was seemingly simpler–maybe with a sometimes subtle and unacknowledged nostalgia?
“Something supposedly highly cultural, but to the
regular sane person merely pretentious.”
–Artsy Fartsy definition found on the Internet–
Long ago (do some still do it?) on the comics pages some Sunday funnies had a less-important, supplementary strip below (or above). I believe that “Smokey Stover,” that cuckoo strip about firefighters, sometimes had one. Shep’s delight in describing “slob art” (such as his old man’s leg lamp) inspires me to add to the bottom of some of my future Shepherd posts, a few of my quirky commentaries about some art that we have hanging around our house (or, like the “Venus de Milo,” just hanging around my mind)—most of the stuff that, in the main, is in no way slob art, but that for me has some unexpected backstory wandering through my consciousness that may be of some wider amusement–(aren’t life and art strange and wonderful?). I believe that my decades of work at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, and the widespread nature of my interests in the arts has led to some interesting contacts with such matters.
My Artsy Fartsy comments are not intended just to describe the art I like. My intent is to explore the quirky nature of why someone (yours truly, for example) becomes involved with particular creations and in what way they might have an interesting/unusual context that might surprise and delight regarding an encounter with the arts. Sort of like why the unexpected nature of Shepherd’s art of radio sound continues to fascinate me. Ah, yes—I also hope my comments are enlightening and entertaining.
“Artsy-fartsy individuals tend to be unemployed
and enjoy finger-painting.”
SHEP AND MY OBSESSION WITH HIM
AIN’T GOIN’ NOWHERE.
THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE
A Tragedy in Obdurate Acts
and Extenuating Circumstances
Cultivation and Leveling of
A Great, Communicating Art Form
And then the chick said, “Who listens to radio anymore?”
The guy says, “I sat there for a while and drank some of my wine, and my wine wasn’t piquant anymore.” (Jean Shepherd, April, 1960.)
Nobody worth his salt is listening to the radio at this hour of the night, I can tell you that. And I can tell you this–nobody worth his salt is doing radio at this hour of the night.” (Jean Shepherd, August 22, 1964)
Radio–when it was the major communicator
to the great American public.
By the late 1950s, the attention paid to radio by the public and the advertisers declined drastically with the onset of rock and roll and television. That Shepherd’s rise, with his genius for the medium, could not sustain itself through the historical happenstance of TV and rock, was a cultural phenomenon beyond his control. For him, a tragic cultural decline in the media he’d mastered.
It’s sad that a whole art form grew to fruition and suddenly disappeared It would be as if somebody had invented painting and great painters had flourished for–oh, maybe twenty years and then everybody forgot about painting because everyone discovered ceramics…–because radio can do things that television and the movies and the stage can never do. It plays with the imagination and the mind [in a way] that I think no other medium can ever approach. Some great actors rose to become really fine artists in the field of radio back in the 1930s and early 1940s. And the whole–the whole canvas is gone now. (Jean Shepherd, July 9, 1960)
From emceeing important jazz concerts, he enjoyed the lesser artistic thrills of live shows such as the Limelight broadcasts, with the attendant young accolades elbowing for his attention.
His style and content on the radio was to be as open and descriptive of his life and ideas as possible. To be a mentor toward the thousands of youngsters who followed his every word. His overwhelming secret need, it seems, was to keep his private person as safe and as unknown as possible. He kept parts of his private life secret even from his close friends. From anything he might ever have said in person or on the airwaves, one would not have known that, as an adult, he ever had a girlfriend, any wives at all, and any children such as Adrian and Randall Shepherd. He definitely had such girlfriends as “The Vampire Lady,” Lois Nettleton, and Leigh Brown, and four wives: Barbara Mattoon Shepherd, Joan Warner Shepherd, Lois Nettleton Shepherd, and Leigh Brown Shepherd.
Despite the many instances and circumstances in which he was an important mentor to thousands, through his personal weaknesses he could sometimes be dismissive and cruel, and, deny the parenthood he had to Adrian and Randall (It is possible that, with his consistent denial of parenthood, the opening part of his last will was just a sad, inexplicable error.):
Jean Shepherd was an original–a creator. It’s been said that Shepherd, in his career, copied himself a lot. True, but, in his defense, he created a tremendous amount of original material–and, when he chose, it was his to copy. What is of special concern is the contrast between the burgeoning of the late 1950s and his leveling off from then on, and the great loss of momentum in his last decade.
Some prefer Shepherd’s more honed stories published in print. From the early 1960s, he published 23 of his kid and army stories in Playboy, but these were not original written stories, they were his edited and augmented stories originally improvised on the radio. I prefer his tellings on the air, with all his spoken abilities such as tone, volume, pauses, sound effects, and the shorter, more focused, spoken words. I commented on a Customer Review on Amazon.com’s page regarding my transcripts of Shep’s Army, in which the Reviewer writes that the printed stories are less readable when you take the content from tape: “Yes, there is definitely a difference between my edited transcriptions of Shep’s radio stories, and his previously published stories. For one thing, readers should be aware that (in my understanding of the matter), all of Shep’s published stories come from his stories broadcast on his shows–but he not only edited them for print, he augmented them with a fair amount of written content–he added to what he improvised on the air. One might then discuss whether Shepherd was a better improvising radio storyteller, or a better augmenting-writer-for-print. I, for one, prefer his creative improvisations–for me, this is his claim to uniqueness and immortality.” (And, truth is, I prefer my transcripts that remain truer to the improvised radio tales than I like the Shep-augmented stories that were printed. Note that my complete transcripts are not of any of his previously printed stories, which are copyrighted.)
As for his many curmugeonly complaints displayed in so many of his later published comical articles, I for one don’t find many of them funny.
Indeed, the fine and highly regarded 1983 movie of his, A Christmas Story, is an amalgam of his previous stories. And a movie is a collaborative effort. Mainly: the script by him, Leigh, and director Bob Clark, yet, the movie indeed, with his narration, is a high point of his later years–every time I watch it I laugh and tremendously enjoy it.
Compare the high level, high-ranging activities of the late 1950s “burgeoning” seen in the chart below (click on each part to enlarge) with the self-copying and more minor work from the 1960s onward. [I created this chart in 2002–to help me better visualize the over-all sweep of Shep’s creative works while working on Excelsior, You Fathead!–and also for the pure pleasure of seeing it in this form.] Remember that the stories, seeming a great burst of creativity in the second and third sections, plus the three long-form TV dramas (all collaborative works) are based on the radio originals. For me, his great accomplishment in his later works is the two-part (1971 and 1985), uneven and incomplete television series (If only he could have created another 100 or 200 episodes!), Jean Shepherd’s America:
Stay tuned for Part 6
Time Mag: AK: “The critics try to intellectualize my material. There’s no satire involved. Satire is a concept that can only be understood by adults. My stuff is straight, for all ages.” ….What makes Andy Kaufman great is his unassumed childishness, and cruelty, acknowledged or not, is as much a question of childhood as innocence.
In what ways are Shep and Andy dead?
In what ways are Shep and Andy alive?
Shepherd always insisted that, though many people were afraid to venture, that, because one only lived once it was foolish not to get the maximum out of one’s life. While his greatest pleasures were connected with the life in New York, why did he move to Florida–had he given up on that important part of his life? Had he given up on his eternal struggle to gain more fame and acknowledgment for his achievements? Why did he and Leigh (according to those who knew them best) become recluses in those last years? Why and how did he die of “natural causes” the year after Leigh died? Indeed, did loss of their mutual support system strike the final blow to his need to live?
Yes, of course I believe that he really died. But, in terms of his artistic legacy, he still lives–audios, books, videos, films, Internet tributes, the power of his influence on his thousands of enthusiastic listeners, and influence on many current creators in various entertainment fields.
My most recently encountered popular media creators who claim Shep as an important influence are author R. L. Stine (young adult “Goosebumps” books) and bestselling author Kate Collins (“The Flower Shop Mysteries,” etc.) whose childhood home was two blocks from Shep’s and who considers him her mentor: “Jean Shepherd’s amazing books had a major influence on my writing style. I write a mystery series but with comedic overtones. You’d recognize his humor in them…. I was twelve when I read Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories: And Other Disasters, and was immediately hooked. What a gifted writer, a huge talent. I always give him credit for stimulating my interest in writing.”
Andy thought that if he hoaxed his own death and people didn’t believe it, he’d “live” forever–be immortal. See below:
Considering all the ways in which Andy sabotaged reality, it’s only logical (?) that some dupes think he faked his death. Regarding his death, the more I read and understand what Andy was like and how he talked about and played with the idea of death in public and in private, the more I wonder if I am not one of those dupes. Am I racing down the road to bamboozlement?
Real Death Certificate.*
I’ve checked out lots of websites about Andy’s death. Through googling, find thousands of hits for variations of this:
IS ANDY KAUFMAN ALIVE?
DID ANDY KAUFMAN FAKE HIS OWN DEATH?
TAXI STAR KAUFMAN IS ALIVE!
The March 31, 2015 New Yorker has an article that begins:
Last month, when the fortieth-anniversary special for “S.N.L.” aired, speculation grew on Twitter that Andy Kaufman would make his big comeback during the live program, possibly by crashing it—an unlikely proposition given that Kaufman died, in 1984….
Kaufman’s posthumous reputation has grown in tandem with the rise of a cult that venerates him as a culture god, the harbinger of our comedy verité sensibility. One of the central tenets of this cult is that Andy Kaufman is really and truly alive….
An early trauma for Andy, it’s said: “Kaufman’s parents probably erred in telling a particularly sensitive young Andy that his recently deceased and beloved grandfather, Papu, had merely gone away on a long trip.”
It’s been said by various people who knew him that Andy was fascinated by the idea of dying–but then actually being alive. An elderly lady does a dance onstage during Andy’s Carnegie Hall appearance and “dies” at the end in front of the shocked audience, then is revealed to be alive.
A professional Hoaxer, Alan Abel (who wangled his fake obit into the New York Times), says that Andy questioned him about how he’d faked his own death.
I recently got a CD:
Andy playing with a mini-audio recorder,
messing with unsuspecting minds.
Culled from 82 hours of interesting stuff in this standard length CD, the final cut here has to do with a woman who is very angry that Andy won’t give her his surreptitiously recorded tape of her; there follows a dialog between Andy and his friend/collaborator, Bob Zmuda:
Andy: Wouldn’t it be great if she killed me, and then you have the tapes?…It would be better if I’m more famous.
Zmuda: [musing about how it would play in public] He took his own act into his own life. He played with people’s heads, not only on stage, but off, and it cost him in the end.
Andy: Wow. Wow. That would be great. Except I don’t think I’d want to get killed though. You know what I mean? I wouldn’t want that part. But we could fake it! When I’m more famous we could fake it….Then wouldn’t people hate me when it turns out I’m really alive?
Zmuda: No, no, because every few months you could die, right? ….And then you know what? And then—and then, for a while, everybody says, “Ah, he’s puttin’ us on.” Then, all of a sudden, you die. And I go on TV and say, “I swear this time it’s true. It’s no joke”....For one year nobody hears anything. We have a gravestone, the whole thing…. And then you come back again.
Andy: A huh.
Zmuda: You know how you come back?
Zmuda: There’s the stupid “foreign man” like on the Dick Van Dyke Show, or something.
Zmuda: Yeh, do it with the same [“Foreign Man”] act. People say, ah, that’s him, that’s him….Then, when you really die, nobody will believe it. Years will go by and they’ll go, “Nah.”….They won’t believe your own death, you’ll be immortal, you’ll go on forever.
Andy: That’s great!
[Unless this entire audio of the proposed death-hoax is itself a double-duty fake: a hoaxed-taped-proposal perpetrated about a death-hoax.]
America and “The American Dream”
Jean Shepherd and Andy Kaufman, despite some affinities, were, I believe, different in their sense of America and The American Dream.
I’v just read a strange book published by an American university, written by a “Fellow” at a Zurich University: Andy Kaufman: Wrestling With the American Dream. The idea of the author is that Andy, in a frequent way through his performances, commented on “The American Dream.” I don’t see that at all–for me, his actions reflected his take on what all of us think, feel, respond to life round us–especially to many seemingly minor things we don’t think sufficiently about. He manages to confuse us and make us do bewildered double-takes, making us re-think how we approach our basic surroundings. Recognizing ways in which each of us has thoughtlessly failed to understand ourselves and our surroundings. I don’t think that Andy thought about or commented on America as a particular cultural phenomenon at all. Although he sometimes used subjects such as “Mighty Mouse” and Elvis, I don’t see his use of them as having a particular take on American culture–He seems to me to be essentially a-cultural. Where does “The American Dream” come into this at all?
Jean Shepherd in his commentaries, his American-based stories, his expression of our customs such as in his depictions of some of our American holidays (Fourth of July, Christmas, graduation, etc.), two Jean Shepherd’s America TV series, and his often referring to American ideas and foibles, examines the American persona. He loves America and often lovingly refers to our country in his stories.
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.
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.” )
GIVES ME GOOD GOOSEBUMPS!
I’ve commented previously that “Goosebumps” author R. L. Stine is a Shep fan. I’m delighted to receive this additional confirmation:
Here are the references to Jean Shepherd in the autobiography of author Stine:
Gives me happy chills just to see it in print! –eb
In a publication about “Who Wrote That?–R. L. Stine” it notes where he lives:
The apartment is lined with custom-made bookshelves, some of which display the dozens of titles Stine has produced over the years. Many of his favorite books line the shelves as well: titles by P. G. Wodehouse, Edgar Allen Poe, Ray Bradbury, and Jean Shepherd, among others.
On the Barnes & Noble website page “Meet the Writer–R. L. Stine,” he’s asked for his all-time favorite books, and among the ten he writes:
Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters by Jean Shepherd–Wonderfully told hilarious Midwestern adventures, wise and goofy at the same time, by one of my all-time heroes.
→ • • • • • ←
My goosebumps ↑
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.”
HIP AND “NIGHT PEOPLE”
It appears from circumstantial evidence of his early activities in New York, that Jean Shepherd was the essence of “hip.” With the change to shorter programs earlier in the evening, he probably didn’t seem as hip except in the minds of what was becoming his predominantly younger audience. He remained extremely intelligent, knowledgeable, entertaining, and sometimes arcane, but not what the cutting edge of hip would still call hip. (Don’t get the impression that I was ever hip—the most I can claim is that because of Shepherd’s recommendations I was an early and long-time subscriber to The Village Voice and The Realist.
As a member of the “predominantly younger audience,”
I found Shepherd hip then, and, in a modified way, I still do.)
Yes, Shepherd was hip, so he must have been aware of and curious about the nature of a Broadway musical of 1959, The Nervous Set. Based on an autobiographical novel by Jay Landesman, with lyrics by his wife Fran Landesman, it seems a witty, cynical send-up of both the hip and the square. With characters said to portray Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg among others, set in New York in 1950, it’s described as “the intensely cool, hopelessly hip jazz musical about the Beat Generation,” and “a loving evocation of the Beat Generation, with all its warts and contradictions,…”
Connections to Shepherd include his affinity for the Beats, his friend Jules Feiffer’s promotional artwork for the play, and more directly, by one of the songs. Titled “Night People,” it repeats Shepherd’s “night people” phrase, which he’d used at about four years before the play opened. The phrase had been in the air since Shepherd described characteristics of people who were awake in the middle of the night, and who were by implication, his early hip radio listeners. [Actress Lois Nettleton, eventually Shep’s third wife, was one of those early listeners.] Although I’ve suggested the following before, I’ve never fully articulated it. My sense of Shepherd’s use goes something like this:
1) In early 1956, when he broadcast nightly from 1:00 to 5:30 A. M., he must have begun referring to those who were awake late at night, and many of whom listened to his program, as “night people,” giving the sense that they were a special breed who, through inclination, occupation, or other imperative, felt more comfortable in the dark, less-inhabited hours, when they could be more open to their less-conforming temperaments. He may have put it a bit too strongly, specifically referring to a “wild tossing of the soul and brooding.” Yet even these tendencies would have been found among the rarified and embattled souls whose affinity toward Shepherd’s style and tone led them to cling to his word as balm and sustenance. Ah, those lucky few who heard him then!
2) Then came the firing/rehiring of September 1956, when the renown he thus achieved and the Sunday evening hour, promoted a larger audience, including an intelligent and perceptive majority of them maybe not brooding with a wild tossing of their souls, yet (ready for a pun here?) attuned to him and more likely seated at the kitchen table, homework done, listening on a maroon plastic Zenith AM/FM radio with its big, simulated-gold dial (See my EYF! page 18).
With this audience, he must have seen the need to expand the meaning of “night people,” so in part he promoted an aspect of it, a distaste for what he called the “creeping meatballism” of the mass culture’s conformist and consumer-oriented pressures. Near the beginning of the earlier-in-the-evening broadcasts (beginning in September, 1956), his article, “The Night People vs. ‘Creeping Meatballism’” appeared April 1957 in that phenomenon of kid-revolt against the conventional culture and consumerism, Mad Magazine.
In the article, he referred to Night People as “…people who refuse to be taken in by the ‘Day World’ philosophy of ‘Creeping Meatballism.’” For “day people,” read “conformists.” At the end of the article, he gathers all perceptive Mad readers and potential listeners into his arms, commenting that no matter how consumer-addicted, one is still an individual, and “every one of us, I don’t care who he is, has a certain amount of ‘Night People’ in him. And once a person starts thinking and laughing at the culture,…he can never go back!” Indeed, who of us ever went back?
3) By the time he began broadcasting earlier in the evening, although he may have continued to suggest that his listeners were “Night People,” he didn’t use the term as originally defined but left its understanding open to wider interpretation. I asked Shepherd fans about his post-overnight usage and reports suggest that later acolytes were not referred to as afflicted with a night person’s wild tossings. Personally, despite a bit of sleep apnea with mild limb movement, I’ve never tossed wildly.
Without being able to listen to any–much less all–of Shepherd’s overnight broadcasts, we can’t know the whole truth, but in numerous articles the media promoted Shepherd’s use of the term. An interviewer in 1964: “You referred to your audience as ‘night people.’” Response: “Well, not really. That’s not as simple as it sounds. In fact the phrase ‘night people’ came out of that show that I did. I never called my audience ‘night people.’”
In response to my 2006 query by email to The Nervous Set’s author, Jay Landesman, he neither confirmed nor denied a connection between Shepherd’s use of the term and the song, but merely promoted to me an expected new production insipidly re-titled Fun Life. (It never happened.)
LP recording. Note Feiffer drawing on left.
The song can’t be interpreted as a positive comment on what Shepherd meant by the phrase. The ironic and pompous orchestration and the original cast’s ironically smug rendition make it a two-edged sword—putting down both day-people blandness along with the play’s idea of night people who have a superficial enjoyment of such stuff as neon lights. Certainly the lyrics of the song don’t evoke what Shepherd felt were serious, highly intelligent, and sensitive people seeking solace, if not fulfillment, in the night. The song refers to the night people as “restless neon light people, the bright people.” Sneering at “sober little clay” day people because they never have time to play, the song ends with “We always run before the sun can spoil our fun. Because we’re night people. Night people. Night people.” Listen to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EsKc8i8yOx4
The impression is of superficial, late-night party animals. Neon lights and the lyric’s tinsel stars have nothing to do with the Beats or Shepherd’s term. We know Shepherd disapproved of superficial uses of his phrase, as indicated in the broadcast segment below. He must have been incensed at the distortion of his idea and the use of the term, and he might well have been referring, at least in part, to the play here—his comment occurs within about a year of the play’s opening:
And you know, incidentally, it has bothered me so much what has happened to the term “night people,” which I have always regretted coining. This was a term which I coined, and I will stand accused and guilty of it. And I notice that people have taken it up and used it to cover all sorts of sins of omission and commission. It has nothing to do with Walter Winchell’s world of bus boys—nothing to do with Walter Winchell’s world and Damon Runyon’s world of cab drivers. This is not the night people that I’m referring to.
I’m talking about people with that wild tossing in the soul that somehow makes them stay up till three o’clock in the morning and brood. (June 4, 1960)
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.)