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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.
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“You could be on New York radio for many years
and be widely unknown.” –Jean Shepherd
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Regarding Shep’s third book of short pieces, The Ferrari in the Bedroom, Shepherd’s main publisher, Doubleday, who had best sellers publishing his first two books of stories, rejected it. Leigh Brown had to go shopping it around until Dodd Mead bought it.
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Where were/are all the Fatheaded Jean Shepherd fans?
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(This is a desert.)
Lemme put it to you another way: the number of listeners Shep had during his live broadcast days has been given at many hundreds of thousands; the lowest figure I’ve ever come across is 60,000.
If there were only 60,000 of us in the 60s and 70s, where are they now—maybe 10,000 are dead; maybe 20,000 don’t pay attention and don’t know there are thousands of free and nearly free audios of Shep shows, three websites, one blog, several trade paperbacks of his stories and articles easily available, two books focused on his work, numerous books with significant references to him, and the Internet with numerous articles about him including Donald Fagan’s on “Slate” and Richard Corliss’s marvelous tribute on the Time Magazine site. And what about the hour Seinfeld talked about him at the Paley Center? Wake up, Shep enthusiasts!
THAT LEAVES AT LEAST
Shep listeners are not like other people–
They are enthusiasts–fanatics,
understanding from their first contact with him
that he is their intellectual soulmate, mentor!
WHERE ARE ALL THOSE FATHEADED JEAN SHEPHERD ENTHUSIASTS NOW?
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The only positive note I can come up with is that In God We Trust, his first book of kid stories, is now, according to its current colophon page, into its 46th trade paperback printing. Encountered recently in a book store. How the
xxxx did that happen?! See below–earlier (only 38th) printing ↓
Why hasn’t the Paley Center released on DVD the Shep-tribute hour as they have all those other programs (that are apparently very popular, but which I’ve never heard of)?
Don’t they care about promoting and disseminating
their fine Seinfeld tribute to Shep
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And why does the Facebook group, with its bold and straightforward name “I’m a Fan of Jean Shepherd,” have less than 700 members instead of tens-of-thousands? And why does only a small handful of those few hundreds ever post on the group? Two of those maybe-a–dozen who post (Max S. and Gene B.) mostly promote their basic Shep-work from elsewhere for anyone who might care.
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Why has the only book about his career (my Excelsior, You Fathead!) in ten years not quite sold 8,000 copies yet? Where are the other 22,000+ Shep enthusiasts? (I recently encountered that on amazon.com, EYF! and S’s A each have about 43 mostly very enthusiastic Customer Reviews.)
Why doesn’t some theatrical producer, or influential Shep-enthusiast, grab my play about Shep? Kevin Spacey, where are you?
Why did my current publisher inform me last year that, after a year on the market, my Shep’s Army book had yet to sell 2,000 copies?
Because of those less-than-2,000 copies, my publisher doesn’t want Shep’s travel-story manuscript, which is why I’m posting the chapters on this blog. And my publisher has even failed to respond to my other manuscript of Shepherd material that’s sure-to-be-a-hit-if-people-pay-attention.
“Get an agent!” Tried that–and no agent is interested even in books with somewhat of a built-in audience. Way back, looking for a publisher for EYF! I chose a dozen agents that seemed likely prospects and sent them query letters with SASEs. I received back 5 no thanks, 4 lots-a-luck but no thanks, and 3 no response. An agent’s commission even on my EYF! would have been under $3,000 so far–is that piddle worth any agent’s time? (And, in recent decades, most publishers won’t even look at a book that isn’t submitted by an agent.) I do not have an agent–not because I haven’t tried.
“Self-publish!” Got any idea how much that costs? Any idea of the non-creative drudgery that involves? What about promotion? Of course I’d broadcast to the email group and the Facebook group and my blog, and I’m sure that flicklives.com would promote it, but, based on previous experience, would that sell enough even to get an agent’s attention? What about distribution? Without having to spend thousands on a small ad somewhere, how would anyone find out about it?
Why don’t I start sending out that sure-hit manuscript to more publishers and more agents? Because I’ve spent over 45-years struggling to get my varied manuscripts accepted and I’m tired of that struggle—it’s a hassle and mostly a time-waster. (“Had we but world enough and time, / This coyness, lady, were no crime.”) I’ve experienced many of the aggravating but inevitable snags on the route to publication. The least of which is having to wait–hanging by my thumbs–at least 3 months for a reply for each submission. Should I get an offer out-of-the-blue, yes, I’ll take it. Then I’ll do my very best in the pre-publication process–even though knowing through previous experiences that I’ll have to struggle and spend my precious time going through those grueling pre-publication frustrations and compromises endemic between contract and publication day–yet, it would be worth it all! And I ain’t in it for the nickels and dimes.
• Gene B. and Max Schmid at Old Time Radio convention.
• 70 people at a CT library to attend my discussion of EYF!
• Only TV interview: SHEP’S ARMY.
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And, speaking of my blog, why has it taken several years to even build up what I estimate to be only about 100 readers per post? My site statistics indicate that recently I’ve just achieved 110 “followers,” whatever that means. And why do so few of those 100-or-so people think to comment about Shepherd at the site?
And talking about posting my Shep’s travel manuscript on the blog, I’ll remind you—and myself—that a fair portion of the posts of mine on varied non-travel Shep subjects I’ve cannibalized from my other two unpublished book manuscripts of miscellaneous (and wonderful!) content about Shep.
So—where does that leave me? Am I discouraged?
But I carry on with my Excelsior banner held aloft.
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A few years back, in regard to the world of Jean Shepherd,
someone asked, “Who’s got the juice?”
Regarding Jean Shepherd,
what are some major sources of knowledge and material?
[Above, my Shep poster and the banner
Jackie Lannin made for me]
I’d say that there are three major sources, each somewhat different from the others. In addition, with Nick Mantis making his Shep documentary, he is gathering additional material, which is making him another important player in the game. College professor Quentin Schultze, who, years ago, began teaching courses about Shepherd’s work, has only recently become more widely known as a Shep authority. Several other sources should also be noted. Internet sources of audios, etc. should include the brass figlagee: http://shepcast.blogspot.com and several others, and some YouTube videos. Major collectors such as Pete Delaney continue to supply important material. What follows is just what I consider the big three, noting the major areas of their contributions.
JIM CLAVIN: HISTORICAL REPOSITORY
Jim’s essential website for all things Shep is www.flicklives.com . Jim has been collecting and archiving Shepherd material for years, and those with Shepherd material often contact him to send him previously unknown material. He has amassed an incredible archive regarding all aspects of Shepherd’s life and work, plus listing other various sources. I could not have done much of my work regarding Shepherd without being able to make reference to Jim’s site.
Jim Clavin, eb, and Lou Miano– 3 Shep fans
MAX SCHMID: PROMOTION AND DISTRIBUTION
Max, as a WBAI FM broadcaster for many years, has promoted Shepherd however and whenever he can, including years of early Tuesday morning rebroadcasts of Shepherd programs. People with Shep audios and other material often contact him and deliver the goods to him. He organized and presented a session with him and me on Shep for an Old Time Radio convention–see photo below. He continues to rebroadcast Shep when he can, and he is a fine source of available audios and videos of much Shepherd material: www.sheptapes.com
EUGENE B. BERGMANN: INTERPRETATION AND ESSAYS
I’m the source of some of the earliest audios of Shepherd’s New York broadcasts (I recorded him from 1956 to about 1963). My Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd, containing an overview of his work and creativity was published by Applause Theatre and Cinema Books in March, 2005. My transcriptions and introductions to dozens of Shep army stories, Shep’s Army: Bummers, Blisters, and Boondoggles, was published by Opus Books in August, 2013. I’ve been interviewed numerous times for print articles, radio broadcasts, and once on CBS Television regarding these books and other Shepherd matters. I’ve also written and published a number of articles in various periodicals about Shep, including a foreword for Caseen Gaines’ A Christmas Story: Behind the Scenes of a Holiday Classic. I’ve published over 200 posts on my blog regarding many aspects of Shepherd’s life and works.
Other Shepherd enthusiasts continue to comment and help sustain his memory, and all of them are appreciated. To my delight, various well-known (and some lesser celebrated) people have also commented on the importance of Shepherd in their lives. Some I interviewed for my first book, and some, such as Jerry Seinfeld, Keith Olbermann, and Dee Snider, I’ve only subsequently become aware of as Shepherd fans. Even more recently, I found out that R. L. Stine (Goosebumps book-series author) and contemporary novelist Tom Wolfe, are also Shep fans.
eb and a well-known Shep fan
eb and a well-known Shep fan
[In foreground, four different editions of I, Libertine,
and on wall, an original Shep still life in ink on a paper towel.
This current post is the last of this series of “Manifestos.” The following story was scheduled for near the end of the Keep Your Knees Loose book manuscript. Does eveyrbody like green icing?
* * * *
A STORY IN KYKL I’VE BEEN SAVING TILL THE END OF ITS MANUSCRIPT
(The sweet green icing flowing down)
A couple of years before Shep died, a number of us Shepherd cuckoos contacted his childhood friends Flick, Dawn Strickland, and Wanda Hickey, and we all made regular pilgrimages to his home, maintaining contact with him despite our shyness and his justified grumpiness. It helped if we could get songwriters Jimmy Webb and Gene Raskin, and Chicago White Sox first baseman “Banana Nose” Zeke Bonura, to tag along. I’ll never forget those times we spent with Shep in his later years on Sanibel Island, when the temperature on those cool winter evenings had plummeted to 130 degrees above zero (centigrade), and the crappies were jumpin’ out of the swirling steam. Just as when listening to his nightly radio broadcasts, we thought those times would go on forever.
Ol’ Shep sometimes entertained guests by serving us highballs of meatloaf and red cabbage, if he could find the recipe. (I’m telling the truth! I’m not exaggerating!)
He would tell stories that inevitably began, “I was this kid on the north side of Juneau, see….” Then he’d go on to relate how, “With both hands tied behind my back [Laughs.] I’d wrestle alligators.” He referred to these anecdotes as his “Crock Tails.” If one of his old radio engineers was present at the gathering, he’d fix the guy with narrowing eyes, grab a 6SJ7GT mike and, daring him to cut him off, add, “Or I call these my Tales of Crocks of…” and let the unuttered word hang in the air like the stench of an abandoned latrine.
Inevitably he’d take us to his ham radio room [“shack”], where he’d have us listen while he tapped out some Morse code, and then, on what he called his “Victrola,” he’d carefully put on LPs, one by one, and scat along to “Boodle-Am Shake” and “The Bear Missed the Train.” He could often be persuaded to get out his jew’s harp and, with his inimitable way with a tune, but straining it a bit, he would render “Escargot” to the consistency of consommé.
It is said that he retained within a crystal case, on the rump-sprung remnant of a red chenille bathrobe, a fragment of broken table lamp in the shape of a woman’s well-turned leg. This is one of those Shep-myths it’s my duty to expunge from the record—the remaining shard is more likely part of a slender calf, or a hunk of inner thigh.
He would occasionally clear his throat—”HARUMPH!”—and could be heard to mutter, “What a gallimaufry! Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.” Finally, he would haul out an old wooden crate with a label, tattered and torn, that read, MADE WITH PRIDE IN HOHMAN, INDIANA. Within, he had a preserved, well-worn knee-handle, nestled on a bed of purest excelsior (you fathead!).
During those days and nights it seemed as though it was always raining. Maybe that’s why ball-bumbling Banana-Nose Bonura would drop another easy pop fly and Jimmy, nowhere near MacArthur Park, in his stripp-ed pair of pants, would go bounding out into the downpour screaming that he’d “never have that recipe again.” Yes, the recipe died with Shepherd. Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end, we’d have our Shep forever and a day. But Jimmy (“MacArthur Park”), nostalgic songwriter Gene Raskin (“Those Were the Days”), and steadfast writer Gene Bergmann (“Excelsior, You Fathead!”) were wrong–he’s alive. Fortunately, Shep had baked us thousands of recorded broadcast cookies to savor, whether on our brightest, sunshiny days, or during a deluge.
* * * *
Thank you, cousin Raymond B. Anderson, for content and editorial advice on this entire project, leading to what I believe is a better book. Thank you to my friend Margaret Cooper, for her eagle eye and sharp mind not only for editorial corrections, in what might have appeared to be only gentle nudges and minor suggestions, but which were important comments resulting in a much stronger result.
Of course Jim Clavin’s www.flicklives.com continues to be the best source of Shepherd information. Members of the email shepgroup sometimes post new Shep-related news and respond to my queries, for which I’m grateful. Contacts from people who were aware of EYF! and my own detective work led to much new material, and I must also thank my able research assistant, Serendipity—hugs and kisses, doll.
Several people have provided powerful jolts of important revelations for our knowledge of Jean Shepherd. I thank Lois Nettleton, actress and third wife of Shepherd, for her enthusiasm for my first Shepherd book and her offer to invite me to visit her when she returned to the New York apartment she’d shared with Shepherd. She carefully read the book and wrote extensive notes—notes that provided much fascinating information about her and Jean’s personal and professional life, all of which contributed greatly to Keep Your Knees Loose! Thank you to director and producer John Bowab, Lois’s long-time close friend and her executor, who gave me two hours of his time in her New York apartment, and who rescued her notes from probably inaccessible university archives and generously gave them to me. Thank you, Doug McIntyre, for providing me with a copy of Lois’s year 2000 interview with him. Thank you Barbara Tiedermann Simerlein for the background information regarding Leigh Brown’s early years and for providing many letters from Leigh to her, written during Leigh’s early contacts with Jean. Thank you Tom Lipscomb for providing much important commentary regarding his friendship with Jean and Leigh. Thank you, Shepherd fan Mark Snider for providing contact with his brother, Dee Snider of Twisted Sister, and thank you, Dee Snider, for the great discussion and interview. Thank you also, Dee, for your cool blurb for my Shep’s Army book.
Thank you, Nadine Metta Bordogna and Charles Bordogna for alerting me to the Jerry Seinfeld comment about Shepherd on Seinfeld, Season 6 DVD set —I use the quote at every opportunity—and thank you, Jerry Seinfeld, for saying it.
Thank you Jeanne Keyes Youngson (“The Vampire Lady”) for telling me about your friendship with Shep and his early New York radio days. Thank you, Joyce Brabner for attempts to locate Jeanne’s misplaced and long-gone box of tapes from Shep’s overnight broadcasts. Many will recognize that Joyce was co-creator of some of Harvey Pekar’s “American Splendor” graphic novels and that her essay on I, Libertine remains available on the Internet. I discuss in my graphic novel reproduced in my early blog posts, her help on that project.
Thank you, film director Raul daSilva for providing me with a copy of the heretofore undiscovered 1973 half-hour film, No Whistles, Bells or Bedlam, narrated by Shepherd (one gets to see him a bit, too!). Thank you Robert Blaszkiewicz, for permitting me to quote from your column about the JSMIGWTAOPC Tollway (described in an earlier post). Marc Spector, an associate producer at WOR in 1975 contacted me with his observations regarding Shep’s later period at WOR Radio. Thanks to Bill Myers for helping to expand on the meager information regarding Shepherd’s Cincinnati radio days. Thank you, Murray Tinkleman for alerting me to Shepherd’s commentaries in the 1987 PBS program “Norman Rockwell: An American Portrait.” Thank you George Irwin for providing a video portion of the TV panel show “I’ve Got a Secret” showing Shep musically thumping his head.
When’s the last time you saw Shep with a jacket,
white shirt and tie–and a crew cut?
J. S. The other thing that struck me about it is—the recall of childhood that so many comedic minds seem to have. I guess it’s because—most comedians I know are able to not leave their childhood behind. I think that’s essential if you want to work in comedy. You cannot leave the—it’s a self-absorbed freedom that children have, which makes them fun to be around. But they get to a point when they just leave it behind to deal with the adult world. Comedians never leave it behind.
B. C. ….. Did you ever talk at other times about Jean Shepherd?
J. S. I don’t know many who are familiar with him—I think I had, I can’t remember on the spur of the moment. But I saw him perform a couple of times. I saw him at Fairleigh Dickinson’s, I saw him at Carnegie Hall…. I just was in love with the guy. Still am. It’s so much in the eye. You see a guy like that—those eyes are just saucers, you know. It’s all in there. And he brings you in through his eyes. And through his voice. This is a guy—without ever seeing him—on the radio—can make you just freeze on the spot for two hours.
B. C. Yes, well, that’s what it used to be. That work that you see in the film—he only narrates. No way to convey completely the story—telling strengths of his voice.
J. S. Right. Yes. And that strength is a tap of—And another thing you must have—any performer has—is you must have access to a tap of genuine enthusiasm. As a comedian you can become quite polished. I mean, I can do a routine—I can do bits from my show which you can take as recordings and you can type them over each other and there would be a millisecond of difference in how the routine is performed.
But the enthusiasm behind it is not cant. That has to be genuine. Now we’re getting into the art of stand-up. So the art of stand-up is: the routine itself has a metronomic precision; the enthusiasm behind it is completely innocent and pure.
B. C. So performing mechanically is not going to work.
J. S. If you manufacture the enthusiasm—it’s not genuine, the routine dies. You could do it exactly right—it just dies. And you go, “I said it the exact same way last night.” But you didn’t think it or you didn’t feel it. So, it takes all those ingredients. I mean, as I was watching that, I couldn’t help but think—you know, if I was directing him, and we’re looking at this piece, I was going to say, “You know, this line has got to come out, it is repetitive, or this doesn’t advance the narrative—it’s got to come out. It’s going to suck the air out, you know. It would kind of rob it of its charm. So I don’t know the man, but I do sense that he was kind of caught between parts you know. So he had this enormous gift of radio. But in this culture they wanted comics. Comics who went up on the stage and stood in that spotlight and stared it down, and played the dragon, you know. And it wasn’t that he wasn’t cynical enough. And it wasn’t that he wasn’t perceptive enough. But—I don’t think he wanted to be as draconian—in other words, I’m not going to use that word [audience laughter] as a stand-up needs to be.
B. C. Do you think he was a cult artist? Like in a cult bottle.
J. S. To me a cult just means a group of people who are very enthusiastic about what you do and there are not that many of them.
I know, it sounds like it means you gotta be special to get it. Which I would disagree with that aspect of the word cult. I think he just didn’t have—we just didn’t have—the industry—let’s say show business or media—didn’t have the container that fit the amazing skill set that he had. Except radio—late-night radio, which is not a celebrated container….
B. C. And I assume, like many others, you were impressed by [A Christmas Story].
J. S. Yes, I thought it was a nice movie. The stuff that’s in it….Those things that were the essence of him, I really love. I love the whole thing.
B. C. Of course he did the BB gun thing. Another clip of him, sort of a very early version, telling his BB gun story, which winds up being the essence of the movie. So this is December of 1964, when he’s at the Limelight and he later did this as a short story. This is him telling the story to an audience for the first time. [Audio of Shep—Limelight, “Duel in Snow” 12/1964.]
B. C. That didn’t sound like him very much.
J. S. Really?
B. C. That was a little more like he’s performing in front of an [audience]….
Here’s what was great—he could paint something so small, he could make a beautiful painting on a postage stamp. And then he could paint this giant thing—“And I’m going to tell you what being an American is about.” You know—these art installations that people do—these giant things. “And now, I’m going to make something for you that’s that big.” That is what made him so remarkable.
B. C. I also think, the idea of being on the radio in the middle of the night, when a lot of people are not—and you’re by yourself, you’re a kid and you’re by yourself in your room in your home—and in my case in Brooklyn—and you have your transistor radio. These guy’s—there’s something magical, old fashioned, almost Homeric-almost way. Here’s this guy who’s telling a story—the most fundamental kind of communication that you have—one guy tells another guy—mesmerized listening to it.
J. S. It had an incredible intimacy that only radio had. Like someone whispering in your ear.
B. C. Yes, yes. I don’t know if you have thought about your own voice that way, and the way you use it. But I know you have a great way of modulating when you perform. You hit things and don’t hit things, right? That’s all part of a practice that you have—like, you’ve practiced that.
J. S. Well, it’s kind of—I don’t really think about it. I don’t think about it but, I mean, I think about what I feel about this subject, and it’s just how it comes out, you know. But you do with jokes. I recall: a joke is math and music. You have to have notes and it has to have mathematical progression. But I don’t really think about—maybe I do think about the notes—there are certain notes when I say words—this note is funnier than this note.
B. C. Do you think a guy like that was fundamentally happy or unhappy? Can you tell?
J. S. Yes. I can tell. He’s unhappy. And I saw something the other day—someone sent me some study about the—if you have a tendency toward depression, one of the things that they find in the brain that kind of comes with that—you don’t get just that, you get the other thing, which is an ability to concentrate for a long period of time on a problem. Which is the act of writing, really, and a lot of other creative pursuits and so—And it made me feel great—about being depressed. [laughter]
….So he clearly has that, and you can also see that release of depression that a performer feels. I can see that in his eyes. When you’re a performer, one of the great things it gives you in that moment, you’re fine, you’re flying through the air and for that period of time your feet are not on the ground. And afterwards you come back down to earth and there’s a happiness that you feel like—you know—well, I’m happy now. I’m happy. All performers feel happy when they’re performing and then they get depressed….
I think I’m less depressed than most. But I have it. It doesn’t bother me. I think everyone’s depressed, essentially. I mean. I was talking the other night on stage about all these ads that we see for depression. The man says these people are special. Oh, you’re sad, you’re special, you’ve got problems. We’re all depressed. [laughter]
And I hate the lady that has the little cloud in her house. If you have a miniature weather system in your house—the coolest thing! A tiny raincloud this big, in your apartment—and you’re bugged out! [laughter]
B. C. I don’t know about Jean’s troubles, but we have some people here who do know his life, and I want to ask his biographer—tell us what your perspective is—was Jean a depressed guy, a happy guy, a struggling guy?
E. B. Bergmann I think he was to a large extent a depressed guy. With all his success, it did not measure up to his ideal of where he felt he should be. And I think that made him rather sad. And from what I’ve heard from people I interviewed, they pretty much go along with that.
EBB: “Would you sign this for me? I could
say it’s for my son, but actually it’s for me.”
A few other comments were elicited from front row guests. After the event, some people from the main audience and some from the TV-annex room, gathered to talk to me about Shepherd, including fans and his general manager, Herb Saltzman, who knew him well, and whom I’d interviewed for my first Shepherd book. We all talked, and it seemed as though our old friend Shep was still alive and among us.
Alive and among us, on the air,
shown when he was typically very happy.
B. C. So, you’re like what age when you’re discovering him?
J. S. Fourteen, sixteen.
B. C. So, are you already thinking of yourself—comedy—as something you’re interested in?
J. C. I was introduced to him in this magazine, Car and Driver, where he had a column.
B. C. Was it humorous?
J. S. It was humorous. And that was the first thing I wanted to be. I wanted to be an automobile writer. I was a car person anyway, and I wanted to write amusing columns for a car magazine the way he did….
B. C. When you hear him narrate and it really does have a way of making—I’m sure you know, delivery is really important to this kind of thing—
J. S. Yeah, but he’s working in the studio and he’s working alone, and he’s working without a script. He had a whole other gift for—he could go into his own mind as if it’s this attic of wonderful thoughts. And he would take you through it, and, you know, I can’t do that. People always say that sometimes, you know, “Tell me a story of something crazy that happened to you on the road.” And I go, “Nothing’s ever happened to me.” [audience laughter]….
J. S. Apparently The Wonder Years, the TV show. They completely ripped off from his whole mind-set.
(Paul, Kevin, and Winnie)
B. C. Yes, even the narration….
J. S. Most comedians go, “You know what I hate about,” and you fill in the rest. Can I take, “You know what I love,” and then do a routine in that vein. The other thing is, can I—like the thing about the beer that you saw [in a video clip].
He wants you to look in the beer and think about the number of events that are in and around this drink, you know. It’s kind of philosophical in that—like, let’s explore life. Everything is about this trying to make sense of life and being kind of up-front about that.
The very first clip that they played, that it’s hard being an American—that’s a philosophical tack. And I do a piece in my act where I—and I worked very long on this. Again, it’s a thing that I picked up from him that I have some similarity [to him]. I do this thing in my act that—to make judgments that people make about things—that this sucks and this great. And I do quite a long routine about these two things. Sucks and great are really much closer than—they are really right next to each other. A lot of things that are great actually suck, and a lot of things that suck are kind of great.
The essence of the routine is the baseball game hotdog. If I could draw a line from that to beer. So, the baseball game hotdog to me is the most perfect example of something that sucks and is great. You’ve got a baseball game and the hotdog is cold and the bun is not toasted and the vendor is an ex-con in a work-release program. And this is the greatest thing!
And that is so Jean Shepherd. And honestly, I don’t really think about him that much, but thinking about tonight, I start to think of ways that explain why I’m here—I mean, that, really, is as good as anything. And I say it in my show. I say, the greatest lesson that I’ve learned in my life is that sucks and great are pretty close you know. And I’m not ashamed to say that. There’s a lot in that.
B. C. And I think he’s interesting because he’s not doing a routine, he’s a raconteur….
J. S. When I do that bit I’m doing it to get laughs, but if you want to think about it afterwards and go, “Maybe he had a point there!” [pause] Now it’s a point on a very stupid thing [pause] but that’s some of the best points that there are.
And that’s the other thing—these stupid things—small and big are the same. It’s very prismatic—if that word isn’t too—in fact, if I can’t use that word here, I don’t know where I’m going to use it.
B. C. Would you consider him a humorist? I mean, people often use the word humorist for guys who can’t actually perform comedy.
J. S. Well, we are going to have to use that word because humorism, which is probably not a word, is comedy but it is free of the brutality of discipline of a stand-up performer. Stand-up performance is a martial art—yes. This is not a game. One of us will win, one of us will lose here this evening. This is the difference in what a stand-up is forced to do and what Jean was able—was free to not do in his radio performance, which are absolutely, equally as brilliant….
Now, to fill four hours a day, that’s not about density, that’s about—what is the opposite of density? Expansion? If you have a thought you want it to last as long as possible. Because you’ve got four hours—till you’re off the air. For a comedian, if you have a thought that takes you seventeen words to express, and you can get it down to fourteen, you’re doing something! And then, from there, can I get it to twelve, can I get to eleven with an “of” and an “a,” you know.
Stand-up is a much more rigorous—and I think that was—from what I know of Jean Shepherd, I think he had some difficulty with the fame and fortune that stand-up—American stand-up was really exploding in the 60s, around that time, and he certainly had the ability, the skill-set and beyond any stand-up comic of his era. But he was not enjoying the fruits of that in the same way and I think that may have frustrated him—from something that I’ve read and heard, and his reason is, they’re as opposite disciplines as they could be. There’s nothing more wonderful—I can’t think of a stand-up comic, really, that could sit and fill that much time. They’d just bore you to tears. So the one is filling space and the other is compressing words and space.
B. C. We have an interesting clip of him doing kind of like a stand-up and it’s a different form. And I think it’s never been seen.
J. S. Well, someone’s seen it. [laughter] Well, someone’s seen it….
B. C. What do you think of it as a stand-up piece?
J. S. It’s not a good stand-up piece. It’s a wonderful story. And unfortunately, you know, I was thinking as I was watching, you know, he’s sitting down—this is great, if he’s standing up, he’s wrong. And I don’t know why these rules exist—and they’re brutal and they’re not fair, but they are the rules. If you’re standing up, people just expect a faster frequency of punch lines….
[See EYF! Bottom of page 124-125. As Shepherd once put it, you’ve got to have a rapid-fire approach of laugh lines—snap, snap, snap with the fingers, as he put it.]
B. C. Yes. I thought his delivery was interesting because unlike his radio delivery, which is a little more measured, he was a little more in your face with this.
J. S. Well, he’s got the camera to deal with, and you have to—you can’t take as much time. But still, you know, he has patience. He’s just a wonderful performer. A performer….
B. C. … went back to the same material all the time. That’s also kind of interesting to me. That this story—and he used variants of this story many different ways.
J. S. Good material is hard to find. [Laughter]
B. C. Well, it is, but I guess he particularly—something about his childhood really resonated about his childhood, really resonated, and he felt it. That’s his real address, I’m sure—what he said there.
J. S. Right.
B. C. You know what I mean? Exactly where he lived.
(This is a recent photo of the actual house where Shepherd grew up–
2907 Cleveland Street in Hammond, IN. He refers to it in the subtitle of the
BB gun story, “Duel in the Snow or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid.”)
More Shepherd & Seinfeld to come
Jean Shepherd was honored by Manhattan’s The Paley Center for Media (Formerly the “Museum for Television and Radio”) on January 23, 2012 in the program, “Remembering Master Storyteller, Jean Shepherd, with Jerry Seinfeld.” For its public program, the Center’s curator, Ron Simon, wrote a short introduction on its website, noting that Jean Shepherd and Jerry Seinfeld are both “obsessed with the minutia of daily life… . For Shepherd and Seinfeld, meaning is not found in pondering the huge metaphysical questions that have perplexed Plato onward; life is discovered in the lint, that small detail that informs us who we really are.” Commenting on Shepherd’s “Duel in the Snow, Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid,” the base tale of A Christmas Story, Simon writes that “Jerry Seinfeld is equally obsessed with the absurdities and incongruities of everyday life. Like Shepherd, he possesses that gimlet eye for revelatory detail.”
Shepherd enthusiasts have been hoping that The Paley Center would publish
a DVD of its tribute to Shepherd, as it has of scores
of its programs. Even though other Center programs subsequent
to the Shep tribute have appeared in DVD for sale, so far this one has not.
A four-minute video clip is available on the Paley Center website.
One can only sadly assume that the tribute is
locked away in a secure repository–
available to almost no one.
here are parts of the Tribute–
cobbled together fragments of the proceedings.
Before the program, the principles and several others involved in Shepherd’s world, met in “the green room,” where I, introduced as “Shepherd’s biographer,” met Seinfeld and we shook hands.
He: “I love your book.” Me: “I love your TV show.”
The public event consisted of Bill Carter of The New York Times interviewing Seinfeld for about an hour in the Center’s theater, the overflow crowd watching the event on television monitors in an adjacent room. (Originally, Seinfeld was to talk with Keith Olbermann, but because of illness, the political commentator had to cancel.)
The program began as the Center‘s curator, Ron Simon, held up a small transistor radio, commenting that probably most people in the audience first listened to Shepherd on just such a radio. The audience laughed in recognition of this truth. He played several short video and audio clips of Shepherd. The first clip was of Shepherd in (director/producer at WGBH) Fred Barzyk’s mock-documentary for television, “A Generation of Leaves.” [The title is from Homer’s The Iliad – “A generation of men is like a generation of leaves; the wind scatters some leaves upon the ground, while others the burgeoning wood brings forth – and the season of spring comes on. So of men one generation springs forth and another ceases.” This is a marvelous program, for Shep talking on-screen, and for the entire story. Some years ago I saw it in one of the Center’s public screening booths. I’d love to have a copy.]
In an early scene of the documentary, Shepherd, sitting against a white background, comments:
“Hello fellow Americans. Fellow travelers on the yellow brick road of life. Do you ever have a secret ambition to have your birthday announced on television? [laughs] Wouldn’t that be great? Charlie Gutstop of Dayton, Ohio is 47 today. Happy birthday, Charlie. You know it ain’t easy being an American. Have you ever tried to explain it to somebody? I mean, just being an American.”
Then Simon introduced the two guests and they began.
Bill Carter: I did know you were a fan, but I didn’t know that you said something like you learned everything that you knew about comedy from Jean Shepherd. Do you remember making that quote somewhere?
Jerry Seinfeld: Yes, I have said that and I still say that. I mean, I don’t know about if it’s possible to know everything, but I think what struck me about him—I first discovered reading him in car magazines [Car and Driver, 61 columns and several articles from 1971-1976], and then I found some of his shows and the movies, but there was that great wonderment, and he saw the exciting cataclysmic drama in the ordinary. And that was really the way my mind had always been set up and I didn’t know it until I kind of saw him and I thought, “Yes, that is exactly the way I see things as well.” So it really excited me to watch him work, and I saw just a way for myself to think and perform and do everything that I do.
I mean, [it’s] actually quite easy if you look back at my standup, my TV series, and everything that I’ve done, that it is all about the dramatizing of the ordinary. People like to call it a “show about nothing.” That was, of course, the idea—that, let’s take the smallest possible thing and make it as big as we can. And you can see in that series of clips—you see is that he had a similar gift.
B. C. Shepherd said that “the reality of what we really are is sometime found in the small snips way down at the bottom of things.” And that does seem also to describe some of your comedy….
J. S. Yeah, we did that endlessly in the TV series. It wasn’t funny to us unless it was essentially a trivial event—that we could explode into a cataclysm.
But, thinking about him today, obviously, coming over here, there’s this bit I’ve been doing in my stand-up act recently about Pop-Tarts, and I’ve been doing it for a little while now, and I talk about what breakfast was before the Pop-Tart. That it was just—we had shredded wheat—and—it’s just that the world was so primitive. We were just chimps playing with sticks in the dirt, and then the thing came—this Pop-Tart came to us, seemingly from some advanced, alien civilization, for some reason based in Battle Creek, Michigan. And I talk about the pack—it was some silver lining that clearly had to have been from NASA that had evolved in this. This was just too far advanced, you know, to have just not have been from the highest levels of—
And I’m thinking of all the—as I’m talking about it now, and you can hear—even in this little thing, it’s all him! This so is the way he would look at something like that….
And the other thing that I got from him, which is a very, very big thing—for me, and a very important thing is—like talking about beer. Now, most people—certainly most people in the comedic arts—what comedians like to do, is they see something and they want to make fun of it or they want the audience to have fun with the subject. Well, what they do is they will talk about what’s wrong with it and why it’s stupid. And he did the exact opposite in so many cases. And it’s kind of what I’m doing with this Pop-Tart thing.
It’s a very difficult trajectory in comedy is to say, “Isn’t this thing wonderful”—you’re mocking it. You’re celebrating it. Which is—it’s much more difficult. So that was another big, big thing that I got from him, is that you—now the reason I do it with the Pop-Tart, or the reason I wanted to talk about it, was because I knew I didn’t have to manufacture my appreciation of it.
B. C. You actually do like it.
J. S. I do. And so, if it’s sincere, it’s funny. So everything he talks about, he talks about with sincerity and appreciation and wonder, and maybe go off, you make it funny—which is another skill-set….
Stay tuned for more short excerpts of Shepherd & Seinfeld