Remembering Jean Shepherd

One of America's greatest minds died not long ago, and almost nobody noticed.

He wasn't a famous artist, a poet or philosopher, or even just a politician, although sometimes he was a odd combination of all four. His name was Jean Shepherd, and he died on October 16, 1999.

He was a writer, a comedian, an actor, an all-around raconteur. But most of all, he was just a guy who told stories.

Ah, but what stories. They could be about anything, from trying to build a set of wings from a set of plans in Boys' Life when he was a kid, to a plague of locusts descending on his hometown and eating up his dad's Oldsmobile, to an eerie mood piece about a pack of ghostly dogs haunting a derelict airport. Many of his tales arose from his childhood in northern Indiana, where he grew up under the shadow and smoke of the steel mills and oil refineries. He could turn a gritty steel town into a mythic land of little-kid hopes and dreams and terrors, populated by an array of characters not even Garrison Keillor could possibly imagine. He was, as Marshall McLuhan once called him, "the first radio novelist."

Whatever the subject, Shepherd was a master at making it come alive, at making you feel he was telling it to you, personally. And somehow, no matter how outrageous the tale, there was something about his voice, his cadence, his use of sound effects and music and impressions, that made you believe. Late every weeknight, Shep would hold forth to his "Night People" from WOR-AM radio in New York. In the days before AM radio became a wasteland of inflammatory talk shows and droning news stations, he used the medium as no one else before or since.

From one night to the next, you never knew just what he might do. He could move from a virtuosic kazoo performance on a Sousa march, to deep and serious musings on our culture's lack of a historical sensibility, to singing along with a General Tire commercial. Yet it all seemed to blend together in an effortless flow of words and imagery.

Shepherd never used a script: everything he did was off the cuff, as he followed his odd muse. Sometimes he'd start telling a story, then drift off on tangents which would be annoying if they weren't so funny and interesting. You'd wonder if he'd forgotten the story, and you'd worry that he'd run out of time and you'd be left hanging -- yet he'd always wind his way back and tie everything together in a neat, satisfying package before his 45 minutes of airtime were over.

It was auditory stream-of-consciousness, yet without the studied pomposity that term can imply. In fact, pomposity and pretentiousness were two of Shepherd's favorite targets, as he demonstrated in one of his favorite nightly riffs: mocking, arguing with or just plain ridiculing the commercial spots on his show. The sponsors never seemed to mind, though -- they knew that Shep actually made his audience pay attention to their ads, instead of running off to make a sandwich during the break.

I don't actually remember when I first heard him. One night when I was about twelve or thirteen, I must have heard strange noises coming from my father's radio in the other room: a kazoo playing along to Stars and Stripes Forever, yelling voices, laughing -- whatever it was, it sure as heck wasn't the Phillies game.

So I started listening to this guy with the big, rich voice who did weird and funny things I'd never heard before on the radio. I got a tape recorder and started taping him, especially whenever he'd play the kazoo or Jew's harp, which as a kid I found incredibly hilarious. Sometimes Shep would even encourage his listeners to turn their radios up full blast and stick them in an open window while he played one of his weird sound effects -- the mating call of a hyena, for example (recorded, as he pointed out, live on location in Africa!) -- and thus confusing the neighbors. Or he'd yell something silly at the top of his voice: "AWRIGHT, DROP THEM TOOLS, WE GOTCHA COVERED!!" Jean Shepherd had perfected the questionable art of getting people to yell out of windows long before Peter Finch did it in the movie Network.

Well, for a slightly bent kid like me, this kind of thing was impossible to resist, and I spent a fair portion of my wasted youth tormenting the neighborhood with my Shepherd tapes. Fortunately this was the early 70's, before our learned sociologists had invented the concept of the corruption of America's children by the mass media. Otherwise, Shepherd might have found himself arrested for contributing to delinquency of a minor and disturbing the peace by remote control.

But Jean Shepherd meant much more to me than just an inspiration for funny pranks. I was a budding writer. I wanted to tell stories on the printed page, on the screen -- and even on radio, though I was astute enough at that age to realize that, except for Shep and the great CBS Mystery Theatre, the days of creative radio were pretty much dead.

Listening to Shepherd, and reading his classic books, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories, I had my education in writing humor. Not just the art of telling funny stories, but also telling stories funny -- a crucial distinction. Not long after Shep finally left the WOR airwaves for good in 1977 after 21 years on the air, I finally had the opportunity to try using some of what he'd taught me when I joined a radio club in high school. Each week we'd do a 15-minute radio show of comedy sketches and random silliness, all of which was written by me and another club member. It was my primer in writing humor for a dramatic medium, except that I had a little bit of a head start. I'd learned from Shep about creating characters, portraying situations, using sound for humorous effect.

In my first year of college, I discovered how well I'd learned my lessons. My creative writing professor once told me very seriously that my writing was quite good, except that I wrote a little too much like Jean Shepherd. Since this was coming from a well-known poet whom up to that moment I'd figured had never even heard of Shep, I wasn't quite sure exactly what he was trying to tell me. It was especially strange because all I was writing at the time were darkly satiric science fiction stories with no obvious resemblance to anything in Shepherd's oeuvre. In any case, he'd definitely meant it as a criticism, not a compliment. Of course (and much to my professor's consternation), I took it quite delightedly as the latter, rather than the former.

Then in 1977, the changing formats and inexorable corporatization of AM radio forced Shepherd to retire from the airwaves, after over twenty years on WOR. He continued to write for a variety of magazines including Playboy, National Lampoon and even Car and Driver, and to do live performances at college campuses. He created a couple of wildly entertaining television series for public television, Jean Shepherd's America and Shepherd's Pie, and adapted his stories for PBS's American Playhouse. He's probably now best known to the public at large for the 1983 movie A Christmas Story, a warm-hearted adaptation of one of his most popular tales about a kid's Christmas-time quest for a BB gun (conflated with several other well-known Shepherd tales for good measure). Thanks to almost continuous television showings over the holiday season in the past decade, A Christmas Story has become a family classic, second only to It's a Wonderful Life in Yuletide popularity.

Failing health and a desire for privacy kept Shepherd in a sort of semi-retirement for most of the past twenty years. He was someone whose work I fondly remembered, but aside from occasionally wondering where he was and what he might be up to, I didn't think about him much.

Then I discovered a guy in New York named Max Schmid who had somehow acquired a vast archive of Jean Shepherd radio shows on tape, from all stages of Shep's career. Once again I could hear the Shepherd voice and reexperience the Shepherd worldview. And I started to wonder again where he was nowadays, what he was doing.

But just as I was beginning to reacquaint myself with the master, I found out he was gone.

Now I wonder if Jean Shepherd ever get his just due. With much of his best-known work lost on ephemeral radio waves and never captured for posterity (aside from the valiant efforts of folks like Schmid), Shepherd may not attain the status he deserves as one of the Twentieth Century's greatest American humorists.

And that's a sad thought.

Often on his radio show, while launching into another of his trenchant examinations of human folly, Shep would make the offhand comment that he was explaining matters for posterity, so that "when these tapes are dug up a thousand years from now, they'll know what it was really like in our time."

He was joking, of course. And yet, he may have been closer to the truth than he realized. Who better to explain the fine art of hailing cabs in Manhattan, the ludicrous world of TV commercials, or the wonder of Carl the Singing Chicken better than Jean Shepherd?

I, for one, will remember the stories. As will the rest of my fellow Night People. And we'll miss the guy who told them.

So long, Shep. Excelsior, buddy.

(C) Mark Wolverton

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