I’ll award the brass figligee with bronze oak-leaf palm to the reader who can tell me who Jean Shepherd was. I mean, who he really was.
Most people remember Shepherd — who died in 1999 at 78 — as the author and narrator of the 1983 film A Christmas Story. That movie may not quite rival It’s a Wonderful Life as the most popular Christmas movie of all time, but it comes in a clear second.
It was made into a Broadway musical last year, which picked up three Tony Awards, although I imagine Shepherd would have pooh-poohed the whole thing (while secretly busting with pride over having made it in the mainstream entertainment world he so overtly despised.)
Yet, for any of us who knew Shepherd via his radio show in New York during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, the movie — and musical — is a sad travesty of what made Shepherd memorable, even important.
For in his several films, and in his books and later magazine articles, Shepherd turned his Indiana childhood into something dangerously close to a Norman Rockwell picture. While his families squabbled and his kids were missing teeth, they were nevertheless basically sweet and lovable.
The real Shepherd, the radio Shepherd, would never have stood for that.
The real Shepherd was a notorious sorehead and cynic. And that’s by his own account. On radio, the same characters that smiled and cooed in the movies spit and cursed and picked their ears. On radio, the lovable losers of the movies turned into losers and misfits.
On the air, on WOR radio in the 1950s and ’60s, Shepherd told stories, made acidic comments on society and culture, and played around endlessly, singing old songs and quarreling with his sound engineers, radio station management and sponsors.
Shepherd was always coy about whether his radio stories were literally true. At times, he said they were; at times, he made fun of the rubes who would believe such stories.
I’m not sure I would have wanted to know Shep personally. But I’m very glad I knew him on radio.
Every night at 10:15, WOR-AM, a 50,000-watt station in New York, would rev up Edouard Strauss’ Bahn Frei Polka and Shep would begin his antics. He sang After You’ve Gone three or four times in a row, doing an early version of karaoke along with a recording of bad saloon piano. Then he played Stars and Stripes Forever on the kazoo and Chinatown My Chinatown on Jew’s harp.
He was a virtuoso on the Jew’s harp and had once played it professionally. Then, a little Ragtime Cowboy Joe.
He pounded his fists on his desk; he ranted about slob culture and carried on a continuous feud with whoever was his engineer for the evening.
On notable evenings, he would recite Casey at the Bat or the poetry of Robert Service, all underlined with atonal recordings by Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Once, before his show started, the station’s normally impassive announcer warned, with some caustic irony in his voice, “stay tuned for WOR’s resident genius.” He was apparently not always liked by his colleagues.
But no matter how chaotic the show began, he usually managed to bring things to a head with a story, either about his childhood or about his years in the Army Signal Corps during World War II. Both experiences turned him into an anarchist and a deeply convinced cynic. He discovered just how air-headed authority could be, and it taught him to never take such people seriously.
It landed him in trouble with his employer several times. He did everything he could to undermine the commercials he played. He talked over them, pointing out their absurdities. He sometimes boosted products that were not actually paying advertisers. After one such event, he was actually fired while on the air.
But what made him last, and what won him a rabid if small following, were his stories.
Shepherd was a virtuoso storyteller. There are few who could match him. He always went off on a half-dozen tangents in the middle of the story. One thing would remind him of another: He might go from his days in Fort Monmouth, N.J., to a diatribe about department store mannequins, off to a snide comment on the 1964 World’s Fair, into a somersault on the difference between American and British slang, and somehow bring it all back together by the end, fitting together as tightly as a new jigsaw puzzle.
In reality, Shepherd was a performance artist, before there was such a name for what he did.
He turned his autobiography into homilies of cynicism, the good kind of cynicism, not the cheap kind worn as an ornament by college sophomores. Shepherd’s cynicism was deeply won. It seemed like truth.
At his best, he didn’t find nostalgia in his childhood, he found irony. In fact, sometimes, when pressed to define what he was, he said he wasn’t a comic — he didn’t tell jokes — and he wasn’t really a humorist. He was, he said, an ironist, like Jonathan Swift.
In turning his life into New York myth, he was the spiritual father of Garrison Keillor and Spaulding Gray. It is hard to imagine either of them existing without Shepherd having paved the way.
Yet, speaking of the way, Shepherd seemed to lose his in the late ’60s and early ’70s. There was something in him that wanted to be ”cool,” to transcend his Indiana upbringing and become a hipster. He was ill suited for the transition. He could never really be cool, because, in Marshall McLuhan terms, he was a ”hot” personality.
He was out of his element, doing Playboy interviews with the Beatles, or writing his books, Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.
He grew an unconvincing bebop goatee, sometimes wore disco beads, and seemed to be the kind of person who actually read the ”Playboy Advisor.”
It was painful to watch him mix genuine Shepherdisms with his ”cool” act during his brief forays into television. He did a series for PBS in 1971 called Jean Shepherd’s America. He had a face for radio, and a personality to match.
He had done research on Indiana journalist and humorist George Ade, and seemed to want the kind of immortality that print could give. So, he softened, gave up his nasty, funny, insightful edge and began churning out warm, fuzzy stories.
It was sad to see.
In his last years, he lived in Florida as something of a recluse. He appeared one last time on radio in 1998 and dismissed his entire radio life as meaningless.
I recently came upon a source for cassette tapes of some of Shep’s old radio programs. I’ve been listening to them for the past month or so, remembering some of them from when I first heard them, now almost 50 years ago. Some of the material is dated, other material grows tiresome. You can only hear Sheik of Araby on kazoo so many times before it loses its appeal.
But I was surprised at how well most of it stands up. Shep had many real insights. Some of his predictions have come true 30 years down the line. He predicted, for instance, a culture of celebrity, the very culture we live in now.
And his stories still manage to hypnotize and keep me riveted to the radio, waiting to see if he can bring it all together at the end yet one more time. He does. He always does.
So, Shep, I say to you, wherever you may be in the ether of whateverness, ”Keep your knees loose, keep your glove oiled, and watch out for those high hoppers. They’re hard to judge.”