Posted by: chartroose | April 21, 2008

In Praise of Jean Shepherd, 1921-1999

“Friends… if you don’t believe in evolution, take a good hard look at the guy next to you on the bus.”

 

 
 

 

It’s difficult to find a good literary humorist.  Mark Twain was a great humorist, and James Thurber was funny too.  Some people think Garrison Keillor is an amusing fella.  Others go for Bill Bryson, athough he seems to have branched out quite a bit and become like a librarian—he knows a little something about nearly everything, so he isn’t writing his snarky travelogues as much anymore (more’s the pity).

I always thought that if I became a writer, I’d try to be humorous like Douglas Coupland or maybe Carl Hiaasen, who is the master at writing subtly hilarious satire.  (Boy, do I love me some Carl)!  The problem with writing funny material is it’s really hard.  You may think you’re funny, but believe me, hardly anybody else will.  Being a humor writer has to be more difficult than being a stand-up comedian because you can’t use anything but written words to amuse readers. Nobody can hear your spoken voice or watch your facial and body expressions.  I have what I call my “fuzzy blanket” voice that I use to make people laugh.  It has helped me out of several rather sticky situations, and I think it’s probably my only real talent.  I can’t write in my “fuzzy blanket” voice though!  It would be awesome if I could because I might be rich and famous by now!

So, now that I’ve rambled on long enough, it’s time to introduce my favorite humorist of the writerly persuasion: Jean Shepherd (1921-1999).  Actually, Jean Shepherd wasn’t just a writer—he was a personality.  Mr. Shepherd hosted several midwestern radio talk shows before heading to New York City where he was a late night host for many years.  He wrote and recorded other radio shows for other stations, i.e., “Shepherd’s Pie” for a New Jersey and some midwestern affiliates.  Marshall McLuhan called him “the first radio novelist,” and Time Magazine proclaimed that he “…pretty much invented talk radio.”  He wrote short stories too, with many of his stories published in Playboy magazine in the ‘60’s.   He wrote the screenplay for “A Christmas Story” and narrated it as well.  If you want to find out more about Jean Shepherd, go to this website: www.flicklives.com.  It’s one of the best tribute sites I have ever seen. You can read some of his stories and essays there.  You can also listen to a bunch of his radio broadcasts.  It’s quite amazing, and I need to write to the host and thank him for creating such a brilliant space.

I just reread Shepherd’s In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash (1966, 264 p.), and I also read A Fistful of Fig Newtons (1981, 265 p.) for the first time.  They are short story collections, and In God We Trust…is the better of the two, but both are well worth reading.  Interspersed throughout the pages of In God We Trust… are many of the scenarios from which Shepherd based his screenplay for “A Christmas Story.”  It’s all there: the “you’ll shoot your eye out” phrase, the Little Orphan Annie decoder ring disappointment, and the leg-shaped lamp battle between Ralphie’s parents.  More “Christmas Story” vignettes can be found in Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters, published in 1982.

Jean Shepherd’s greatest strength was his writing style.  He wasn’t a very sophisticated writer, but he was an exceptional describer of people, places and events.  He started off most of his semi-autobiographical stories with long-winded lead-ins to the meat ‘n potatoes of the plot.  You’d think this would be annoying, but it isn’t.  It’s mesmerizing. It envelops you and immerses you in the time and space Shepherd was describing.  You become an active participant in his world.  Here’s an example from In God We Trust…, entitled “Hairy Gertz and the Forty-Seven Crappies” (p. 71-72):

“And in the middle of the lake, several yards away, are 17,000 fishermen, in wooden rowboats rented at a buck and a half an hour.  It is 2 a.m.  The temperature is 175, with humidity to match.  And the smell of decayed toads, the dumps at the far end of the lake, and an occasional soupcon of Standard Oil, whose refinery is a couple of miles away, is enough to put hair on the back of a mud turtle.  Seventeen thousand guys clumped together in the middle, fishing for the known sixty-four crappies in the lake.”

Now Shepherd goes on to describe the crappies in an amusing way (p. 72):

“Crappies are a special breed of Midwestern fish, created by God for the express purpose of surviving in waters that would kill a bubonic plague bacillus.  They have never been known to fight, or even faintly struggle.  I guess when you’re a crappie, you figure it’s no use anyway.  One thing is as bad as another.  They’re just down there in the soup.  No one quite knows what they eat, if anything, but everybody’s fishing for them.  At two o’clock in the morning.”

He then writes more about the lake; how it’s filled up with sludge from chemical plants and sewage spilloff to the point where it makes a “gruel composed of decayed garter snakes, deceased toads, fermenting crappies, and a strange, unidentifiable liquid that holds it all together.” (p.72)

These descriptions effectively prepare the reader for the rest of the story.  By the time the (still-living) crappies rise up from their mythical underground cavern to jump into Ralphie’s boat, you’re in the zone.  You sit there grinning from ear-to-ear as you read the conclusion.  Shepherd has caught you; hook, bobber and sinker, and this happens with practically every story he writes.

I’m going to have to quit interlibrary loaning these books to myself.  It would be nice to have copies of these so that I can open one when I’m kind of bummed and enjoy sharing Ralphie’s thoughts on the beauty of brown gravy, or learn to appreciate the finer points of setting off huge deadly fireworks displays before home fireworks celebrations were sanitized and the big rockets became illegal.

Those were the days! 

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Responses

  1. Nice tribute to Shepherd. Note that the stories in IN GOD WE TRUST ALL OTHERS PAY CASH, etc. and those from the movie A CHRISTMAS STORY, were all first broadcast by him extemporaneously–he never used a script in his 21 years on WOR New York radio (1956-1977).

    Note that “Shepherd’s Pie” was a New Jersey television show (also the name of a series of his audio tape readings of some of his stories). He also interviewed The Beatles for Playboy (early 1965) and did several other television series including “Jean Shepherd’s America.”

    For lots of all this stuff and more, see my book EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEAD! THE ART AND ENIGMA OF JEAN SHEPHERD.

    By the way, where’s the Ralphie comment on brown gravy?

    Excelsior!

  2. Hi Eugene–
    Excellent! I’m going to have to read your book. I’m not a big biography person, but I’ll make an exception for Shepherd because he was so wonderfully talented.

    I had no idea that all those childhood stories were spur-of-the-moment! That’s pretty impressive. How did he remember all that stuff? I wish I were that smart.

    The brown gravy comments are in a brilliant story in “A Fistful of Fig Newtons” where he’s traveling on a troop transport through the South and is forced to ladle brown gravy over and over again and becomes so exhausted that the gravy begins to take on mystical powers.

    Excelsior right back at you!

    P.S. How come all the good ones have to die? Shepherd is one guy I would dearly love to talk to in person. It’s just not fair…

  3. Will have to look for him – I’d never heard of him until reading this but he sounds great. I agree with you on humor, writing funny is exceptionally difficult.

  4. I learn so much from your blog! (not sarcasm.) Thank you! Of course, A Christmas Story is classic and must be watched every year.

  5. Thanks, Care!

  6. [...] A tribute to a favorite peresonality Jean Shepherd [...]

  7. I LOVE Jean Shepherd and was so glad to find your tribute to him here. People who think they know him just from watching “The Christmas Story” are way off–that’s a good intro, but nowhere near as dark and twisted as his really good stuff gets. Thank you!!


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