To those who heard his radio program on New York City's WOR during the
sixties, there was nothing like it before, during or since.
Five nights a week, from 11:15 to midnight, Jean Shepherd sat alone in
the studio and talked to us. No guests, no phone calls, no pre-recorded
"features," just Shepherd and occasionally some of his pre-selected
background pieces the "cheap guitar music," or the "gothic music" over
which he told stories of his childhood in Indiana, or his army days at the
close of World War II.
As often as the reminiscences, we heard his commentary on ideas, fads,
celebrities, politics, the arts and literature, human motivation and
posturing, sports, religion nothing and nobody was immune. He zestfully
deflated self-important institutions and celebrities the New York Times
and its Drama Critic, Brooks Atkinson, New York Mayors Robert Wagner and
John Lindsay, folk singers Theo Bikel and Joan Baez, writers Norman Mailer
and J. D. Salinger. His literary hero was Eugene O'Neill, and he proclaimed
that his greatest aspiration was to play the definitive "Hickey" in "The Ice
Man Cometh." But that would have been superfluous. Jean Shepherd was
"Hickey" the deflator of impossible dreams who, having tossed us into a
cold bath of reality, had the gift to make us laugh at ourselves.
His was an astonishing performance, made all the more so by the
appearance of effortlessness. He described himself as a "monologist," and
told me once that he regarded those forty-five minutes of air time in much
the same way that Picasso looked at an empty canvas: an invitation and a
challenge, and entirely his personal responsibility. The closest
approximation, in our experience, is Garrison Keilor's "News From Lake
Wobegon," on NPR's Prairie Home Companion. But even that comparison does
justice to neither Keilor nor Shepherd. Each is unique. And while Keilor's
performance lasts about twenty minutes a week before a live audience,
Shepherd held forth twice as long every weeknight, alone in his studio. Even
so, each performance was new and fresh every night.
His gift for improvisation and spontaneity was extraordinary. On one
occasion, just before he was to give a live performance at the Limelight
Café in Greenwich Village, he was privately introduced to Lou Gehrig's
widow. Whatever he had planned for that evening was set aside. There
followed on stage a marvelous story about the time his father took him to
Commisky Park to watch the Yankees play the White Sox. Throughout the game,
we were told, Shepherd Sr. taunted Gehrig mercilessly from the right field
bleachers. In the final inning, Gehrig dropped a towering game-winning home
run almost into the lap of Shepherd's father. The Chicago fans were livid
"Now look at what you've done!"
A terrific story. True? Probably not. But so what? Neither is the news
from Lake Wobegon or Mark Twain's stories from the Gold Rush. Throughout the
telling, Mrs. Lou Gehrig was beaming.
At midnight, immediately following Shepherd's weeknight broadcasts, "Long
John Nebel" came on the air at WOR, with a five-hour talk marathon,
featuring three to five guests. (In the mid-sixties, Nebel moved over to
WNBC). I was a frequent member of Nebel's panel, and told him of my
admiration for Shepherd's program. To my great delight, soon thereafter
Nebel scheduled us both on one of his programs. That was my first meeting
with Jean Shepherd a night that I will never forget. There followed a
hilarious roasting of New York City politicians and celebrities, media
poobahs, and pundits.
I recall most vividly Shepherd's tribute to John Kennedy three days after
the assassination. He spoke most eloquently about JFK's charisma he called
it "presence," a Show-Biz term about Kennedy's compassion and devotion to
his extended family, and about the conditions of the body-politic that could
lead to such a catastrophe. His closing words are etched in my memory: "yes,
this has been a terrible weekend," he said. "And I fear that there may be
many more to come."
We met several times thereafter and conversed about many things, though
"converse" may not be the appropriate word. Like many gifted performers,
Jean often found it difficult to step out of the performance mode, so those
"conversations" tended to be one-sided. With most individuals, one might be
quite peeved at such behavior. With Shepherd, I just felt privileged to be
an audience of one.
He was a fountain of words always engaging, perceptive and brilliant.
On a couple of occasions, I called him at the WOR studio just after he
signed off at midnight, for just a few words of greeting and congratulation.
Ordinary mortals would be ready for a break, after forty-five minutes of
uninterrupted monologue. Not Jean Shepherd. A half hour into our
conversation, which I had intended to be brief, he was still going strong.
I was not to meet Shepherd again personally after my departure from New
York City in 1967, nor was I able to hear any more of those WOR broadcasts.
However, I remained acutely interested in his work, in particular his
all-too-brief PBS series "Jean Shepherd's America." His best-known work, the
movie "A Christmas Story," appeared in 1983. Written and narrated by
Shepherd, it is a worthy legacy.
A repetition of a Shepherd-like radio performance today is as
unimaginable as the publication of an H. L. Mencken column in today's press.
The public lacks the attention span, the interest in ideas, and the
toleration for dissent that was extant in the sixties. To be sure, these
qualities exist among some of our fellow citizens, but not in sufficient
quantity to support a commercial program or to over-ride the objections of
the conservative management that controls our media. Instead, "talk shows,"
absent "the fairness doctrine," have been turned over to the conservative
blather of the Limbaughs. What's left for progressive dissent and
commentary? The Internet, of course! Is it not just possible that the
internet is to TV today, what TV was to radio fifty years ago. If so, there
may still be hope.
"The unexamined life," said Socrates, "is not worth living." Likewise,
the unexamined culture lacks the capacity for renewal, as the Athenians were
to discover to their sorrow soon after they gave the hemlock to Socrates.
And so, from one Gadfly to another: "Here's to you, Jean Shepherd a
Brass Figleegee with Bronze Oak-Leaf Palm."*
You both comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable.
We will miss you.
* Regarding "the Brass Figleegee:" For those who listened to Jean Shepherd,
no explanation is needed. For those who did not, no explanation is possible.