Jean Shepherd

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Jean Parker Shepherd (July 26, 1921-October 16, 1999) was an American humorist who created works in many fields of entertainment. Many consider him a genius of “talk radio,” and credit him with basically creating that genre and with being its foremost practitioner. Born in Chicago, IL, he grew up in nearby Hammond, IN, using that city as the basic location for his many stories of growing up in the Midwest. Sometimes he told stories that included his father, Jean Parker Shepherd Sr. (“the old man”), his mother, Ann, and his kid brother, Randy. His most widely known work today is the holiday favorite movie, ‘’A Christmas Story’’ (1983), about the young boy who wants a BB gun for Christmas and is told that, “You’ll shoot your eye out.” Shepherd co-wrote the script, based on his radio stories that were subsequently published in ‘’Playboy’’ and then in two of his books. He narrated the entire movie and appears in a cameo role.

After graduating from Hammond High School in 1939, he spent most of the war years in the Army Signal Corps in a stateside radar unit in the South (1941-1944). His army experience was one of the many subjects he used in innumerable stories and anecdotes he told on the air and wrote about for decades afterwards.

Radio

Shepherd, a ham radio operator beginning in childhood (adult call sign K2ORS), started in broadcast radio as an announcer in several small capacities in the Hammond area, then moved to larger venues in Cincinnati, OH and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, PA, before arriving in New York, NY in 1955 when he had several short and longer programs on WOR Radio. In early 1956 he began broadcasting weeknights from 1 AM to 5:30 AM without a script. These extemporaneous talks, with little music, no call-ins, and virtually no guests, gained him a widespread listenership (called “Night People”) in New York and the other two dozen states reached by the 50,000 watt WOR signal. Early fans of his mind-tickling, improvisational commentary, stories, anecdotes, whimsy, and pranks, included David Amram, George Antheil, Bobby Fischer, Andy Kaufman, Jack Kerouac, and various jazz luminaries including Charles Mingus. Shepherd did the improvised narration to the Mingus recording of “The Clown” in 1959. The jazz connection was a strong one as Shepherd was an enthusiast of the current jazz of the late 1950s, wrote columns for several jazz magazines, played jazz recordings on his show, and was emcee for a number of prominent jazz concerts featuring Billie Holiday and other major figures. His improvisational radio style owed much to his interest in jazz.

Among his best-known radio stunts was to imagine and promote a non-existent novel of 18th century British erotica, ‘’I, Libertine’’ by a non-existent British author, Frederick R. Ewing. Shepherd and his listeners spread this hoax widely, leading to bogus student essays and many other fun and games by those knowing of the prank, and among the unknowing such as exasperated book clerks and book distributors, and eventual embarrassment by those who claimed to have actually read the book. In short order, Shepherd, Theodore Sturgeon, and Betty Ballantine produced such a book, published in September 1956. The cover was by ‘’Mad Magazine’' and science fiction illustrator Kelly Freas. The book received numerous reviews and reportedly sold over one hundred thousand copies, mostly in paperback, published by Ballantine Books, which also produced a small number in hard cover. Both paperback and hardcover editions were also published in England.

Another Shepherd bit was to “hurl an invective,” which involved having his listeners place their radios at their open windows, loudspeakers pointed outward, while Shepherd yelled some humorously disconcerting remark. This provided the inspiration for the scene in the movie ‘’Network,’’ in which a mentally troubled newscaster tells his listeners to open their windows and yell “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” Shepherd also created the “mill,” in which he and his listeners would gather at some public place, mill around quietly, then disperse, to the bewilderment of passers-by. This was a forerunner of “happenings” in the 1960s and “flash mobs” of the 1990s.

After being fired by WOR in August, 1956 for not playing enough music and for doing a commercial for Sweetheart Soap, not a sponsor (management had said he was not “commercial”), listener protests and an offer of sponsorship by Sweetheart led to his re-hiring for a Sunday night program of almost four hours duration, lasting from September 1956 through most of 1960.

This was followed by seventeen years of mostly 45-minute programs five nights a week with increasingly numerous sponsors. Shepherd, known to all who knew and listened to him as “Shep,” was a world traveler and would report back on his adventures and perceptions to his radio listeners, often playing his tape recorded audios on the air. An extreme example was his trip to Peruvian headhunter country in the Amazon in 1965, where he delivered 500 pounds of cough drops and candy to the natives. Although his travel tales and some other materials are known to be true, through his narrative skills he deluded many of his radio listeners into thinking his stories actually happened. In fact, his hundreds of childhood and army stories were an inextricable mix of bits of historical truth with much creative invention.

One never knew what to expect of his program on any particular night—the variety within each program and between programs was extensive, including his expert playing of jew’s harp, nose flute, kazoo, and thumping out a tune by knocking his knuckles on his head. He was especially interested in word-play and amusing turns of phrase, including the two for which he is best known, “Excelsior, you fathead!” and “Keep your knees loose.” He had a strong interest in American culture and a peculiar fascination for what he referred to as “slob art.” For example he did over-the-top renditions of poetry by authors such as Robert W. Service, and his theme song, which opened and closed nearly every one of his known programs was “Bahn frei,” a fast polka by Eduard Strauss. He said it was one of the worst pieces of music he had ever heard and thus gave an appropriate tone to his show. From 1964 through 1967 he also did live radio broadcasts on Saturday nights from a Greenwich Village cafe, The Limelight.

The years from 1960 to 1977 represent the most familiar ones for most radio listeners, who included many adults and students who would constitute a diversity of media people nation-wide, and numerous people in all the arts, including U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, who said “I can’t imagine growing up without Jean Shepherd,” comedian Penn Jillette, commentator Keith Olbermann, performance artist Andy Kaufman, and comedian Jerry Seinfeld, who said “He really formed my entire comedic sensibility—I learned how to do comedy from Jean Shepherd.”

During his radio years he performed at hundreds of high schools and colleges nationwide, and also appeared in solo performances at Town Hall (1968) and at Carnegie Hall (1972, 1973, 1974). Additional work included performing in several plays, creating and performing with Herb Gardner, Shel Silverstein, and Lois Nettleton in the review ‘’Look, Charlie’’ (1959), making comedy albums, and reading a series of audio recordings of some of his stories. In April 1977 WOR Radio, deciding to change their evening format, ended their association with several long-time broadcasters including Shepherd, thus giving him more time to pursue his other creative activities. After that he would only appear on radio for interviews and in some very short original pieces for NPR, CBS, and NBC.

Writing

In addition to writing on jazz, Shepherd did dozens of columns for the early ‘’Village Voice’’ and ‘’Car and Driver,’’ and wrote nearly two dozen short stories for ‘’Playboy,’’ receiving a best humor of the year award four times in addition to doing their interview with the Beatles. He also wrote individual pieces for many diverse publications, and numerous forwards and introductions to books. His own books, composed of his stories and articles, include the best selling ‘’In God We Trust—All Others Pay Cash’’ (1966), ‘’Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories—And Other Disasters’’ (1971), ‘’The Ferrari in the Bedroom’’ (1972), and “A Fistful of Fig Newtons” (1981). These titles continue to sell in paperback with dozens of printings each.

Television

In addition to many guest appearances, Shepherd created among other productions, a short-lived ‘’The Jean Shepherd Show’’(1960), almost two dozen PBS half hour episodes of a sometimes improvised documentary/commentary ‘’Jean Shepherd’s America’’ (1971 and 1985), and a New Jersey Public Television series, ‘’Shepherd’s Pie’’ (1978). He also created and narrated several 90-minute specials including three that were based on his stories: ‘’The Phantom of the Open Hearth’’ (1976), ‘’The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters’’ (1982), and ‘’The Star-crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski’’ (1983).

Film

'’A Christmas Story’’ of 1983 is not only Shepherd’s best-known work today, but soon after it was made Shepherd claimed that it had made him “filthy rich at last!” In addition to viewings on VHS and DVD, it is watched by tens of millions every holiday season when it is shown for twenty-four hours straight on cable television starting Christmas Eve. Also proliferating are related materials such as a reconstruction of the house featured in the film, which is open as a tourist attraction, the infamous “leg lamp” in two sizes, night lights, Christmas tree lights, lunch boxes, figurines featuring scenes from the film, and T-shirts. The film has been the subject of loving renditions in a seasonal play based on it, comic strip episodes, at least one political cartoon, and a cell phone commercial. Two other less-successful films followed: ‘’Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss’’ (1988) and ‘’It Runs in the Family’’ a.k.a. ‘’My Summer Story’’ (1994), both based on his short stories.

Tributes

In addition to the many media people influenced by him, Shepherd’s work is reflected in numerous acknowledged and unacknowledged tributes. The main character in the Herb Gardner play (1962) and film (1965) ‘’A Thousand Clowns’’ is based on Shepherd. Gardner and Shepherd were good friends at the time but reportedly the depiction lead to the end of their relationship (Shepherd claimed that he was going to sue). His hometown awarded him its Hammond Achievement Award in 1981. The popular sitcom ‘’The Wonder Years’’ (1988-1993) appears to be based on Shepherd’s style of the adult’s narrative voice commenting on his own childhood life of joys, trials, and tribulations. (Film director Bob Clark reported that Shepherd had at first been contacted to perform that narration.) Shel Silverstein’s lyrics to the Johnny Cash song “A Boy Named Sue” are undoubtedly Shel’s gentle kidding of his best friend Jean’s frequent complaint of having what many regard as “a girl’s name.”

Many tributes in the media followed Shepherd’s death in 1999. Although he had deprecated his radio work for a number of years after he left WOR in 1977, his listeners and the media are firm in their acclaim. For example, ‘’The New York Times,’’ in the headline to its obituary, referred to him as a “raconteur and wit,” and National Public Radio’s two-hour tribute is titled “A Voice in the Night.” Several books contain partial chapters about him: ‘’Seriously Funny’’ by Gerald Nachman (2003) and ‘’Something in the Air’’ by Marc Fisher (2007). The only book completely dedicated to his work, ‘’Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd’’ appeared in 2005, and a one-man play about him, ‘’Excelsior, You Fathead!’’ had a short run in a neighborhood theater in 2007, both authored by Eugene B. Bergmann. Several websites feature Shepherd, including the comprehensive www.flicklives.com. He was posthumously inducted into The National Radio Hall of Fame in 2005.

Biographical Fragments

Shepherd was extremely secretive about his private life, and it is known that he did much to obscure and deceive regarding the details. But some information can be verified. It is known that during his apprentice years in radio he lived and worked for several radio stations in Cincinnati and Philadelphia. From 1955 on he lived in various locations in Manhattan, and for a short time lived in New Jersey. He also had a summerhouse in Maine. As a car enthusiast, he drove a variety of antique cars and sports cars, and also piloted his own small plane. Indicative of his wide range of enthusiasms, he did fine ink drawings, some of which appeared in his writings. Actress Lois Nettleton, his third wife, reports that he was a gourmet cook.

He married four times: for a short period in his youth to a woman from Cincinnati about which nothing is known; to Joan Warner, who is the mother of his children, Randall and Adrian; to Lois Nettleton for about six years (1961-1967); and then in 1977 to Leigh Brown, his significant other for many years before, in addition to being his assistant, producer, editor, guardian, and strongest supporter--until she died in 1998, a year before his own death. Their last years were lived in relative seclusion on Sanibel Island, off the Gulf Coast of Florida.