The Heyday and Dark Nights of Radio Legend Jean Shepherd

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Jean Shepherd

It's nighttime in the 1960s in any major East Coast American town. The AM station WOR is being listened to by a young person who's supposed to be asleep, a portable radio tucked under the pillow, as the chuckling, conspiratorial voice of a magical monologist begins to speak, after having completed raucously off-key renditions of the barroom evergreens "Margie" and "Ragtime Cowboy Joe."

"Friends," he says, " It's Friday night, and Friday night is a night for rebirth... it's a night for renewed hope. It's a night for, once again, falling into that same old trap that you always fall into, that it's gonna happen this weekend, right? Well, at least we can always approach the Emerald City with a degree of objectivity, knowing that we've been that way before. Now — wouldja like to hear the second chorus of 'Margie'?"

The voice is that of Jean Shepherd, the beloved humorist who died in 1999 but lives on through the tapes of his radio show that are traded and sold on the Net, three collections of wondrous short stories that seem to stray randomly in and out of print, and the thoroughly American saga of a kid's Yuletide obsession, "A Christmas Story," which TNT will run over and over again for 24 hours starting at 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Turner programmers are to be commended for furthering appreciation of Shep's work; however, one can't help but think that it's overkill of this sort that made "It's a Wonderful Life" a must to avoid for so many of us.

To those whose knowledge of Shepherd goes beyond the confines of Ralphie Parker's ceaseless struggle to score an Official Red Ryder 200-Shot Range Model Air Rifle (could there be a more emblematic holiday tale than that of a kid who wants a really cool media-related toy as a present?), the man's name conjures up dozens of memories. Those who were able to receive WOR's signal heard Shepherd's tales of childhood in Indiana and the South Side of Chicago in their rawest, most discursive state — plus a countless number of one-time-only anecdotes (all of which Shepherd claimed in interviews were purely fictional — although he only used the Parker sobriquet on-air when reading a published story). Completely exclusive to the radio show were Shepherd's reflections on the passing scene: though resolutely nonpolitical on WOR (on which he broadcast from 1956 to 1977), he offered mock commentary on cultural trends, social behavior and the favorite pastimes of "night people" (a term he's credited with coining), "slobs" (a term Shepherd used to mean "common folk"), and "fatheads" (essentially an insult meaning those who don't get it, but used in a positive sense when used to greet his listeners: "Excelsior, you fatheads!").

Shepherd was a comic anthropologist, constantly contemplating what future societies will think when they uncover artifacts from our own civilization. What historians will make of Shepherd's own work is uncertain, but his influence has extended from the work of homespun Midwestern storytellers (Garrison Keillor being the foremost example) to the feeble world of "retro" sitcoms ("The Wonder Years" being a blatant rip-off of "Christmas Story" and his PBS telefilms). Shepherd displayed an immaculate instinct for conveying the emotional ups and downs that are associated with nostalgia — a word he, much like British tele-playwright Dennis Potter ("Pennies from Heaven"), absolutely loathed, but which accurately describes the complex mix of emotions their works elicit.

Despite the infectious exuberance and sharply honed sense of absurdity that always symbolized Shepherd's narration, there is a subtle undercurrent of sadness in some of his best work, a sense of mourning for an innocent past that can never be recaptured. This is most sharply and simply stated in the closing narration of "Christmas Story," when the grown-up Ralphie, voiced by Shepherd himself, notes that his air rifle "was the greatest Christmas gift I ever received — or would ever receive..."

"Christmas Story" isn't in fact based on a single Shepherd story; it's a conglomeration of several stories from the book "In God We Trust (All Others Pay Cash)" most notably "Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid." Shepherd dubbed the book a "novel," but it's really a short story collection, strung together by a rather downbeat framing device in which the adult Ralph Parker recalls colorful events from his childhood. Shepherd's melancholic view of the Christmas season reemerged in "Return of the Smiling Wimpy Doll," included in his second collection (also dubbed a "novel"), "Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters." (A third such look-back-to-childhood Yuletide tale is included in his out-of-print nonfiction collection "The Ferrari in the Bedroom.")

In "Wimpy," Ralph struggles to get his ultra-mod Japanese-made "Yule A Go-Go Tuneful Musical Revolving Table-Model Aluminum Xmas Tree" to work, when he receives a package from home: His mom has sent him a box filled with childhood playthings she wanted to clear out of the basement. What follows is a funny and moving journey through time in which Ralph is downright embarrassed by some of the toys, realizes others would make neat "camp" artifacts, and is inspired to actually play with some of them. After being enraptured by these relics of his "kidhood," Ralph puts it all away, but soon finds that one stray item, a coin labeled "Popeye Spinach Eater's Lucky Piece," can actually get his dopey prefab Christmas tree to start working. A wistful Ralph notes "Popeye had saved the day again."

"Wimpy" is a beautifully written story, but its somewhat sad tone has not made it a holiday perennial (grown-up Ralphie is after all alone in his apartment, not in the bosom of loved ones). Shepherd's battle with the beast called "nostalgia" — and his persistent creation of present-day adult characters whose past is more vibrant than their present — can be more easily understood when one considers a Woody Allen–like quote he gave a Cue magazine interviewer back in 1961: "Childhood seems good in retrospect because we were not yet aware of the basic truth: that we're all losers, that we're destined to die and death is a defeat."

So devout Shepherd fans have a central dilemma: Since Jean proclaimed loudly and at length that nothing he ever wrote about had actually happened to him (something disputed by those back in his hometown of Hammond, Indiana, who were familiar with his schoolmates and teachers), then his rollicking, chuckling public persona — which relied heavily on the telling of these stories — might well have been a work of fiction too. His gorgeous use of American English didn't hide the cranky side of his nature: Those who situate him as an arch-rebel, due to his iconoclastic work on radio, might be disappointed to happen upon his historic Playboy interview with the Beatles (in which it becomes apparent that one of his main objections to them is their lack of respect for jazz; he does develop a liking for George and Paul, but doesn't cotton to John at all. Under his questioning, however, they do admit their disdain for organized religion a full year before the "bigger than Jesus" quote). Equally distressing for hipsters who dug Shep was his appearance in the 1972 documentary "Lenny Bruce Without Tears" in which a quite sober-looking Shepherd states the "trend" that Bruce inspired (fighting for free speech?) "could eventually lead to totalitarianism... a new kind of Jew-burning... a new kind of gas ovens" since it breaks down the populace into "the sensitives"(Bruce fans) and "the insensitives," whom they oppose.

Unlike his fellow white-hipster, jazz-fan acquaintances Mort Sahl, Steve Allen and Jack Kerouac (who purportedly used Shepherd as the model for the late-night radio host listened to in "On the Road"), Shep didn't turn conservative with age — he always had a traditionalist bent, making him similar in temperament to his fictional "Old Man" character (winningly played by Darren McGavin in "Christmas Story," but also done to a fine turn by James Broderick in PBS telefilms based on Shepherd's stories). A very private person, Shepherd evidently didn't suffer fools gladly. Stories circulated in his later years about him getting surly with audience members at public appearances, but nothing prepared fans for the dismissive, curt manner he exhibited in one of his final radio interviews, a more than one-hour-long chat with cordial NYC talk-radio host Alan Colmes in 1998. A ready excuse can be offered for his demeanor — his wife and collaborator Leigh Brown had died only a few months before — but the most peculiar aspect of the entire affair was that even as Shep proceeded to take Colmes and his callers to task for enjoying — in fact, cherishing — work he claimed was unimportant to him, his sarcastic remarks were offered in his trademark fireside-friendly voice, a warm chuckle punctuating each sharp remark.

The talk with Colmes (an admitted disciple of the mighty Shep) began as a promotion for a previous Christmas Day marathon showing of "Christmas Story," but soon became an eye-opening excursion into Grinchdom. Shepherd pursued a scorched-earth policy, setting out to disillusion Colmes and his listeners about the validity of his own work on radio. Though acknowledged as a master of the medium, Shepherd stated that "it was just another gig... I was going on to other media." Irritated that callers to the program emphasized that aspect of the work, he focused on his time as a stand-up comic, an actor and a film scripter. When asked if he planned on writing any more short stories, he sourly answered that since "no one reads anymore," why should he bother writing 'em?

Even Shepherd's most devout fans will admit that his work as an actor is negligible, and that his standup work was largely a function of his radio show and writing, as his best-remembered in-person gigs were his Saturday night WOR broadcasts from the Limelight nightclub and his hugely successful speaking appearances before untold numbers of his radio listeners and readers. When pressed by Colmes, Shep noted that his future work would all be in the world of film — this in spite of the fact that the two Shepherd-scripted features that followed "A Christmas Story" are the most uneven efforts of his career. "Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss" (1988), a Disney Channel production, is a pale imitation of his PBS telefilms ("The Phantom of the Open Hearth"). And the completely forgotten Christmas Story sequel "My Summer Story" (aka "It Runs in the Family," 1994) — which actually begins with an evocation of the ending of the previous film — is an unmitigated disaster that went straight to video. The film stars Charles Grodin and Mary Steenburgen as the parents of Ralphie (Kieran Culkin), and was directed by "Christmas Story"'s Bob Clark (for anyone doubting that "Christmas Story" was a wonderfully happy accident, consider that Clark's other best-known film is "Porky's"). The sad truth? "Summer" was the film that Shepherd had the most editorial input into — he's credited as executive producer — and it's the worst movie ever made from one of his scripts, a coming-of-age saga that has none of the verve and heart of its predecessor.

But I come to praise Shepherd, not to bury him. The latter was already done with much glee by N.Y. talk-radio host Bob Grant who, a mere 48 hours after the news of Shepherd's death surfaced, did a phone interview with Adrian, Jean's daughter from his first marriage to Joan Warner. Sobbing while she spoke, Adrian recounted how her father had left she and her brother Randall when they were small children, as Grant (an ex-colleague of Shep's from WOR, who obviously had an axe to grind), licked his chops, emphasizing the words "deserted" and "abandoned" for the less attentive members of his audience. Shepherd apparently wasn't the kind of family man his "Old Man" character was — and yet, he did sustain a fruitful personal and professional relationship with third wife, Leigh Brown, who produced some of his finest latter-day radio moments (she served as his producer at WOR) and worked on "Christmas Story" (Brown coscripted the movie with Shep and Bob Clark, and purportedly came up with the ultimate in Kid Psychology 101: the tongue-frozen-to-a-flagpole scene).

Ultimately, what Shepherd was like as a person is neither here nor there. Some of the most charming public figures of the last century had stormy home lives, and some of the funniest were not exactly cut out to be sitcom fathers — Groucho Marx's marital and parental difficulties have been chronicled in several books, and one of Shepherd's heroes, W. C. Fields was, well... the man who noted that children were "best served well-cooked."

As for Shepherd's later trashing of radio, the medium with which he will forever be linked, California radio personality Tom Leykis gets it right in his posting on an extremely moving message board containing tributes to Shep from fans and colleagues. The fact that Shepherd chose to see radio as a way station to other, more important media made no difference, for by the time he began getting publicly cranky about the subject in the 1970s, the generation of listeners who had become addicted to the medium with his help had already entered the business — from Leykis to NYC's free-form veteran Vin Scelsa to Harry Shearer. The curmudgeonly gent viewed by many as radio's last great star had, much to his own consternation, helped keep a sinking medium afloat.

As for the thousands and thousands of other listeners who didn't go into radio but still hung on Shep's every word, his every chuckle, every note of his boisterously demented kazoo solos, many became writers (Shepherd's unforgettable "tapestries of words" — his own "Christmas Story" phrase —having opened up the joys of language for those kids with the portable radio stuffed under their pillow); others took up the innately 20th-century hobbies he advocated on the show (like ham radio; to his dying days, he proclaimed "Once a ham, always a ham"). Others simply carry around treasured memories of their own favorite Shep story or saying, and hope that they, like the Parker clan, can overcome the many obstacles offered by modern life and will one day celebrate that special holiday that makes coping with "fatheads" on a daily basis worthwhile.