Jean Shepherd: The Voice in the Night

The mass media landscape is littered with characters that are easy to like, personalities we love to hate, and everything in-between. Here at The 2 Shot, we on occasion take a closer look at a specific talent we think you need to know about. In this edition of what we call “Below the Line,” Nick Fleming spotlights raconteur, Jean Shepherd (July 26, 1921 – October 16, 1999).

In a cycle of metaphorical life and death, celebrities and characters of the media landscape come into public favor—seemingly out of nowhere—only to fall out of it just as quickly. Maybe you have noticed that this cycle either perpetuates itself and certain people come and go (I’m looking at you, David Caruso) or it doesn’t, and those who once “ruled the world” have faded into the footnote of complete obscurity. In other words, you’re either Madonna or you’re Sylvia.

For every Paris Hilton or Donald Trump—caricatures whose lifeblood is public visibility—there are others with an appeal and mystique so potent that they never go away despite a lack of publicity. Think John Wayne; think John Lennon; think of any talent who has either gone to meet their maker, retired, or seen their “glory days” pass them by.

Think Jean Shepherd.

Wait a minute, Fleming. Who the hell is that?

Well, let me tell you…

For starters, I’ll admit that Shepherd never reached the dizzying degree of mania Lennon did with The Beatles, nor the level of infamy oddballs like Charles Manson bask in from year to year; nonetheless, Shep is in their company. He is a man with a legacy. Like so many public figures that go about their work long enough, Shepherd left a mark unlike anyone before for him; a mark accepted and shared by those who grew up and grew old with him.

I am of the former group.

Now, on the day after the sixteenth anniversary of his death, it’s high time to pass down what it means to be one of Shep’s followers; one of his “night people.”

By definition, Shepherd is a classic cult figure; someone greatly admired by a relatively small audience, but nonetheless influential despite limited commercial success. What makes Shep a particularly interesting case, as far as cult figures are concerned, is the fact that he is more familiar than you may think. If his name doesn’t ring any bells, chances are you still know of him, if only a little.

If you celebrate the holiday season at any point around the TV (I mean come on, it’s the American way), then Shepherd has been hiding in plain sight right in front of you since the first time you saw the perennial favorite, A Christmas Story (1983). He is indeed the adult voice of little Ralph Parker and the film’s narrator. Billed as, “A tribute to the original, traditional, one-hundred-percent, red-blooded, two-fisted, all-American Christmas,” the film is a vivid—albeit exaggerated—recollection of the glorious and magnificent pull the holidays held over our heads when we were kids.

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In under two hours, we watch little Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) navigate his way through the trials and tribulations of “kid-dom,” being a big brother, and son to a well-meaning mother and gruff father. The film is a period piece set sometime shortly after WWII, yet viewers can relate to the characters because we recognize their behavior and quirks in our own families and friends. The story is contained to the viewpoint of one character in one small town, but vivid enough to evoke the feeling that these people are part of a fully realized world; for many, this and the relatability of Ralphie’s plight to obtain the Red Ryder BB Gun (his version of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow), is the film’s appeal.

Growing up, I watched A Christmas Story two or three times over the course of the annual 24 hour marathon, and every year after it drew to its inevitable close, I wanted more: more tales from Cleveland Street; more Ralphie; more of the Old Man (Darren McGavin); more Jean.

What could I do? Watch the ill-advised sequel, My Summer Story? Thanks, but no thanks…

Luckily for those who’ve revisited the film a number of times, Shepherd’s known not only as the narrator with a fleeting cameo, but the film’s screenwriter, adapting stories originally written for a series of novels including, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash. That book would become the remedy to my yearning for more; all these years later, it is still one of the most worthwhile trips to the library I have ever made.

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A Christmas Story was a gateway drug and his books were the next step, but it wasn’t until I found myself at the beginning of Shepherd’s output that I knew what was at the center of his legacy: his twenty-plus years in radio entertainment.

In 1948, as his interest in broadcasting and writing were in full bloom, Shepherd moved to Cincinnati, worked for no less than three stations, and was quickly canned for not playing enough music and talking too much.

Accusing Jean Shepherd of talking too much on the radio is like chastising a grandmother for spoiling her grandkids; it’s who they are and what they’re meant to do. But how could anyone know?

Despite a difficult start in Cincinnati, Shepherd continued to develop his shtick: a unique brand of humor, a seemingly free-form style of storytelling, and a Rolodex of themes which he would cherry pick and weave into his broadcasts. The hard work paid off; in 1956, after a decade of working and being let go, Shep arrived in New York City, the worst seducer in the world, and found a more permanent home at WOR-AM. Coinciding with a period of time in which radio programming began taking more risks, Shepherd threw himself into the mix and never looked back.

Always off the wall, sometimes awful, but often times brilliant, Shep’s late night broadcasts often featured humorous stories that took long detours accompanied by strange kazoo solos. The more “out there” Shepherd would get, the more listeners loved him.

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The majority of Shepherd’s broadcasts encompassed very American themes. From small town living to the country’s big cities, all walks of life were presented. Rituals like fireworks on the Fourth of July, glazed ham on Easter Sunday, and standing in line to see Santa Clause at the town department store were all fodder for his shows. When asked in 1976 why his work dealt so heavily in American customs and various rites of passage, Shepherd explained that he tried to put his characters in a milieu that all people live in because there was an importance to these common and homespun bonds; essentially, Shepherd was shining a light on the things people either take for granted or totally ignore. The fun, however, was when he gave said traditions and cultural artifacts his own spin. In his hands, these things were treated as a quasi-criterion for relatability. On the other hand, Shep wasn’t afraid to criticize the country and the people he loved, particularly for not living up to their full potential:

The average person today thinks in certain prescribed patterns.  People today have a genuine fear of stepping out and thinking on their own. “Creeping meatballism” is the rejection of individuality.  It’s conformity.  The American brags about being a great individualist, when actually he’s the world’s least individual person.

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By the 1990’s, Shepherd’s radio days were long behind him. His professional life had been a crazy ride with twists, turns, strikes, and gutters, but his voice in the night would be what his loyal followers would remember most. Philosopher of communication, Marshall McLuhan described Shep’s genius best, “The mic is his pen and paper… [for] a new kind of novel that he writes nightly. His audience and their knowledge of the daily events of the world provide his characters, his scenes, and moods.”

To salute the one of a kind Jean Shepherd have a listen to the following broadcast from March 4, 1975 unofficially titled, “Triangular Donut Machine.”

Special thanks to  YouTube user “greenteablend”
All audio is public domain

 

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2 comments

  1. Ahh. Forgot about Jean. Him, Vonnegut and Farmer are about the only authors from Indiana I like (don’t rate Riley at all, in case anyone reading this was wondering). We don’t have much to be proud of here in the Hoosier state. Just those three, David Letterman, John Hiatt, David Lee Roth, and Rusty Redenbacher. OH! Zero Boys, Gizmos, and Dow Jones and the Industrials, too.

    P.S. Nick, I’m keen to know how you’re reacting to the hoopla leading up to Episode 7. Drop me an e-mail, please. Also, the offer stands if you need help with grad school apps from an English prof in development standpoint.

    Like

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