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Summary

HE TALKS BY NIGHT
Airdate: February 1962


Show Description
The voice that drones from the radio is soft, with a pleasant mid-west twang rising and falling in apparently unstudied cadence. The subject may be anything at all what qualifications are necessary to have the word esquire follow your name, or the art of flying with specially constructed wings that strap on to your arms. In any case the delivery is relaxed and the word picture that emerges is constructed with a fine sensitivity to nuance and the foibles of our time. This is Jean Shepherd speaking and, for those who count themselves among his fans (these include such notables as J. D. Salinger, Steve Allen, James Thurber and a host of other luminaries, his radio program is not to be missed short of war or natural disaster. Shepherd's formula for his late evening entertainment is simple: a few vintage-jazz records and a lot of stream-of-consciousness talk. My style has been described as a crass between Baudelaire and Marcel Proust," says Shepherd. It is the sort of thing that someone might come up with after being on the psychoanalyst's couch for a couple of years." Shepherd's on-the-air conversation meanders from reminiscences of his childhood in Indiana to adult satire and apocalyptic prophecy. Typical Shepherd themes include elaborate attacks on turnpikism the growing trend in America to center one's life among the motels and hot-dog stands along the country's super-highways; denunciations of creeping meat-ballism best .exemplified by the gaudy three-toned chariots with lying fins and needle-point plastic upholstery that clog the highways. One night, Shepherd launched an "Operation Down-fall, a parody on the mammoth, all-night telethons beloved of TV. But whereas most of these telethons espouse such worthy causes as heart and cancer re-search, Shepherd solicited funds from his listeners to sponsor one of their number in a life of feckless dissipation. Shepherd collected some $100,000 in pledges before a friend convinced him that ten times that amount would be necessary to debauch oneself properly in these inflationary times. As another elaborate gag, Shepherd boomed a purely imaginary historical novel a turbulent, turgid, tempestuous composite of Frank Yerby, Kathleen Winsor and Norman Vincent Peale. The book was conceived as a hoax to shatter the faith of the "day people in their own book lists. Shepherd urged his listeners to canvass book shops for the nonexistent title, I Libertine, ascribed to Frederick R. Ewing; well-remembered for his BBC talks on 18th century erotica. Inquiries for the imaginary book were promptly recorded in 26 states and three foreign countries, with one book store in Manhattan receiving some thirty-odd orders. Shepherd fans reported that they had heard the book discussed at cocktail parties by people who claimed to have read the epic. And for a crowning touch, the title mysteriously appeared on Boston's list of banned books! These incidents are simply skirmishes in Jean Shepherd's undeclared war on the "day people. Shepherd, of course, is the self-proclaimed spokesman far night-people. "Night people are aware of the real world, says Shepherd "They wonder vaguely or specifically where it's going. People who Live in the day are interested in things; people who live at night deal with ideas... It all evolves around a concept of happiness. Day people love red tape, switchboards, best-seller lists, offices, the routine of a busy active life. Night people aren't eggheads, but they wouldn't mind spending a year in Maine doing nothing. Shepherd's main weapon in this titanic battle is humor coupled with a well-defined sense of the grotesque. A simple monologue discussing the vital role of the "Flexible Flyer sled in the U.S. cultural renaissance, or the difficulties in explaining the "meaning of Coney Island to a scientist from Venus, become, when expounded by Shepherd, indictments of the creeping meat-ballism" that is threatening America. And Shepherd feels he needs every weapon he can lay his hands on for this battle. In this day people versus night people conflict, the night people are in danger because the day folk who live in an endless welter of train schedules, memo pads and red tape are so well regimented. Unless we organize, we're lost... and the trouble is that night people, by definition cannot organize. All-night people can do is laugh, and in helping them laugh Shepherd performs his most vital role. Humor," he says, is perspective, which is about the last commodity America is interested in today. We're the most comic and the least humorous of nations. Compared to the tired cheeriness of many disk jockeys, Shepherd's offbeat humor is refreshing. Much of his talk is pure doubletalk, but some is shrewd comment from an educated humorist: On trivia: He imagines a couple in a museum, 4,000 years from now, examining remnants of our civilization: "Wouldn't it be awful if TV Guide tamed out to be our Rosetta Stone? On the penchant for living secondhand, which Shepherd typifies as the Playboy Syndrome: "Did you know that a whole generation of Playboy readers is growing up thinking that chicks fold out?" On nostalgia: "Thinking that the old days were the best days is a terrible sickness. Everything was just as bad then as it is now maybe worse." On anxiety: Modern man has made purgatory one of his most important art forms. What could be worse than sitting in the reception room of J. Walter Thompson with the full realization that there's nothing between you and them but your miserable little resume which is half phony, anyway." Jean Shepherd was born some 35-odd years ago in Chicago into a comfortable middleclass family. He realizes now that be had a miserable childhood, although he admits that be didn't know it at the time. Childhood seems good in retrospect, he says, "because we were not yet aware of the basic truth: that we're all losers, that we're destined to die and death is ultimate defeat." He became interested in radio in his early teens and won his ham license at 14. As a football star in high school, Jean was called upon to appear on a weekly radio program for students, doing sports commentaries and making football predictions. Even then, his oddball views made his radio appearances unnique. Tate Chicago station manager, impressed with his talk, gave young Shepherd a chance to do a regular program of his own. From these beginnings, he got straight acting assignments on various radio adventure series of the day, including the role of Billy Fairfield in the old Jack Armstrong" serial. After serving for three years in the Army Signal Corps as a radar operator, be returned to Chicago. While attending college, he enrolled in the Goodman Memorial Theatre. Summer stock roles and radio jobs kept him busy until be turned to radio full time after getting his BS. degree in psychology in 1946. He had originally started out at Indiana University as an engineering major, but after his army stint he switched to psychology and later earned his Master's degree. Jean does not remember when he first conceived the idea for his unique programs of sketches and essays on the American scene. It's something that just grew," be says. 'When I was with WLW in Cincinnati, we had an all-night show that we filled with records, advertising and talks. One night, I just let myself go I didn't think anybody was listening, any-way. But they were, and the response was large enough to have the station manager ask for more of the same. Shepherd delivered, and soon built up a vociferous following in Cincinnati. This following grew so large that Jean was invited to bring his program to New York. Shepherd feels that his personality is the direct result of his Midwestern, Protestant upbringing. He counts himself in the tradition of humorists the Mark Twain, the George Ades, the James Thurber whose understanding of life has been conditioned by the Protestant Bible tradition. As Shepherd puts it: We are all sinners, brothers, so you might as well relax and laugh; there's little else you can do about it This attitude, Shepherd believes, is at the basis of real humor as differentiated from comedy. "Humor and comedy are two different things, he says. Comedy deals with situations: humor looks at the conditions that create them. The comic pokes fun at one guy say Kennedy: the humorist laughs at everybody including himself." Real humor, Shepherd claims, can only come out of the Midwestern, Protestant tradition. "Certainly it can't come out of the Catholic or Jewish ethic," he explains. "The Catholic may sin, but he can always confess. The Jews can all hope for the promised land together, they can believe that things may someday get better, that the world will change. But not the Protestant. No, sir. He's told only one thing: things will be better only if he straightens up. And he knows he's not going to straighten up, he'll go out next Saturday night and get drunk just as he's always done. He knows that man's condition is futile. It is this futility the futility of the small man alone with himself and his responsibilities that underlines Shepherd's humor. It can be poignant, as when be describes an unemployed musician on New Year's eve sitting in front of the television watching Lawrence Welk. Or it can be savage, as when be describes the weltanschauung of the typical middleclass couple: Endless violins are playing. A voice is heard 'Keep talking to me, Mildred, and when you get tired I'll talk to you.' " Shepherd's everyman has little is common with the Chaplinesque little guy wandering about in a society of big shots. No, says Shepherd, "Chaplin's clown comes out of an older, Victorian tradition, when the lower classes knew their place. The leveling off of our society has made this kind of clown obsolete. The small man is everyman. There are no more big men only loud ones. Yet for all his existentialist philosophy and belief that suffering is inherent to the human condition, that dreams of a better world are futile. Shepherd, himself is a happy man. I'm not a cynic, I'm a realist, he says. I believe that man's dreams are hopeless, but that life is joyful. I say enjoy the sad state of the world. Laugh at it. Then existence can be sweet. Jean is a busy man. Besides his nightly radio program (11:15 p.m. to 12 a.m. WOR), he finds time to write: two movie scripts for Louis de Rochemont, a book, "The America of George Ade", and his first novel, "Pretty Bubbles In The Air", which is to be published next fall by Doubleday, plus numerous articles and humor pieces that appear in the Village Voice and magazines ranging from literary quarterlies to the national slicks. Shepherd also is interested in the legitimate theatre. He has written, directed and starred in an off-Broadway revue entitled "Look Charlie" which proved a hit. He also acted in another production, "A Banquet For The Moon," which was a flop. For relaxation, Jean reads James Joyce and Sean O'Casey are two of his favorite authors and sings and plays the "nose-flute." He has a secret ambition to build a human pyramid on Jones Beach and feels that his favorite sports are watching cocktail parties and executive luncheons in fashionable restaurants. As can be expected from a person with Shepherd's individual style, his career has had many ups and downs. He has been fired many times from his various programs, and has been rehired when his followers raised a howl. He has often been relegated to the purgatory of the has-been, and just as often be has climbed back into the spotlight. For, no matter what transpires, Shepherd's appeal to a large and amazingly varied audience is well established, dating back to his first broadcasts in New York some six years ago. His audience ranges from beatniks to high-school boys, from sentimental old ladies who feel he is talking directly to them alone to top ranking artists and writers who send him frankly admiring fan letters. To Shep, humor is a tool which be uses to teach. His fans, in large, are serious people of the thinking variety. They fallow Shepherd for what he has to offer: a commentary on the world that may help them to clarify their own perspective because it derives from a brand of individual which is unusually refreshing. They see in Shepherd the rumblings of that eternal discontent that keeps man moving, that tears him free of the enveloping net of conformity. They realize that in a world possessed with ultimate weapons and ultimate hypocrisies, here is a man who refuses to knuckle under. What they hear in Shepherd, we venture to guess, is the sound of their own individuality too inhibited or too intimidated to speak out for itself. END
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