A humorist looks outward and sees the world," Observed Jean Shepherd. "A comic looks inward and sees himself." It was a practiced reply, but then Shepherd is a practiced humorist, not a comic; he's been performing and writing in his highly individualistic way for two decades. Thursday night at 9, on Channel 13, viewers will see what is perhaps his most ambitious project to date, a full-length play entitled "Phantom of the Open Hearth" on the PBS "Visions" series.
"Comedy," Shepherd continued, "is a form which ends in laughter, but humor is a form in which laughter is a by-product. I do humor - I'm not Don Rickles. That's not a value judgment. I'm just making the distinction."
It's a distinction that viewers might want to consider when watching "Phantom of the Open Hearth." With a script derived from Shepherd's novel, "Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters," the play concerns a high school prom, dating, adolescence and growing up in mid-America. "But it's like nothing you've ever seen before on TV," says Shepherd.
"The story is about prom night and the kid's date," he went on, "But it also follows the old man and the mother you see how their lives interact but how they also lead very separate existences. The kid doesn't really know about his mother's life or her feelings, the same way the mother doesn't ever understand his experiences. You know, when your mother asks you 'what happened at school today?' You just say, 'nothing much, ma.' And all the time you're sitting in the back of the room breaking into a cold sweat over some girl - you can't tell your mother that. And she can't tell you about her day either. Well, in 'Phantom' we get to see how each of these people react and how they experience an event" like a prom. It's done in a very cinematic style - not at all like a standard three-act play. There's a lot of cutting back and forth from the parents to the kid, a lot of flashbacks."
Shepherd is careful to emphasize the contemporaneity of the play, despite its setting somewhere in the 1940's. "I'm anti-nostalgia," he said, "I think nostalgia is a sickness. It's symptomatic of a deep cleavage in American life. It's one of the only things Americans have left in common - the past. How else can a kid from Hammond, Indiana, and a kid from Brooklyn talk to each other? They have to talk about Bogart because they don't understand anything else about each other's lives." The play is part of Shepherd's continuing effort to bridge that gulf between Hammond and Brooklyn.
"All of my pieces are contemporary," Shepherd insisted. "I write about American ritual, which is largely unchanged, and I try to place my characters in a real milieu, one that we all live in." The prom described in "Phantom" could have been any time in the past 50 years, he said. "When we shot the prom scenes, we went up to a school near Boston and asked them to hold a prom for us - not an old fashioned prom, just a normal one like they hold every year. Well, it was exactly right for the period of the play - nothing had to be changed. The tuxedos, the music, the decorations in the gym, everything was just right.
"I'm very careful not to write about things that are dead and gone. And Americans haven't changed much in the past 50 years. Kids still go to proms, fathers go bowling, mothers go shopping - maybe not in New York but in the rest of the country they sure as hell do. And I can tell you, New York City is not America."
Jean Shepherd has been living in New York City, however, since the late 1950's. He came out of the Midwest, a successful television performer in Cincinnati, hoping to replace Steve Allen on the "Tonight" show. He's been a semi-pro baseball player, a stand-up comic, a film writer, a contributor to magazines ranging from Mademoiselle to Car and Driver and, in his words, "a media performer." "Phantom of the Open Hearth" is his first full-length television play, but he's no stranger to the typewriter. His novels, "Wanda Hickey" and "In God We Trust. All Others Pay Cash" remain steady sellers, particularly on the' college scene, ten years after publication. His latest novel, "The Secret Mission of the Blue Assed Buzzard," about his Army career, is due in January. Shepherd has also been ,an actor on the Broadway 'Stage, done one-man shows at Carnegie Hall and been host of a television series, "Jean Shepherd's America," that one critic' called "an antidote to Bicentennialitis." All this was in addition to his nightly radio broadcast on WOR. (Marshall McLuhan once characterized Shepherd's radio program as a "nightly novel.")
The novel Shepherd is putting together, in print and sound, is the story of the 20th century American, a lofty goal for someone whose first job was in a steel mill. But he argues that it is precisely such a background that equips him to catch the spirit of America in these times. "This is an industrial country, man, who writes about that life today? Nobody. Novels that get reviewed are about New York or Los Angeles, not about some kid from a steel town who buys a Red Ryder BB gun. That's not an official kind of novel, that's nostalgia." He sneered at the last word. "Listen, once I had to call up The Times, when "In God We Trust" was on the best-seller list, and ask them to move it from the non-fiction to the fiction column. They didn't believe that these were stories about fictional people. That stuff isn't about me."
Why, then, do so many readers (and listeners) assume that his stories are indeed about the young Shepherd at home in Indiana? ''That's what's called style. The more style you have, the more people believe you're just talking - that you're not really writing. It's the same thing Mark Twain faced - nobody believed he made up those stories. I rewrote 'In God We Trust' six times before I was satisfied with it."
Such rewriting produced two novels, episodic in nature, that try to pin down the sense of being American in the 20th century. They are about blind dates, vacations at The Lake (fifty billion mosquitoes on a surface of mud and chemical waste), meat loaf with tomato sauce, cleaning crappies on the back porch after an all-night fishing trip with the Old Man and his beer burping pals, and cars.
Most people who recognize Shepherd's name connect him with his show, a situation that never fails to disturb him. "I don't consider myself a radio personality," he said. But the radio show' has been on WOR for 20 years and, like it or not, Shepherd is probably forever identified with it. These days, it isn't necessary to stay up all night to listen to the sbow, as his dedicated fans did in the mid-50's. Shepherd is now broadcast at a respectable 9:45 P.M.
Listen to almost any Shepherd radio show and one begins to understand what McLuhan meant about a "nightly novel." In one fairly representative 45-minute segment, Shepherd talked about the following topics: portable tape recorders, 1956 Pontiacs and their start-up problems (with sound effects), Rex Reed, fighter planes, Harp beer, James Joyce, famine, unions, P. G. Wodehouse, Groucho Marx, osmosis, evangelical zeal, New Jersey, and the pleasures of speaking French in Marseilles.
Shepherd doesn't work from a script but it would be incorrect to say that the show is ad-libbed. "I know preciseIy what I'm going to talk about each time," he said. "None of this is spur of the moment. In fact, I work pretty hard getting the show together - sure, I improvise and digress, but I know the main theme of each show beforehand." Those themes vary from night to night: Army stories, kid stories, serious social analysis, sport tales, literature, movies. It's a multimedia novel, something suitable for a mediadrenched society, and Shepherd uses whatever form he has available. He is a tribal story-teller, trying to explain us to us. ||
|Not Determined yet|
|Engineer and others in Booth