Jean Shepherd's Endless Script
Monday - September 15, 1975
Last Update: 01-21-2009
One problem that you don't have with Jean Shepherd is getting him to say something. Interrupting him is one of the most formidable tasks.
Trying to get a word in edgewise, or asking a question. Now there you have a problem.
Shepherd bas a half-hour show on Channel 9 at 6 p.m. on Tuesdays, called "Jean Shepherd's America." It's in the middle of its second run. Public Broadcasting Service has carried the 13-segment series three times, and in all likelihood PBS will bring it around again sometime.
Shepherd was in 5t. Louis recently. He was a guest on Jack Carney's KMOX radio show in the morning and stayed for an hour and a half. We got together in the afternoon and Jean bad plenty of stories left, Stories are what he does best. Things that happened to him a couple of years ago or when he was a kid in Hammond, Ind. , or when he was an off-Broadway actor and the strugglers around him included Alan Arkin and Woody Allen and Jon Voight. AIl of his recollections, you suspect, have been improved by time and imagination.
"I used to do commercials for one of the anti-acids," he said. "One time the director suggested that when I came to the word 'quick' I should avoid emphasizing it. It seems that the government had been complaining that the product didn't act any faster than some other products, but they still wanted the word 'quick' left in."
"I practiced saying 'quick' quickly until I got it right. A few weeks later I had to come back and do the whole bunch of commercials over again because the government had fined the company and 'quick' had to be eliminated."
Shepherd recalled the zeal with which the employees of the medicine promoted their product and how it fascinated him.
" One time I admitted that I didn't use the stuff because I never got an upset stomach," he said. "Those guys actually were hurt. They look on an upset stomach as a thing of beauty. If you say you don't get one, it's regarded as a failing ."
The series running on public television was made in 1972, with a $1,000,000 grant from the Ford Foundation.
"That's a lot of money for 13 shows," Shepherd pointed out, "but we spent it well. We may seem to be just drifting around the country with a camera and sound equipment, but a lot of expert work was required to give the programs the quality they have.
"For example, in the show where I'm driving my Winnebago and just talking about automobiles in general, 34 microphones were used to pick up all the sounds of that van. You hear the windshield wiper, the exhaust, the shocks, the engine. And I was really driving while I was talking."
Shepherd is one of those men who appears to have done a little of everything somewhere along the way. He worked in a steel mill after high school (and returned there for one of his TV shows), served in the Air Force during the Korean War, performed in numerous Broadway and off-Broadway shows, and had written a couple of books and many magazine articles . He is an associate editor of Playboy and Car and Driver magazines.
Shepherd does a daily 45-minute comedy show for a New York City station and makes about 50 guest appearances a year on college campuses. He's single, having been divorced six years' ago from actress Lois Nettleton.
Anything can remind Shepherd of a story. In the midst of a conversation he heard a phone ring and he interrupted himself to say, "Did you hear about the movie producer in Los Angeles who was trying to develop interest in a picture about obscene phone calls?
"He set up one of those commercial phone places so that when you dialed a certain number you'd get a plug about the movie. Then he had a skywriter go up and write: 'Obscene Phone Call?" and then a number.
"But the wind came unexpectedly and changed a 'one' into a 'seven' and some little old lady got hundreds of calls from people who expected to hear something dirty."
Shepherd insists that all of his tales are based on fact, and this possibility does add to their impact. The one about Ernie and the six-pack, for instance. Jean said it happened when he was riding a troop train in the 1950s.
"Three of us had been working in the kitchen car all day and we were tired and hot," he said. "Toward evening the train stopped in some godforsaken spot in Iowa and we could see a little tin-roof store with an electric sign that said, 'Beer.'
"One of the guys in our group, named Ernie, said he'd run and get us a cold six pack if I'd give him the buck. I was glad to, and Ernie headed off toward the store, wearing just his brown GI shorts and shirt, and his Army shoes," Shepherd paused as his listeners began to anticipate the ending.
"Yeah," he continued, "the train started to move just as Ernie came out of the store with the beer. He started running and the train began to accelerate. We screamed, 'Come on, Ernie! Come on! You can make it!'
"He didn't, though. It was a horrible sight, watching Ernie standing out in that Iowa field with just his underwear and a six pack. That was 20 years ago, but I still wake up nights and think about Ernie. I never heard from him. I wonder if he's still out there somewhere..." ||
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