NEW YORK - For a humorist who wrote the gently nostalgic reminiscence that "A Christmas Story" is based on, Jena Shepherd likes to come on Macho Man.
"The place I grew up in was Hammond, Ind., a steel town and refinery that makes Newark look like Palm Beach," he was saying here recently.
"There never has been a bourgeois steel town. It took guts to be a kid in my town, or you got out. And the kid's name is Ralph, not Ralphie, like in the movie. He grows up to be a real mean kid. With a name like Ralphie, he wouldn't have made it at all."
The movie has been much sentimentalized by its director, old friend Bob Clark, according to Shepherd. In fact the author tends to equate the man who earlier directed "Porky's" with Whistler's Mother.
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"First of all, the title doesn't mean anything, unless you think of it as 'A Christmas Carol' as rewritten by Scrooge. What first turned me on to Bob as a director was a movie he made called 'Black Christmas' - it was Margot Kidder's debut - about a sorority house during the holiday season. It was really evil.
I wanted to call this movie 'Santa's Revenge,' but that was considered too funny. And the Writers Guild - of which I'm a member - wouldn't let us use 'Jean Shepherd's A Christmas Story.' They were probably jealous.
Actually, 'A Christmas Story' comes from Shepherd's 1967 collection of stories unsentimentally titled "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash." It's about nine-year-old Ralphie's burning desire for a BB gun, which neither a department store Santa nor his parents are willing to get him because they're afraid he'll put his eyes out with it.
The film is a real charmer, although Shepherd - who also plays the voiceover part of Ralphie as an adult - claims nostalgia for the 40's when it takes place, is purely in the eyes of the beholder.
The great American myth is that things used to be wonderful, and the future will be wonderful, too. It's just the present that happens to stink.
"But really, life in the 'good old days' was a lot worse than we like to think. Do you know more Americans were killed in one day at Antietam in the Civil War than during the entire Vietnam War?"
"No crime then? My bike was stolen twice when I was a kid. My uncle was killed at the age of 32 while he was driving a cleaner's truck during a Chicago robbery. And John Dillinger came from a farm only 60 miles from Hammond."
Shepherd's father was a political cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune, "an elegant, sardonic man - like Clifton Webb," who decided one day that "cartoonists are paid peanuts," and moved the family to Indiana, where he became a branch manager for Borden's Dairy.
Attending the University of Indiana on the G.I. Bill of Rights, the humorist early showed his lack of nostalgia by leaving his birthplace at the age of 17 and never returning. He's now 48.
To connoisseurs of television, he's perhaps bet known for his award-winning PBS series "Jean Shepherd's America," and for the adaptation of three of his six novels on "American Playhouse."
To readers, he's the author of such idiosyncratically titled delights as "Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters" and "A Fistful of Fig Newtons." Forthcoming is Banjo Butt Meets Julia Child." Clearly, he's not the kind of writer to call his work "A Christmas Story."
"I write about American rituals," he says. "Things you'll find nowhere else in the world. The Senior Prom. The Christmas Present. The Fourth of July. Our holidays have nothing to do with the event they're allegedly celebrating - they're pure rituals. The Summer Vacation, with dad renting a cottage on the lake, and then hogging the inner tube to float in."
"And speaking of dear old dad, he's the leading character in 'A Christmas Story,' not little Ralphie. When Darren McGavin tool the role, I told him he's not your average sitcom daddy."
"He's a flesh and blood father who hates his kids intensely because thay have him tied down. And he's got a girl on the side. When Ralphie's a senior in high school, the father just takes off."
Not one to belittle his own talents, Shepherd thus sees himself in the misanthropic tradition of Mark Twain, rather than the sunny tradition of his fellow Hoosier, Booth Tarkington, author of the "Penrod" stories.
"Indianans laugh at Tarkington because he really developed a soft New York sense of life, which is why his books sold so well. But I'm like Twain. He was also misread in his own time as nostalgia - only later did people learn to read his books as highly charged social comment. A hundred years from now, that's how I'll be read."
"I'm not fixated in the past. In fact, I told the set decorator on 'A Christmas Story' that is you can't but everything in that house at Sears today, it's wrong."
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"You think kids have given up on BB guns for video games? Bah, Humbug! Why Peter Billingsley, who plays Ralphie, har two air rifles before I even met him. The first thing a kid buys is a cap pistol. Then he graduates to BB guns, and then the real thing, like a .22."
"I'm not pro-gun, but isn't that a commentary on the fact that you'll never stamp out guns? We've evolved lots of ideas about what man should be like, but in the process we've misunderstood what we're really like. War is more normal than peace."
The film focuses on a few of Ralphie's fantasies, but Shepherd disapproves of them, too. "In the story the kid is not a fantasist. Only movie people think kids are fantasists. I call it the Woody Allen syndrome."
"And the music! If I had my way, it would have been 'Silent Night' played on a kazoo and washboard, not sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. My readers are sentimental. Bob Clark is sentimental. But I'm a satirist."
"Most Americans are Utopians living in a world of day by day trivia. Non-Utopians are people who have to pay the rent."
But arm-wrestled to the floor of one of New York's more dignified hotel restaurants; the genially grouchy Jean Shepherd was heard to admit that despite its dumb title, inflated score and sentimentalized characters, he kind of like "A Christmas Story" too. ||
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