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Last of the great humorists: multi-media Jean Shepherd
Airdate: Monday - September 18, 1978

Last Update: 11-08-2014

Show Description
One or the last or the great American humorists, in the old style, both written and spoken, is Jean Shepard. Not a comic or a funnyman, which seems to be the new kind of "humorist," Jean Shepard is a literate, serious humorist. Yet there may be some Americans who have not experienced Shepherd, humorist and social critic. His humur is artistic, certainly; but a better way to understand Shepherd is to say that he has Style, as opposed to Fashion (a distinction of discernment). The first is class, the second is transitory frills. When the likes of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin are forgotten, Jean Shepherd will be revered. Jean Shepherd came to us from Hammond, Indiana, but mort accurately from The Midwest, what he calls the heartland: industrial, steel mill and refinery America. In various interviews, Shepherd claims to have been the Frank Gifford of his high school and a semi-pro baseball player, and countless other things, many of them, no doubt, fictions. But this is Shepherd: observer and storyteller. He is perhaps best-known as the radio personality of WOR for two decades, where he had a late-night, syndicated talk show, a nightly monologue. Before this, he acted and was a stage comic in Greenwich Village; indeed, he still occasionally plays college campuses, and not long ago he had a one-man show at Carnegie Hall. On the back of the dust jacket of his first book, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash (1966), he is described as "the leading Satirst of the Underground,'' which shows how much time has passed, and how rare an item it really is. Before the novel, though, came an editing job: The America of George Ade (1960), for which he also wrote a superb introduction. Shepherd's radio show, which ended not long ago, was a classic monologue on everything. He began the show, just for the record, with "Hey gang," and his theme song, "The Bear Missed the Train." His was the best talk show of lhe airwaves; Marshall McLuhan called the show "a nightly novel." Just imagine, for a moment, WOR's lineup: Shepherd, Bob & Ray, Heywood Hale Broun. . . all that's left are Gambling, Arlene Francis, and Joe Franklin. The real key to Shepherd is his masterpiece novel, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. Not everyone is allowed to read it. Surely Lionel Trilling didn't. Nor did Malcolm Cowley. And it shouldn't have been touched by the marvels at the New York Review of Books. Shepherd's work somehow gets to the people who can appreciate it. I got myfirst look at Shepherd through a friend of a relative moonlighting as a nightwatchman; thirdhand so to speak. And the copy was from an exotic far Long Island library. After reading and rereading In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, it took me five years to find my own first edition. It was just one of those books you wish you could read again for the first time, and one of those books that can be read scores of times and still remain funny. The sequel to the book was called Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories, and Other Disasters. The two books are about growing up in America - certainly a loaded description. The two books should be read In order, to avoid chronological confusion. In the first book, I will match such chapters as "Hairy Seven Crappies,'' "Ludlow Kissel and the Dago Bomb That Struck Back," "Old Man Pulaski and the Infamous Jawbreaker Blackmail Caper." and "Leopold Doppler and The Great Orpheum Gravy Boat Riot" against any piece of humor you can dredge up. In the second volume, most of which deals with the character Ralph's high school prom , the section dealing with the Bumpus family can meet any story on the field of humor. Of course, such stories won Shepherd Playboy's Humor-Satire awards. One medium Shepherd is working more and more with is television, where he has worked on such shows as "Jean Shepherd's America" (1970) and "Shepherd's Pie," a show which has so far enjoyed a couple of seasons , first shown on Jersey channels (because the subject of the show is New Jersey), but now also broadcast on PBS stations. Shepherd is undoubtedly close to Jersey, because it is highly industrial, yet In the Sticks, and an exaggerated version of the mundane, with a wild assortment of mills, refineries, junkyards, softball teams, saloons, and such items as the Margate elephant which is a large 19th century elephant set up on The Shore, and the zeppelin hangar at Lakehurst. Shepherd's style on television is much the same as his style in performing live and on radio: a rushing cascade, a Niagra of words, seasoned with fabulous exaggeration. All this is served up with the barreling tone of his voice, and camera work techniques like close ups and long pans, backed up with overly dramatic music. Some of Shepherd's "journalism" has been collected in The Ferrari in the Bedroom; a book about his army experiences reportedly called The Secret Mission of the Blue Assed Buzzard is due to be published any month now. . . any week. . . t:wenty minutes from now - that sort of scheduling. A section from his book appeared in Playboy some years back, and it was promising, even if typical Shepherd. Shepherd's work, of late, has taken on a slightly more cynical tone, as opposed to its earlier, mellow, nostalgic one. Shepherd says he writes about American Rituals, and calls nostalgia "a sickness." As if the collected works and the shows were not enough, Shepherd can be heard on WCBS-AM radio, an all-news format station with several commentators and feature reporters. Shepherd is given about three minutes (without commercials) for his commentary. His subject matter would fill a catalogue, running from Atwater Kent radios and Atlas Prager beer to the Chicago White Sox and zepplins. On the CBS spot, broadcast at 10:50am and 2:40, 7:48, and 10:40pm, he usually limits himself to editorializing on the social fabric as revealed in newspaper and magazine articles. And now The Phantom of the Open Hearth (Doubleday, Dolphin, 222 pp., $4 95 - this publisher also keeps most of his other works in paperback) is available in book form. The Phantom of the Open Hearth was a television film produced for the Visions series shown on PBS, one of the only shows to keep PBS from going completely BBC. The film is based on elements from both Shepherd's novels, and is a tale of the Prom ritual. In the revealing introduction, Shepherd explains the writing of the screenplay, and his role in the film's production. He "avoided visual clichs," which ruined The Great Gatsby for him, among other films, and which he considers even more obnoxious than verbal clichs; visual clichs don't work as well as verbal clichs. As well, he writes of his theme: that "the essentially commonplace, humdrum lives that the characters, and in fact most or humanity, Iive, are nonetheless not without their moments of high drama and Wagnerian disaster, all to basically no avail." Again, he notes that his variety of humor "arises out of inflection, a character's attitude, the predicament he's in, and the constant struggle to remain afloat in a sea of petty disasters." The film received a Critics Circle award; it was shot in 16 days and is another example of Shepherd at his best. George Ade wrote a book or fables entitled People You Know. Like Ade, Shepherd mirrors America, and writes about people and places you know, and the American Dream of the beautiful future, the glorious past, and the Crummy Now, as the narrator of The Phantom of The Open Hearth puts it. Thus Shepherd is the most, and best, a humorist can be; a social commentator.
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September 18,1978
Columbia Spectator

Courtesy: Steve Glazer

Airdate History ' - Original' date is earliest known broadcast)
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