Humorist labors in obscurity
Sunday - February 17, 1985
Mordecai Richler, you've made a serious mistake.
You're usually so funny, too.
But this is no laughing matter.
How could you, the editor of The Best of Modern Humor, cram samples of work by 64 authors into a 542 page book and not find room for anything by Jean Shepherd? (Knopf, the publisher of Richler's book, should have called it A Lot of Modern Humor.)
Well, not to worry, Mordecai.
Shepherd also is missing from that portion of The Dictionary of Literary Biography allegedly covering American humorists.
So trust me on this one: Jean Shepherd is one very good and funny writer.
We'd rank his best stuff right up there with vintage Leacock, Wodehouse and the legendary New Yorker humorists, Benchley, Thurber and Perelman.
Read Shepherd's A Fistful of Fig Newtons (Doubleday, $6.95) and see for yourself. Or watch Shepherd's The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski when it's broadcast on your local Public Broadcasting System station.
Yes, all of this raises a rather obvious question: lf Shepherd's so good, why isn't he better known and more respected?
First - and this is Part I of Shepherd's Theory - the people who do know his stuff think of him as "that guy who's got that radio show" or "that guy on TV."
Shepherd first developed a following as a comedian on Rear Bumper, a television show broadcast in Cincinnati during the 1950s. He later moved to New York, and, in between rehearsals, for New Faces, appeared at The Five Spot, The Vanguard, The Half-Note and other nightclubs. In addition, he wrote for Playboy (which has published 42 of his pieces) and for The Village Voice.
Eventually, he began a radio program on WOR in New York. He recently has been working on new episodes for his Jean Shepherd's America series for PBS.
"Most people hear you and don't realize you write," Shepherd said in a telephone interview from his winter home on Sanibel Island, Fla. "I'm often sorry I ever did that radio show, because the radio thing pursues you all your life."
Second, again part of Shepherd's Theory, television writers toil in anonymity.
"I could get on a plane right now and go to Hollywood and get.. within an hour, five offers to write for half-hour sitcoms," Shepherd said. "But I don't have any interest in it - it's not my medium. Whoever knows who wrote that stuff? You watch Archie Bunker and you can't tell me who wrote them. You always thought Norman Lear did. The hell he did.
"I'm a serious writer. Updike wouldn't go write an episode of Dallas. I'm going to make sure that my work is recognized as part of American literature."
Finally - Shepherd's Theory again - we happen to be living during the Decline of Humor, which means it's getting tougher for a humorist to have his work published.
"Very little humor is being bought by magazines," Shepherd said.
"They're no longer interested in it. They're interested in interviews with Reagan or drug dealers. And they've become service-oriented. In other words, You and Cancer, or Betty Ford Tells the Truth About Her Alcoholism."
Literacy, Shepherd thinks. is dying right along with humor.
Humor is the most literate form of literature, Shepherd said. It goes back to Voltaire. One of the basic realities of humor writing is that a humorist must have a consummate command of the language and an immense vocabulary compared with the conventional writer.
But as our children grow up and become more oriented to television and movies and less to books, their vocabulary decreases and so does their command of the language.
It's all part of the increasing slobilization of the country. And it goes beyond functional illiteracy. It's slobilization of the taste. Humor is always in exquisite taste. Whereas comedy isn't Eddie Murphy is a comic, and his stuff is always in bad taste.
"We tend to think of humor as a past art - we always talk about it in terms of the guys in the '30s. Here we are in the '80s and hardly anybody knows of any contemporary humorists. If you woke up five book editors in the middle of the night and asked them to name five humorists, they'd probably all gag and say, 'I dunno . . . Mark Twain?' " ||
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