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Summary

Humorist finds N.J. 'fascinating'
Airdate: Sunday - January 3, 1982


Show Description
Jean Shepherd could very well be one of the last of a vanishing breed. He is an American humorist who writes books and short stories in an era when the American public spends little time reading. He doesn't do much TV and gave up radio. Furthermore, Shepherd is a self-described student of New Jersey. He has centered one of his TV series and several short stories on a subject most performers speak of disparagingly. Although he owns a retreat in Washington Township in Warren County (for tax purposes, he said, as well as homes in Oakland, Me. and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) he doesn't consider himself a resident of New Jersey. But, he admits, being a weekend visitor gives him more perspective than if he dwelt here. I MEAN, IF you're married to a girl, you defend her," he explained. "But if you're dating her, you just watch her. "Jersey is a fascinating place," he said. "To be really ponderous, I think of it as a microcosm of America. It's got everything from the deep woods to Route 22." Shepherd's latest book, "A Fistful of Fig Newtons," published last fall by Doubleday, includes 12 short storys of which two, "The Light at the End of the Tunnel and "Marcel Proust Meets the New Jersey Tailgater and Survives." directly concern New Jersey life. But it's the patter between the chapters from which Shepherds love of the state emerges. The book begins with the storyteller caught in bumper-to-bumper Lincoln Tunnel traffic on the way to New Jersey. The radio dies, the car is beginning to overheat and the mouth of the tunnel isn't even in sight. HIS MIND DRIFTS and the reader is off on the first story, the title chapter. At the end of the piece, the raconteur is jarred back to reality and, after a few more insights on tunnel traffic and Jersey lore, he drifts into another story. And thus it goes for the entire 265 pages of the 12-chapter book, which he also illustrated. The tunnel is a very symbolic place," he said, explaining how he got the idea for the book's story line "It's kind of like a purgatory - you're just suspended in there and there's no summer or winter. ''And I've always thought it's really a kind of symptomatic thing of life in the 20th century: eternally driving in the tunnel with traffic jams ahead. It just fascinated me - I don't know why. "And I finally decided to do a thing where the tunnel was just like the sea was to Melville," he said. "I thought the tunnel is a much more mysterious entity to us today than the sea is." DURING A STINT with the Army, Shepherd was stationed at Ft Monmouth. His Interest in New Jersey has grown since then and he's traveled the state from top to bottom. He is very familiar with the Jersey Shore. He said first time he fell in love was with a girl he met al the USO in Asbury Park. Although he can't think of her name, he remembers she played a mean game of ping pong. His first view of Asbury Park was also the first time he saw the ocean. "When you grow up in the mid-West, New Jersey is one of those states you just hear about." he said. He arrived at Ft. Monmouth the weekend of a hurricane. When he came to Asbury Park, his first view of the ocean was one of seeing a cabin cruisers lying on their sides along Ocean Avenue; sand piled across the roads; and the boardwalk "peeled back like an onion." "Ever since that time," he said, "Asbury Park has had a mysterious, lurking, dangerous reality to it." SHEPHERD, WHO considers himself first and foremost a performer, has done stage work, radio, television, and films. He recently finished the sequel to his film, "Phantom of the Open Hearth," scheduled to air March 16 on Public Broadcasting System. Entitled 'The Great American 4th of July and Other Disasters," it also stars James Broderick and Matt Dillon. Shepherd said he left radio in the mid '70s because he believes it's a treadmill to oblivion. "You could spend your whole life doing a radio show and never once get a review in the New York Times." he said. "I just said to myself I've got to stop this." "Also, I'm a performer and radio is such a limited medium," he added. "I've got to get out and do the other things that I do and concentrate more on them." Shepherd said he would never play Atlantic City for the same reason be doesn't play Las Vegas. His humor is too subtle, too involved for crowds looking to sit down and have a few drinks before getting back to the slot machines. "COLLEGES ARE ONE of the last good show biz arenas," he said. 'Night clubs have practically died. And the only clubs that exist are the ones connected with other things like the casinos." He attended both Indiana University and the University of Maryland. And he is booked again at Princeton University for the first Friday in June, the week of reunion. He's been invited to play clubs in New York and negotiations an under way for a few spring dates. Although considered to be one of America's best humorists, Shepherd's name is not generally known. He has a cult following and first editions of his book, "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash" have sold for as much as $250. He said he got a letter room the New York Public Library a few years ago letting him know his books were the most frequently stolen from their shelves. He said he's on all the teen-age reading lists and is required reading in many high schools and colleges. AS ALWAYS, he hopes his latest book will bring him more fans. He turned in the manuscript for "A Fistful of Fig Newtons" more than a year ago. "Writing is not like any other form of performing," he explained. "I always think of writing as performing, but you get absolutely no applause. "And what's worse, when you do get applause, it's about seven or eight months or even years after you've done it. "It's like telling a joke - and two years later they laugh and you don't even remember telling it. Shepherd writes fiction that just happens to be funny, he said, and regrets that book stores include his work under humor. Twain is not filed under humor, but Shepherd says he is forced to share shelf space with the likes of Snoopy and Woody Allen. Shepherd, who taught creative writing at New York University and the University of Minnesota, has a perceptive, conversational style similar to Twain's and Salinger's but the only literary influences he acknowledges are P.D. Wodehouse and Robert Benchley, both of whom he read avidly as a child. I GOT THE. FEELING at that time that writing was suppose to be funny," he said of his early readings. "If I started out by reading 'Moby Dick' or 'Death of a Salesman,' I'd think like Mailer: Writing was suppose to be one long kvetch. "I can't really describe my style. Style is a thing that is a result of maturity. Style isn't a thing you have at 15. It's a combination of viewpoint and experience - experience in life. "I also think, too, a lot of people who could develop style don't because they're not self-critical. "I am very sell-critical and that's why I publish so little. It's very, very difficult for me to just dash something off and send it away to the publisher and say 'here it is.' I rarely do that. You take the 'Mole People' in 'Battle the Forces of Darkness.' That short story took between four and six months to write. "WHEN YOU'RE WRITING a story you're creating a world and it's not as simple as it looks. That's another part of style, too. Style should be so integrated into what you're doing that most people won't be aware of it - it just seems natural. "I work so hard at what I do that most people say, 'Oh, that's just the way he talks.' But that's not true." He said people believe the characters in his stories - Flick, Gasser, Schwartz - were really childhood friends and he often is asked about their whereabouts. "Nobody would ask Twain how Huckleberry Finn was." he complained. "It has always seemed to me that really good writing, like good acting, is the feeling of a person directly saying this thing to you. I don't care who it is. For example, J.D. Salinger's 'Catcher in the Rye.' You have the feeling he's, (the author) talking right to you. And you've never heard Salinger speak. Same feeling in 'Life on the Mississippi.' This, by the way, is an American style. 'AMERICAN HUMORISTS today are almost extinct. I think the major reason they are so is that that there's very little market for humor today. Very few magazines publish humor anymore. "When I started to write seriously back in the early 60's, there were magazines that published a lot of fiction. Playboy published the best fiction in America. 'Then during the time of the Vietnam War people became politicized. All the magazines switched over to the endless interviews and so now Playboy has a giant interview each month. "I think the readers have changed, too. There's been a precipitous drop in literacy. And literacy implies not only an ability to read but an interest in reading, which is very different. "People don't read any more. When I published 'Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories' in Playboy several years ago I must have gotten 5,000 letters. Everywhere I went, people read the story. In 1981 I published "A Fistful of Fig Newton's" in Playboy, and I never heard from anyone who read it.''
Notes
The hurricane he refers to was probably the September 14, 1944 hurricane. (There were no names for hurricanes back then)
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• 1944 hurricane is Asbury Park
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January 03,1982
Asbury Park Press

Courtesy: Steve Glazer

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