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Summary

In a medium dominated by rock 'n roll clatter and predictable patter, Jean Shepherd floats through the airwaves with the greatest of ease.
Airdate: November 1966


Show Description
Oh, jacketed, tousle-haired, booted young rebel, cruising among the drive-ins in your modified 1957 Chewy with the stuffed cat blinking its eyes through the rear window - Jean Shepherd knows about you. Oh, soft collared paisley-tied, apache-cased executive, chuckling too much at the boas jokes in the 5 o'clock down elevator - Jean Shepherd knows about you. Oh, sensitive artist, with beautiful soul mindlessly crushed by the crass commercial heels of the culture business - Jean Shepherd knows about you. Yes, Jean Shepherd knows what evils lurk in the hearts of men, but more than that, he talks about them. And talks about them. And talks about them. Each night at 10:15, Shepherd's flat, midwestern voice slices through the murky, raucous morass of radioland, borne by the 50,000-watt power of New York station WOR to more than 20 states and as far north as Canada, as far south as Bermuda. The voice speaks not of patent medicines, juvenile patter weather reports and the clatter of the "Top 40." Instead, there is a wry and galvanic commentary on The Way Things Really Are in our time - of cars and protests and commercialism, of growing up and being in the Army, of anxiety and The Job, of being in love and the mystical rituals of holiday. In a sense the voice is all there is to Shepherd. He deliberately avoids any mentions of his political affiliation or his midtown Manhattan home life, or his ex-wife (he has not remarried), believing that a certain degree of anonymity encourages his listeners to imagine him as they wish to imagine him. On an average night, his metropolitan-area audience numbers nearly 66,000, or about half of WABC's madcap rock 'n roller, "Cousin Brucie" Morrow. But Shepherd spins no records -- what music there is on his show is for dramatic effect, a part of his monologue -- and his approach to his sponsers is sometimes perfunctory, sometimes enthusiastic, usually irreverent. He averages three commercials a show, most of them taped, but occasionally he'll do one live if he feels like it. Somehow, the live ads, too, wind up as part of his monologue, and a casual listener can easily get through an entire show unaware of Shep herd's gift for subliminal salesmanship. He is unique, not only in his ability to talk so much, but in his sheer artistry with the spoken word. His monologues, which usually ramble in fits and starts through patchwork fields of nostalgia, satire anal trenchant observation, invariably include at least one beautifully told story in which he provides not only the narrative, but sound effects and evocative imagery that uncannily awaken the memories and imagination of his listeners. Yet the artiulateness and the All-American voice that once spoke as "Billy Fairfield" on the old "Jack Armstrong" serials and even now is often heard in radio commercials (spot ads for a recent "Fu Manch u" movie and The New York Times), are only vehicles for Shepherd the Humorist, Shepherd the Philosopher, Shepherd the Entertainer. All three roles are played nightly as Shepherd, working without a script, improvises his 45-minute show (on Saturday nights, he broadcasts for an hour and a half from the Limelight Cafe in Greenwich Village). In a 24th-floor studio at WOR, he sits at a Formica-topped desk strewn with newspaper clippings and books that may range from "Lord of the Flies" to "Bomba the Jungle Boy." As a staccato trumpet call heralds his theme, song, Eduard Strauss' "Bahnfrei" Overture, he squirms nervously in anticipation, an unlit cigar clenched in one raised fist, ready to signal his engineer. Before the music can end, he breaks in to sing in his rowdy, careless baritone, and then to announce in stentorian tones: "THE . . . JEAN . . . SHEPHERD. . . SHOW!" What follows is dependent only on Shepherd's mood of the moment, for although he works hard at thinking of things to talk about, a sudden idea will often switch his train of thought in mid-program. A recent show found him taken with a newspaper account of two masculinely attired check forgers arrested in Eldorado, Kan., who, as police prepared to search them, warned the officers that they were actually women. "Boy, there'd be some excitement on Macdougal Street if they started frisking them down there!" Shepherd mused. Turning to another newspaper clipping, this one an advertisement for a book on how to avoid the perils of being brainwashed in our "Dog-Eat-Dog" society, he was immediately entranced with the notion, and quickly tried it himself. "I always listen to Shepherd at all times . . . Shepherd is fan-tas-tic" he repeated again and again through an eerie echo chamber. Then on to Great American Fantasies: "We take our myths and fairy tales today during the 60 second breaks in the TV football games - You'll be glad you used `Right Guard' - where people flee forever over billowing seas of grass. Where ALL gasolines give you . . .EXTRA MILEAGE! Where all detergents wash better than all other detergents. Where no one at Rheingold parties ever belts anyone in the mouth after three cooling brews. Where ladies go down to the basement next to the washer and sing (screechy falsetto now) I LOVE WASHDAY! Where it's the Marlboro man who rides off into the golden sunset. Wouldn't you love to live in the land of Josephine, the lady plumber? I mean, around here there's always something getting, between your teeth, and the ashes descend on you from whatever they're burning in New Jersey. Ah yes. Join us again next week, fellow dreamers, for another chapter of . . . Ma Perkins meets Aunt Jemima." Such hit-and-run mockery often consumes an entire show and on occasion Shepherd has been known to spend 15 minutes or more playing a kazoo or rapping the top of his lead with his knuckles to the accompanimerrt of Bunk Johnson's New Orleans band chunking out "Tiger Rag." Other nights, however, find him spinning delicate tales of his boyhood in Hammond, Ind., or wildly funny experiences in the Army Signal Corps during World War Il. Many of the tales, of course, are apocryphal - there are too many adventures for Shepherd to have lived them all in his 41 years - yet his astonishing eye for detail and his ability to. describe 'the essence of experience make his stories both realistic and symbolically true. The one unifying feature of his work, reflected in his off-the-air personality, is his acceptance of reality. Whether clowning it up on the kazoo, describing the brute power of a steel mill or recalling the gentle pain of a disastrous blind date, Shepherd is seldom swayed by sentimentality or rationalization: "I just live my life," he says, and if he believes anything of the rest of mankind, it is that. they do, too. His disdain of pretense can perhaps be traced to his midwestem background, and to find out anything about Shepherd, one begins by talking about Indiana. "Most New York people think," he says, "that when I talk about being a kid, I'm talking about the old.days. But that's the way it really is now in Indiana. As a matter of fact, the mail I get from the Midwest recognizes the reality of what I'm saying. I guess most New Yorkers aren't used to thinking about when they were kids. They think anybody who does must be either very old or inventing it. "I believe that one of the great differences between the midwesterner and the easterner is that the midwesterner accepts life pretty much the way it comes. I find many easterners are very angry about life all the time . . . They feel cheated somehow. It's like Holden Caulfield in Salinger's "Catcher. in the Rye." He's the eastern kid who feels life has dealt unkindly with him because, for example, he's in a military academy. Most kids in the Midwest would be delighted. They'd think it's great to be in a good school. "There's no love in Holden's heart for anyone. He hates everybody, except people smaller than he is who he can lord it over; like his sister Phoebe. Everyone he doesn't like is a phony, yet-he turns out to be the real phony." Salinger's famous novel was written almost 20 years ago, but Shepherd feels that the attitude toward "phonies" is still prevalent among today's youth. "But there's another side- to it," he says. "There's the feeling expressed by the so-called `New Left' that some how we're sliding into a totalitarian society. The problem is that these people have never lived in such a society, so they don't really know what it's aIl about. Believe me, if we really were sliding into dictatorship, you wouldn't be hearing from dissident groups like the `New Left.' They'd be behind a lot of bars." 'Moreover, he believes that, the life span of a generation is now defined in 10 years, not 20, due to the escalation of science and technology. For Shepherd, that assumption explains not only why people engage real-life at an earlier age, but also why they try to escape it earlier. "Only 10 years ago," he says, "everyone was hung up on psychiatry. People were saying th ere should be an analyst in every school. Before that it was socialism, and before that it was short-wave diathermy, Now it's Dr. Leery and LSD. You see, the new messiah regularly arrives, promising infinite beauty and truth -a revolution of mankind. By the way, it usually involves very little effort on the part of the individual. Then a few guys find it just isn't working out, and pretty soon people start saying, 'Hell. maybe this isn't such a panacea after all,' and they drift on to the next one. Today, in the 1960s, everyone's hung on technology. Freud is dead. We worship vinyl." Although Shepherd's popularity, as he readily admits, is greatest among college-age people, he denies that the problems he describes are limited to the younger generation. "Don't confuse cultism with young people," he warns. "Today, we tend to think they're the only ones doing anything extraordinary. As a matter of fact, I think the older a person gets, often the more desperate he gets, and he'll try all kinds of crazy religions and schemes to rejuvenate himself. It's the middle-age groups who commit them. selves, who make up the real establishments." Establishments, for Shepherd, mean intellectual death: "One of the things I find about my listeners," he says; "is the guy who meets me and says, "I used to listen to you all the time in college, but I don't know, I'm just not interested any more.' I believe that happens because my appeal is to people who haven't committed themselves. This ex-listener is out of school, he's working in an office, has a family, he's joined a political party. He has, in short, begun to accept standards of opinion. I think Americans are showing a greater and greater tendency to think in what psychologists call `enclosed boxes.' They judge and denounce things more and more by rote, and I think it's more true in 1966 under President Johnson than in '56 under Eisenhower." Shepherd defines an establishment as a group .of people who place themselves above self-criticism. "Does The New York Times criticize itself? Do Richard Nixon and Goldwater criticize themselves? Do The Fugs, and the Village Voice, and the Daily News, and Time mazazine and SNCC? I don't think so. You have In and Out establishments, but both are thoroughly predictable and most Americans find it easier to join them than to question them." Shepherd, of course, finds it satisfying to question them, and believes his attitudes make him more a philosopher than a polemicist. "I try to remove myself," he said, "and be objective about what's happening, and that confuses many people. If I even imply that there could be some gray areas, some soft spots in what a guy believes, he gets very furious. If I say in the air that maybe we don't know too much about the Viet Cong, may be they do or don't go around being peasants and singing folk songs, I get mail saying I'm a fascist nut and other mail calling me a commie rat fink. "That's another interesting thing about this country - the clichs, the totally descriptive phrase. The commentators, the comedians look around and say, `America's Sick.' It it? We create clichs about our selves and then turn around and make the world believe them." Again, one turns to Shepherd's midwesternness to analyze his opinions. His father worked as an office manager for Borden Dairies in Chicago, where his younger brother Randy is still employed. In his teens, he did a stint as a sports announcer in Chicago; and worked summers as a mail boy at Inland Steel and on a labor gang at Youngstown Sheet and Tube, both in Indiana Harbor. Following two years in the Signal Corps, from 1944-46, he used the GI Bill to attend Northwestern, then the University of Chicago, finally Indiana University, never getting a diploma. "I must have accrued about 25 years of credits," he said, "but I would get fantastically bored. I didn't realize it then, but I was an early hippie - a dropout." He then took a radio commentator's job as WASI in Cincinnati in 1949 where, be says, his free-form style of show "just evolved." A year of broadcasting in Philadelphia, and he returned to Cincinnati's major station WLW, where he also had a popular local nighttime TV show, "Rear Bumper," during 1954-55. Convinced the time was right to break into big-time TV, he came to New York in 1955, and while makIng the rounds of agents and producers, was offered an all-night radio job at WOR. Except for a short-lived show on WOR-TV in 1960, he's been a radio performer ever since. He also avoids listening to radio whenever possible. "Radio is dead," he says. "If I had a radio station myself, I'd sell it and open a drive-in. Television still has to mix business with entertainment, but radio has found it doesn't have to do that any more. It's about business now, and so while the objective of a TV station is to get ratings, radio exists to make money and to promote, for example, the music business. " So I read a lot - mostly magazines and newspapers - and I rarely see TV, but radio? What the hell, do you think I'm going to sit and listen to the Good Guys for three hours? Radio's not only a wasteland, it's Dante's 'Inferno.' " He also writes a lot, and considers himself an accomplished professional writer. Much of his work has been seen in Playboy magazine, including several short stories and an incisive, lengthy interview with the Beetles. Last month, his new book was published, a distinctive and often hilarious novel about his life in Indiana called "In God We Trust All Others Pay Cash." Like his radio work, it is fascinating in its total recall of the most minute details of adolescence - the blue-steel sheen of a new air rifle, the dizzying varieties of penny candies, the magical enchantments of Saturday afternoon in the local movie theater. One wonders how Shepherd accomplishes it. "I work at it," he says. "Look, you don't go to a doctor who's maybe 15 years out of medical school and say, `Gee, doc, how do you remember all that medical stuff?' He works at it. I prepare my shows fully. I actually take time to think about how things were when I was a kid, or when I was in the Army." Of course his work, reflecting as it does the reality and absurdity of our lives, is sometimes as meaningless and repetitive as everyday life itself. But in an era when virtually every performer with any sort of recognizable talent is seen on television, in films, in nightclubs or on the stage, Jean Shepherd is heard on the radio. And at a time when incredibly pointless telephone conversations between uninformed amateur listeners and uninformed professional broadcasters dominate radio, Jean Shepherd's singular voice talks about the ideas, emotions and events that make us whatever we are.
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November 1966
Page 1

Courtesy: Rob Bates

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