... And The Rapier Mind Of Radiohood
Saturday - March 30, 1968
How would you like to have a job where for 45 minutes each night you could say what you wanted to a potential audience of half the United States?
Each weeknight, and on Saturdays, philosopher-humorist Jean Shepherd does exactly that. For the past decade he's been seating himself behind a microphone at WOR radio to turn on a fanatical band of listeners with his personal brand of comment - introspective and retrospective stream-of-consciousness humor that shows no sign of running dry.
While other show business personalities rely on set acts or routines, Shepherd has become a leg-end by being himself - a rambling oral avalanche. Using WOR's 50,000 watts, this electronic Pied Piper carries on as if he were talking to an equally intelligent pal in a bar or coffeehouse.
Shepherd is not a comic who tells jokes. On the contrary, he says he's a humorist who sees the comedy that underlies the serious, often sad realities of our lives.
"The broadcast medium never had a person who used it as a personal means of expression. The first to recognize me were teenagers - they recognized a good show."
Teenagers and young adults still do, if you can judge from the enthusiastic crowds Shepherd draws at college appearances. Stocky, casually dressed in subdued mod fashion, he strikes almost all responsive chords in the younger set, though they are reported not to trust anyone past 80. Shepherd is nudging the 40 mark.
Why has he been so successful doing exactly what he wants? He says it is because he has total confidence in himself to be funny, stimulating and perceptive.
Shepherd has confused many who expect the familiar. Years before the pop culture fad he was discussing and dissecting what he calls slob art in auto design, comics, art, architecture, television and practically everywhere else. At least 8 years before hippie outdoor mass meetings became the rage, Shepherd invented and played host at gatherings he called mills.
These were gatherings of his "Night People" who formed at his command, meeting at a prearranged spot in midtown Manhattan.
At one point his fertile imagination hatched a bizarre prank to bug booksellers and librarians. He set his fans to asking for a book called "I, Libertine". He wanted to see if a book could get on the best-seller charts, even though it hadn't yet been written.
When the prank threatened to get out of hand Shepherd wrote the book and it was published.
Interviewing Shepherd is about the fastest way to learn what is going on in the communication arts in this country. His talents have allowed him to work in all media - nightclub', theater, television and print, as well as radio.
From the beginning he has refused to he classified as a comic or any other kind of specialist.
"That meant ossification of creativity. Look at the big comics of just a few years ago - Shelley Berman, Bob Newhart - the ones with just one joke. Look what happened to them."
In his non-stop, fluid, highly expressive voice he says: "I've been held back from national acclaim by working in radio. Radio is a secret medium. Nobody talks about it, therefore people assume nobody is on it."
Shepherd's medium is his choice, and the growth of his style and its impact has led communications seer Marshall McLuhan to point to Shepherd as the innovator and prototype of the multimedia man in McLuhan's "Understanding Media".
Among the fanatical band this James Joyce of the airwaves has listening to him are more than a couple of professional comedy writers who know a good thing when they hear it.
They have been known to lift Shepherdisms wholesale for use by unoriginal standup comics. Pirating doesn't bother him.
"I meant people to laugh, but only as a byproduct," he says.
Those of his fans who saw "A Thousand Clowns", either in its stage or movie versions, recognized the philosophical dropout hero. He was patterned on Jean Shepherd. Actor Jason Robards even resembled the broadcaster.
Today Shepherd will say little about the play and movie both of which won high praise, except that it led to a lawsuit with author Herb Gardner of Oradell.
"It was my life," Shepherd admits, ending further comment. Unlike nearly every other show business personality he zealously guards his private life.
Asked if he listens to his fans, his answer is emphatically: "No. Fifty million Frenchmen are al-ways wrong." His style, biting humor and talents are not subjects for outside direction or pressure. He'll discuss his work. That's really his life.
"Marshall McLuhan says the new type of artist will be the multimedia man, the one who uses all types of expression without differentiation," says Shepherd;
"We're suspicious of the new performer - one who is equally' good in the theater, as an actini and. Writer - unless he happens to be English," he says with a chuckle.
Shepherd's own style has been a puzzle to many broadcast critics.
One leading national newsmagazine, trying to pin him down, illogically called him a discless disc jockey. They couldn't recognize an original when they heard one.
"A lot of people throughout their lives never discover their style," he says. "There are damn few style creators. If you don't copy from someone else, then it takes years for your style to emerge."
"The hardest thing is to be yourself."
No one can accuse Jean Shepherd of not being himself. ||
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