A great writer has died. His passing was duly noted in newspapers and on radio stations throughout the country. He did not die an anonymous death as so many writers have and will. Largely, this is due to the measure of fame he earned on radio and, to a lesser degree, on television. His success as a writer was included in the AP copy only as a detail. I'm not surprised. I've been in Hollywood long enough for my skin to thicken. But he was a great writer, and someone has to say it.
I first discovered him as a 10-year-old insomniac. At night I'd tuck a transistor radio under my pillow and listen to whatever a 10-year-old listens to. One night I stumbled on a man telling a story. There were no phone calls, no records, just a single voice telling one hilarious story for 45 minutes. Afraid of being busted by my mother and father, I did not risk turning on the light to find out what station the radio was tuned to. I carefully slid the Panasonic from beneath the pillow and hid it under my bed. The following night, at the same time, I found the same man telling a new story. I repeated this until I learned the station was WOR and the man's name was Jean Shepherd. Eventually, my laughter brought the dreaded parental inquiry--my secret was out. But when I threw a fit and made them listen, Mom, Dad, my brother, and even my kid sister were hooked. In the TV age, the five of us gathered tightly around the kitchen radio, glued to Shepherd's every word.
Jean Shepherd was not well-known in Hollywood. His 1983 film A Christmas Story [screenplay by Shepherd & Bob Clark & Leigh Brown] remains his A credit. This low-budget movie has grown in popularity as the years have passed, achieving a semi-classic status that might in time lose the semi. It was as a radio storyteller that Shepherd first earned his large and devoted following. Long after radio had ceased to be a cultural force--beyond the pimping of pop music and the advancing of crackpot political theories--Jean Shepherd kept the medium alive by spinning original fiction five nights a week. His genius for storytelling is, as far as I know, without equal.
Think about it: For more than 20 years he sat behind a microphone and improvised original stories--stories rich in detail and character, stories with structure. Most impressively, Jean Shepherd ad-libbed stories that were flat-out hilarious. If he had transcribed his nightly radio show, he could have published a new volume of short fiction every single week. I wanted to be Jean Shepherd. In a half-assed way, I've spent the past 30 years of my life trying to do just that. I'd still like to have a fraction of his talent.
Shepherd's storytelling made him a hero to two generations of broadcasters, but he was also a master storyteller on paper. Shepherd's humor, his sense of place and time, his keen insight into the wanderlust of his fellow countrymen made his writing uniquely American. Jean Shepherd's novels, short stories, and screenplays could not have been written by an Englishman, Frenchman, South African or Bolivian. Like the stories of his literary ancestors Mark Twain, George Ade, Ring Lardner, Ambrose Bierce, and James Thurber, Shepherd's stories could only have been written by an American. His literary voice captured the nervous anxiety of the second half of the American century.
Jean Shepherd did not write stories about the celebrated, the rich, the beautiful, or the powerful. He wrote about the "great unwashed," the average to below average who are barely one step ahead of the runaway freight train of life. He understood the comic potential of obsession (he thought Ahab was hilarious) but also the pathos. He was a lifelong Chicago White Sox fan, a badge of honor for the master of futility.
Jean Shepherd had his own obsessions. Frankly, he never placed high value on his work in radio. He knew radio is inherently ephemeral--it was on the printed page and on television and film that he wanted to make his mark. He never became a "hot" screenwriter because his style was so unique, with such a distinctive voice, he did not fit any network or studio template. He was a Chayefsky. He was a Dennis Potter. He was difficult. He made only a handful of films: The Phantom of the Open Hearth and The Great American Fourth of July for PBS and A Christmas Story theatrically. There were two other forgettable films, which are better off forgotten. Still, his screenplays are as close to literature as the genre gets. When read alongside his great novel In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash and the brilliant collection of his short stories, Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories, Jean Shepherd's place in American letters should rise.
Shepherd often said, "You never know." Mostly, he meant this as a warning. But it could also be taken as an aphorism of hope. You never know who you'll influence when you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. You never know which 10-year-old insomniac will read or hear or see something you've written. You never know how you might give that young person focus, laughter, a dream.
Jean Shepherd's books are still in print, his films are still on TV or in the video stores. His radio shows, I imagine, will find their way to the marketplace. His memory will survive his passing. He never achieved "fame." He was never photographed leaving a restaurant or walking on the red carpet with a starlet on his arm. He achieved artistic excellence. He achieved something very rare--originality. I am grieved by the passing of a man I never met. I am forever in his debt.