Confidential and conversational, Jean Shepherd's style of monology was unique. It gained him a large cult following on radio, and assured him of packed auditoriums and nightclubs when he chose to tour. He recorded four albums: two studio discs of his quiet monologues, one live, and one that (in a technique pioneered by Murray Roman) collaged live material, sound effects and musical interludes.
In the late 50's Cue magazine described him as "a philosopher without portfolio, a wit who never tells a joke, a man who makes you laugh but would never be described as a comic."
Shepherd was a "big brother," telling, in exaggeratedly hushed, intimate and conspiratorial tones, little truths and long, shaggy reminiscences. He rambled on with tales of his Chicago boyhood, his army days, his love for the mediocre Chicago White Sox, and these anecdotes became little semi-precious gems of Americana. Years later, Hal Holbrook would tour the country in a Mark Twain review, recounting some of Twain's tall tales and anecdotes, doing essentially what Shepherd was doing in the 50's and 60's, turning the misadventures of "Banana Nose" ballplayer Zeke Bonura into the stuff of epic myth, vividly portraying mid-American characters like his own father, who drank beer first thing in the morning ("to get the guts working") and who always believed a pill to turn water into gasoline existed, but was being suppressed by the government.
"Comedy deals with situations," Shepherd once said, "humor looks at the conditions that create them."
Shepherd could muse about almost anything, including this bit of childhood universality:
"The fear of discovery. Yes, how many times had your mother said to you, when you were on your way to the Warren G. Harding School (or your equivalent), 'Did you change your underwear! If you get hit by a car, I don't want them to think. . .
"Can you imagine a Mack truck hitting this little squirt. . . . Five minutes later, the surgeon says: 'Look at that underwear!"
Shepherd could also endear himself to audiences by sharing a one-liner like this: "Ever look at the people around you and say, 'How the hell did I ever wind up with these idiots?"
"Jean Shepherd is merely a vehicle for communicating to us not only that the emperor has no clothes on, but also that we are all naked emperors," Paul Krassner wrote. Of course, other satirists were communicating, too. Guys like Mort Sahl. They got much more press coverage than Shepherd.
"They don't have followers, they have acolytes," he said, in a bitter parody of "bitter" comics. He describes a guy very much like Mort Sahl ("he dresses very casual - an old sweater. And he carries a prop ... Maybe a newspaper") who, in a cave-like club, comes out every hour to deliver "the word."
When the comic says "Adlai Stevenson," the crowd roars. "Now he's beginning to swing," Shepherd whispers mockingly, "he's really giving us the truth." The comic says "Ike!" and the crowd goes wild. Then he offers the topper: "Golf balls!"
Sahl indeed seemed to get envied giggles simply for one-word free-association at times, something that didn't happen often with Shepherd. Twenty years later, when the New York Times reviewed Sahl's autobiography, they ironically chose Jean Shepherd to deliver the knife. It was not a positive review.
At his best, Shepherd animatedly portrayed, with awe and wonder and satiric detachment, the idiocies and dangers of modern living. One of his most popular bits describes an unusual form of addiction:
"Am I chicken? Am I chicken? Just look me in the eye and ask me if I'm chicken," the young Shepherd says to a boy's schoolyard dare. "Five minutes later I got my mouth full of this sticky stuff, and at first it tasted sweet and made me kind of sick, kind of funny and sick...."
Shepherd wonders about this odd substance the boy has given him, dared him to try. His mother notices a strange smell on his breath. But worse, Shepherd discovers that he's hooked on this stuff. And instead of getting more free, that schoolyard boy makes him buy some.
He notices a prophetic sentence printed on a box of the stuff:
"The more you eat the more you want." And it's true. Before long, the boy is cadging nickels and dimes from his relatives so he can secretly buy more. It doesn't taste bad anymore. It tastes good. And there are even odd little prizes buried in among the bits of gooey popcorn and peanuts.
"The more you eat the more you want. They are not kidding, man. I'm on this stuff for four years. When you first start, you think you're just doing it to get the magic fit-all finger ring. But it's just a come on, like all the rest of life. The more you eat the more you want. . ."
In his quiet, chillingly satiric way, Shepherd's "Crackerjack" parody typifies his ability to blow up a part of everyday life and find something pathetic, painfully foolish and human about it.
Shepherd, who began making records in the early 60's, has shifted almost completely to magazine articles, books of comic prose, and television specials. Of his 1984-85 edition of "Jean Shepherd's America" (the first premiered in 1971 on PBS) he, described the 13-part show as "about a funny man doing crazy fun and games on a little screen that nobody would remember 10 days later." The shows should endure a bit longer, and so should the old albums which are now high-priced collector's items. There are some interesting things to be found on the discs, especially the unique performance: quietly effective and conversational in the studio, animated, celebratory and ironic live.