The Man Who Told A Christmas Story
What I learned from Jean Shepherd.
On Christmas Eve, TBS will again present its annual 24-hour marathon of Bob Clark's modern classic, A Christmas Story. Wrapping presents while watching Ralphie pine for a Red Riding BB gun has become a holiday tradition as beloved and durable as candy canes and eggnog. Yet the author and narrator of A Christmas Story, Jean Shepherd, had a deeper legacy of enchanting, subtly barbed storytelling as a longtime voice on nightly radio. In this piece from December 2008, Steely Dan co-founder Donald Fagen recounts growing up in suburban New Jersey enthralled by Shepherd's radio show.
If you know Jean Shepherd's name, it's probably in connection with the now-classic film A Christmas Story, which is based on a couple of stories in his book In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash. He also does the compelling voice-over narration. On Christmas, TBS will continue its tradition of presenting a 24-hour Christmas Story marathon. There are annual fan conventions devoted to the film— released 25 years ago this Thanksgiving— and the original location in Cleveland has been turned into a museum. But long before A Christmas Story was made, Shepherd did a nightly radio broadcast on WOR out of Manhattan that enthralled a generation of alienated young people within range of the station's powerful transmitter. Including me: I was a spy for Jean Shepherd.
In the late '50s, while Lenny Bruce was beginning his climb to holy infamy in jazz clubs on the West Coast, Shepherd's all-night monologues on WOR had already gained him an intensely loyal cult of listeners. Unlike Bruce's provocative nightclub act, which had its origins in the "schpritz" of the Catskills comics, Shepherd's improvised routines were more in the tradition of Midwestern storytellers like Mark Twain, but with a contemporary urban twist: say, Mark Twain after he'd been dating Elaine May for a year and a half. Where Bruce's antics made headlines, Shepherd, with his warm, charismatic voice and folksy style, could perform his most subversive routines with the bosses in the WOR front office and the FCC being none the wiser. At least most of the time.
I was introduced to Shep, as his fans called him, by my weird uncle Dave. Dave, who was a bit of a hipster, used to crash on our sofa when he was between jobs. Being a bookish and somewhat imperious 12-year-old, already desperately weary of life in suburban New Jersey and appalled by Hoss and Little Joe and Mitch Miller and the heinous Bachelor Father, I figured Dave was my man. One night, after ruthlessly beating me at rummy, he put down the cards and said, "Now we're gonna listen to Shepherd—this guy's great." The Zenith table model in the kitchen came to life midway through Shepherd's theme music, a kitschy, galloping Eduard Strauss piece called the "Bahn Frei" polka. And then there was that voice, cozy, yet abounding with jest.
He was definitely a grown-up but he was talking to me—I mean straight to me, with my 12-year-old sensibility, as if some version of myself with 25 more years worth of life experience had magically crawled into the radio, sat down, and loosened his tie. I was hooked. From then on, like legions of other sorry-ass misfits throughout the Northeast, I tuned in every weeknight at 11:15 and let Shep put me under his spell. Afterward, I'd switch to an all-night jazz station and dig the sounds until I conked out. Eventually, this practice started to affect my grades and I almost didn't graduate from high school.
Listening to Shep, I learned about social observation and human types: how to parse modern rituals (like dating and sports); the omnipresence of hierarchy; joy in struggle; "slobism"; "creeping meatballism"; 19th-century panoramic painting; the primitive, violent nature of man; Nelson Algren, Brecht, Beckett, the fables of George Ade; the nature of the soul; the codes inherent in "trivia," bliss in art; fishing for crappies; and the transience of desire. He told you what to expect from life (loss and betrayal) and made you feel that you were not alone.
Shepherd's talk usually fell into one of four categories. Fans of A Christmas Story will be familiar with the basic comic tone of his Depression-era tales, elaborations on his experience growing up in Hammond, Ind., a Chicago suburb in the shadow of the U.S. Steel Works on Lake Michigan. These stories featured his manic father ("the old man"); his mother (always standing over the sink in "a yellow rump-sprung chenille bathrobe with bits of dried egg on the lapel"); his kid brother, Randy, and assorted pals, bullies, beauties, and other neighborhood types. While the film preserves much of the flavor of Shep's humor, not much remains of the acid edge that characterized his on-air performances. In the film, the general effect is one of bittersweet nostalgia; on the radio, the true horror of helpless childhood came through.
Then there were the stories culled from his three years in the stateside Army during World War II (a juvenile ham radio and electronics freak, he was assigned to the Signal Corps). The third hunk of material was informed by his adventures in postwar radio and TV. He seems to have done every possible job, from engineer to sportscaster to hosting live cowboy music broadcasts. Finally, there was the contemporary stuff, comments on the passing scene.
In between, he'd sing along to noisy old records, play the kazoo and the nose flute, brutally sabotage the commercials, and get his listeners—the "night people," the "gang"—to help him pull goofy public pranks on the unwitting squares that populated most of Manhattan. In one famous experiment in the power of hype, Shepherd asked his listeners to go to bookstores and make requests for I, Libertine,a nonexistent novel by a nonexistent author, Frederick R. Ewing. The hoax quickly snowballed and several weeks later I, Libertine was on best-seller lists. (Shep and sci-fi author Theodore Sturgeon eventually codged together an actual novel for Ballantine Books. I owned a copy.)
Hilarious as Shep's tales could be, one sensed a tough realism about life that ran counter to the agitprop for the Leisure Revolution that the media were serving up in those years. With the Soviets flexing their muscles and the constant specter of global nuclear war, the government was going to fantastic lengths to convince everyone that things were just peachy. From Bert the Turtle's exhortations to "duck and cover" in the face of an atomic blast to the endless parade of new products hawked on the tube by Madison Avenue, Americans were feeding themselves a line of hooey that was no less absurd than the most hard-core Maoist brainwash. "Relax, life is good," we were told. "Your government and Walt Disney have got the future well in hand." To skeptical Mad magazine-reading little stinkers like myself, it was this mendacity on the part of adults that was the most sinister enemy of all.
Donald Fagen is a New York City musician and co-founder of Steely Dan.