Jean Shepherd, the man who told A Christmas Story.

What to eat, drink, buy, and think during that special time of year
Dec. 23 2013 11:45 AM

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.

Jean Shepherd.
Jean Shepherd

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.

Because Shep made it clear he was just as dazed, enraged, and amused as you were, that he noticed what you noticed, he established himself as one of a handful of adults you could trust. (Others were Mailer, Ginsberg, Vonnegut, and Realist publisher Paul Krassner.) Night after night, Shepherd forged the inchoate thoughts and feelings of a whole generation of fans into an axiom that went something like: "The language of our culture no longer describes real life and, pretty soon, something's gonna blow."

Toward the beginning of the show, Shepherd frequently read news clippings that listeners, his "spies," had sent in. These were mostly odd little fillers he called "straws in the wind," indicators of the prevailing mood. Once I mailed Shep an article from our local Central Jersey paper about a guy who, after being fired for some petty infraction, got loaded and tossed a Coke bottle through every store window in the local shopping mall. A couple of nights later, I'm listening to the show and Shep does his usual bit: "So, this kid sent me a piece ..." and ACTUALLY READ MY CLIP ON THE AIR! Wham: I had connected. My life as an independent consciousness had begun. I remember scurrying down to the "TV room" and announcing this amazing event to my parents. Having always considered both Shepherd and my uncle Dave to be half-cracked, they were greatly underwhelmed.

As grateful as I am that Shep was there for me during those crucial years, my idealization of Shepherd the Man was not to survive much longer. In December of 1965, I came home from my first year of college for Christmas break and noticed that Shepherd was going to be appearing at nearby Rutgers University. On a frosty night, I drove my used Ford Galaxy to New Brunswick, where I sat on the floor with a congregation of Rutgers students and watched Shep walk into the spotlight to enthusiastic applause. He had neat but stylishly long hair and was wearing a green corduroy sports coat with the collar up over a black turtleneck T.

Onstage for almost two hours, he had the young audience in his pocket from the downbeat. But, for me, something wasn't right. On the radio, speaking close to the mic, he was able to use vocal nuances and changes in intensity to communicate the most intimate shadings of thought and feeling, not unlike what Miles Davis could achieve in a recording studio. Live onstage, he spoke as though he'd never seen a microphone in his life, trying to project to the back of the room. Moreover, he blared and blustered like a carnival barker, as if he had the scent of failure in his nostrils and was ready to do anything to get the crowd on his side. It was obvious that the guy I thought was so cool had a desperate need to impress all these people, whom I assumed to be casual listeners at best.

In truth, even at home, listening on the radio, I'd noticed a strain of grandiosity creeping into Shepherd's routines. Apparently, he'd originally come to New York with the idea of being a stage actor or making it big on network TV. But it's easy to imagine mainstream producers and network execs being put off by Shepherd's contrariness and intrinsic marginality. Supposedly, when Steve Allen retired as host of The Tonight Show, he'd suggested Shepherd as a replacement. NBC ended up giving the job to the eccentric but more cuddly Jack Paar. In any case, as the years rolled by, Shepherd rankled at being confined to the ghetto of radio and must have come to see his crown as King of the Hipsters as a crown of thorns.

What I saw that night at Rutgers wasn't pretty. In the studio, his occasional abuse of the lone engineer on the other side of the glass could be seen as the petulance of an artist trying to make things work on the fly. But, incandescent under the gaze of all those kids, his self-indulgences looked more like straight-up narcissism and his "hipness" was revealed as something closer to contempt. By the end of the show, he'd crossed the line between artist and showman and then some. No longer wanting to meet the great man, I left before the reception, scraped the ice off my windshield, and drove home. Anyway, the cool early '60s were over and the boiling, psychedelic late '60s had begun. Shepherd was no longer part of my world.

Not long ago, in the absence of any books, films, music, etc., that seemed to give off any light, I started looking back at some of the things that used to inspire me as a kid, including some of Shep's old shows, now available on the Internet. Hearing them almost a half-century down the line has been a trip. Despite the tendencies I've already mentioned (plus the gaffes one might expect from a wild man like Shep ad-libbing before the age of political correctness), much of the stuff is simply amazing: The guy is a dynamo, brimming with curiosity and ideas and fun. Working from a few written notes at most, Shepherd is intense, manic, alive, the first and only true practitioner of spontaneous word jazz.

I've done a little catch-up research: Shepherd stayed on at WOR until 1977, when the station did a makeover. His books, collections of stories based on the same material he used on the air, sold well. He had a successful career on public television and continued to do his bit on stage into the '90s. And, of course, there was the collaboration with director Bob Clark on A Christmas Story. But I'm sorry to report that the narcissism thing kept getting worse as he got older.

Like a lot of fine-tuned performing artists, Shepherd increasingly exhibited the whole range of symptoms common to the aging diva. He became paranoid and resentful of imagined rivals, whether they were old ones like Mort Sahl or upstarts like Garrison Keillor. At the same time, he disavowed all his radio work, claiming that it was just a temporary gig on his way to some fanciful glory on the stage and screen. He even seemed to want to kill off his childhood, insisting that all those stories and characters were pulled clean out of his imagination. Old fans, for whom he had been almost like a surrogate father or big brother, were often met with derision when they approached him.

He didn't drink himself to death like his pal Jack Kerouac or OD like Lenny Bruce but gradually succumbed to that very real disease of self-loathing and its accompanying defenses. Disappointed in the way the world had treated him, he retired to Florida's west coast and died in 1999.

Although Shepherd almost never divulged details about his private life, he wasn't shy about giving us a bit of unflattering self-analysis, as this fragment of a show from 1957 attests:

Protective coloration is extremely important in our lives. ... [W]e are in the weeds all the time because we find it better down here in the weeds. ...

Look at me. ... I am not at all what I appear to be. ... [T]his is merely a mask ... that more or less covers up the real me that's underneath. The real me is a saber-toothed tiger. I couldn't dare go down the street the way I really am. I'd get shot in five minutes. They'd have me in a wagon with a bunch of Doberman pinschers.

To an adolescent back then, long before a therapeutic vernacular had entered the language, this was reassuring news. It's possible that Shep's greatest lesson to the gang wasn't just "things are not what they seem" but rather "things are not what they seem—including me."

Donald Fagen is a New York City musician and co-founder of Steely Dan.