The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
You may not recognize the name Jean Shepherd, but I’d bet that if you were growing up at some time during the last twenty years, you’d recognize his voice in a heartbeat. Despite the fact that you might not be recognizing his name right now, through the course of his long career which spanned from 1951 until his death in 1999, he deeply influenced the face of modern comedy and made an impact on a generation of comedians. Today, though, he’s known as the guy who narrated A Christmas Story, but in actuality he was so much more than that.
Jean Shepherd first came into prominence on a medium that doesn’t launch too many stars any more: radio. While rarely referred to as a comedian, the terms that do get attributed to him are in a similar vein: most commonly “storyteller,” “raconteur,” and the often loaded term “humorist.” Working the overnight shift on New York’s WOR, Shepherd would address his loyal group of fans and tell long, detailed stories that made mountains out of the tiny and insignificant and painted portraits of the experiences of growing up in America. He worked without a script, preferring to improvise his stories, embellishing details and weaving his narratives like a jazz musician. He never reached the prominence of the comedians of his day like Bob Newhart, Lenny Bruce or Mort Sahl and according to the author of the book Excelsior, You Fathead, Eugene Bergmann, this aggravated him greatly, but still his unique storytelling style and his ability to examine life through his specific lens affected much of the comedy that we enjoy today.
One such comedian who was influenced by Shepherd is a man by the name of Jerry Seinfeld, and on January 23, 2012 he appeared at the Paley Center in New York to speak with New York Times reporter and author Bill Carter to discuss just what sort of impact Jean had. One of the great things about Jerry is not just the fact that he knows comedy, and can craft a solid joke, but he also can talk about comedy, and analyze the nuts and bolts of how a pause improves a joke, or how trimming a word here or there can enhance a punchline. He is a true student of comedy, and has cracked the code, so to speak, and as such is able to specifically discuss the impact Jean had on his comedy, and what made him different from the other humorists of his time.
Jerry first encountered Shepherd in Car and Driver magazine, where Jean wrote humorous articles on cars, the other subject that Seinfeld is able to delve into and analyze. From this he tracked down Shepherd’s other writings, eventually seeing him perform several times as a teenager, eventually inspiring Jerry to perform himself. According to Jerry, Jean taught him everything he knows about comedy, and when hears Jerry explain it, it’s not hard to see the connections.
“The reality of what we really are is often times found in the small snips, way down at the bottom of things.” - Jean Shepherd
Jean Shepherd focused on the little things, whether it was the importance of the baton twirling conductor, leading the marching band, the metallic taste of boredom, or the experience of being a child and having to wait three weeks for your Little Orphan Annie Secret Society Decoder Pin to show up in the mail. In fact, one might say that his radio show was “a show about nothing.” Seinfeld is quick to point out this similar gift for the small: “Everything I do…look back at my standup or TV series: it’s all about my dramatizing of the ordinary. [On Seinfeld we’d] take the smallest possible thing and make it as big as we can. You can see that he had a similar gift.”
One such example of this focus on the little things appears in a clip from his public television show Jean Shepherd’s America. In it, the only thing that appears on screen is a tall glass of beer, as Jean extols its many virtues: “In this glass of beer, you look at this gold and rich, ice cold bubbling depth. You see the echoes of lost battles. You hear the echoes of ancient victories: a million ball games, ten million football games, and thousands of family moments. Fights, victories, lovemakings, the back seat of the Pontiac, the long trip on the way to the zoo, the beer can in the weeds. When you look at that glass of beer you’re looking at life itself. The mother of us all. Beer.”
Seinfeld uses that specific example from Shepherd to point out another specific talent that Jean had the he attempts to emulate. According to Jerry, the typical comedian, in an effort to entertain, will make fun of a subject. It’s much easier to be cynical and bring something down, rather than talk about the positives behind something. This is what made Shepherd different. He rarely focused on the negatives, instead choosing to tell you why something was great, important, or in the case of beer, the source of life. Jerry compares this point of view to one of his more recent pieces of material, which examines the Pop-Tart in minute detail. (Speaking of Jerry’s skill for analyzing comedy, he recently discussed the process and evolution of this piece of material in this engaging video for the New York Times.)
What makes the difference between a piece of material that works, like the stories that Shepherd told, and a piece that doesn’t, according to Seinfeld, is emotion. “Any performer must have access to a tap of genuine enthusiasm. As a comedian you can become quite polished. I can do routines… you can do two recordings and place them on top of each other and there will be a millisecond of difference between how they’re performed, but the enthusiasm has to be there. There’s a metronomic precision behind stand-up but the enthusiasm must be pure. … If it’s not genuine emotion it just dies.”
One aspect of Shepherd’s career where Jerry diverges is in the labels. When asked by Bill Carter as to whether or not Jerry would call Jean a “comedian,” Seinfeld begins with a sharp intake of breath before admitting that, he would not. While he is performing comedy while telling his stories, it’s “freed from the discipline of a standup performance.” The key difference for Seinfeld is in length. While telling stories on the radio, Shepherd had to take a though and have it fill a large amount of time. As a stand-up, you are looking to do the exact opposite. “In stand-up, if you have a thought that takes seventeen words to express and you can get it down to fourteen, you’re doing something.” Despite the connotation that comes along with the word “humorist,” what Shepherd and Seinfeld did on stages couldn’t be more different: one is filling space and one is compressing it.
The highlight of the evening came in the form of a never before seen clip of Shepherd performing a story outside, on a wharf. It came from what Bill Carter called “never before seen footage” (which launched Jerry into a mini-Seinfeldian rant about how something can be “never before seen.” “There were camera men there, weren’t they? They saw it!”) from a show called Jean Shepherd: An American Humorist that was filmed in 1962, when he was 41, was never aired, and featured Shepherd without his wig that Seinfeld hypothesizes Jean would wear later in life.
In the piece he tells a story he would tell many times, a version of it would even be incorporated into A Christmas Story some 20 years later, about finding an empty Ovaltine can with the silver inner seal still left inside of it, which he sent in to get his secret decoder pin. In the film he focuses on the anticipation and the disappointment of the secret message he’d been missing out on, which ended up being just an ad for Ovaltine. However, in this version of the story, the focus is on the anticipation and the moment of triumph. “All of a sudden one day, the mailman comes up and says, for you. There it was, this beautiful fat lumpy envelope. Even to this day I break out into a rash when I see an envelope and it’s lumpy. And it said MISTER Jean Shepherd. There it was: MISTER. And I opened it up and there it is from Little Orphan Annie, on the checkerboard square. …30 seconds later I’m sitting in front of the radio. The show comes on 2 hours later. I’ve got my secret decoder pin with simulated gold plastic knob, and an official membership card. ‘Be it understood to all who read this enclosed inscription, that forever in eternity, Jean Parker Shepherd Jr. shall be accorded all the rights and privileges of a full member of the Little Orphan Annie Secret Society, signed Pierre Andre,’ in ink. I am official. I’m the best kind official. The most American kind of official. I’m a phony Ovaltine drinker.”
If you count yourself among those that I spoke of at the beginning of this article who are wholly unfamiliar with the works of Mr. Shepherd, allow me to take this opportunity to refer you to the indispensable resource that is archive.org and give you a little homework. Over there they have a number of recordings that enterprising fans recorded from the radio, dating back to 1961. It is here that you can hear a full yarn unfurl as Jean would have originally told it and really see the craft and detail that went in each and every tale. You’ll be able to hear the seeds of Jerry Seinfeld, and other modern comedians who have been inspired by the man, both directly and indirectly. You’ll be able to hear a singular voice, unlike any other, explore topics beyond that of Christmas, and hopefully you’ll find it just as entertaining as that one story you’ve heard and will continue to hear each and every December 25th. Treat yourself to a master class in storytelling from the American Homer, the Bard of the Boroughs, and one of the finest raconteurs to have shared his tales with the public.