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ESSAYS on FAMILY and FRIENDS Appreciation: Jean Shepherd, Laughing at Life

I'm in high school. It's April 1960. I'm sitting in the front seat of a station wagon being driven by Mr. Abernathy, my debating team coach. We are driving home from a debate playoff, where by luck of the draw I was given the topic of Capital Punishment. Again by sheer bad luck I had to take the position of being in favor of it, which I wasn't. The winner of the playoff got to go to the national finals of the Debating Society in New York. Needless to say, I lost. Classical music was playing on the car radio and I asked Mr. Abernathy if I could change the station. He nodded. He hadn't said much on the ride home. I think he was bugged at me. He had really wanted to go to New York. I felt lousy as I turned the radio dial, looking for solace. It was 1 o'clock on a Saturday afternoon. I knew what I wanted to hear just then. I set the dial at 710, WOR New York. There it was. That voice, with a faint Midwestern twang, the delivery full of mock suspense, excitement and anguish: Jean Shepherd deep in the middle of another of his fantastic sagas of growing up in Indiana in the 1930s. It was the tale of the Blind Date. His friend Flick had set him up with a blind date for a Saturday night movie. Shepherd said he never went on blind dates as a matter of policy, but as a favor to his friend he "condescended" to take "the poor thing" out to a movie. When he got to the girl's house to pick her up, it turned out to be a mansion. A butler answered the door. The girl was a knockout. As the date progressed he began to feel more and more uncomfortable as he began to realize: He was the blind date! By the time the story was finished, I didn't feel so bad about losing the crummy debate. That was what made listening to Jean Shepherd so great. He told about life the way it really is. Not the way it is portrayed in movies or advertising or in most fiction. His was a voice of sanity in an otherwise insane and phony world where reality is denied, distorted or flat-out lied about. He made you feel better because his stories and observations made you suddenly realize that we are all in this together. The news of Shepherd's death Saturday at the age of 78 of natural causes in a Florida hospital hits hard. Most people know him through his books and movies. "A Christmas Story," which TNT in recent years has been running 24 hours straight on Dec. 24, has become a national holiday favorite, replacing the treacly "It's a Wonderful Life" as The Christmas Movie. The film, which Shepherd wrote and narrates, is a far cry from the usual Yuletide fare. Its big climax is 10-year-old Ralphie Parker being told by a department store Santa that the Red Ryder BB Gun Rifle he wants so badly will "shoot your eye out, kid." Santa then plants his size 11 boot on Ralphie's kisser and shoves him screaming down the chute of Santa Mountain to the floor below. The film was based on his novel "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash," which is based on short stories that first appeared in Playboy in the 1960s. But those stories were all first honed to perfection on a nightly radio show. Growing up in the Philadelphia area during my formative years, I listened to him as he "told" the Great American Novel every night on the radio. He worked at WOR in New York for 21 years starting in 1956, first with an all-night, five-hour program that eventually dwindled down to 45 minutes before he called it quits. During that time, however, he pulled off some of the wildest and most creative things that have ever been done in any medium. His all-night show included a segment called "Hurling Invectives." He began it by noting that everyone has neighbors who bug them. He invited his listeners to put their radios on the windowsill and turn the volume up full blast. He would then begin to shout: "YOU LOUSY BUM! YOU DIRTY SLOB! WHY DONTCHA MOVE OUTTA THIS NEIGHBORHOOD, YA DIRTY RAT FINK!" Or another favorite: "DROP THE TOOLS! WE GOTCHA COVERED!" At least one obituary notes that this idea was likely the "inspiration" for the climactic scene in the movie "Network." It's not the only example of someone ripping off a Shepherd idea. His fans have always noted striking similarities between his work and the TV series "The Wonder Years," which even included a voice-over narration strikingly similar to Shepherd's style. Yet in true Hollywood fashion, credit was never given. And it wasn't just his stories that made him so special. No one could read haiku better, or the poems of Robert Service, or the works of Don Marquis, the Chicago newspaperman who created archie and mehitabel. "Let's have some cheap guitar music," he'd say, and he'd do a reading that would be full of cosmic wonder. He was also a brilliant social commentator, and his observations on life and culture were unique and pertinent. In particular, a central theme of his musings was that life and show biz were becoming inseparable. In his view, a lot of today's suffering comes from the belief that your life should somehow be like a movie--full of glamour and excitement--and that if it isn't there's something wrong. In the 1950s he wrote a piece for the Village Voice predicting that someday not only television shows but people would have Nielsen ratings. Well, that's all history now. Shepherd is gone and we're the poorer for it. Look what's taken his place: Howard Stern.

Copyright: 1999 The Washington Post Company
Permission by: John M. Whalen