HV067- Jean Shepherd 1

Jean Shepherd in WOR studio, 1970Hearing Voices from NPR®
067 Jean Shepherd 1: A Voice in the Night
Host: Harry Shearer of Le Show
Airs week of: 2010-07-14 (Originally: 2009-08-12)

“Jean Shepherd 1” (52:00 mp3):

Hour one in this two-part tribute to radio raconteur Jean Shepherd:

“Jean Shepherd (Part 1 of 2)” (52:00) Harry Shearer

Jean Shepherd used words like a jazz musician uses notes, winding around a theme, playing with variations, sending fresh self-reflective storylines out into the night. Marshall McLuhan called Shepherd “the first radio novelist.” From 1956-1977 Shep spun his late night stories over WOR radio, New York City. PBS gave him a TV series, “Jean Shepherd’s America.” In 1983 he co-wrote and narrated the film version of his “A Christmas Story.”

Shep inspired a new generation of spoken narrative artists who tap into the American psyche. Among them was Harry Shearer (Le Show), who hosts this two part tribute to Jean Shepherd. Shearer interviews Shep’s co-workers, friends and fans, including Robert Krulwich, Joe Frank, Paul Krassner, and Jules Fieffer.

Thanks to Mr. Shearer, KCRW– Santa Monica (and Sarah Spitz), NPR, and Art Silverman for production support, and for allowing us to re-air this two-hour tribute. This is part one; part two is next week.

One time I woke up at 3 o’clock in the morning. My radio was still on, and a man was talking about how you would try to explain the function of an amusement park to visitors from Venus. It was Jean Shepherd. He was on WOR from midnight to 5:30 every night, mixing childhood reminiscence with contemporary critiques, peppered with such characters as the man who could taste an ice cube and tell you the brand name of the refrigerator it came from and the year of manufacture. Shepherd would orchestrate his colorful tales with music ranging from “The Stars and Stripes Forever” to Bessie Smith singing “Empty Bed Blues.”
–Paul Krassner (from “How the Realist popped America’s cherry“)

The Realist: series of Jean Shepherd essays, Radio Free America, issue #42, #44, #48, #50.

Jean Shepherd – The Great American Fourth of July – PART 1

Dialing through the AM whine and static, I landed upon the chuckling voice of a man who immediately sounded to me like the aural personification of what was, up until that moment, my bible of irreverent, hip “outsider-ness”— Mad Magazine! Suddenly, there in the dark, I found myself in the presence of a grownup who not only used words like “clod,” but actually talked about “kidhood” with such accuracy that my fevered 11-year-old brain immediately sensed a kindred spirit! That’s all it took — one tale about Flick, Schwartz, Randy and Ralph — kids just like kids I knew! — growing up in a Midwestern steel town under the weary beer-soaked gaze of “The Old Man”… and I was hooked!
–Vin Scelsa, WNEW- NYC (from WFMU “Excelsior, You Fatheads!“)

Fan sites: Flick Lives | WFMU | Shep Bibliography.

10:15 P.M. The WOR news and weather are out of the way. A bugle sounds, and a sprightly theme song comes trotting on the air. The theme has a double meaning: it is the one that calls the horses to the gate at Aqueduct, and it is the Bahn Frei Overture, composed for an operetta by Eduard Strauss, the only member of the Strauss family who did not make good. Presently, Shepherd’s clear, rowdy voice intrudes. “Okay, gang are you ready to play radio? Are you ready to shuffle off the mortal coil of mediocrity? I am if you are.” There is a noise like a mechanized Bronx cheer (BRRAPP!)— it is Shepherd blowing his kazoo. At other times he twangs his Jew’s-harp (BRROING!). “Yes, you fatheads out there in the darkness, you losers in the Sargasso Sea of existence, take heart, because WOR, in its never ending crusade of public service, is once again proud to bring you — (EROICA SYMPHONY UP) — The Jean Shepherd Program!”
–Edward Grossman, “Jean Shepherd: Radio’s Noble SavageHarper’s Magazine Jan 1966

CD coverJean Shepherd’s improvised lyrics to the title track of Charles Mingus’ 1958 The Clown:

Man, there was this clown. And he was a real happy guy, a real happy guy.

He had all these greens and all these yellows and all these oranges bubbling around inside of him, and he had just one thing he wanted in this world. He just wanted to make people laugh – that’s all he wanted out of this world. He was a real happy guy.

Let me tell you about this clown. He used to raise a sweat every night out on that stage, he just wouldn’t stop. That’s how hard he worked. He was tryin’ to make people laugh. He used to have this cute little gimmick where he had a seal follow him up and down a step ladder, blowin’ “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean” on a B-flat Sears Roebuck model 1322-A plastic bugle – a real cute act. But they didn’t laugh.

Oh you know, a few little… things… here and there, but not really. And he was booking out on all these tank towns, playing the Rotary Club and the Kiwanis Club and the American Legion hall, and he just wasn’t making it. And he had all these wonderful things going on inside of him, all these greens and yellows, and all these oranges. He was a real happy guy, and all he wanted to do was make people laugh. That’s all he wanted out of this world, was to make people laugh.

And then something began to grow, something that just wasn’t good began to grow inside of this guy…

You know it’s a funny thing. Something began to trouble this clown… you know, little things… little things once in a while would happen that would make that crowd begin to move. But they were never the right things.

Like for example that time the seal got sick on the stage, all over the stage, the crowd just… just broke up. Little things like that, and they weren’t supposed to be in the act, and they weren’t supposed to be funny. This began to trouble him and this began to bother him, this little thing began to grow inside. All those greens and all those oranges and all those yellows… they just weren’t as bright as they used to be. And all he wanted to do was to make that crowd laugh. That’s all he wanted to do.

There was this one night in Dubuque when he was playing this Rotary Club. All these dentists and all these druggists, all these postmen sitting around, and they were a real cold bunch – nothing was happening. He was leaving the stage when he stumbled over his ladder and fell flat on his face, just flat on his face, and he stands up and he’s got this bloody nose and he looks out at the crowd and that crowd is just rollin’ on the floor – he’s knocked ’em flat out. This begins to trouble him even more. And he sees something – he begins to see something… hmmm?

And right about here things began to change, but really change. Not the least of which, our clown changed his act. Bought himself a set of football pads, a yellow helmet with red stripes, hired a girl who dropped a five-pound sack of flour on his head every night from maybe twenty feet up. Oh man, what a bit! That just broke them up every night – but not like Dubuque!

And all those colors? All those yellows, all those reds, all those oranges? A lot of gray in there now, a lot of blue. And all he wanted to do was to make this crowd laugh, that’s all he wanted out of this world. They were laughing all right. Not like Dubuque, but… they were laughing.

And the dough started to come in, and he was playing the big towns, Chicago, Detroit…. And then it was Pittsburgh one night – real fine town, Pittsburgh, you know. About three quarters of the way through his act, a rope broke. Down came the backdrop, right on the back of the neck, and he went flat. And something broke. This was it. It hurt way down deep inside.

He tried to get up. He looked out at the audience and man you should… man you should have seen that crowd – they was rollin’ in the aisles! This was bigger than Dubuque!

This was bigger than Dubuque! He really had ’em going…

This was it. This was the last one. This was the last one. This was the last one. He knew now. Man he really knew now. But it was too late. And all he wanted to do was make this crowd laugh – well, they were laughing. But now he knew.

That was the end of the clown. And you should have seen the bookings coming. Man, his agent was on the phone for twenty-four hours. The Palladium… MCA… William Morris. But it was too late.

He really knew now, He really knew.

He really knew now…

William Morris sends regrets.

Jean Shepherd, born/raised Hammond, Indiana:

While the South has been drenched with Decadence, the Midwest has been swimming in a turgid sea of Futility. It is dotted with cities and towns that have never quite made it… The city is too close to the farm, while beyond the last Burma Shave sign the prairie rolls flat as a tabletop endlessly to the horizon. Everywhere are evidences of faded ambitions and forlorn whistles in the dark… It is this incongruity that produces men who are compelled by secret dark inner urges to warn of the futility of the sad earthly posturing of Man. Of these there are two very common Midwestern types: the Humorist and the hellfire fundamentalist Evangelist… Ade himself pointed out in an essay on Indiana that humorists of the nonprofessional but practicing variety can be found every few feet along Main Street… Almost all of their humor is of the school of Futility… Futility, and the usual triumph of evil over good. Which is another name for realism.
–Jean Shepherd, from intro to The America of George Ade

Time magazine: “That Old Feeling: Shepherd and His Flock” | “The Heyday and Dark Nights of Radio Legend Jean Shepherd“.

Jean Shepherd: A Voice in the Night, Part Two

Bookmark and Share
« | HV NEWS | »
Comments (30)

I listened to your show this morning (8/16) with great interest. I, too, discovered Jean Shepherd in high school. You are right — he made people feel connected through their common humanity. The late fifties & early sixties were a time when I and most young people I knew felt very alienated. There was a big disconnect between how reality was being described by most people and how it really was.

I remember listening to the news when John Glenn orbited the earth and was trying to describe the sight of our planet from space, something probably imagined by every educated human being, but now actually being witnessed by an American for the first time. What a significant occasion for mankind! As an astronaut — a technician, really — he stumbled through some sort of inadequate report and I felt that familiar, disheartening sense deep inside me, a feeling that we were being cheated yet again — “Man,” I thought to myself, “they should have sent a POET up there!” Later that same night, I was vindicated to hear Shep say the same thing on his show…

Comment added by Ingrid Andersen on 08.16.09

I was just introduced to jean sheppard today on HEARING VOICES….what a fantastic storyteller!

thank you,thank you,thank you

Comment added by marjorie smuts on 08.16.09

Listened to this broadcast today via Armed Forces Radio in Europe. Many thanks for a wonderful, intelligent show. Am looking forward to part 2!

Comment added by Sherrod Bumgardner on 08.16.09

As a child,in the late 60s,and 70s,I used to listen to Shep all the time on WOR.There are those that keep his shows alive in the 21st century,like Max Schmid of WBAI,who always has three or four shows on his website.
http://www.flicklives.com/Mass_Back/index.asp 3

Comment added by Roger Kulp on 08.22.09

Like legions of others, I listened to Shep every night while in my teens in the 70’s. My dad was a great fan and introduced him to us. I even had the privilege of meeting Shep at booksignings at the old Brentano’s on 8th St. I cherish my signed copies of Wanda Hickey and The Ferrari in the Bedroom.

Thanks to Harry for bringing this incredible talent to a new generation, and reminding the rest of us of how much he brought into our lives.

Comment added by carol brys on 08.23.09

I grew up listening to Jean Shepherd on my father’s transistor radio tucked under my pillow at night. His stories transported me to a world that took me away from all of my childhood worries. He was one of our great American storytellers and is so sorely missed.

We no longer have people like Shepherd who could wax poetic on almost any topic imaginable.

In listening to this great retrospective, all of the people who were interviewed have nothing but respect and reverence for this man, just like me.

I love radio; it is the medium of the mind. The imagination can soar to a place where you can swear you have been. That’s exactly what Shepherd did; I smelled the red cabbage and meatloaf, I saw the goofy gang of friends, I had the weird parents. Thank you Jean Shepherd. Thank you Harry Shearer for this great retrospective, and most of all thank you NPR.

Comment added by Roberta Strugger on 08.23.09

Jean had stopped broadcasting the year I came to the US but I heard a him a couple of times in WBAI in NYC and I especially remember the story of the steel mill job which reduced me to a helpless wreck, convulsed in paroxisms of laughter; a near death experience but, in hindsight, not a bad way to go.
gracie Harry, grazie

Comment added by a.j.hughes on 08.23.09

Having lived in the Bronx in the Shepherd era, Jean was and is one of the greatest memories of that time. I couldn’t wait for his broadcast !!!!
I must have been permanently affected because I have learned from the Master how to think “out of the box”. I only wish I had 10% of the storytelling mastery that Jean Shepherd did. The world would be such a better place if the population could see the world filtered through the eyes of this wonderful giant. I miss him greatly to this very day and am greatful to have NPR continue to stay at the top of the world in my eyes for presenting this opportunity to hear Jean again.
It brings tears to my eyes at the loss of his greatness !!!!!!

Comment added by Dick on 08.23.09

I remember driving home with a friend one Christmas Eve from Philadelphia after seeing “Sound of Music” in first run. Shepherd was telling the story of being a G.I. stationed at Fort Dix in New Jersey and going to the USO canteen in New York on a cold, wet Christmas Eve, alone and deeply separated from his Gary, Ind. home. We rode home quietly, listening to his hypnotic voice weaving a tale of a lonely soldier and were caught for the entire hour. His shows were often magic to me. Also remember very clearly his recitation of the “Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert W. Service. Great Stuff

Comment added by Ted Lehmann on 08.23.09

Can someone help me track down the date of the original broadcast of the story featured in part I — the one about the ‘slow’ coding class? i want to hear the rest!

Comment added by dan on 08.23.09

Many thanks to Harry Shearer for airing these tributes to Shep.

I grew up in northern NJ in the 60s and my brother and I would listen to those WOR broadcasts in our bedroom most nights, and marvel at this man who spun such great stories.

He is so under-appreciated (the year he passed away, the NYT magazine didn’t include him in their annual memorial issue, even though there were a couple of Hungarian performance artists and others like that who made the cut) that it is great that Harry gave him this hearing again.

I’ve been downloading podcasts of his shows from the 60s and it is amazing how prescient he was about our culture!

Comment added by Bob Krist on 08.23.09

Like others who have written in, I listened to Shep on my old tube radio every night on WOR. Saturday nights were special, as he broadcast live from The Limelight in Greenwich Village. I learned of Jean Shepherd from my Mom – a big fan, and for my 8th grade graduation(1967), she took me and 2 friends to The Limelight to see him live. This was an absolute highlight. Also saw him for many years at Richardson Auditorium at Princeton U., where he performed at the annual reunions. He is sorely missed.

Flick Lives! Excelsior!

Comment added by Art Gertel on 08.24.09

Unlike many of Shep’s listeners who were city raised, I was a kid in the late ’50s down the Jersey Shore, way down the Jersey Shore, that is, in a quiet town of 3,000 or so on a small barrier island, Brigantine. The expanse of open sea and sparsely populated islands between WOR’s transmitter and my bedroom radio made reception possible, if the skies were clear and the wind was northerly. It was a hit-or-miss affair most nights, the signal wavering in and out, too often out just as one of his great stories was winding to a conclusion and my eyelids became ever heavier. I especially liked and remember best his stories about his time in the Army, service highlighted by duty in a Mess Kit Repair Battalion. His was a great voice in the night for a 12 year-old, sorely missed and so fondly recalled by a 65 year-old living now on a far distant coast.

Comment added by Barry Levy on 08.31.09

My dad worshiped Jean Shepherd. I found ‘Wanda Hickey’ in his bookshelf at about age 12 and devoured it and anything else by Mr. Shepherd that I could find at the library.
When A Christmas Story hit HBO a few years after its release, I watched it and kept thinking ‘There is something VERY familiar about this story!’. Well of course there was.
Now I have a daughter of my own and each holiday season we have a traditional Xmas wrapping night with Ralphie and family on the tube. I’ll have to send my dad the URLs for these rebroadcasts – it will make his day! Thanks Harry!

Comment added by Maureen on 09.06.09

Like Bob Krist (above), I listened to Jean Shepherd in the dark in my bed with a LAFAYETTE transistor radio under my pillow. I loved his stories. In high school, Bill Scheuerman and I would swap these stories and our reactions the next day, if we were not poking each other with our pencil points.

The theme song came back to me in an unusual manner. I was running a field test on a well, I was sitting in a chair under a tall bush. I was about to ham it up for a digital video that I was going to make for my kids and for a few appreciative friends. I took off with silly riding gestures and the tune became Shep’s theme song.

Comment added by John Rehm on 09.15.09

I learned about Shep from my 8th grade English teacher, which means 1956/57. I actually met him once, sort of. He did a Saturday morning show for a while and did a remote from a store about three miles from where we lived. Oddly, he had no PA, so hearing him was an effort, but I managed to catch much of what he was saying into the mike. At a couple of points I smiled in reaction to what he said and he looked to me for reaction, smiling in return. It is a solid, if fleeting memory. I could not stay to the end of the broadcast, to actually meet him, but I got close enough.

I joined the Navy in 1962 and thought I’d have to give up Shep. No, I was stationed in Virginia and Maryland, two years each. I could get the WOR signal fairly well in both places. He also had “Jean Shepherd’s America” on PBS in the early 70s, I think.


Comment added by JM in San Diego CA on 07.20.10

Turned on WNPR last night to find Jean Shepherd telling me a story to ease me to sleep, just like in high school. I was probably the only kid who went to bed by 10:15 to hear him. Flick lives!

Comment added by Gail on 07.22.10

Thank You – this is great!

Comment added by kevin on 07.22.10

Started listening to Jean when I was 12 in my summer place: Amagansett, L.I. A boy named Mike McCleary told me about him. I was hooked right away and so were my parents. I listened for as long as I could (years), but eventually married and moved to VA and couldn’t hear WOR. Saw Jean at the Limelight once. I still listen to tapes of his show.
Mike – if you’re still out there somewhere, Thanks! Leave me a message at: 212-462-9043.

Comment added by Barbara on 07.23.10

Jean Sheperd was one of a kind. if you started to listen to one of his stories you couldnt stop listening and once you listen to one of his stories you had to hear them all. he was habit forming. there is no way you can talk about american culture in the 1950 & 60’s without mentioning his astounding wacky sense of humor and eye to detail.

thanks for all the memories shep.

Comment added by gary heiden on 08.23.11

Many hundreds of complete Jean Shepherd broadcasts are available free on iTunes (podcasts= the brass figlagee) The one about the code school is from 4/13/65, and it’s also on the 2-hour NPR tribute, “A VOICE IN THE NIGHT.”
Also find hundreds of his broadcasts on ebay under his name, and from http://www.oldtimeradio.com of Max Schmid.
Anyone wanting a 500 page description and appreciation of Shepherd’s work, try my book EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEAD! THE ART AND ENIGMA OF JEAN SHEPHERD.
Shepherd is alive and well at the flicklives.com site and on the shep@yahoo.com email discussion group, as well as in his books andin his videos such as Jean Shepherd’s America. His movie creation, A CHRISTMAS STORY, can be seen for 24 hours straight starting Christmas Eve on Turner’s cable TV.

Comment added by Eugene B. Bergmann on 09.23.11

Im this teenage in a dinky a coal town in Wyoming Valley Pa, see. And I could get this WOR AM radio thing,from NYC, pimples in full bloom me, listsening to Shep cured my pimples, churned up my mind. Jean’s kazoo, he was the pied piper that lured me to march to live in Greenwich Village later. His words there. Just likie he said, I saw what he saw and lived in the Village. Thank to Shep’s magic, converted, I’ve lived like him in NYC over 45 years.

One stary night, youth me, put on this navy pea coat see, a, village coat of the era, went to the LimeLight and saw Jean. In the flesh, after his show, I just handed a beat up paperback of In Go We Trust… To sign. Not a word was exchange, I was his archtypal kid listener and he knew me, communicated without words. He signed the book and just kind of nodded an “Ok, I understand. You are one of us.”

An episoded teen age years, I, in this Pensy Prep type 4 year military school on Long Island; I, priveleged me, had one of the first transister radios ever, it hummed radio under my pillow after lights out, risking demerits and eternal damnation, me listening in the dark, ear pressed to the metal speaker cover, to Jean on WOR, just across from the LI Sound from, he was there in the dark under the pillow and there in station WOR.

After that, he, and Catcher in The Rye (hey, was Jean Shepherd Holden Caufield?) spaced out my life with whacky Shepherisms cult. To this day I am a nutty Shep apostle.

Comment added by Charles NY on 02.13.12

Jean Shepherd was the best Storyteller we’ve ever had. His radio show was imaginative and very entertaining. His books and movies became classics.

Comment added by Karen on 04.10.12

[…] Tap, Le Show) is himself such a fan that he hosted “Jean Shepherd: A Voice in the Night” (Part 1, Part 2). One time I woke up at 3 o’clock in the morning. My radio was still on, and a man was […]

I am the Producer & Director of the upcoming Documentary/Film on Jean Shepherd. Entitled: “Shep” Life and Career of Master Storyteller Jean Shepherd….
If you would like to share a story like Charles from NY I would love to hear them


Stay Tuned!

Comment added by Nick Mantis on 12.20.12

It’s Christmas morning in Medford Ma . While listening to a talk
show WRKO in Boston and a man was telling a story about a mouse that he was battleing because the mouse prevented him from getting to his bureau. He told the story in such great detail that I couldn’t help thinking of Jean Shepherd! Like others
I couldn’t wait to hear his stories every night. Those were the
days when you could use your imagination while listening to
the radio. I’m 78 and I can still hear his voice like it was yesterday.
Talking about the episodes of the gang members was the most
entertaining to me. I felt like I was right there with the gang.
On a scale of one to ten, he was definetly a ten!

Comment added by NICK tESTA on 12.25.13

Actually, Jean Shepherd had radio shows in both Philadelphia Pa. and Cincinnati OH before moving to WOR.

Fortunately living in Pittsburgh I was able on most evenings to listen to his shows. This was especially true in the winter. My 49 ford when driven to good locations added to the listen-ability at all three locations.

Then I got an old Hallicrafter S53A. Still never as good as the old linear tuner in the ford. Went overseas in 57 and when I returned he was harder to get as the spectrum got more crowded.

Today, thanks to the internet I can relive the wonder of his storytelling.

Comment added by Richard C. Bergenstein on 12.27.13

Two Words: “I, Libertine”

Comment added by Laura Beraha on 04.23.14

[…] Don’t miss it. There’s also a great tribute to Shep narrated by Harry Shearer that the show Hearing Voices did a few years back. And you can hear the archives of many his old WOR and other shows. Check it […]

[…] The final hour of a two-part tribute to radio raconteur Jean Shepherd. For info or to Comment, see Jean Shepherd, Part 1. […]

Leave a comment:


(required) (will be hidden)

(Allowed tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong> )