Michael Crichton’s death this past week has had me thinking back quite a bit to the fiction of my youth.
Dr. Crichton was definitely a huge influence who sent me in the direction of a lot of forward thinking, highly-educated, science fiction writers of the era, such as Asimov, Heinlein, and Frank Herbert. I respected them all … In fact I think just about every science fiction fan of my generation could roll off the Three Laws of Robotics faster than they could remember the first seven words of the Declaration of Independence … But these guys weren’t the most profound, or lasting, of my early literary influences.
That distinction belonged to a writer named Jean Shepherd.
Who? Yeah, I thought so … A lot of folks won’t immediately recognize the name, but you probably know his work. In fact, with the Holidays rolling around the corner, no doubt we’ll be seeing the screen realization of his most famous work, A Christmas Story, make its rounds on one of the cable networks ere long.
A Christmas Story is based on a short story called “Duel in the Snow, or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid” from Shepherd’s anthology masterpiece, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash (1966), a collection of stories from Shep’s (he was known mainly to fans and friends as Shep) childhood in a Northwestern Indiana steel town during the Great Depression.
I first found Jean Shepherd on the radio when I was in the 6th or 7th grade. Some winter illness had left me listening for long periods of time, and I came across his show on WOR Radio … An AM talk station that dated back to the Golden Age of Radio. It wasn’t long before I became hooked, getting into bed with a transistor radio and ear plug to surreptitiously listen to the show well after my appointed bed time.
Shepherd was a master story teller. He drew you into his world and painted a picture so vivid that you could see it playing out in your mind. Fans and scholars of radio will often point to Stan Freberg and his “Theater of the Mind” with reference to visually evocative narrative work in radio, but Shepherd was, at the very least, Freberg’s equal. He possessed a folksy, yet edgy, style and sophistication of material that was second to none. In fact calling Shep’s work edgy is an understatement … His commentaries were most often provocative and had sharp teeth, but Shepherd was first, and foremost, a humorist.
His oral narrative style was fresh and unique, it would later be adopted by artists like Garrison Keillor and Spalding Gray. Shepherd’s hook was that he didn’t just tell the story … He lived the story. If he was telling you a story about life with his perennially runny-nosed kid brother, Randy, he was telling it as a kid of eight or nine, expressing the emotions, and sense of newness and wonder, of that age. He put you into the moment and kept you there with vivid imagery.
While A Christmas Story represents the height of Jean Shepherd’s visibility in the Entertainment Industry, he was nonetheless a prolific writer, radio artist, and even commercial spokesman. His later works include, Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories: And Other Disasters (1971), The Ferrari in the Bedroom (1972), along with a PBS television series and specials, and numerous magazine articles (He was an editor at Playboy for quite some time, but I was too young to get the magazines back then … Of course I would have only read them for his articles. 😉 )
Shep’s influence could be seen, over the years, in everything from the TV hit, The Wonder Years, which was a thinly-veiled reconstruction of Shepherd’s oral narrative style, to the earlier work of radio shock-jock, Howard Stern.
Although Howard tends to shoot down, and terminate with extreme predjudice, anyone who dares suggest that Shepherd had been one of his major influences, I’m thinking Howard was listening to Shep on WOR nightly back in the day. That influence can be seen not only in Stern’s early sketch comedy work while on WNBC, but in his hit book, and movie, Private Parts as well. Not that Stern compares, to Shep in depth or quality, but it is there.
Jean Shepherd died in 1999 at the age of seventy-eight. His words on meeting god were, more than likely, “Excelsior, you fathead!”