JEAN SHEPHERD—GENIUS

By Eugene B. Bergmann

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After several years of work and delays, my book Excelsior, You Fathead!: The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd appeared March 28, 2005, although it had been available about a month earlier on websites and in some stores.  It’s the only book about Shepherd, a unique American creative genius.  I don’t know why no other books have been written about him and his work, and I don’t know how I got to be so lucky as to have been the one to write it.  The book is a show-and-tell about Jean Shepherd, especially in the field of talk radio, which he virtually invented, and in which he remains the master.  He improvised like a jazz musician for forty-five minutes week-nightly on the air for twenty-one years.  Stories, commentary, quirky ideas, concerts on his kazoo, jews harp, nose flute, and concertos knocked out on his skull.

My publisher expects Excelsior, You Fathead! to be a long-term seller as more Shepherd fans find out about it and as people realize that the book discusses humor, talk radio, and the foibles and enigma of a true American original.  Indeed, the book continues to find new readers, as my publisher’s accounting department and the sales ranking at amazon.com attest.  The book is in its third printing—Excelsior! I say—ever onward and upward!

Why give a book a title that only Shepherd fans will immediately recognize?  What should a book about Jean Shepherd be titled?  Jean Shepherd, Radio Genius! or Jean Shepherd, Great American Humorist! or Jean Shepherd, Guy You Never Heard of But Should Really Read a Book About!  For those poor, deprived masses who are not familiar with Jean Shepherd, but who want to buy a book, what would captivate them?  Would you pick up a book about someone you knew nothing about that had one of those titles?  There are too many books about people highly touted, but whom we’ve never heard of.  I decided on the title Excelsior, You Fathead! because:

  1. As Shepherd’s most famous saying, it encapsulates his joyous yet skeptical essence: its enigmatic quality is quintessential Shep.
  2. All Shepherd fans who see it will of course, recognize it.
  3. Such strange words would provoke the curiosity of any intelligent persons and lead them to pick up the book to find out why it has such an unusual title—they may be intrigued enough to pursue it.

Besides Shepherd fans, I hope the book is of interest to those fascinated by the work (and enigmatic life) of a genius, by a very funny guy, by a major radio performer (especially of “talk radio”), and by American humor, cultural commentary, and improvisation.  And fascinated by a major cultural force in New York City’s creative 1950s who continues to exert his influence on many media performers today in addition to the hold he has on tens of thousands of fans who are still affected by him in their daily lives.  To name a few who followed and were influenced by his work: U. S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, Jules Feiffer, Hugh Hefner, Andy Kaufman, Jack Kerouac, Charles Mingus, Jerry Seinfeld—and on and on.

Shepherd’s work is more extensive and his renown more widespread than most people realize.  Documenting and describing the work of Shepherd (July 26, 1921-October 16, 1999) is an unending process.  New discoveries of previously lost works covering Shepherd’s activities in all media are constantly being made.  He wrote several popular books, now into several dozen printings each, and did forewords for others.  One of the weirdest is the book titled The Scrapbook History of Baseball, which lists the foreword by Shepherd and four “authors.”  Besides an acknowledgments page, the book consists only of photocopies of newspaper baseball articles through the years and the two-page foreword authored by Shepherd.  Shepherd must have chuckled over that one.  But he probably appreciated it (at best grudgingly) as he always resented not receiving the respect and acknowledgment he deserved.

“He really formed my entire comedic sensibility—I learned how to do comedy from Jean Shepherd,” states Jerry Seinfeld.

Of course there are the twenty-three stories he wrote for Playboy and his Beatles interview they published.  Several of those Playboy stories were the basis for that annual holiday treat watched by scores of millions every Christmas Eve, A Christmas Story, the film about the kid who wants a BB gun and nearly shoots his eye outMany who watch it every year don’t realize that he wrote it and that it’s his voice narrating it throughout.  And how many realize that when the kids waiting in line to see Santa are told by a man in dark coat and dark beard to go all the way back to the end of the line, that’s ol’ Shep.  How many of those people who are also fans of the sitcom The Wonder Years realize that the narrative style is Shep’s?

Movie fans might also like to know that the unconventional Jason Robards character in A Thousand Clowns, the late-night radio broadcasting Jack Nicholson character in The King of Marvin Gardens, and the wild ravings of the newscaster in Network (“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”), are all based on Shepherd.

Then there are those Johnny Cash fans who enjoy his singing of “A Boy Named Sue” and don’t realize that Jean’s best friend, Shel Silverstein, wrote those words to kid Jean about “having a girl’s name.”  How many fans of cable television broadcaster Keith Olberman, who see him crumple up his script and toss it at the camera, then hear him end his show with, “Keep your knees loose!” know that that is one of Shepherd’s favorite exhortations?  And those millions of Jerry Seinfeld fans—where’d Jerry get his humor?  They should listen to Seinfeld’s commentary for his TV episode “The Gymnast” on the Seinfeld, Season 6 DVDs, in which he states, “He really formed my entire comedic sensibility—I learned how to do comedy from Jean Shepherd.”

I frequently hear from people who knew Shepherd and who were influenced by him.  For example there’s his girlfriend of decades back who contacted me with quite a story.  I’m saving the details for my sequel to Excelsior, You Fathead! but to give you an idea, she’s the widow of a Hollywood director/producer and has since become the head of America’s foremost organization devoted to Dracula and Bram Stoker.  (Shep would have loved that!)  During the same period I had a fascinating research adventure with American Splendor creators Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner.

Who knows who I’ll hear from next and what new media project will bubble up out of the mire?  A musical based on A Christmas Story is due this year, preceded by a play adaptation, action figures, bobble heads, and tree ornaments based on the movie.  Wanna buy an A Christmas Story replica of the famous Leg Lamp—in two convenient sizes?  Shepherd is probably rolling over in his grave—convulsed with laughter over the absurdity of it all.  And frustrated that he was not in on the action.

Shep really started something with his unique style in radio.  This year a TV pilot is in production based on National Public Radio’s talk program This American Life by Ira Glass, and Robert Altman’s film about Garrison Keillor’s radio program A Prairie Home Companion recently opened nationwide.  Shepherd, in a blurb, had welcomed Keillor to the rare ranks of true humorists when Keillor’s first book appeared.  Later, as Keillor’s fame and critical approval increased, overshadowing what Shepherd felt was his due, Shepherd is said to have despised Keillor above all others (maybe even above Mort Sahl). Embittered he may have become, but perhaps justly so.  Shepherd was indeed superior to all of them.  Just ask any of his thousands of fans who still listen and still laugh at his words.  Whose lives are still influenced by the sheer magic of listening to him.  Just ask me.###

 

 

 

All contents © 2006 by Gene Mahoney