By Edward Achorn
In 1975, Jean Shepherd observed: “Can you imagine 4,000 years passing, and you’re not even a memory? Think about it, friends. It’s not just a possibility. It’s a certainty.”
If you’re asking “Who’s Jean Shepherd?,” you’re proving his point.
Shepherd, who died in 1999, was a big-time radio star from the 1950s to 1970s, and a “hip” Playboy writer (he did the magazine’s interview with the Beatles at the height of the mania).
Does anyone remember anymore what Playboy — or even a magazine — was?
He had a deep, warm voice that was always in danger of breaking into a laugh, an affection for verbal pomposity, and an almost boundless supply of slightly tall tales about growing up in a classically dysfunctional family in the Rust Belt city of Hammond, Ind., during the Depression. Often, the star of his stories was his perpetually irritated father — the “old man” who was a fan of the then-hapless Chicago White Sox, the only team that got caught throwing a World Series.
For a while, Shepherd was famous for filling endless hours of airtime late at night on New York’s WOR with seemingly impromptu storytelling — chuckling along as he revealed details about his somewhat disastrous prom night with Wanda Hickey, or his old man’s profanity-laced battles with his malfunctioning Oldsmobile.
He made fun of advertisers and their products, and induced listeners to play such pranks as placing their radios in an open window and cranking the volume full blast so that he could shout “You filthy pragmatist!” to a city of puzzled people. When WOR threatened to cancel his contract because he “couldn’t sell soap,” he coaxed his listeners to go to the nearest drugstore, buy a cake of “Sweetheart Soap” and tell the clerk that Jean Shepherd had sent them.
Fifty-five years ago or so, my Uncle John taped his shows on a big clunky reel-to-reel recorder, and played it for us around his kitchen table. (He especially loved Shepherd’s less-than-stirringly-patriotic tales about Army life.) A lot of it went over my head, but that voice and that infectious chuckle stayed with me forever.
It was as ancient as telling stories around a cave fire, and I wonder where it went — our appreciation for the amusing, discursive journey, the slowly unfolding tale. Our world of communication has descended into meanspirited diatribes and constant hectoring ads.
Nowadays, if anyone has heard of Shepherd it is because of the greatest Christmas move, “A Christmas Story.” That is Shepherd’s voice in the movie, narrating the tale of his younger self, in the guise of Ralphie, who fervently dreams of getting a Daisy Red Ryder 200 Shot Carbine Action BB Air Rifle for Christmas — and seems foiled by adults who constantly tell him “You’ll shoot your eye out.” Much of the story is drawn from Shepherd’s beautifully written books In God We trust: All Others Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories.
The low-budget movie came out in 1983, to little fanfare. It quickly sank like a stone. But it developed a cult following, and in time became — dare I say it? — a classic. For years, it has been run around the clock, over and over, on TBS/TNT.
It’s great because it captures the absurdity and joy of Christmas in a remarkably unsentimental way. In the kid world of Christmas — “around which the whole kid year revolves” — it is always much better to receive than to give.
Shepherd remembered it all: the intense yearning and terrors of childhood. The stupid stunts (like testing whether your tongue will freeze to a flagpole). The neighborhood bullies. The terrifying department-store Santas. The annoying kid brother. The appalling neighbors and their smelly hound dogs. The overburdened and flummoxed parents who come through, somewhat unexpectedly and poignantly, by showing that they do love and care (Melinda Dillon and Darren McGavin are perfect as the mom and the old man).
After the smelly hound dogs invade the family kitchen and make off with the turkey (“The heavenly aroma still hung in the house. But it was gone, all gone! No turkey! No turkey sandwiches! No turkey salad! No turkey gravy! Turkey Hash! Turkey a la King! Or gallons of turkey soup! Gone, ALL GONE!”), the movie is capped off by a Christmas dinner of Peking duck at a Chinese restaurant, filled with silliness and warmth.
Best of all is Shepherd’s language. Those who love the film can quote it by heart:
“My little brother had not eaten voluntarily in over three years.”
“In the heat of battle [with a broken furnace] my father wove a tapestry of obscenity that, as far as we know, is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.”
“They looked at me as if I had lobsters crawling out of my ears.”
“My father worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium. A master.”
“It was all over — I was dead. What would it be? The guillotine? Hanging? The chair? The rack? The Chinese water torture? Hmmph. Mere child’s play compared to what surely awaited me.”
“Scut Farkus! What a rotten name! There he stood, between us and the alley. Scut Farkus staring out at us with his yellow eyes. He had yellow eyes! So help me God, YELLOW EYES!”
“Randy lay there like a slug. It was his only defense!”
“We plunged into the cornucopia, quivering with desire and the ecstasy of unbridled avarice.”
Dare I call it a work of genius? It may not last for 4,000 years. But, as the great man pointed out, what (or who) does?
(This is an update of a column Edward Achorn wrote for The Providence Journal in 2005, which was reprinted in many newspapers around the country. Read his books about American history.)