Widely considered one of the great American humorists of the 20th Century, Jean Shepherd (1921-1999) is mostly known by contemporary audiences for writing and narrating A Christmas Story. The 1983 movie, which was billed on its original theatrical release poster as “A tribute to the original, traditional, one-hundred-percent, red-blooded, two-fisted, All-American Christmas” in typical Jean Shepherd hyperbole, received fair-to-middling reviews and did fair-to-middling business at the box office when it was released in 1983.
A generation later, it has become a holiday classic, broadcast 24/7 by the cable network TBS on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. It now ranks behind only to Frank Capra’s 1946 masterpiece It’s a Wonderful Life and the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol with Alistair Sim as Scrooge as a cinematic tribute to the Yuletide.
However, “Shep” as his fans knew him, was far more than A Christmas Story. In addition to being an accomplished writer, Jean Shepherd arguably is the greatest radio personality turned out by that medium. As a radio talking head, Shep thrived in the period in which the “Empire of the Air” was eclipsed by television and the dawn of syndicated talk radio focused on politics. He may rank as the one true genius birthed by radio.
Jean Shepherd was a very talented and celebrated short story writer. In fact, he was one of the top humorists of the 1960s. His short stories typically were published in Playboy Magazine, and Shep four times won a Playboy Writing Award for Humor/Satire. Playboy published 24 stories by Shepherd between 1964 and 1973 (one last story appeared in 1981). This was the period of Playboy’s greatest cultural influence.
Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner made the cover of Time Magazine on March 3, 1967 and the September 1972 issue sold seven million copies. At the time, the United States population was roughly 210 million, meaning that one in 30 Americans had a copy of Playboy, making it nearly as ubiquitous as Reader’s Digest. During Playboy’s golden period, Jean Shepherd was virtually the house humorist for what was the country’s most “out there” magazine in an “out there” decade that transformed American society.
His story, “Red Ryder Nails the Hammond Kid”, published in the December 1965 issue of Playboy, is the basis for A Christmas Story.
His stories were collected in four collections: In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash (published 1966); Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories: And Other Disasters (1971); The Ferrari in the Bedroom (1972); and A Fistful of Fig Newtons (1981). All remain in print.
Two theatrical features were made from Jean Shepherd’s screenplays: A Christmas Story, which established itself as a classic, and It Runs in the Family (1994), which was a critical and commercial flop. (Due to the great success of the original film, the latter was retitled A Summer Story. That movie has not improved with age.)
It Runs in the Family also was based on Shep’s short stories, with a greater focus on the next-door-neighbors, the Bumpeses, the hillbilly family whose hound dogs bedeviled The Old Man and purloined the Christmas turkey in the first film. Narrated by Shep, it was directed by Christmas Story director Bob Clark. Despite starring Oscar-winner Mary Steenburgen as Ralphie’s mother and Macaulay Culkin’s kid brother Kieran as Ralphie, the movie lacked the charm of A Christmas Story.
Jean Shepherd blamed Charles Grodin’s performance as The Old Man for the failure. And indeed, Grodin can not match Darren McGavin’s performance in A Christmas Story, nor is Steenburgen as ingratiating as Melinda Dillon. Another performer sorely missed is the blond cherub Peter Billingsley, who was so perfectly cast as Ralphie in the original.
Despite the failure of It Runs in the Family, a close friend of Shep said that A Christmas Story made him rich. He was able to enjoy a comfortable retirement, which he spent in Samibel Island, Florida, where he died in 1999 at the age of 78.
In the 1970s, Shep was featured in two series on public TV: Jean Shepherd’s America (1971), which was produced by Boston’s WGBH,and Shepherd’s Pie (1978), a production of the New Jersey Network. America was the more successful of the two shows. It featured Shep traveling around the country, meeting people and telling his inimitable stories such as his father’s love of beer and the great family fight that ensued when his mother forgot to pick up The Old Man’s favorite libation.
Watching Shep in Jean Shepherd’s America still provides a great deal of pleasure 40 years after the show was first broadcast. Shep is in perfect form. However, Shepherd’s Pie, broadcast in the post-Watergate era in which President Jimmy Carter complained of a “malaise” that had afflicted America, sees Shep as rather uninspired, mirroring the era the show was shot in.
Jean Shepherd wrote the screenplays for four TV movies produced by PBS: The Phantom of the Open Hearth (1976), The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters (1982) , The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski (1983), and Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss (1988). Though none are classics in the vein of A Christmas Story, they are enjoyable in their own right.
Interestingly, Shep played “Godfather” to the movie that launched American independent cinema: John Cassavetes 1959 drama Shadows. Shepherd — who appears in a non-speaking cameo — helped raise money for the movie and lent his personal assistant to Cassavetes. In tribute, the director put a title in the credit sequence that reads, “Presented by Jean Shepherd’s Night People.”
The “Night People” was the moniker Shep gave to his listeners, people who worked at or stayed up during the night and slept during the day. His New York radio show ran originally at 11PM to 4AM before settling down to 11:15 to midnight, then for 45 minutes variously at 10:45 or 9:45PM.
The Night People
It is as a radio raconteur that Jean Shepherd made his greatest contribution to culture. From 1956 to 1977, he broadcast on WOR-AM New York, a 50,000 watt station whose signal blanketed the East Coast. His format for most of his career was a 45 minute free-wheeling improvisation in which childhood memories and recollections of his days in the Army (a World War II vet, Shep served in the Signal Corps stateside from 1942-44) mingled freely with observations on topics of the day, recitations of poetry (particularly that of Robert Service) and songs, both sung and sung out on the kazoo and Jew’s harp.
Shep also was an actor, appearing both on Broadway and off-Broadway in the 1950s and ’60s, and as a nightclub act. His radio monologues transferred well to the stage and he even released six long-playing records of his act. He would often tour college campuses, including an annual show at Princeton, well into the 1970s.
Jean Shepherd was a major influence on Jerry Seinfeld, who named his third child “Shepherd” in tribute to the great radio monologist.
Jean Shepherd was married four times. Little is known of his first wife, to whom he was briefly married after the war. He had two children by his first wife, but had little to do with them after leaving his family for third wife Lois Nettleton.
An actress known mainly for her stage and TV work, Nettleton (1927-2008) won two Emmy Awards in a career that spanned six decades. She even appeared on an episode of Seinfeld in a backhanded tribute to Jerry’s artistic mentor.
Shep and Lois met, fittingly, on the air, as she called in frequently to the program, and he just as frequently called her back to get her observations on his riffs, dubbing her “The Listener.” (He later would claim that the Clint Eastwood movie Play Misty for Me, in which a female fan has an affair with a radio D.J., was based on an incident in his life.)
They appeared together in Shepherd’s 1959 off-Broadway play “Look Charlie” in 1959. Their marriage lasted seven years.
His last wife, Leigh Brown, was the producer of his show at WOR. A close collaborator and constant companion, they married after divorcing their respective spouses. Shep not only dictated his short stories to her, she also served as co-writer along with director Bob Clark on the screenplays of A Christmas Story and It Runs in the Family. Brown even has cameo appearances in several of his works that were made for TV and the screen, including their Christmas classic, where they appeared together as a couple at the department store. (Shep is the bearded gent who informs a disappointed Ralphie that the end of the line to see Santa is not where he thinks it is.)
Leigh Brown Shepherd died at the young age of 59 on July 16, 1997. Shep followed her a year later, on October 16, 1999. He is missed by legions of Night People and other fans from his radio, TV, movie and print work, but yet, he is always with us, as his work is readily available in print, on DVD and via the Internet. And of course, each Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, on TBS.