Drink Your Ovaltine, Fatheads! — “A Christmas Story”

“That reminds me of something that happened to me when I was a kid.” –Jean Shepherd

Jean Shepherd is best remembered as the narrator and co-screenwriter of A Christmas Story. According to the website “A Christmas Story House,” in the 60s, film director Bob Clark (of Porky’s fame) was going to pick up a date when he chanced upon a re-broadcast of Shepherd’s early radio work at WOR. Clark was so enthralled that he circled the block for “almost an hour, glued to the radio until the program was over.” The date may have been a failure, but it focused Clark. When he made Porky’s in the 80s and it turned a profit, he issued his ultimatum: no Porky’s sequels until he was allowed to direct a Shepherd story. A Christmas Story was the result.

When he died in 1999, Shepherd was widely eulogized as a virtual Renaissance Man who was prolific in writing, radio, and TV. Time magazine pointed out that many of the Shepherd tributes started with some variation of “it was late at night, and I had my transistor radio tuned in to Jean Shepherd’s show.” Shepherd got his start in radio in Hammond, Indiana, where he did a high school sports show. He did two years in the Army Signal Corps, then went on to do radio shows in Cincinnati and Philadelphia before arriving at WOR in New York in the mid-50s.

A 1966 Newsday article noted that, “[h]e is unique, not only in his ability to talk so much, but his sheer artistry with the spoken word.” He is credited with inventing talk and free-form radio. Shepherd’s show eschewed callers, music, and taped commercials (he loved to do the commercials himself, and was once fired for endorsing an unauthorized soap, only to be re-hired because of the angry reaction of listeners). He delivered monologues, depending on the local broadcast, from one to five hours. He did prep work for the show, but he also was a gifted improv artist. He created the phrase “night people” to describe his listeners, and he would often enlist them for pranks. The soap incident involved his listeners flooding Manhattan stores to request the soap, then yelling “Excelsior!” at the clerk while leaving. But the greatest prank, the one that earned global press, was the I, Libertine literary hoax.

Shepherd disliked the way contemporary bestseller lists were compiled. At the time, requests for books carried equal weight with actual book sales. He had his listeners flood bookstores, demanding a copy of a book that didn’t exist by an author who didn’t exist: I, Libertine by Frederick R. Ewing. The book shot to the top of many bestseller lists globally, New York literary personalities wrote about meeting Ewing, and the book was proscribed by the Arch-Diocese of Boston. After two months, Shepherd allowed the Wall Street Journal to reveal the hoax. According to Bob Kaye, “the story came out – front page, middle section. It hit the stands at about 3 pm. At 3:01 pm, about six countries called. It became a world-wide story. It was also one of the stories that was reprinted word for word by Pravda.”

Shepherd also wrote for National Lampoon, Playboy (“Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid,” upon which A Christmas Story is based, first appeared here), Newsday, Car & Driver, Town & Country, Popular Mechanics, Village Voice, and a number of now-defunct magazines. His writing displays skepticism towards establishments of any sort, combined with a populist rooting for the little guy. In “Jean Shepherd: The Survivor of Hammond,” author Peter Scholl writes that he “believes in the dignity of man –even in the dignity of the Hoosier. But he also understands that our dignity is an achieved and precarious status, and that men are continually behaving comically.”

This comic behavior is on display on a number of fronts in A Christmas Story. From the Bumpus hounds, to the infamous leg lamp, from Flick getting his tongue frozen to the flag pole, to Ralph’s seemingly futile quest for the Red Ryder BB gun – the Everyman nature of Shepherd’s work shines through.  — Barry Honold

Published in: on October 16, 2009 at 6:04 pm  Comments (1)