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Excelsior, You Fathead!: The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd Hardcover – November 1, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Although the prolific, multitalented Shepherd (1921-1999) was an actor, author, emcee, recording artist and screenwriter (A Christmas Story), he's remembered by many as a late-night radio raconteur , who for 21 years on New York City's WOR-AM mixed heartland humor and hip, sardonic rants with memories of his Indiana youth. This prismatic portrait affirms Shepherd's position as one of the 20th century's great humorists. Railing against conformity, he forged a unique personal bond with his loyal listeners, who participated in his legendary literary prank by asking bookstores for the nonexistent novel I, Libertine (when Ian Ballantine had Shepherd and Theodore Sturgeon make the fake real, PW called it "the hoax that became a book"). Storyteller Shepherd's grand theme was life itself; Marshall McLuhan called Shepherd's broadcasts "a new kind of novel that he writes nightly." Minus guests and call-ins, it was talk radio, but Shepherd was the only voice, ad-libbing monologues like jazz riffs for a huge following via WOR's 50,000-watt reach. Novelist Bergmann (Rio Amazonas) interviewed 32 people who knew Shepherd or were influenced by him and listened to hundreds of broadcast tapes, inserting transcripts of Shepherd's own words into a "biographical framework" of exhaustive research. 30 b&w photos.
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From Booklist

These days, Jean Shepherd (1921-99), radio raconteur, social commentator, and author, is best known as the narrator of the perennially favorite holiday film A Christmas Story. But to his hardcore fans he was a pied piper of the radio waves--a nighttime voice that took them beyond their mundane realities by revealing how interesting the mundane can be. Shepherd broadcast almost nightly from 1955 to 1977 on WOR in New York City, gaining a cult following among the small community of insomniacs he dubbed the "night people." Although the author reveals himself as one of Shepherd's fans and this book as a labor of love--the title itself is a phrase Shepherd urged his fans to invoke--he makes no effort to hide his subject's faults. Bergmann points out that Shepherd's so-called nostalgia was actually antinostalgia: the painful memories of childhood and young adulthood are carefully masked by a fine midwestern sense of humor. A true storyteller and monologist--and a prickly genius. Frank Caso
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 495 pages
  • Publisher: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books (March 28, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1557836000
  • ISBN-13: 978-1557836007
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.4 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (50 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #855,898 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Before I go any further, let me congratulate Mr. Bergmann on a prodigious piece of work. This book must have taken a great deal of time and effort and that fact needs recognition. Jean Shepherd was a unique individual who means different things to different people. Because of that, I wonder if the book couldn't have been better with some collaboration in the writing.

I grew up in mid-Michigan. I stumbled on Jean Shepherd quite by accident one night in 1965 while tuning around. I don't think I heard more than a dozen shows altogether because the reception was lousy. When I was at college, reception was completely non-existent. Following college, I was drafted into the Army and subsequently served a year in southeast Asia. Not only would reception be virtually impossible, but also our radios didn't tune down that far. But I came across him again with his periodic stories in Playboy. And there the relationship ended. I did see a couple episodes of Jean Shepherd's America, but nothing else. Not until one of my kids asked me to watch a movie. Of course, it was Christmas Story and as soon as the narration started, I jumped up and yelled "Its him!" The kids were not impressed. Still aren't, 10 years later.

I think this is an important point. Everybody loved the movie, but it took someone special to appreciate Shepherd on the radio. Even today, when my wife and I are going to be together in the car for a couple of hours, I'll pop in a Shepherd CD. Inside of 10 minutes she is either asleep or she wants to tell me about her sister's foot problem. No interest whatsoever in the gems being imparted to us. So my love of Shepherd is something I keep to myself and I wonder how many others find the same thing.

Mr. Bergmann's book bothered me, especially the first two-thirds.
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Format: Hardcover
"Excelsior you Fathead" left as many questions as it answered, but, then again, so did its subject - Jean Shepherd. Punctuated by Shepherd's own words, this insightful book chronicles the most innovative, and underrated, American humorist of all time. Jean Shepherd will forever be known as the creative force, and narrator, behind "A Christmas Story" - a movie that has achieved "classic" proportions. Thankfully, Mr. Bergmann does not dwell on this topic, but digs much deeper into Shepherd's less popularly known, but far more groundbreaking, pursuits - including, particularly, his nightly broadcasts on the powerful New York radio station, WOR. Bergmann weaves together Shepherd's own words with biographical highlights and first-hand accounts of those who knew him. Sprinkled in along the way are Bergmann's personal musings on the often dark, but always fascinating, enigma that characterized his subject's life. Thankfully, and to his great credit, Bergmann stops just short of making sense of it all - recognizing, wisely, as Shepherd himself did, that our world is more about contradictions and pretensions than abject certainties.

In his landmark book, "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash" (from which much of "A Christmas Story" was drawn), Shepherd posed a question. He wondered whether the coming-of-age, Midwestern-value-laden innocence embodied by his childhood best friend, Flick, had managed to survive in modern America. Immediately after the book's publication, graffiti artists all over New York City answered with the spray-painted declaration, "Flick Lives" - which was read by millions, but only understood by Shepherd's clued-in fans (who he often referred to as his "gang").
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Format: Hardcover
At yet another point in history when radio's doom was imminent, Jean Shepherd expanded its capabilities. He was a stunning performer, not just in his skills, but in the volume of his work. A Vegas or nightclub performer does the same 50 minutes every night, sometimes for years.

He did a brand new 45 minute monologue every single night of the week for over 20 years.

This book captures the spirit and genius of his work. I listened to him regularly from 1966 until the end. I saw several of his performances especially the ones at Seton Hall. (I have a recording of that.)

Here's what the book does not emphasize, Jean was not on NPR or some obscure station. He was on the most commercial of radio stations. The most dominant station in the largest city. WOR was both "important" and credible. WOR was the station your mother and her friends listened to all day, but they didn't listen to Jean. Jean's voice came from the transister under the pillow in hundreds of thousands of suburban teenage bedrooms and college dorm rooms throughout the Northeast. The fact that he was on WOR made his riffs all the more subversive. If he had been on an obscure non-commercial station it is doubtful his work would have been as thrilling.

Interestingly, and this is a consistent impression among my friends who grew up listening to him, the movie the Christmas Story isn't nearly as entertaining as the stories he told on the radio that are the foundation of that movie. We had heard those stories many times before the movie's release and the "sets" in our imaginations were more dramatic.

There is nothing as powerful as a skilled broadcaster in front of a radio microphone. Nothing. This is a great book, get it.
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