The creative genius of ‘Shep’ 

MGM released A Christmas Story in November 1983, starring Peter Billingsley as Ralphie Parker (and featuring Jean Parker Shepherd as adult voice of Ralphie).
MGM released A Christmas Story in November 1983, starring Peter Billingsley as Ralphie Parker (and featuring Jean Parker Shepherd as adult voice of Ralphie).

Humorist Jean Shepherd is best known for his role as co-screenwriter for the hilarious 1983 MGM movie, A Christmas Story, which became a holiday classic.

But I first learned of Shepherd through another of his films: The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters, which came out a year earlier and aired on PBS.

Both films are set during the 1940s and are based on Shepherd’s youth in Hammond, Ind.

The stories center on the blue-collar Parker family, particularly Ralphie, the older of two young sons, and are part of an anthology that also includes Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss and The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski, following Ralphie into his teen years during the 1950s.

All are brilliantly narrated by Shepherd in his easy-going, folksy style, a skill he honed in an earlier radio career.

I laughed myself silly watching every one of them, loving the repeated punchline in A Christmas Story, regarding Ralphie’s beloved air rifle: “You’ll shoot your eye out!”

Having grown up in a small Minnesota town during the same era, I could easily identify with Shepherd’s characters and events — including one that involves chain letters with washrags as the prize.

Shepherd began his broadcast career working at various radio stations in Ohio and Pennsylvania in the late 1940s and early ’50s, telling stories about growing up in northwest Indiana and its steel towns. He delivered his tales, amazingly, without a script.

Shep, as he was called, eventually settled in at WOR-AM in New York City in 1955 for a 21-year run.

Railing against the conformity of the 1950s, Shepherd gained a devoted audience that willingly participated in comedic stunts.

The most famous occurred in 1956 when he was working an overnight slot. Believing it was easy to manipulate the bestseller lists, which then were determined by demand as well as sales, Shepherd suggested his loyal listeners shop for the non-existent book, I, Libertine. This, in turn, created a demand for the book, prompting book sellers to vainly try to purchase it from their distributers.

Shepherd’s prank brings to mind a local hoax from the same era. Discovering the rules were lax for contestants in the 1962 Miss St. Paul contest (a precursor to Miss Minnesota and Miss America), comedy writers for Dudley Riggs’ Brave New Workshop entered one of their actors as a fake contestant.

For the talent competition, she sang a morbid song about her dead boyfriend, Herman, while snapping her fingers and repeating “ooh, ooh, ooh,” which broke up the audience and caused great consternation to event sponsors.

Although best known as a radio raconteur, Shepherd gained enormous popularity on the eastern seaboard for his writing, which appeared in a vast assortment of publications such as the Times, National Lampoon and Playboy. He also made live appearances to sold-out audiences at eastern colleges and even Carnegie Hall.

Shepherd died in 1999, but his comedic genius lives on. It’s found in the narrative form of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegone vignettes. Standup comedian Jerry Seinfeld credits Shepherd as the inspiration for his style.

And the rest of us have A Christmas Story to enjoy again and again.

Carol Hall lives in Woodbury. She’s a longtime freelance writer, a University of Minnesota graduate and a former Northwest Airlines stewardess. Send comments and questions to [email protected].