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June 26th, 2003


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02:40 am - 66-06-23 "Form vs Substance"
Every week I listen to a 45-minute radio show from Jean Shepherd, raconteur and monologist and all-around interesting character. He's no longer with us, but WBAI out of New York reruns one episode every week around 5 AM on Tuesday morning. Shepherd's radio show was great: a 45-minute extended monologue, Monday-Friday around midnight, on whatever topic he cared to discuss that evening. Sometimes he'd read odd news clippings and comment on 'em, other times he'd tell memories of growing up in Hammond, Indiana or of his time in the Army (in "Company K"). Other times he'd just, well, talk. And he loved a digression, and he loved rambling even more. But more often than not, he seemed to always tie things up right before this closing theme ("Bahn Frei" by Eduard Strauss) came up to finish the evening off. He was an egomaniac, he was an odd curmudgeonly conflictedly beatnik type, he had a fondness for an unfortunate "ching chong chinaman" stereotype (we tend to skip over those bits of audio if he starts that up, it really doesn't sit well in this day and age) but his was an interesting and compelling life, and it translated well into an interesting and compelling radio show.

This week's Shepherd rerun is dated June 23, 1966 and centers around the eternal debate of form versus substance (or content). It's one of Shep's deeper, inneleckshul pieces, if a bit long-winded. (I was actually kinda glad to hear the theme pot up at the close; usually the theme sneaks up on you and you don't want it to happen cause at that point Shep's usually on a roll.)

It doesn't mean the piece isn't altogether boring; it has some interesting bits. He talks about a unmanned probe mission that landed on the moon (and this was back when space exploration was actually something incredible, and something involving the moon was even moreso) and complains a bit about the newsblast kind of newscast ("a full set of headlines in eight seconds!")

There's also a hilarious (to me, at least) radio spot for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" that's pretty much nothing but Elizabeth Taylor screeching at Richard Burton. But then again, that was pretty much half the production anyway. Shep says "Hmm, sounds like good clean fun." He also gets to do a live spot for the Rambler 2000 automobile (anybody know what that was?) and it's pretty clear that while Shep doesn't care too much for commercials, he has a soft spot for cars and does a convincing sell.

This probably isn't Shep's best piece for newcomers, but it's compelling enough. And a good exercise to see if you can stomach a fellow yammering on for forty-five minutes with the occasional ricky-ticky piano music or kazoo thrown in. Be sure and listen to the Bumpus Family piece if you want a good introduction to the man -- he tells the story of the Old Man and the ham and the Bumpus hounds like you might remember from A Christmas Story (the film was based on Shep's novel of semi-true reminiscing In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash) but without the Christmas setting. Just skip over Max Schmid's extra-long introduction and enjoy. It's a hoot.

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