The Largely Forgotten, Cynical Genius Behind A Christmas Story

Jean Shepherd was an icon in his time. Now he's not. What happened?
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MGM  / Wikicommons

Thirty years ago, a little movie called A Christmas Story debuted. The period comedy—set in fictionalized suburban hamlet of Hohman, Indiana—found mild success when it opened the day before Thanksgiving, but by late December, it was no longer playing in most theaters. (The New York Times suggested "you [had] to possess the stamina of a pearl diver" to enjoy it.) If you celebrated Christmas in 1983, you almost certainly never heard of Ralphie Parker and his Red Ryder 200-shot range model air rifle, the greatest Christmas gift ever received.

Today, it's difficult to imagine a holiday season in America without A Christmas Story. More than 48 million people watched a 24-hour Christmas Story marathon last year, which airs annually from Christmas Eve until the evening of Christmas Day. It was adapted into a seasonal musical in 2011, with productions that appear every winter up and down the East Coast. There's a Christmas Story museum in Cleveland, across the street from the house where the movie was filmed, stuffed with props, collectables, and other sorts of on-set ephemera. Fans can buy official Christmas Story leg lamps, vintage Red Ryder BB guns, and adult-sized bunny-rabbit onesies inspired by Aunt Clara's "deranged Easter Bunny" pajamas. The movie even casts a cultural shadow as long as Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, according to a recent Marist poll.

While it's all but impossible to make it through December without encountering A Christmas Story, though, relatively few know about the man who’s behind the story: the unconventional '60s icon Jean Shepherd. He developed a cult following on late-night airwaves with his improvised stories about childhood in the Midwest, military service during World War II, and life as an infamous radio personality. He also wrote bestselling books, two of which inspired A Christmas Story; he published columns in the Village Voice, Mad Magazine, and Playboy; and he starred in two television series. Comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Harry Shearer idolized him. His storytelling defined a style of radio that was later adopted by the likes of Garrison Keillor. A wave of nostalgic sitcoms, epitomized by The Wonder Years, owe a significant debt to Shepherd's work. His influence alone should have made him a pop-culture icon.

It didn't. Now, as Shepherd's greatest success celebrates its third decade of relevance, a question remains: Why did the man's legacy fade away just as his story joined the pantheon of Christmas classics?

Understandably, there is no simple answer. Shepherd died in 1999, just as Turner Broadcasting had begun to make a tradition of its all-day marathon. That small-screen saturation is a huge reason—if not the reason—why audiences rediscovered A Christmas Story, so the most obvious explanation is a macabre one. Shepherd wasn't around, so he wasn't acknowledged as a significant part of the movie's success. As the AV Club's Todd VanDerWerff points out, the marathon has turned the movie into "a kind of endless Mobius strip ... like living in one of those holiday window displays full-time." It oozes Yuletide out of every frame, and while that mood is largely created by Shepherd's impeccable narration, it wasn't the catalyst that transformed A Christmas Story into a holiday favorite. That's the work of a shrewd cable-programming gimmick.

Shepherd's famous wit soured into pessimism as he aged, too. During one of his last radio interviews, according to a Time column published soon after his death, he repeatedly dismissed his radio years as "just another gig." (In an essay for Slate, longtime fan Donald Fagen guessed that Shepherd "succumbed to that very real disease of self-loathing.") At the very same time that A Christmas Story was growing into a latter-day cultural phenomenon, Shepherd was downplaying the bulk of his career. He sarcastically criticized his "night people"—the late-night devotees who listened to his wild, rambling stories—and disavowed radio as little more than a stepping-stone to television and film. To borrow his favorite slur, Jean Shepherd had become a fathead.

Mercifully, A Christmas Story doesn't share even a smidge of that cynicism. The movie embraces all of Shepherd's warm humor—tinged by the horror of childhood, of course—without any maudlin sentiment. Perhaps the movie outlasted the man because it's bigger than he ever was, an ideal way to tell the stories he created decades earlier. It takes the greatest parts of Shepherd's routine—his inimitable wordplay, the way he measured his voice to match a story's mood, that friendly chuckle—and enhances them with on-screen magic. "The Old Man" and "Ralphie's Mother" are ever-present in Shepherd's work, but as played by Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon, they're brought alive in a way they couldn't be in print or on the radio. That's what makes A Christmas Story special. Just as Shepherd narrates the movie as an adult, director Bob Clark presents it through the eyes of a young boy. This allows for a depth to Ralphie's naïve viewpoint, while also making gags out of the things he doesn't understand. When The Old Man wins a "major award"—a crude lamp shaped like a woman's leg, which he won for reasons unknown—Ralphie lingers in front of it, smitten by the "the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window." It's a bizarre mixture of adult temptation and childish fascination, and it epitomizes the movie's conflicted, nostalgic perspective.

The differences between A Christmas Story and Shepherd's stories are largely insignificant. If you listen to "Duel in the Snow, or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid," you'll hear some many of his best lines. If you read In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, you'll see that the movie is basically a collection of vignettes, inspired by his funniest work. The effect is clear: Without Jean Shepherd, there would by no Christmas Story—and the movie resonates so strongly because he had a unique talent for making his audience feel like his stories were their own. "You can tell a story about anything," he told an interviewer in 1971, "but the only stories that have any fidelity, any feeling, are stories that either did happen to you or conceivably could have happened to you."

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Chris Heller is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic. He has also written for NPR, Washington City Paper, and Metro Weekly.

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