Embracing the Audience of One

Years ago, I worked on a biography of Jean Shepherd, performing research and doing interviews with people who worked with him. As I’ve written on this site many times, Shepherd is one of my artistic heroes, someone whose craft I admire as something uniquely his own which has no real parallel before or since. But the more I delved into his life, the more it seemed he was a damaged, strange man.

It was difficult to find people who knew Shepherd in his heyday and were also willing and able to talk. Many of his contemporaries and friends had died; others, like Jules Feiffer and Paul Krassner, proved difficult to contact. The same went for people I knew or suspected were influenced by him. I was aware Terry Gilliam had been a Shep fan in his youth, and I even had some contact info for the man, since the company I worked for had done a few books about his films. Alas, he did not return my faxes. (Yes, this was a long time ago.) Garrison Keillor wrote me a brief but polite letter in which he stated he grew up in Minnesota and therefore Shepherd–whose primary radio work was done in New York–didn’t really have any influence on him.

One of the few people who’d worked with him whom I was both able to get in touch with and wanted to talk to me was Fred Barzyk, who had produced most of Shepherd’s television work for PBS. At Barzyk’s invite, I was able to go to the WGBH archives in Boston and view some of these shows, most of which have not been seen on TV in decades. This included an odd show where Shep stood on a dock in Boston Harbor and delivered a version of his radio show there directly to the camera, monologuing for half an hour and then abruptly stopping.

Shepherd also appeared in a series of odd bumpers that aired between programs. One of them featured a blank screen, with Shepherd exhorting the listener to conjure up any image they desired. The next one showed Shepherd reading the complaints the station received for all the horrible images the station had showed–images that were purely the products of the viewers’ imaginations.

The best items by far were the episodes of Jean Shepherd’s America, which I truly hope get released some day. They were fascinating glimpses of various American locales, and since they were shot on early video prototypes, they look like they were filmed yesterday (if you ignore the hair and clothes on display, of course). You only hear and see Shepherd sparingly in these shows, but it lends this eerie atmosphere. It’s like seeing an entire civilization trapped in amber, but moving.

Mr. Barzyk was very forthcoming about his experiences with Shepherd. He seemed to admire him while at the same time thinking he was more than a little nuts. Shep had a craving for attention that bordered on the pathological. You can sense this in his radio work, where he spoke extemporaneously for 45 minutes or more (much more in the late 1950s, when he had an overnight show). He did his best to draw in the listener, making him/her feel as if he was speaking to them and only them. The more I learned about him, though, the more it seemed he needed the audience much more than the audience needed him.

Shepherd had a kind of genius, but it was the type that had to constantly assert that it was genius, and was overly sensitive to the idea that someone somewhere out there might dare think he wasn’t a genius. According to Barzyk, Shepherd seethed over a childhood incident where he was accused of cheating on a test because his score was so high. He never got over the idea that people didn’t believe he could be that smart, and so he carried that resentment with him the rest of his days, that sense of being doubted and ignored never too far from the surface.

But there was one Shep story I was told by Barzyk that stayed with me, in a deep and painful way, more than any other. It happened when they were shooting an episode of Jean Shepherd’s America in Hawaii. The trip was over and everyone had to check out of their hotel and get to the airport. Barzyk and his crew were leaving in one car, Shepherd traveling separately. Shepherd saw Barzyk’s cab in front of the hotel and decided he had to regale the producer and his crew a story. So Shepherd intercepted the cab and began weaving his tale. Five minutes passed. Ten minutes passed. Fifteen minutes passed. Twenty minutes in, Barzyk told Shepherd they had to leave or else they’d all miss their flight. Shep reluctantly let them go.

As his cab pulled away, Barzyk looked in the rear view mirror. He saw Shepherd sidle up to another cab that had been waiting behind his, and begin chatting them up. He did not know these people from Adam. He just needed an audience.

I think about this story a lot. For one thing, it is possibly the saddest thing I’ve ever heard. It also serves as a cautionary tale for wanting things that are beyond your control, something I struggle with often.

Over the years, I’ve written tons of stuff online, for this site and elsewhere. Sometimes I get some positive feedback and words of encouragement. Sometimes I get yelled at, as is the internet’s wont. But more often than not, I get no tangible reaction whatsoever, no real evidence that anyone has read what I’ve written at all. I go through cycles when it comes to this; there are days when this won’t bother me in the slightest, and there are days when it infuriates me. I’m definitely susceptible to the why bother? impulse. Why spend all this time scribbling some scathing takedown, or baring my soul, or crafting jokes, if nobody gives a shit?

The answer to that question is: I have no choice. I have to do this. It’s not on the same level as having to eat and breathe, but it’s not far removed from that sphere, either. I do this to live. If I was the last man on earth, I’d be chiseling my thoughts into a rock, and not so some future civilization could read them, but because I was alive, and that’s it.

So in my mind, I see Shep moving from car to car looking for a receptacle for his thoughts as the end result of someone who needs an audience so bad that the audience does not matter. At the time he did this, he was not struggling to make a living or get attention from the world at large. He was a huge multimedia personality who made a lot of money (for the era) doing what he loved. And he still needed audience at all times. He needed to know his words were being received by people.

What I have to recognize is that regardless of who enjoys what I do, I’m going to feel a burning need to do it anyway. You could call that an impulse or you could call that an illness. Whatever you call it, I’ve got it. And so, I should not become angry or depressed when something I write gets no appreciable attention, or doesn’t get “liked” on Facebook, or doesn’t get RT’ed by that guy I was sure would RT it because it’s right in his wheelhouse.

Because whether all of these things happen or none of them happen, I’m still going to need to write the next thing. It will proceed like that…well, not forever, of course. But if I stop writing, it’ll probably be because I stopped period, and that will be true whether my work is read by a billion people or 12.

This is all a very roundabout way of saying, Get to work and let the other crap take care of itself.