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Random Friday Question: Why 'A Christmas Story'?

As a deacon in the Church of Jean Shepherd--the radio storyteller who inspired generations of extraordinary characters to reveal their deepest thoughts over the airwaves--I have always had mixed feelings about the cable cult movie "A Christmas Story." The charming yet wonderfully subversive 1983 movie about nine-year-old Ralphie Parker and his quest for a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-Shot Air Rifle was just one of Shepherd's countless tales about Flick, Schwartz and the old gang of kids in Hammond, Indiana.

"A Christmas Story" threatens to replace "It's A Wonderful Life" as the classic holiday movie that bears endless repeating on TV and in the hearts of a generation of Americans. But for Shepherd fans, there's something a bit frustrating about seeing one of the great raconteur's lesser works become such a touchstone for so many people, while his best work goes largely unknown and unappreciated.

As I travel around the country talking to audiences about my book on radio and the transformation of American pop culture, I am ever surprised by the number of people who have a secret passion for Shepherd's stories, who spent untold hours over several decades listening to Shep on the radio, even if he was based in New York City while they were growing up in Maryland, Ohio, Florida or Missouri. Shep's magic managed to skip right over the boundaries of local radio. His seemingly casual mix of nostalgia and anti-establishment rage against the conformity of American life made him a hero to radicals and softies alike.

For years, TNT has broadcast the movie in 24-hour marathon fashion every December, building the love for Ralphie and his deliciously dysfunctional family. This week, astonishingly, both the kid actor who played Ralphie, Peter Billingsley, and the movie itself were right up there in the top ranks of searches on Google.

Reproductions of the risque leg lamp that plays a key role in one of the most hilarious passages in the film are now a commonplace gag gift, selling briskly at $39.95.

"Christmas Story" nostalgia has turned into an industry, with actors from the movie now appearing at the various Cleveland area sites where parts of the flick were filmed. Last weekend, there was even the first convention opening the "Christmas Story" house to the adoring public.

So, why "A Christmas Story"?

Aside from the fleeting success of Shepherd's 1970s PBS series, "Jean Shepherd's America," this movie is really the only place in the pop culture where Shep's unique and quintessentially avuncular yet slyly conspiratorial voice is easily available. He not only wrote the story, he narrates the film, and does so in his classic manner, seemingly off the cuff, yet with remarkable finesse and timing. The way he laughs, the way he builds up images of the American myth, only to turn around and demonstrate just how empty and vapid those myths may have been, delivers the messages of the 50s Beats, the 60s rebels and the 70s self-actualizers all without any visible anger or malice. Shepherd makes dissent and discord safe for popular consumption. His is not a Christmas story of the Bing Crosby-Jimmy Stewart ilk. Though there is a department store Santa, and a deep love of snow and the nuclear family, Shepherd's holiday peaks with a desperate resort to a Chinese restaurant for Christmas dinner.

The old certainties and expectations are never secure in Shepherd's world. Father really can't fix the furnace. Mom really isn't much of a cook. The little brother doesn't get his fair share. But this is not the revolution come to the homescreen, either: The bullies get theirs, in the most deliciously non-PC manner.

And always, the outsider triumphs, for in Shepherd's world, we can love all of that great American hokum and we can love the opposition to it, too, because we're standing along the edge, on the fault line, with him, with the great storyteller, the man who launched a generation of ironists.

So go ahead, love the movie. But listen to and read about some of the real Shepherd, too. That's a gift you won't soon forget.

By Marc Fisher |  November 30, 2007; 7:25 AM ET
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Comments

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Listening to Shepherd's radio monologues over the years, hearing him polish them, then reading the resulting short stories was an ear- and mind-opening education for any youngster interested in narrative, language, and American culture.

The airchecks should be heard while lying down -- it was a late-night radio show - with one of these under your pillow --
http://www.transistor.org/feature/feature4/front.jpg

Posted by: Mike Licht | November 30, 2007 9:01 AM

Isn't it that way with most artists though? Their most popular and succuessful work is not often considered their actual best. Bruce Springsteen springs to mind. When I tell folks that I consider Bruce Springsteen the best singer/songwriter of any generation, they all look at me and say "The Born in the USA guy?"

I think most talented artists that have some success have to deal with this very issue.

Posted by: DCmarathoner | November 30, 2007 9:24 AM

Excelsior!

Posted by: CallMeSkeptical | November 30, 2007 10:11 AM

I never considered that movie subversive. Maybe because I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s. It actually seemed slightly wholesome and old-timey compared to most other movies I saw growing up. I did not see the Santa scene as subversive but more accurate in how the whole sitting on Santa's lap could be scary to a little kid (which it often was.)

Posted by: really? | November 30, 2007 10:41 AM

one of my favorite movies. i have fond memories of sitting around with my two older brothers and laughing at the story and repeating word-for-word the great voiceovers Jean Shepard did.

i was too young to hear his radio stories so i'm really glad you did this article. thanks!

(and yes, i am buying leg lamps for my brothers this year)

Posted by: around | November 30, 2007 10:46 AM

I never saw 'A Christmas Story' until last year and love the mother in that movie. A couple scenes make me laugh out loud -- the Chinese waiters singing Christmas songs and Ralphie feeling the leg lamp with his mother moving his hand away. Every time I feel down in the dumps I watch that movie. Subversive? How? Everything is considered 'subversive' now. Get a grip -- I had an English lit teacher who said 'Moby Dick' was actually about white supremacy and Captain Ahab was really Lincoln. Good grief. I just thought it was a neat story about whales.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 30, 2007 11:26 AM

Excelsior, you fathead. As one who grew up in NYC in the 1960's, Shepard was a nightly feature for me. I even was able to see him live in the Village at the Limelight a few times.

I learned a lot from his stories and he is still available from afar on the internet:
http://www.flicklives.com/default.asp

Posted by: Anonymous | November 30, 2007 11:36 AM

No need for frustration. While Shep fans may not consider it his personal masterwork, the film is also wildly popular for the terrific casting and acting. Ralphie actually has a limited number of actual speaking lines....his expressions to Shep's narration perfectly capture that daydreamy sensation we all had as kids. It is not easy to do a film like this from the actors perspective, but they nailed it.

Posted by: SWB2 | November 30, 2007 11:58 AM

I recall hearing the decoder ring story on some talk show in the early 1970s, but didn't know who Jean Shepherd was. Then I watch "A Christmas Story", and voila, I hear the same story! I recall my mother saying that she had a Ovaltine decoder ring, and the message wasn't always a commercial.

Posted by: Beth | November 30, 2007 11:59 AM

Don't forget Shepherd's books -- mainly collections of essays, almost all available in paperback. "Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories", in particular, is knee-slappin' funny. He has an essay about summer camp ("Revenge of the Mole People", I think, but I don't recall the name of the collection) in another book that is a classic.

Posted by: TMU | November 30, 2007 12:00 PM

He used to have a column in Car & Driver about cars which a lot of his fans didn't know. Some really great stuff there.

Posted by: FLvet | November 30, 2007 12:02 PM

I saw "A Christmas Story" being filed in Cleveland back in the winter of 1983. It was "the year that Christmas lasted three months."

Sometime in the late 1970's, the City of Cleveland stopped putting up decorations downtown. Everyone was shopping at the malls anyway, so why bother. The Sterling Linder Davis Department Store, with its opulent 60 foot Christmas tree had long since gone defunct. Halles was closed. Mays and Higbees even stopped putting the moving displays in their windows.

So imagine the excitement when Hollywood came calling in the fall of 1982. A movie would be filmed downtown--at Christmas! The movie company paid for the decorations-- old fashioned decorations harkening back to the 1940's! Mays and Higbees put movable displays in their windows. Christmas was quite festive that year. And so was New Years...and so was Washington's Birthday...

The exterior decorations stayed up until almost Valentine's Day. Although it was cold, it hadn't snowed. There was talk of trucking snow in from Canada and then, we had a beautiful, fluffy white snowfall during the first week of February. That's when they filmed the parade scene.

So, "A Christmas Story" for me is less a tale of a dysfunctional family and more a tale of a dysfunctional town. Thanks to Hollywood, Cleveland got its Christmas back. The city managed to talk American Greetings into sponsoring the decorations and they've been a part of downtown ever since.

Now, my kids are the same ages as Ralphie and his brother. They think the movie is funny and an unvarnished slice of life. They can relate to neighborhood bullies and bad handwriting assignments. Instead of saccharine sweet sentiments of "angels getting wings" you have a tacky leg lamp and a mean Santa. This is more in keeping with my post-modern seven-year-old, who just figured out that there is no Santa.

Posted by: Clevelander | November 30, 2007 12:02 PM

There's no Santa?

Posted by: Anonymous | November 30, 2007 12:09 PM

Sure it was subversive, people. Not blatantly so only the most oblivious wouldnt' see it, but isn't that really the point?

It was certainly subversive in the traditional view of Christmas and how people act w/r to the holiday, and wholesomly cynical about pretty much every aspect the film touched on.

It's so popular now because "A Christmas Story" blows "It's a Wonderful Life" out of the water like it was the H.M.S. Hood. The best thing I ever started doing during the holidays was watching Ralphie instead of Clarence and the like. :P

Posted by: Wakka Wakka | November 30, 2007 12:46 PM

In what sense is the family dysfunctional? They all seem to love one another, to be happy and well fed, have a good time being together. If they are dysfunctional, then 99.9% of all families would have to be, which means we need a new word for families that have serious problems.

Posted by: Mark | November 30, 2007 12:48 PM

Mark, I agree with you. It is a nice family and seem OK except for the little brother who wouldn't eat without being prodded into eating like a piggie. I love the mother splashing water on Ralphie's face and their singing Christmas songs in the car. I recall being stuffed into a snowsuit and couldn't bend over in it. I wish my family was like that. None of them were on drugs for ADHD, no suicide attempts, no runaways, no children out of wedlock (that we know of). Read the 'On Balance' and 'Parenting' blogs and THERE you've got dysfunctional. Those expert mothers are doing a bang-up job and screwing up their kids, big time.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 30, 2007 1:06 PM

What guy over 40 or so can't relate to Ralphie's desire for a B-B gun? Every month Boy's Life would arrive, and on the back cover was a full page ad for the Red Ryder B-B guns. Like most kids, I never owned one, but not for lack of trying. "You'll put out an eye!" I did get to shoot for about a year in a NRA sponsored gun club. I am not a "gun person" (I despise the NRA), but that year was heaven.
As soon as my son turned 11, he got one for Christmas. Don't we all live vicariously through our kids?

Posted by: Red Ryder | November 30, 2007 1:35 PM

I love "A Christmas Story" b/c Shepherd exemplified the sensibilities and humor of the Northwest Indiana family which has some of the big city mindset (Chicago) with some of the naivete and innocence that is distinctly of Indiana.

Also, I absolutely relish the scene where Ralphie beats up Scott Farcas. Does that make me bad? :-)

Posted by: Hammond born | November 30, 2007 2:37 PM

When I first saw A CHRISTMAS STORY I didn't like it much because it was not the Jean Shepherd I knew and loved on the radio. But the more I see it the more I love it! Somewhat different, the radio shows are usually slower moving and more contemplative in their intellectual enjoyment and humorous entertainment. But for me they are Shepherd's crowning achievement--all five thousand of them.

Parishioners in the Church of Shep should be aware that over a thousand of his radio broadcasts (mostly 45 minutes each) are quite easily available from various sources at little or no cost. For example, the ten most recently rebroadcast shows (on WBAI FM, NY) are archived for listening and recording on the main Shepherd website, www.flicklives.com. That site also has links to several other sources of low-cost and free audios. In addition, new releases of nearly unheard syndicated shows are available from www.radioagain.com. Also, ebay.com always has hundreds of old Shepherd broadcasts for sale at very low prices per show (hundreds on mp3s for under twenty dollars).

I'm happy to see that Marc Fisher is a Deacon in the Church of Jean Shepherd. Of course I've been aware of that ever since I read the Shepherd chapter in his book "Something in the Air." Other Deacons include Jerry Seinfeld who said: "He really formed my entire comedic sensibility. I learned how to do comedy from Jean Shepherd." He named his son Shepherd Seinfeld. Keith Olbermann of MSNBC's "Countdown" is another Deacon, who often ended his program with the Shepherd saying: "Keep your knees loose." Now he uses Edward R. Morrow's "Good night and good luck," but keeps the Shepherd connection when, during the funny video clips he shows, he plays Shepherd's theme music, "Bahn Frei."

I consider myself a Deacon and I'm also the author of the only Order of Worship/Hymnal totally devoted to ol' Shep. As Shepherd fans might suspect, it's titled, "Excelsior, You Fathead!" It's great to see Deacon Fisher keeping Shepherd alive and well in his column. May he continue to keep his knees loose.

Posted by: Eugene B. Bergmann | November 30, 2007 2:43 PM

I'm glad you all like the movie but I just don't get it. I saw it once and I thought, "okay movie but why all the fuss?"

Give me "White Christmas" any time!

Posted by: rockville | November 30, 2007 3:13 PM

Jean Shepherd had a wonderful PBS movie about the Fourth of July that predates A Christmas Story and is literally 75% or more as good as the hollywood version.

I surprise a lot of people when I say that as a kid in the 1970s I remember watching Jean Shepherd ALL THE TIME on TV and both my parents loved his work without any knowledge of his NYC radio show. I know my mother read In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash when I was a kid because the title was hard for me to understand. If anything, by 1983 the Jean Shepherd stories were a little homey and tired for this jaded 16 year old. People seem to forget that this guy and his narration was on tv a lot. In fact, as a teenager, I first mistook Rick Sebak's pop culture PBS specials (Think 1988's Kennywood Story) for Shepherd.

It would not be possible to make a Jean Shepherd movie that accurately reflects his radio show because his show rambles through many different stories within the main one hour story. Editing those 60 minute bits into a few scenes gives us A Christmas Story, which is really and truly a special thing.

But for people who don't call their family dysfunctional- man, have you forgotten what family life in the 1960s and 70s was like where every father took the bus home by 5pm, Mom made pies every friday after school and sewed her own clothes. Sure they aren't dysfunctional by 2007 standards, but life was much more functional back then.

Posted by: DCer | November 30, 2007 3:18 PM

FLICK LIVES !!

Posted by: Joisey Dilldock | November 30, 2007 3:38 PM

I don't want to debate this, and don't get your panties in an uproar everyone, but "It's a Wonderful Life" stinks. It's outdated, the acting is awful, the ending is trite, and it's way too long. I'll watch "A Christmas Story" or even "Bad Santa" rather than subject myself to that snoozefest again. I only watched in the first time to see what all the fuss was about, and I still don't know. It seems like sometimes people attribute greatness to a movie simply because it's in black and white. Black and white filming doesn't make it a classic--it makes it OLD.

Posted by: BBFL | November 30, 2007 3:47 PM

Enjoyed this - I used to listen to him in the late 50's early 60's 11:00-12:00PM from WOR in NYC even though I was listening from northern Indiana - late night radio with the free channel stations was really great - there was such an interesting mix of music and talk - I could hear KDKA Pittsburg, WBZ Boston, WLAC and WSM Nashville, WWL New Orleans, XERF Mexico, KMOX St Louis, WOR NYC, WHAS Louisville, WLW Cincinnati, along with WLS in Chicago and WOWO Ft.Wayne - all this from late at night on my AM Radio in Goshen Indiana.
Shephard's were probably the best - he could tell a story that would end exactly at midnight with a perfect conclusion. One favorite was a recuring "There'll always be an England" with appropriate musical accompnyment - it is amazing how the memories of this from nearly 50 years ago is so strong.

Posted by: Dean Kauffman | November 30, 2007 4:19 PM

Re: "It's A Wonderful Life"

Watch it for the irony. Potterville would be a whole lot more fun to live in than Bedford Falls. Potterville had a speakeasy and (gasp!) swing dancing, neon signs...quite a happening place.

Talk about subversive...what do you think the IAWL filmmakers were trying to say there?

Posted by: Clevelander | November 30, 2007 5:05 PM

"A Christmas Story" did nothing for me. I was surprised and disappointed, because I usually love stuff like that. I also figured my kids would love it -- and they wandered out halfway through the movie, bored. Maybe it's one that's better appreciated from an adult perspective.

I like the old goofy Christmas movies ("It's a Wonderful Life", "White Christmas") because they're so different from what I experienced as a kid in the 70s and now. Sure, they're shmaltzy and corny and a little but musty. But I love 'em.

Posted by: Vienna | November 30, 2007 5:45 PM

The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters

Posted by: Mrs. Y.Y. Flerch, Fishigon, Michigan | November 30, 2007 6:57 PM

When Shepherd moved from 11:00PM --Midnight to the 10:00PM--11:00PM slot on WOR-AM, he said Columbia undergrads would have to find another excuse for sleeping through their morning classes.

Posted by: Mike Licht | November 30, 2007 7:09 PM

Bruce Springsteen the best songwriter of any generation please. He cant hold a candle to Jimmy Buffett. Springsteen isnt in the same league as Jimmy Buffett or even Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Burce is an Woodie Guthrie wannabe. Whoever writes Fergie's stuff is a better song writer than Bruce my humps beats anything Bruce ever wrote.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 1, 2007 5:15 PM

I agree with the comment that "dysfunctional" gets used way too often to describe families, especially in comedies. I think a better term would be "unidealized," which more properly sets up the contrast you are trying to make to the type of family that was typically portrayed in uplifting films (especially Christmas-themed ones). To me, dysfunctional describes families where the members don't seem to care about one another, which just makes them unpleasant. The Parkers aren't like the Bundy's or the grandfather in Everybody Loves Raymond--they're more like the Cranes in "Frasier" or the family in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding", with just enough quirks and foibles to provide great comedic fodder, but a good-hearted center. It's a heightened reality that is easier to relate to for most of us than either extreme.

I also second the comment about the casting and acting contributing to the popularity of the film. Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon absolutely nail their parts as the parents.

Finally, there is the script. When I hear a certain word, I often think, "But (I) didn't say fudge." I always want to sing "fa-ra-ra-ra" in "Deck the Halls." And whenever I see FRAGILE stamped on a box or package, I think "fra-GEE-lay. Aha, it must be Italian!" I love this movie.

Posted by: JJ | December 3, 2007 11:58 AM

Excelsior, you fathead!

Posted by: Don | December 5, 2007 3:17 PM

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