`Jean Shepherd's America': nostalgia with a wry twist

It takes a man with an ironic sense of humor and a pragmatic sense of self to search for his roots in a swamp . . . on television, yet, for all to see. Jean Shepherd, the cultists' cult figure, perhaps today's quintessential native American humorist, dares to take viewers deep into Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp for his premi`ere program in a 13-part series produced for WGBH, Boston, by Creative Television Associates: Jean Shepherd's America (PBS, Tuesdays, starting April 16; 10-10:30 p.m., check local listings). He is searching, he says, for both himself and for all of us in the 600-mile swamp he calls the great compost heap of time, the mother of us all.

Can you take Jean Shepherd seriously? You'd better.

Even if his facile tongue seems sometimes to be coated with peanut butter, even if he falls madly in love with the sound of his own nostalgia, pay attention to him. He has something vital to say about our world in perspective. Jean is a kind of metrical Charles Kuralt, finding meaning in life where others consider themselves fortunate to discover merely that life exists. His sly-wry-fey humor is merely an added bonus to the wisdom.

Spending half an hour with Jean Shepherd is like sitting around a Boy Scout campfire, toasting wienies and marshmallows with a garrulous old-timer who turns out to be a combination of the Ancient Mariner and Miss Congeniality.

An acquired taste for some, Shepherd has a reputation that makes me nervous because I fear that in some supercilious circles he is rapidly moving into the trendy chic category. Catch him before he is tossed aside by those disco-thinkers as if he were last year's quiche.

In later episodes of his new series he delves into neighborhood taverns, the filthy rich, the Old South, Great American Tourist Traps, cruise ships, Chicago, and motels, and there is a grand finale with the wince-making title ``Here Today, Guam Tomorrow.''

At the end of his premi`ere show, sitting in an outboard, the sound of ``Swamp Man'' pealing over the muddy waters, holding on to a fishing pole, watching the alligators glide by, Shepherd looks out at his Great American Audience and says: ``Farewell, `Three's Company,' goodbye, TV Guide, I've had my last Big Mac.'' Then, still talking, of course, he slips away into the mangrove roots, gnarled oaks, and slimy waters of Okefenokee.

Come back, Jean Shepherd, there are 12 more shows to go . . . and, if I had my way, many more TV seasons to come. You talk too much, but I'd rather have a thousand multiloquent words from Shepherd than 10 easy babbles from almost anybody else.

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