Only a couple of years younger than the show’s hero, Kevin Arnold, would have been at the time, I identified enormously with the series. Unlike so many other series, it never reached a point where it “jumped the shark”, and its final episode was as beautifully elegiac as the rest of its run.
So, like many other fans, I have mourned the fact that the series is not yet on DVD (except for a couple of Christmas specials), and pounce whenever I do catch a stray episode on cable TV. (I think it’s on "TV Land" these days. At least, I hope it still is).
In the accompanying photo are actors Josh Saviano (playing nerdy best friend Paul Pfeiffer), Fred Savage (Kevin Arnold), and Danica McKellar (the girl next door that Kevin holds a torch for, Winnie Cooper). (By the way, McKellar has enjoyed the most interesting post-show life of any of the cast members—indeed, probably of any former child star I can remember. She continues to act, but more amazingly, she has had a paper published in Journal of Physics A: Mathematical and General, and even wrote a book, Math Doesn’t Suck: How to Survive Middle-School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail.)
I did not realize until recently that The Wonder Years was associated with radio legend Jean Shepherd (who is probably best known nowadays for his role as the offscreen narrator of the 1983 Yuletide comedy A Christmas Story) – or that the association could have been even more explicit but for the great man’s cantankerous nature.
I made this discovery by accident last week, when I read The New York Times obituary of the fine actress Lois Nettleton. It turned out that she was the ex-wife of Shepherd – producing one of my usual responses to such a revelation – “What???!!!”
Immediately, needing details, I turned to a biography that I had bought but not yet started to read—Eugene B. Bergmann’s Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd.
I had imagined a more –well, rambunctious— mate for the comic legend than Nettleton. And sure enough, Bergmann confirmed that the curmudgeonly Shepherd didn’t really appreciate his kind and lovely wife, even though virtually everyone else in his circle could.
It was while flipping through the index that I noticed that Shepherd was connected in some way to The Wonder Years.
As it happens, the narrative style of the show – an adult voice-over commenting comically on events of his childhood, delivering the life lesson learned at the episode’s close – drew heavily on Shepherd’s radio broadcasts. The show’s producers even auditioned him to do the narration, but ultimately rejected him. An embittered Shepherd subsequently felt not just that the show had passed him by, but that it had wronged him by using his stories without attribution.
Was Shepherd right? Hard to say.
Hollywood is notorious not only for reusing the tried-and-true but even for outright script thievery, and it was probably worse back then, before Art Buchwald’s successful suit against Paramount over his unacknowledged contribution for the Eddie Murphy film Coming to America.
At the same time, this was, after all, Shepherd, a man with more than enough private shadows to match his on-air sunshine. I can’t even conceive of a man born over a generation before the events of The Wonder Years acting as the narrator of this quintessential Baby Boomer series. (In any case, Daniel Stern gave magnificent voice to the older, ironic, offscreen Kevin.)
I prefer to think of Shepherd the only time I ever got to see him, at the annual convention for the Direct Marketing Association about 20 years ago. He was the luncheon speaker. Much of the speech was probably familiar to his longtime radio fans, but one line scored big with the conventioneers: “Once you get on a mailing list, not even God can get you off!”