TODAY’S GUEST: Chuck Shepherd, syndicated columnist, “News of the Weird”
If it’s the 12th of the month — any month — Chuck Shepherd can be found eating a large pepperoni pizza pie. It’s a rare taste treat for the normally diet-conscious newspaper columnist, the world’s reigning expert on mankind’s most caustic behavior.
Every week for the last seven years, Shepherd’s syndicated weekly column, “News of the Weird,” has caused readers of 250 newspapers to laugh out loud on buses, trains, taxis and in the privacy of their bathrooms. Reading and laughing hysterically over his carefully culled nuggets of bizarre deaths, stupid criminals, sexual kinks and embarrassing moments in the lives of once-private citizens is one of Americans’ guiltiest pleasures.
Over lunch at one of St. Petersburg, Fla.’s premier pizza palaces, Mr. Media and Mr. Weird toasted Shepherd’s new book, The Concrete Enema and Other News of the Weird Classics (Andrews and McMeel).
First of all, where did he ever come up with such a painful sounding title?
“That was your idea, remember?” Shepherd says, rolling his eyes, knowing the question was a test.
The title suggested itself more than a year earlier, the first time we met for lunch. Shepherd always arrives with newspaper clips and trivia; that day, he told the extremely weird story of the concrete enema.
And while the concrete enema earned top billing in his book — you’ll have to buy a copy to learn why — it’s just one in a stream of jaw-dropping tales Shepherd recounts in his new collection. Chapters include: “Can’t Possibly Be True”; “Least Meritorious Lawsuits”; “Death”; “Japan” (the only country rating an entire chapter); and “Not My Fault.”
“There are very few stupid criminal stories because every one of those I hear sounds like a variation of something I already reported,” he says. In fact, his last collection was America’s Least Competent Criminals (HarperPerennial).
Along that line, Shepherd added a new category to his column: “No Longer Weird.” These are stories that were once weird but have become so common “they must be retired from circulation,” he says. Among them:
• “What-Goes-Around-Comes-Around Hunting Accidents.” Such as the recent hunting accident in New York where two guys drew each other ever closer with turkey lures until one shot the other. “That happens every season now, so I’m retiring it.”
• “Dumb Robbers.” For example, the guy who holds up a bank but leaves his wallet on the counter or locks his keys in the getaway car.
Believe it or not, there are stories that Shepherd — who has an entire chapter in the book devoted to “Fetishes on Parade” — will never report. “Any story where the tragedy outweighs the irony, sometimes a death, or cruelty in the death of an animal,” he says. “I can’t find any irony that would outweigh that.”
The “News of the Weird” column — plus the four previous books it inspired and two zines, View From the Ledge and Planet Chuck — develop from the hundreds of newspaper clippings Shepherd pores over every week. He personally reads five daily papers and subscribes to 75 journals, magazines, newsletters and zines. What he doesn’t spot first comes via a worldwide network of correspondents who eagerly comb local papers from Toledo to Tokyo, seeking out weird news with which to impress the master.
“I like irony more than just humor,” he explains. “And utter human stupidity. I have a limit on the number of sex or cute stories I’ll run. But if I had 15 stories of gross human stupidity each week I’d run ’em.”
Such as the man who was hospitalized with a head injury in Bowling Green, Ky. He said, “I wanted to see how close I could hold my head to a moving train without getting hit.”