For over a decade, Chuck Shepherd has reliably reported on nearly unbelievable moments of human stupidity in "News of the Weird." Will he ever run out of new items?
by Coury Turczyn
Wherever there are sexual depravities to report, he is there.
Whenever incompetent criminals figure out new ways of getting themselves apprehended, he takes note. When drunken louts kill each other over trivial bar arguments, he records their passing. If there's another spurious lawsuit filed by overly sensitive jailhouse residents, he's got the facts. Yes, when it comes to rampaging transsexuals, shamelessly gouging con artists, or government bureaucrats run amuck, you will find Chuck Shepherd right behind them. As the editor of "News
of the Weird," he is the supreme chronicler of odd human behavior, strange coincidences, and outright stupidity. And he's celebrating his 10th anniversary of feeding these stories to a rapt nationwide audience.
But right now, on this Wednesday afternoon, he's tired from pulling yet another all-nighter as he tries to come up with good stuff for his Friday morning deadline. Ensconced in his St. Petersburg, Fla. home, Shepherd has been busy scanning newspaper databases, hundreds of e-mail messages, folders of organized clippings, and submissions from his network of bureau chiefstrying desperately to find "the money fact," the quirky little twist that makes a story worthy of encapsulation in "News of the Weird."
"It has become much more difficult to write 'News of the Weird' over the last 10 years because almost everything has been brought out in the open by the tabloid TV shows," he says, perhaps wistful over those innocent days in the late '80s when he had little competition. "Hard Copy and Inside Edition and now even Dateline, 20/20, and 60 Minutes will run the kind of story now that 10 years ago they would not have run on network television or even the local TV stations. I have to work harder to find concepts, and reject a lot more really good stories than I ever did. When I started this in 1988, it was just a matter of picking the first 15 stories that came to mind. I was done in an hour. It was really easy to do this.
"Now, I have a two-Jay-Leno-joke rule: If Jay Leno makes two jokes about (a story) either on the same show or in consecutive shows, then I just can't use it because it means too many people know about it."
Why the American public has become so ravenous for the gruesome details of once-private disasters is not something Shepherd spends too much time thinking abouthe's just goes about his job as he always has, gathering the nuggets of weirdness from around the globe that pique his interest. It's something he started doing in the late '70s as a government lawyer ("As you know, all government lawyers in Washington have a lot of time on their hands."); he and his friends would clip odd stories and post them on their doors or send them to their friends. But Shepherd decided to publish them in 1981 in what would later be called a "'zine," an offset newsletter called View From the Ledge that became quite popular. Seven years later, an editor at a local alternative weekly offered to publish Shepherd's collection as a column. Other weeklies soon picked it up, and then Universal Press Syndicate actually called and offered him a contract for national syndication. Ten years later, "News of the Weird" is a staple in more than 300 daily newspapers and alternative weeklies. Nobody is more surprised than Shepherd.
"I was flabbergasted that it became a column in the first place, and really flabbergasted when the Universal Press picked it up," says Shepherd. "Then, about 1992, I was in Washington D.C. (as) a regular member of the faculty at George Washington University. I decided I was making as much money from 'News of the Weird' as I was making from the university salary. So I said I might as well go ahead and get out of there."
So what makes a 54-year-old white-collar professional ditch his job for the bizarre world of deranged murderers who have the middle name of Wayne? Why catalog all this perversity? Shepherd confesses to a fascination with true stories about people who face a certain moment of truth in bad decision-making.
"The key moment for me, if you can try to picture it, is the moment when somebody realizes he screwed up and that things are going to get worse before they get better," Shepherd says. "The idea that you are actually looking into somebody's eyes or in his mind when he's just screwed up, 'Oh, what I've done is really bad, what am I going to do now?' That's just always tickled me."
A prime example would have to be the item behind the title of Shepherd's fifth paperback book, The Concrete Enema; in fact, it's one of his all-time favorite stories, which he found in a medical journal article written by emergency room doctors. It's probably best that we let him tell it:
"A guyI don't want to say walked inbut he actually sort of waddled into the emergency room one night. He had been complaining of rectal pain, and it turns out his boyfriend and he had had a little bit too much to drink, and they thought it would be a good idea to feel the sensation of concrete hardening in this guy's rectum. So they got a concrete mix and a little kitchen funnel. This is a perfect example of an incredibly bad decision: There is some point in that process of putting the stuff in with the funnel that the guy that's receiving all this has got to realize that things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. This stuff is only gonna get hard, and once it gets hard, you're gonna be in an awful lot of trouble."
Fortunately, doctors were able to remove the 5-1/2-inch-long concrete mold. But this story leads to yet another Shepherd fascination: items about all-new sexual fetishes that tend to be (ahem) rather unusual. "If you can make it a sexual fetish in which 38 people or even fewer like it, that's a great 'News of the Weird' story," he enthuses. Just recently, for instance, there was a former doctor in San Diego who was arrested for amputating the healthy limbs of apotemnophiliacspeople who want to have a limb amputated for sexual pleasure. Another favorite is the fellow in England, as recorded in a medical journal, "who could only get off by squatting behind an Austin Metro, which is a brand of a car in England, and smelling the exhaust when he was..."
Morbid and perverse stuff, perhaps, but it's a fascination that his readers enthusiastically share. Many of them regularly send him stories they think are "News of the Weird" material; an elite few become bureau chiefs after years of faithful service. In Knoxville, that title goes to Maurine Taylor, who "reads every last word" in local newspapers, keeping Shepherd "very well covered in East Tennessee." Unfortunately, despite Knoxville's many fine contributions to the column (most recently: a would-be mugger who was foiled by his victim called Pardon's Jewelers to complain of her mistreatment of him), Shepherd can't point to any defining characteristics in Knoxville's weird news.
"I don't mean to be demeaning here, but I actually think more of the memorable weird stuff has happened in Nashville," he says. "There is, for example, the famous Nashville carrot man, who is so named because he not only flashed women, but he would turn his backside to the women and have...yes, there is no need to fill in the blank."
With all this rather risqué material appearing in hundreds of mainstream newspapers, you'd think Shepherd would spend much of his time responding to outraged moralists or those with a conservative political agenda. Such is not the case. In fact, he usually tries not to take much of a position on his reports, preferring to simply relate what happened and capping it with a snappy headline. Nevertheless, there is one special-interest group that never fails to complain whenever the members find themselves in a "News of the Weird" column.
"I always hear from the Wiccans," Shepherd says with some frustration. "If you do any story about Wicca, whether it's favorable or unfavorable it doesn't matter. It's like they don't pay attention to the words in your storyit's just this column called 'News of the Weird' and a story about Wicca appears in it, and so they are just outraged. The Scientologists are just as bad."
The most extreme reaction Shepherd ever got from a reader was in a series of mailed death threats in 1993with two of the letters postmarked in Nashville and Chattanooga. Apparently, the man was very upset that Shepherd's reports on weird fetishes involved men and not women, and he charged Shepherd with making fun of men without giving women their due ridicule. Shepherd turned the letters over to the FBI, but the perpetrator was never apprehended.
When it comes to restricting material, Shepherd draws the line at any story involving the abuse of animals or children. But most of his omissions are for items that he feels are "no longer weird," recurring stories that he puts into retirement because they've become too common.
"These are all stories which have ran at one point in time, and they continue to happen, but they just aren't interesting to me anymore: The robber who leaves some sort of identification on the counter. The robber who makes a getaway and flags down a car and it ends up the driver is an off-duty police officer. The political candidate who dies during the campaign but still wins the election. Funeral homes mixing up the bodies or mixing up parts of bodies. People who have just bought drugs and have been ripped off (so they) call the police to tell them they have spent good money on marijuana and it was oregano."
Nevertheless, there is one recurring story that will never grow stale, that Shepherd keeps a running account of: murderers with the middle name of "Wayne." Every few months, he prints a new crop of names, just another social phenomenon that Shepherd keeps track of (others include people who excuse themselves from their crimes because "God told me to do it" or people who kill themselves by doing dangerously stupid things). While it's certainly one of the most remarked-upon features of "News of the Weird," Shepherd is just as puzzled by the phenomenon as the rest of us and can offer no theories.
"I don't know," he confesses. "I'm sure I didn't think of it myself, although I can't point to anybody whom I took the idea from. But after I started publishing those, I heard from an actual professorall he had done all of his life was collect these stories. He did serious felons, not just murderers, but he had a broad collection he had done just for the amusement for his colleges. So I am not a lone voice in the wilderness saying that middle name Waynes are dangerous, and you have to watch out for them."
Likewise, he has no philisophical musings to volunteer over what people may get out of reading "News of the Weird." He's much too busy searching, searching, searching for that next perfect item to think about what all this weirdness means. But he does have this special offer: "You come up with a theme that you think 'News of the Weird' stands for, and if it's really good, I'll send you a check."
This is your opportunity, weird fanssend your ideas (and weird news) to: Chuck Shepherd, P.O. Box 18737, Tampa, Fla. 33679, or [email protected].