Graham Shelby’s storytelling explores war and his father in ‘The Man on TV’

Graham Shelby takes on a one-man show. | Courtesy of Graham Shelby

Regulars at The Moth Story Slam are already familiar with Graham Shelby. He’s a frequent winner turned sometimes host who was invited to New York to be featured in “The Moth Radio Hour.”

On Friday, Shelby turns his talent for introspection, narrative and deep thinking toward a longer format: the one-person show. The result is “The Man on TV,” a work that springs from Shelby’s complicated relationship with his biological father, Jimmy Godwin.

Graham Shelby

Shelby spoke with Insider by phone, discussing the genesis of the piece, its evolution as a story, and his 25-year relationship with Godwin, a scarred and tortured survivor of the Vietnam War.

“I didn’t know him growing up; I had heard of him when I was a little kid,” said Shelby.

Shelby grew up with his mother and his adopted father.

Though he knew he had a birth dad and had seen a few pictures of him once or twice, his first big exposure to his father came in the form that Shelby describes as surreal.

“My birth father appeared on TV when I was 12,” he recalled. “He was featured on the ‘CBS Evening News’ on Memorial Day. It was a story about him and his efforts to connect with the mother of his best friend, whose body my father had found when they were in Vietnam.”

Vietnam looms large in Shelby’s relationship with Godwin, as well as in his show. He said as a child, war was very confusing to him, and adults didn’t seem to be telling the whole truth.

“This was the early ’80s, and Vietnam was still a touchy thing,” said Shelby. “My parents talked about how war is this awful, awful thing, and I believed that. People talked about it like it was cancer. There was clearly more to it than that. Because there weren’t as many books and and movies about cancer as there were about war. Little kids didn’t get together and pretend to be oncologists, they played soldier.”

After seeing “Platoon” as a teen, Shelby decided to write Godwin a letter, and a few years later they met for the first time.

“And that began a 20-year, very complicated, not always satisfying but also really important relationship between the two of us. One challenge was we had no role model. I think every adoptee and birth parent has to go through this,” said Shelby.

Shelby will talk about his brief relationship with his biological father. | Courtesy of Graham Shelby

A journalism student at the time, Shelby connected to Godwin the only way he knew how — as a journalist.

“I figured out the way to get the answers I wanted from him was to interview him. So I got a tape recorder and interviewed him, and I have, like, hours of him talking on tape. For years, that’s what our conversations were like,” he said.

During that relationship, Shelby also was becoming a grownup, with a career that relied on the written word and oratorial skills. He’s been a journalist, English teacher, storyteller and speech writer.

Just before Godwin’s death in 2007, Shelby began writing stories about their relationship. Godwin only saw one story, and he didn’t care for it.

“His quote was, ‘You’ve made me look like an illiterate, redneck puke … and I’m not illiterate.’”

Graham already had been telling stories professionally, often based around his time in Japan and the folklore of that country, but when The Moth came to Louisville, he started occasionally telling stories about his father, too, and that got him invited to New York.

It was on The Moth stage in the Big Apple that Shelby realized he wanted to tell a fuller version of the story he was sharing, the story that started with seeing Godwin on TV we he was a kid. He started working on the piece, and in addition to the writing and storytelling, Shelby decided to include multi-media elements, starting with that fateful image from childhood.

Shelby has won and even hosted The Moth in Louisville several times. | Courtesy of Graham Shelby

“I wanted to actually show the audience what I was watching in 1983, and since I have all those hours of tape of Jimmy talking, I have excerpts of that I play during the show,” he said.

Another interesting part of his relationship with Godwin makes an appearance on stage.

“Here’s another weird aspect of our relationship. Before we met, he made me mix tapes, like his own personal soundtrack, so I have some of that music in the show.”

“The Man on TV” is about more than its basic story. It takes a metafictional view of how we use stories in our societies and in our personal relationships.

“War is, at some level, largely about storytelling in that it takes a story to turn a stranger into an enemy, to turn a boy into a soldier, to turn a rice field or a cornfield into a battlefield,” said Shelby. “I’m not saying it’s a lie. It could be a true story, or a story that’s based on fact, but it’s a story.”

“The Man on TV” runs one night only, on Friday Oct. 27, so make a space in your calendar. The show also includes a performance by Shakespeare with Veterans, who will examine war and its emotional effects from a very different end of the English language — the works of William Shakespeare.

The show starts at 8 p.m. at the MeX Theater in the Kentucky Center for the Arts, 501 E. Main St. Tickets are $15, $10 for students.