The name may not be familiar but I’ll bet you know Harry Shearer’s voice. He is Montgomery Burns, Waylon Smithers, Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner, Kent Brockman and many other on the satiric cartoon show The Simpsons. He’s also an actor (among many roles he was Derek Smalls in This Is Spinal Tap, a satiric mockumentary about a rock band and Mark Shubb in A Mighty Wind, a satiric mockumentary about folk music). He’s a novelist (Not Enough Indians: A Novel, a satiric tale about a Native American casino), a film director/writer (Teddy Bear’s Picnic, a satiric look at a powerful men’s gathering a la Bohemian Grove) and a playwright (J. Edgar, a satiric tale about the FBI director) and he’s the host of a radio show, Le Show, originating from KCRW in Santa Monica, and broadcast locally on KHSU (Mondays at 7:30 p.m.). The local station, currently in the midst of a fund drive, is serving as sponsor for Shearer’s stage show An Evening With Harry Shearer on Friday, March 30, at the Van Duzer.
Good morning and thanks for squeezing me into your busy schedule.
You’ve been in the recording studio.
Yes, I’m doing a CD.
What is it?
It’s all songs that I’ve written, supposedly funny songs, some of them involved in the show I’m doing there Friday.
What is your stage show?
It starts out with remarks and sort of expands, goes into video and music, so it becomes a tiny but inspiring multimedia extravaganza, all with just one person.
You sing to pre-recorded tracks?
Yes. I don’t travel with a band. I have traveled with bands. I know what’s involved with that.
What is involved?
A lot more time, money and effort.
Debauchery and so on?
That’s known to happen as well, but it’s mainly time and money.
Should we expect a Spinal Tap reunion tour in the wake of The Police and Genesis reuniting?
Um, I don’t know. Spinal Tap is always a serious proposition that involves many more people than it should, and that’s not including the people you’re familiar with.
That sounds mysterious.
Is there a relationship between your stage show and Le Show?
To a certain extent. I talk about some of the same things I talk about on the radio program. I’m speaking in the same sort of voice I use when I speak as myself on the radio. I don’t do characters on stage, again that involves makeup and wardrobe, stuff I don’t carry with me. It’s really just this person who talk to you at the top of the show.
No makeup and wardrobe, which are not required on radio…
Which are not required on radio, which is one of the reasons I love radio. Nothing against the people in makeup and wardrobe…
Do I understand correctly that you got your start with Jack Benny?
Yes. That was my first broadcast. It wasn’t my first broadcast appearance, I was on a children’s radio show locally in L.A. when I was a kid, but Jack Benny was the first time I was actually paid as an actor.
How did that happen? Did you grow up in a show biz family?
No, not at all. It was a total fluke. I had a piano teacher who changed careers and became an agent.
And she liked your voice.
She liked something about me, I don’t know. It couldn’t have been my devotion to practicing piano, I’ll tell you that.
Do you think you learned something from Jack Benny?
I learned a lot form Jack Benny. As time has gone on I’ve thought a lot about him in the way I approach comedy, for instance the way I approach satirical characters. The flaws in his character and the flaws in the characters I play are all down to humanity, that is to say people are not flawed because they’re not monstrous, it is because they’re human.
Even with people whose politics and wielding of power I may despise, I ascribe their failings not to demonic qualities, but to the very things they share with me and everyone who’s listening: human stupidity. I think that comes from Benny.
A lot of satirists think the people they like are wonderful and those they hate are monsters. That way they become stick figures and kind of predictable in a way. Another thing I learned from Benny is the value of being around a bunch of other funny people. He always loved having people around who laughed. That’s not true of everybody in comedy.
What strikes me, when I listen to you, and listen to Jack Benny, is the use of deadpan, particularly on Le Show, which I assume is you.
It’s a form of me. It’s a kind of me, one of the varieties of me. Yes, I suppose…
Do you read newspapers all day and gather material for the show? Do you have a staff helping you?
No, it’s all me. I’m a voracious consumer of news junk.
Do you read the news on the Internet mostly?
Mostly, but I get the New York Times dead tree edition, but the vast majority I read is on the Internet, and I check in with broadcast media as well, the BBC, not the World Service, but their brilliant domestic talk service, and with Australian news, and satelite TV, like once a week I’ll look at Al Jazeera, all to try to get beyond, or ‘outside the bubble’ as I put it. It is amazing how much people in the rest of the world know about what’s going on that we don’t.
I watch the news on TV, then watch the BBC TV news and wonder, why didn’t they mention that?
As I said on last week’s radio show, just to check myself I went and searched NPR’s site to see if there was any mention of Army Corps of Engineers last week on All Things Considered or Morning Edition. It said, ‘Sorry your search has no results.’ Last week was the week they announced the results of the official investigation by the state of Louisiana, basically holding the Army Corps of Engineers predominantly responsible for the disaster associated with Katrina. You know, you’d think that would be newsworthy.
You live part of the time in New Orleans?
And your house was OK?
We’re fine. Yes.
Obviously that has become a big topic on Le Show.
Yes, both because I am in New Orleans a lot and see what New Orleanians think about the situation, but also because I care about it.
Your show is broadcast in many formats, touching on all ways of delivering radio content.
Yeah, it goes from something as arcane and archaic sounding as short wave radio to something as up-to-date as a podcast.
I’ve been listening to the podcast because I can never seem to remember to tune in to radio shows the way I do TV shows. But I just found out that they cut the music out.
Why do they do that?
Because of all these rights issues.
Yes. It’s money. In some ways it’s a rerun of what happened when radio first started playing records. What’s sort of reassuring is the the record business has not become dumber. The record business opposed playing records on the radio in the old days, not realizing that that was the greatest promotional device ever invented for the record business. They spent years and years and years fighting it. Now they’re doing the same thing with the Internet and podcasting, again not realizing it’s a great promotional tool and blah, blah, blah.
Are you familiar with Bob Lefsetz?
He’s involved in radio down in L.A. and sends out a newsletter often dealing with that subject, the cluelessness of the record industry.
I think they’re not only clueless, they wouldn’t know a clue if they saw one, and wouldn’t know how to find a clue. They’re clueless as to what a clue might be. It’s an advanced state. It really is remarkable.
Being someone who reads the newspaper and absorbs all this information about what’s going on in the world, do you think that ultimately makes you cynical?
No. It makes you highly skeptical. The people I make fun of are the cynics. They’re the people, whether they are in broadcasting or the government, who think that people are saps, that people have an attention span of four seconds, that people won’t know if they’re telling the truth or not. Those are the true cynics. The skeptic’s job is to expose the cynic.
So you’re a skeptical satirist.
Yeah, well… I guess…
Well, I was going to say that might be a redundancy, but on second thought, there are partisan satirists who are not skeptical, who basically campaign for one side or the other in an argument and lose their skepticism.
One more thing, should we call you Dr. Shearer now?
You know I did get an honorary doctorate. Yeah, but when you call people that, you set up all sorts of expectations…
What’s your doctorate in?
Oh, that’s such a good question. It’s in the drawer I think.
[addendum: Harry was being cagey regarding the potential for a Spinal Tap reunion. It was announced at the end of April. I learned of it via Punmaster’s MusicWire.]
Spinal Tap Reuniting For Live Earth Show
Spinal Tap is back, and this time the band wants to help save the world from global warming. The fictional heavy metal group immortalized in the 1984 mockumentary, “This Is Spinal Tap,” will reunite for a performance at Wembley Stadium in London as part of the Live Earth concerts scheduled worldwide for July 7.
The original members of Spinal Tap will be there: guitarist Nigel Tufnel (played by Christopher Guest), singer David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) and bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer). Rob Reiner, who both directed “This Is Spinal Tap” and played the fake documentarian Marty DeBergi in the film, will also be in attendance.
A new 15-minute film directed by Reiner on the band’s reunion will play tonight (April 25) at the opening night of the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. The festival is to open with a showing of several global warming-themed short films produced by the SOS (Save Our Selves) campaign. SOS is also putting on the Live Earth concerts, to be held across seven continents.
“They’re not that environmentally conscious, but they’ve heard of global warming,” Reiner says of Spinal Tap’s often clueless members. “Nigel thought it was just because he was wearing too much clothing — that if he just took his jacket off it would be cooler.”
Spinal Tap has reunited several times since the film, but hasn’t for a number of years. For the band, whose last album was 1992’s “Break like the Wind,” the occasion warranted a new single: “Warmer Than Hell.”
Reiner provided a sneak peek at the lyrics: “The devil went to Devon, it felt like the fourth degree / He said, ‘Is it hot in here, or is it only me?'”
The director said the new short film explains what the band has been doing with their lives lately. Nigel has been raising miniature horses to race, but can’t find jockeys small enough to ride them; David is now a hip-hop producer who also runs a colonic clinic; and Derek is in rehab for addiction to the Internet.