Harry Shearer never seems to stop moving, whether he’s writing comic novels like Not Enough Indians, taping his numerous voices for The Simpsons, laying down his radio and podcast Le Show, filming video shorts for MyDamnChannel.com, recording music for albums like his latest Songs: Pointed and Pointless, or appearing live. He’s working on a new book, a new CD, and a new musical based on the life of J. Edgar Hoover.
I considered myself fortunate to catch up with him for the Boston Globe last month, talking about the live show he does with his wife, singer Judith Owen, called This Is So Not about the Simpsons: American Voyeurs, which was coming the Jewish Theatre of New England. We spoke by phone as he traveled from the airport to his hotel in Seattle, covering everything from humor and the media to Shearer’s lost classic film, Teddy Bear’s Picnic, a satire of privileged folly he wrote and directed. Portions of this interview appear in the Boston Globe.
I feel like you’re taking the time out to speak to me means one more book or song or video isn’t getting done somehow.
[Laughs] No, I’m in the car, going from the airport to the hotel in Seattle. No guilt required.
How do you balance all of this – the Simpsons, the Web site, the radio show, and the book?
I’m just one of those people who is very fortunate and loves what I do. And I know that there’s a limited amount of chances to do it, so I try to maximize those opportunities that I do have.
Did Not Enough Indians come out the way you had envisioned it, the dynamic between the characters?
If it didn’t, I really misspent six years. That’s pretty much the way I wanted that book to be.
What made you take on the casinos?
Well, I was just fascinated by the strangeness of the historic 180 that happens to at least some Native Americans to going from the most despised and genocided people on the continent, they are now sitting on top of this huge money pile to the extent that they can be envied now. And I just thought that was a great historical joke that amused me enough that I wanted to toy with a little bit.
Shortly after I read it, I went to the Mohegan Sun for the first time, and I kind of wish I had visited the Mohegan Sun first, because I wasn’t aware of just how much you didn’t exaggerate, how much that was reporting.
That’s sort of my modus operandi anyway. I’m not a big exaggerator. I think that humankind is funny enough that all you have to do is observe it pretty carefully and take out the pauses and you’ve got pretty good comedy.
It seems like you had been to the Mohegan Sun.
I had in fact never been to Mohegan Sun. I’ve been to other Indian casinos, but not Mohegan Sun, nor Foxwoods. But I’ve been to casinos along the Mississippi Gulf Coast and I’ve been to the largest Native American in Southern California. They all have a lot of things in common. I just stayed in a hotel, part of a casino complex in Melbourne, Australia, and it has that same design philosophy of no right angles.
Does This Is So Not About the Simpsons have a through line, or is it more of a revue?
It’s a show that Judith and I conceived for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year and did it there for a sold-out month. The through line is basically that she’s a Brit, I’m a first-generation American, we both feel as though we know this place well but look at it slightly from the point of view of outsiders. Hence, American Voyeurs. She looks askance at the Hollywood/Beverly Hills axis and I look askance at the New York/Washington D.C. axis, and each of us do so through comedy and music, and there’s some amusing video along with it. That’s the common thread of the show.
Her mainstay isn’t comic, really.
You haven’t seen her live. Although her music is very emotional, she takes the audience from that very deep emotional place to this very funny stuff when she’s just talking between songs. It used to be a shared joke between us, Arianna Huffington saying to her at one point when she first met Judith, "Have you always been funny or has it just happened since you met Harry?"
Do you collaborate on the writing as well?
Yeah, we shot pieces back and forth and worked on it with each other. And I have to say, I was amazed by the ease with which we could give notes to each other during the rehearsal process. That speaks well for… something.
Does she ever come to you with ideas when you’re not necessarily working together?
Well, she always plays her songs, I’m the first person to hear her songs. She wants me to play bass on them so she can hear it and start thinking of arrangement ideas. She tries to bounce songs off me in their nascent stages and I always try to make her go back and finish it before she plays it for me. But she’ll say, what do you think of this.
I’m the opposite. I have this radio show and I never let her listen to anything I’m working on until it’s on the air. We’re polar opposites in that sense.
Is it that you have a certain vision for something and if you start listening to someone else’s voice you’ll sort of ruin that? Is that the idea?
No, it’s just that I want the idea to be fully realized before someone reacts to it. I never pitch, for example. I don’t like telling a shard of an idea to people, even if that’s necessary to sell it. It seems to me if you can experience what’s good about an idea in one sentence, then why do you bother writing more? Where’s the rest of it, you know?
How does the show come together, song versus sketch?
It’s pretty much I’d say slightly less than two thirds talk and video and one-third music, maybe edging a little more music than that, but that’s the ratio.
Is writing satirical songs more difficult than it seems? If you look at Spinal Tap, people might think that you set out to write a bunch of bad metal songs, but if you did that, no one would care.
Yeah. I think with those songs and the Folksman songs on Mighty Wind, we weren’t trying to write bad music, we were trying to, I think, lyrically, ambody the bad choices that those guys might make. But musically, we wanted to make them proper songs. And the reactions we get from people is that they work musically and then they hear the lyrics and realize what we’re about. And I think it’s the same with what I did on Pointed & Pointless. You’re never trying to write bad music, nobody wants to hear bad music. But music can be the carrier either soulful emotion or smart humor, depending on the lyrical content. There can be musical jokes involved, but I think writing bad music is sort of a dead-end street.
When you’re singing a satirical song as opposed to a non-comical song, are you singing it from the same place?
I don’t sing non-comic songs, so I wouldn’t know. I think, for me, since I don’t really sing as me, I’m always singing in character one way or the other. I either have a specific character like George W. Bush or a vocal character, like the guy who’s singing “Flag Burners” who’s just sort of a, if not stereotypical than at least a conceptual country & western singer from whose vantage point I can sing as opposed to anything that might be considered me. I don’t know how I sing. I only know how a character sings. So, for example, when George W. Bush was singing “New Orleans Whole,” the hardest thing for me is, that’s a really insinuating rhythm track, and I was really having to get his arrhythmia into it.
Are you someone who watches the news and gets angry and yells at the paper or the TV?
No, I do my yelling on the radio. I mean, I don’t yell. I have an outlet so I don’t have to yell. But I must say, given the state of… I guess I still watch as much news, I tend to watch less American news, American TV news than I used to. There’s just a certain amount of times you can tell they’re not really interested in telling me anything I need to know and you can react against that, and if you have the capacity to move along to something better, you do.
I think you actual reach more people by making them laugh, and then at the other end of the laugh, a thoughtful “hmm” might occur. My primary business is making people laugh. Judith was saying to me when we got off the stage in San Francisco, because we hadn’t done the show in a while, since January, she was sort of exhilarated by how much fun it is to just be onstage and make people laugh. There’s nothing exhausting or draining or frustrating about that. And if you’re in this to try to have any other result, that might be frustratig. If you’re thinking you’re going to change the world, maybe you’re going to get something like what the academic was talking about. I’m an entertainer, first and foremost. If an audience is entertained, then I’ve done my job and I’m happy. If they’re happy, I’m happy.
Mort Sahl said political humor has to draw blood to be effective, so I imagine there could be some friction there.
Well, you know, humor is the anesthetic while you’re drawing the blood. I feel, and certainly some of the reactions people have had to “All Backed Up,” and even that song is kind of nasty, is basically saying before you mythologize this big fat drug addict, take a look. So that’s got some teeth to it as well.
You were one of the few guys Mort Sahl was actually complimentary towards, as far as current satirists.
That makes me very glad. I started out as a huge fan of Mort’s, I’ve never stopped being a fan of Mort’s, I was at his birthday celebration in Los Angeles. To me, he has something that’s extremely rare, which is the gift for taking a nuanced observation and turning it into an impeccably crafted joke. He is maybe the best joke writer that I’ve ever seen in satirical comedy. When I was a kid, I sort of had a smart ass view of joke writing, which lasted until I ran into Rodney Dangerfield and watched him edit his jokes, and watched the care and the work, the craft that went into joke writing at his level. And Mort’s at that level or higher in terms of just the craft of joke writing. No wasted words, basically like poetry, just taking out every syllable that doesn’t belong until you’ve got the minimum number of phonemes to get the job done. He’s really, really spectacular at it.
Do you have a dim view of satire at the moment?
I’ve always had a dim view. I think we’re in a classic second term presidency of satire, in the sense that, in the first term, it’s only the people who are paying close attention who are doing jokes about the president, whoever that happens to be. And by the second term, it gets very jokey and very easy and very late night, because we all know now, oh, he’s dumb, he’s horny, he’s old. And that’s when Newsweek does a cover, “Satire is Back!” exclamation point. I’ve seen that cycle a few times, as has Mort. And I think we’re in another one of those. And a lot of what people call satire isn’t, it’s just topical comedy with those sort of easy templates as reference points.
Why did you go to New Orleans for the "Crescent City Stories" pieces on MyDamnChannel.com?
I went down there because I was trying to counteract the news media spin on the situation, which has been to relentlessly tell victim stories, as opposed to a less mono-emotional view of the situation. If you watch the news media you’d never have the idea of the sassy, hard, tough sense of humor that New Orleaneans have maintained through all of this. The news media tend to show people being sad about it. I wanted to show people in their sort of three dimensionality in New Orleans. And I thought that was something I could add to the conversation.
Are there any plans to release Teddy Bear’s Picnic on DVD?
Yes, I bought the rights back to it, and I do plan to release it on DVD. We’re working on that right now, as a matter of fact. Probably sometime next year.
It seems like it’s still appropriate or even more appropriate now.
I think the problem with that movie is that it was ahead of its time in the sense that a reluctance either on the part of the audience or the media that were filtering on behalf of the audience – I tend never to generalize about the audience, I think it’s easier to generalize about the media – to laugh at the ruling class, to use a term of art, in those days then their might be now.
Why do you think the chemistry between you, Michael McKean, and Christopher Guest persists so well through the years?
We’re three entirely, shockingly different people who are amused by a lot of the same things and share a sort of similar comic taste palette, the best way I could describe it. We’re all amazingly different as humans, but I think we all love the idea of comic work that kind of lets the audience discover the joke, as opposed to being hit over the head with it. And we are all fans of sort of working as characters and working as deeply-defined characters, as opposed to, “Here’s a funny hat! Look who I am now!” You know? I think of it as disappearing behind the character. I did this Dick Cheney video for MyDamnChannel.com, and somebody said it took them half the video before they realized it was me, and that was like, ‘Yes! Thank you. That’s what I want.” That’s how I know I’ve done a good job. And I think we all share that aesthetic. And we all love to play music, I think that’s a very deep bond among us. We really love to play music. That’s why we’ve done two musical projects and it’s why we’ll continue to go out and play music together. I used to not want to respond to questions about, “What is it you really like doing?” But I think it’s become clear to me over the last few years that my, and I think all of our favorite things to do is to play music.
Where do people recognize you from most often?
Spinal Tap and the Simpsons, although I’m always amazed when I’m in New Orleans, which is my adopted hometown, people recognize me for my radio show down there, even though it’s not heard there.
It’s on podcast now, which it seems to me that the technology has caught up with what you’ve been doing for years.
It’s the one place where I’ve been an early adopter, is of all that kind of technology to get the radio show out more broadly because of the odd recalcitrance of stations in certain cities, like Boston. A show that has that particular sensibility has much better coverage in the heartland than shall we say on the northeast coast, which I find peculiar. But there you go. That’s why god made the Internet.
It seems like you have a business model that you can really use the Internet to drive, the same way, if you look at people who made themselves cottage industries like Frank Zappa or, later on, like Ani DiFranco.
I relate to those people in the sense of, I’ve always tried to work as autonomously as I possibly can in whatever medium I happen to find myself in at the time. And the Internet allows for a lot of autonomy right now. That may be temporary. There are no guarantees.