Harry Shearer is a man of many voices, to be sure. And that’s just on The Simpsons, where Shearer voices the characters of Mr. Burns, Smithers, Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner, Kent Brockman, the Rev. Timothy Lovejoy, among others. You’ve heard him for years on Le Show, his weekly public radio program. Seen him on Saturday Night Live (that synchronized swimming sketch alone is legendary). With Christopher Guest and company, he’s been in both This Is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind, and now For Your Consideration. He even blogs, for crying out loud — he started the "Eat the Press" feature on the Huffington Post. And now he has delivered his first novel, the satirical "Not Enough Indians."
I spoke with Shearer about the book and everything else.
OK. That’s enough of a build-up. Let’s bring Shearer down a notch. First question: How come Le Show still isn’t on the air in Boston? Does it even matter, since you can listen to archived shows online? "I wish I knew," he said. "I guess it’s people calling ‘BUR, ‘GBH saying what the hell is wrong with you people. Like they say, you know Boston isn’t really a big college town."
"I have the perception that not being on the air in New York City affects the perception of people in the media business as to what I do. People in the media business are so freaking lazy. They want it served up to you on a silver platter…It affects the media profile of the show. But that’s just about New York. It’s such a provincial place."
What about the blogging? "I know Brian Williams has told me in a public encounter that he was reading the Eat the Press blog. But sometimes I feel…most bloggers are talking to each other. They feel they’re part of a very lively center of the universe type of thing. But inside the heart of every satirist beats a desire to basically say, ‘Why don’t you guys stop doing this?’" Case in point: "How the national media really missed the story of New Orleans." Shearer has a home in New Orleans.
What about Indian casinos…do you want to make them stop? Is that why you wrote the book? "No, no. Social satire is much different from political satire. Look at what a wacky species we are…look at the motivating impulses there…if you were walking through a human zoo, what kind of animals would we see?"
Well, what kind of animals do you see in your zoo? Caught him off-guard with that one. Almost Barbara Waltersesque? Let’s move on. "What I try to poke fun of in this book is small-town boosterism, the bizarre historical switcheroo that turned Native Americans from victims of a near-complete genocide to casino magnates, and how government works — or doesn’t."
Did you go to Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods to research the book? No, he said, though he did spend time at a California tribe’s casino. And he is painfully aware of how Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods have become the largest casinos in the world, and are only getting bigger. Because, as he pointed out: "There may be a bigger on one Mars. So you never know. I loved the moment where Mohegan Sun became the franchisee of a WNBA franchise. That was a major moment. I’m waiting for one of them to form a major orchestra. And then for one of them to declare themselves the 51st state. Well, they can’t do that. That would be too…but something else grandiose. The notion that they’re a sovereign nation. OK, but then they have to go hat in hand to Washington to ask for recognition."
But casinos do seem to the big easy answer, don’t they? "Yeah, build a casino! Do you remember that was Mayor (Ray) Nagin’s first suggestion on how to rebuild New Orleans." Before turning New Orleans into a Chocolate City, ’twas casinos.
How much of an influence was Jack Benny on your decision to become a satirist? You performed on his show in 1953 when you were only 10. "I think you’d have to say it was, in a sense. I have this very strong visual memory supplemented by a photograph of the first time I made Jack Benny laugh, which was on a read-through," he said. "Right away, it was like, oh my God! I do have this theory that people go into comedy, everybody as a child has this…a lot of people have, they feel that it’s an unpleasant experience to be laughed at by the other kids. The moment you can control that, it’s very intoxicating."
"That was totally one of the first times, yeah," he said of working with Benny. "I was doing the fake comedy shows with friends that I was tape recording. It was very important to me because I got skipped in school, so I was two years younger than anyone else. I needed something. I wouldn’t beat anybody up. I wasn’t a class clown. Don’t get me wrong, it helps to be known as someone who did that, but that wasn’t me."
Launching Eat the Press and blogging, you write a lot about how the press covers politics. How do you feel the media does in covering comedy? "Well, I do think that, big surprise, there’s a major New York-centric quality, that, it’s not a knock, a show with one and a half million viewers is looked at as a national phenomena. I’m looking at Stewart and Colbert. I don’t think any of them…New York media loves to cover anything that’s going on in New York and, hey, kids are getting their news from these shows?! Hey, yeah? Well, maybe."
Shearer says it’s easy pickings in comedy for any two-term lame-duck president, even if he’s not Bush. "About the sixth year, everyone in the comedy business figures out what satirists knew already, what was funny about this guy."
What about coverage of comedy issues, though, such as the treatment of the Michael Richards incident at the Laugh Factory? "My reaction was, well, what do you expect when you go into a comedy club on the Sunset Strip at midnight, and not to get heckled by teenagers? That’s one reason I don’t do stand-up…That’s one reason experienced stand-ups have material prepared to deal with hecklers. You’re supposed to have something prepared. The one analysis I didn’t see anywhere was: Rookie mistake."
Is that the only reason you don’t perform stand-up? "I don’t like the hours. And in the old days, I didn’t like the smoke…But also, I’m not a joke-teller to a large extent. I like doing characters. So either in movies or the TV stuff that I do, or the radio show, is a place for me to do characters…relentlessly being myself."
Would it be fair to call you a 21st century multimedia Renaissance man? "That’s the kind of thing one never allows to be said in one’s presence, let alone saying it…and you know, the Renaissance is overrated." Is there a better era to pick from? "Maybe the Enlightenment."
How do you find time to get all of this done? "I have a great assistant, Gordon gets all this stuff. I don’t eat lunch. So there’s an extra hour in a day, I guess. And the reason I do stuff is because a couple of things: I have a very low threshold for boredom, so I have to keep myself interested. And I just sort of gravitated to areas where I feel the most freedom. But not eating lunch is a big one." Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, anyhow, right? "Which I do eat," he said. "If I ate lunch, I’d have no appetite for dinner. And I love dinner too much. I’ll be working on a movie and everyone else will go off and have lunch, and like last year, we were doing For Your Consideration. I’d go in a bungalow and watch TV, blog, maybe get a little catnap, just get stuff done." Naps sound good. "A gift from my Dad is I’m a very good napper." Some sons never get that gift, you know. "Yeah, and they’re bitter."
Are you done working on The Simpsons movie? "No, we’re still working on it. We just had a recording session for it (Monday)." How is this work different from recording the TV episodes? "On the movie, we’re doing a lot more takes than on the TV show. But that’s up to the producer. It doesn’t go according to the individual actor. They’re rewriting it more. So we come back and redo it a lot…And the secrecy.
When we record a TV show, we can gift a script to a friend. By contrast, in the movie, they print our names on the scripts that we read, so were we to go out and make a copies of those, they’d know.
Not that they let us take the scripts out. Instead, they make us hand them back so they can shred them…And they have a code name for the project, which I’m not at liberty to tell you. If security at Los Alamos was as good as the security at The Simpsons set, I’d be able to sleep at night a lot better."