harry shearer

 

 

 

 

When actor, comedian, musician and voice-over artists and writer (!) Harry Sheaer helped unleash the now-infamous Heavy Metal parody This Is Spinal Tap (1984) he immediately became a legend to the 'rank and file' Metalheads of the world. Further endearing himself via a jaw-dropping variety of roles on the groundbreaking animated series The Simpsons (Kent Brockman, Principal Skinner, Reverend Lovejoy), and countless others, his thought-provoking humor has entertained millions of fans worldwide. Serving as a veritable 'beacon of hope' amid the inanity of the Fake News sub-culture, Shearer leaves listeners both informed and entertained. Recently, the often engaging Shearer (Godzilla, Saturday Night Live, The Right Stuff), always a man of many words and interesting stories, was kind enough to speak with us regarding his award-winning NPR show/Podcast Le Show.


Todd: How did the initial concept for Le Show come together? What were the goals once everything launched? Some may not realized it had already been on the air for over thirty years prior to the Podcast format 'transition'.


Harry: “It started as a radio show. And then I think this was a suggestion of the then manager of the NPR station that we adapt it to the podcast formula and I said 'Sure' basically just because the more listeners, the better, and whatever or wherever they are. It wasn't a great big moment of decision. It was just like 'Sure, yeah, let's do that too'. I made a decision at the start of the project that this was there was not going to be any money connected with it for the simple reason that, A, I was fortunate enough not to need another source of money and, B, that it gave me a sort of impregnable position where nobody could ever tell me what to do. It's free. ...It's absolutely free. And there's never been any discussions with anybody about what was going to be on the show before it goes on or out. And similarly, never any discussions afterwards. There were no meetings, no memos, nothing. And that is a huge advantage of doing it for free is at the radio station or podcast carrier and there's only asks one question 'Is there a new episode'? Otherwise, it's sort of a self-replicating process every week, except there's a lot of work that goes into it. But nothing surrounds it in terms of meeting, memos or any of that type of thing.”


Todd: At this point, what do you consider to the the target audience(s) of Le Show? I'd imagine its really diverse.


Harry: “I've never given a moment's thought to that. (laughs) No, seriously, if you're doing it and if you're not trying to make money, if you're not trying to sell ads, if you're not trying to do any of that stuff, you don't have to. And if you don't have to, why do it? The target audience is the people who tune in and listen to it and vice versa. If you think about it, there really is no need to go down that road if you're not doing those things that I just mentioned. I'm an entertainer. I'm trying to entertain people. One of the reasons I do this show is because I don't do stand-up and I need an outlet every week on which to perform. Now, if you're doing stand-up, you don't ever have worry about your target audience. The drunks who show up to see your show are the target audience.”


Todd: Once Donald Trump became POTUS, were you suddenly aware of what a comedy goldmine his life was?


Harry: “I had been aware of Trump from a while back when he was still just a bigmouth real estate guy in New York. So I'd become aware of him, I guess. The landmark for me, in terms of my awareness for him, was Time magazine put him on the cover in 1993. Now, he was just a local New York real estate blowhard, but New York thinks if it's happening in New York, it's world news. If he'd been a local Cleveland, Ohio real estate blowhard, we would never have heard of him again. But he was in New York and so the media thought 'Oh, it's in New York, so it must be of interest to everyone on the planet'. When Time magazine put him on the cover, that was when I went 'Oh', because I didn't realize what a gift he would be. It started out peculiar. ...Let's put it that way.”


Todd: How difficult was it for you to transition Le Show from traditional or terrestrial radio to a Podcast format?


Harry: “That's the thing about radio. It really isn't that hard, especially if you can just adapt. I've been working in radio, in the audio form, pretty much since the age of seven. I was on a national radio program at the age of seven. I happened to be walked into show business, so I'm sort of accumulated all the skills that I need to do this along the way, and as I said, it's not the visual media, where you need a crew. Pick a number, but it's going to be at least double if not triple pagers to get anything made. The technology is such that it can be pretty easy to do. The writing, which you mentioned at the beginning, is the hardest part. I find, especially since it's such a topical show, sort of by design, that's what interests me about it, that the way to make it possible to write it every week is to wait until the last minute and just let desperation takes over. ...I mean, people don't like it and I don't like it. You're at the verge every time and it's like 'But what if I didn't think it of something?'. ...But no, it really would.”


Todd: Overall, how do you regard your time on Saturday Night Live? Am I correct in understanding there were issues almost immediately. Considering how popular the show was at its peak, its amazing things were so awful.


Harry: “It was the very worst time of my life. It really was such a totally horrible experience. ...The second time I went (Shearer was hired as a cast member in 1979 and returned as a writer in 1984), I thought it was going to be different. I was going in with a couple people I knew and I thought it was going to be a better situation and it didn't have to happen again. When I went there the first time, pretty much when I got there, I read a book written by the Producer of a show on NBC that was on Saturday nights, it was an hour and a half live from New York City and it had comedy sketches and music. And it was called Your Show Of Shows and took place in the 1950s. And I just remember, I'd seen it as a child. And I was curious about how it worked. It sounds of course, exactly like Saturday Night Live, and so I thought, 'Well, I'll read what the Producer of that show had written in his book, and I'll read that and see what I am looking for. Of course, he had done it entirely differently. It was done, let's say highly professionally (laughs) to start with. And I'd worked in show business, I've worked in show business since the age of seven, so unlike most of the people there, this wasn't my first gig. And I realized pretty early on that was a disadvantage because I knew better. Things didn't have to be the way this was done. I had already Produced an hour of television pilot with Rob Reiner and Chris Gas and bunch of other people, so I knew my way around TV. I knew that much of what was going on there was unnecessary and the result of a choice and decision made by the show. I'd found it not only unnecessary, but it was just so appalling, ya know?”


Todd: A person that says such things, especially when they've just been introduced to someone, has some issues.


Harry: “I think that person has a couple of problems, one of which was expressed to me out of his mouth when I showed up for the first day. It wasn't a first-day introduction, but we met in the audience of the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City at a show called Gilda Live. (Gilda Live was eventually released as a documentary in 1980). ...It was just after noon, so it wasn't a matinee. The place was empty, but it was available. The very first thing he said to me was 'I've never hired a male Jew before. I've always gone with the Chicago Catholic thing'. And I then realized I was insanely in trouble and it only got worse from there. I'm in the middle of writing my something resembling my memoirs and I'm going to have to re-experience all of it in detail. That's not that fun.”


Todd: From a journalistic point of view, how do you cover a media circus while still remaining truly respectful?


Harry: “I got my lesson in media circuses with the OJ (Simpson) (murder) trial. ...It's not all that easy to do, but you don't make fun of the horror and the tragedy that's at the heart of it, but at the circus it all becomes. I haven't made a point of this on the air, so people may not be aware of it, but there was a lot of money invested in that trial. They had two mock trials that they defend, to put on a test market for their approach to his defense. That doesn't come free, so I used the word circus, but certainly, performance is less judgmental, but equally accurate. As long as you're not making fun of the murderers and you're not making fun of the suffering that people went through, but of the production those trials became when they entered the public sphere. There really would have been nothing to make fun of, for example, in either case, had the two trials not been well covered on television.”


Todd: Once the creative processes necessary for This Is Spinal Tap had officially begun, was there a collective goal or overall message everyone was hoping to convey? Was there a specific angle you were hoping to exploit?


Harry: “We went through a bunch of different goals. We had originally thought we wanted to do a show about Rock And Roll, the Rock And Roll world. We'd all been in it around it and we thought there was a lot of funny stuff in it. At first, one of the things we thought of was 'Let's do it from like another point of view. Let's look at it from the point of view of a roadie working for a band. Then we all went and saw a movie called Roadie (1980) and thought 'Well, that's not a good idea' (laughs). And so we then focused on the Hard Rock and Metal worlds. ...One of the characters had already been from the days of the National Lampoon Radio Hour, so we used that as the focus for a band and created our characters accordingly. We had gotten some money from a production company to write a script. The normal way that you try to get a movie made is you write a script and start to pitch it to production companies. They give you money and you make your movie. We had been working for about three days and ended up having a discussion and thought 'Nobody in the movie business is going to read this and have any idea what we're talking about'. I don't want to be disrespectful to anybody, but there's a real paucity of imagination in the executive suites in show business. So we thought 'Let's draw them a picture', so we took the funds that were available to us and made a twenty minute demo of the movie. We actually shot twenty minutes of what it would be like if you saw that movie. A lot of the jokes that appear in the movie and a lot of the songs appear in the movie are sort of truncated into the digested version we gave them. We showed it to the heads of the then major studios and the lights would come up, and they would say 'What was that?' and we'd say 'Oh, that would be like a feature motion picture about Rock And Roll' and they'd say 'Oh no. A Rock And Roll movie would never make money' Norman Lear (creator of All In The Family, Good Times and Maude, among others), who has a friend of Rob's from All In The Family, had momentarily become head of the studio. If that had not happened, This Is Spinal Tap would never have gotten made. ...And there were half a dozen more moments that were exactly like that. Norman had a partner who was a former fight promoter and when Norman left the company, which was before the movie was finished, the former fight promoter told us he had no interest in it. He told us 'If the first two critics don't like it, it's not coming out'. That was a tortured path.”


Todd: I 'went into' my initial viewings of the film without understanding it was of a quasi-satirical nature. The opening scene with Paul Shaffer screaming 'Do me a favor. Just kick my ass, okay? Kick my ass' was so surreal.


Harry: “That was the point of it all, really. ...One of the executives at the movie company that released it (i.e., Embassy Pictures) just before the company went under said to us at a meeting 'Don't you guys think you have to weaken the first thirty seconds so people know you're kidding?' and we said in unison 'No, no, we don't' because that's exactly what we wanted. We wanted people to think it was real. We wanted people to have to stick with it and catch on as time went on. And a lot of people in the Rock And Roll business had the same reaction. They thought it was real and either they were amused by it or they were outraged by it. They were like 'That's my life. That's my life' they would say in a couple of fairly notorious cases. But that was exactly what we were all about. We were sneaking up on the audience in a way. ...Chris(topher) (Guest) and Michael (McKean) had written their characters as having grown up together, so it only made sense for me to have this other kind of approach to the reason for me being in the band. I came from another band and was supposed to be this prototypical Rock And Roll bass player who's 'lukewarm water' as he says (laughs). ...It really did make sense for me to do it that way.”


Todd: In retrospect, did anyone involved with the film foresee it becoming such a hit and cultural phenomenon?


Harry: “No one in their right mind expects anything they're doing to be talked about twenty years later, let alone forty. You might hope and you might dream, but no one really expects it. On the other hand, when we were in those offices with those movie executives showing them the demo, we did say 'This is a story that a huge swath of the movie-going audience will get right away', because everybody in that era was steeped in every detail of Rock And Roll. There were already TV shows about it, magazines about it and every facet of the Rock And Roll world was on a great and constant display We were just miming it. We really weren't taking people to a foreign world, so we thought 'It's got to at least make sense to fifty percent of the movie-going audience', but no, we never could have expected it to become what it has. I don't think anything would have made me think it would.”


Todd: As a voice artist, you've become synonymous with characters à la Principal Skinner or Waylon Smithers. How involved were you in the creation of those characters? Did you have real input regarding their appearance?


Harry: “That depends on what you mean by creation. Do you mean how he sounds? That was totally up to me. I would normally see a script with a name and a description, but I didn't even see the characters before we started recording, so it had to come from somewhere deep inside. Most of them had nothing to do with anybody in my life or in my experience. (Reverend) Lovejoy was towards the end of the process of dealing with the characters. They'd already introduced a lot of the people that I did by that point, so for him, I was running back in my memory to a real reverend who was a televangelist that I had done as a character on a couple of shows. ...And it had some of the same vocal quality, but had a different accent that was more pronounced that Lovejoy ended up having. ...This is something I don't remember, but somebody in the writing staff remembered this because he did it recently and thought 'Oh, so I guess that could be true'. It was at a read through because we read through all the scripts before we record it. And I believe this was at a readthrough where Ned Flanders was to make his first appearance. In the script, Flanders was supposed to say 'Okey-Dokey', and for some reason, he remembers that I changed it and it came out as 'Okily-Dokily' (laughs). And it somehow made it all even funnier, so it all stayed.”


Selected Works

The Big Uneasy (2010)

Songs Pointed And Pointless (2007)

Godzilla (1998)

It Must Have Been Something I Said (1994)

Wayne's World 2 (1993)

A League Of Their Own (1992)

The Simpsons (1990 - Present)

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

The Right Stuff (1983)

Le Show (1983 - Present)

Saturday Night Live (1979)

America 2-Night (1978)

Fernwood 2 Night (1977)

Laverne & Shirley (1976 - 1982)


harryshearer.com

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