- 03 Nov 16
Dublin-bound with his singer wife Judith Owen, Harry Shearer talks This Is Spinal Tap, The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live and warmongering US presidential candidates with Stuart Clark who resists the temptation to stick a cucumber down his Y-fronts.
You mightn’t necessarily be able to pick him out of an identity parade, but I guarantee you that Harry Shearer has made you laugh like a demented hyena at some point in your life.
A former child actor, the Californian made his cinematic debut in 1953 as a four-year-old alongside Abbott & Costello (“Who’s on first base?” etc. etc.); became a TV regular in the late ‘70s as part of the Saturday Night Live crew; co-wrote and co-starred as cucumber-enhanced bassist Derek Smalls in 1984’s This Is Spinal Tap, if you will, rockumentary, and in addition to presenting the weekly, syndicated Le Show for American Public Radio currently voices Mr. Burns, Waylon Smithers, Principal Skinner, Ned Flanders, Reverend Lovejoy, Kent Brockman and lots more in The Simpsons for a cool $300,000 an episode. Today, like most Americans, it’s the upcoming Presidential election that is of primary interest to the affable 72-year-old who’s married to Dublin-bound singer Judith Owen.
“I’m scared of both of them,” Harry confides. “My take is: he’s more likely to get us into a war by accident, she’s more likely to get us into a war deliberately. It’s a subtle distinction.
“Until this year, I thought that Richard Nixon, who I did a Sky series on, was the most psychologically twisted personality ever to occupy the White House, but he may get a run for his money soon!” he continues. “Nixon was very smart, but had this burning resentment that never died, about the fact that he wasn’t born into the northeast elite and didn’t get all the privileges that he saw other people get. He was consumed with this determination to get what they had. The fatal flaw in him being that when he did get the top prize, he couldn’t relax, couldn’t relent, couldn’t let go. He used that power to enact a revenge on those people. He couldn’t forgive his enemies for losing to him.”
Or, to put it another way, Richard Milhous Nixon was the American Charles Haughey.
“You had your own psychologically twisted leader who had to be forcibly removed from office? Cool, I’ll have to check him out!”
I don’t think Harry will be disappointed. Having plodded its way through Obama’s two terms in the Oval Office, Saturday Night Live has regained its teeth this year with its scathing attacks on Trump, which haven’t amused The Donald one iota. What was it like joining the SNL crew in 1979 when the show was widely regarded as being at the height of its satirical powers?
What, in terms of having to compete with so many other top notch comedians, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi among them?
“No, in terms of working for a psychopath and the place being awash with cocaine. Cocaine served the same purpose as the self-actualisation cult – the Erhard Seminars Training or EST – that was big in show business circles at the time. It gave people permission to be complete assholes.”
I remember Nile Rodgers saying to me, “However decadent you imagine Studio 54 to have been, multiply by ten!”
“I went to Studio 54 once out of curiosity and left after two-and-a-half-minutes thinking, ‘This is the last place on earth I want to be.’ Cocaine is probably the least creative drug there is and made the Saturday Night Live environment really quite unbearable. I was there for a year at which point the guy running the show left, my contract expired and I went off to do Spinal Tap. Then, proving that smart people can do really stupid things, I went back to the show in ‘84/’85 thinking it would be different under new management but it wasn’t.
“My one fond Saturday Night Live memory is during my first week there helping to instigate the synchronised swimming sketch with Martin Short and Christopher Guest, which is still frequently replayed around Olympics time. It was downhill from there.”
I always thought it was rock ‘n’ roll myth but, no, Noel Gallagher confirmed recently that Liam thought Spinal Tap was a real documentary when he watched it.
“I imagine there are a lot of things in life that confuse Liam Gallagher,” Shearer deadpans. “Spinal Tap was born not out of a desire to take the piss out of the industry, but the shared frustration that movies kept on getting rock ‘n’ roll wrong. That was the animating spirit that set us going on that project.
“The attention to detail was crucial for myself, Chris, Michael and Rob. I remember going to the Troubadour, which is this really famous club in Hollywood where The Doors and The Eagles and The Byrds played, to see exactly what type of graffiti they had in the dressing-room before we filmed a backstage scene with Tap. It’s not like getting the Russian Space Programme right, y’know? This stuff is easily researched.
“I haven’t seen the Metallica, Lemmy or Anvil documentaries, but I’m told they confirm that Spinal Tap got it pretty much all right!”
When Harry signed up in 1987 to do his voice actor thing on The Simpsons, did he have any idea that almost 30-years on it would be both a global smash (North Korea excepted) and his primary source of income?
“I wasn’t particularly interested in doing an animated thing but, hey, a gig’s a gig,” he admits. “I didn’t think it would last because at the time Fox was a fledgling network in a three-network universe. It was still an analogue world with all the good positions on the dial taken up by CBS, NBC and ABC. Fox spent a chunk of money to get us decent positions in New York and L.A., but a lot of their affiliates around the country were on this shitty band called UHF that you had to stick a wire coathanger into the back of your TV to receive. It was Married With Children, then us and then NFL football, which enabled Fox to survive, if not thrive.”
Asked the inevitable “What’s your favourite Simpsons episode?” question, Shearer smiles and says: “There are too many of them to have a favourite, but the most memorable was definitely when Michael Jackson came in. There was no physical distance between us but mentally, of course, it was another story!”
While Shearer has shied away from doing stand-up himself – “I don’t like entertaining drunks!” he notes sanguinely – he’s full of admiration for those who do.
“The best standup I ever saw was Richard Pryor. He came to the Comedy Store in Hollywood, wheelchair-bound by MS, and never stopped making fun of his own problems, his own weaknesses, his own flaws as a human being. Of course, he was a brilliant comic actor as well, so he wasn’t just telling you a story; he was enacting the people in the story.”
Shearer has only run into one person, he says, who outshone Pryor in the charisma department.
“Paul Shaffer, later of the Letterman Show, and I decided to go and see Funkadelic at the Apollo up in Harlem. Standing in line, I realised that we were the only white people attending the gig. In front of us was this guy wearing a full-length mink coat. Paul nudges me and hisses, ‘It’s James fucking Brown!’ Never have you seen such a magnificent sight.”
Shearer put his record collection – “about 10,000 LPs and 5,000 CDs” – to impeccable use recently when he depped for the vacationing Jarvis Cocker on BBC 6Music.
“My dad studied to be an opera singer in Vienna before events (Hitler’s rise) prevented that and had an incredible collection of both classical and popular music from the ‘40s and early ‘50s,” Mr. Shearer’s boy fondly reminisces. “The first stuff I ploughed through was Doris Day, Frankie Lane, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra whose Songs For Swinging Lovers was a real door-opener for me. The complexity of those Nelson Riddle arrangements just blew me away. Other moments of epiphany were provided by The Beatles and The Meters who started my obsession with New Orleans music.”
Along with tunes from all of the aforementioned, Harry Shearer also treated 6Music listeners to a great anecdote about the time his wife, Judith, was recording in Studio A at Capitol Records.
“They rolled up the Steinway for her to play and Judith said, ‘Boy, you guys really don’t care of your pianos, look at all these cigarette burns.’ And they said, ‘Yeah, those are Nat King Cole’s cigarette burns, so we’re gonna leave ‘em!’”
Shearer has been Head of Looking On Adoringly this year as Judith has toured Somebody’s Child, a veritable soul, jazz, folk ‘n’ pop feast released on her and Harry’s Twanky Records.
“She was just on between Chris Difford of Squeeze and Patty Griffin at Under The Apple Tree, which is pretty much a festival of everybody Bob Harris likes,” he concludes. “Her and her band are in top form and looking forward to playing Avenue in Dublin, which has a big red circle around it on the calendar at home. I’ll be the creepy looking groupie guy right next to the stage!”