There is no good place to begin with Harry Shearer, because he doesn’t sit still long enough to allow one the chance to focus. He is a blur, forever in motion–on his way to the radio station, on his way from the movie studio, on his way to the publisher’s office, on his way from the concert stage. One minute he’s Ned Flanders, giving Homer Simpson the okiley-dokiley; the next, he’s hair-band bassist Derek Smalls, yanking a foil-covered cucumber out of his pants in order to pass through airport security; the next, he’s an anxious Eisenhower lackey, searching for astronauts with the right stuff. Sometimes, behind a computer’s keyboard or a microphone or Bill Maher’s swollen head, he’s even Harry Shearer, expostulating about Bills and Dubyas and Dicks (Nixon or Clark, your choice). He is, in fact, as ubiquitous as oxygen–or “promos for The Weakest Link,” Shearer says, sounding over a phone very much like, well, himself.
“I have this theory about being a moving target,” he explains, “and it works, because just around the time one situation sours, another one opens up. One has to keep sort of going with the flow, as the kids used to say when they were kids.”
When the 57-year-old Shearer was a kid, he was already consumed by and with the popular culture: He made movies with Abbott and Costello, appeared as Eddie Haskell in the pilot for Leave it to Beaver, showed up on The Jack Benny Show and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, even made his way into Henry Coster’s 1953 film The Robe, the first shot in Cinescope. As writer Karl French notes in last year’s freakishly fetishistic This is Spinal Tap: The Official Companion, Shearer “may in fact be the missing link between Jean Simmons and Gene Simmons.” Raised in Los Angeles, he’s as much a part of the town as the sign in the hills and the smog above them. He’s character and commentator, play-actor and pundit, smart guy and smart-ass. In other words, Shearer is what Al Franken wishes he were in his wildest dreams.
He constantly pens columns for whomever will give him space and a paycheck, be it The Observer in London, The New York Times or the Los Angeles Times (a collection of his columns for the latter, written between 1989 and 1992 and dealing with everything from L.A. mayors to mini-malls to Madonna, appear in the 1993 book Man Bites Town: Notes of a Man Who Doesn’t Take Notes). In February 1999, Ballantine published his book It’s the Stupidity, Stupid, in which he insists that Bill Clinton was despised in large part because he had an affair with “the least powerful, least credentialed women cleared into his official compound.”
Shearer likewise turns up on NPR’s Fresh Air so often they should think about renaming it Fresh Har; he’s the go-to guy when Terry Gross needs a jester to talk politics (he was ever-present last November, the celebrity equivalent of the word “chad”). This is in addition to his weekly show (titled Le Show) on KCRW-FM, the Santa Monica-based public radio station that allows him free rein to talk about everything from George Dubya to “Yob culture” (the British, that is) to the XFL’s dismal ratings. (Le Show is available over the Internet at www.kcrw.org.)
Shearer also remains one of the few constants on The Simpsons, which limps toward the end of its 12th season; it’s perhaps easier to name the characters he doesn’t voice (all of the Simpsons) than those he does (everyone else, for the most part; he is a one-man cast of thousands). Then, of course, there is Spinal Tap, the band that will never break up no matter how many drummers overdose on cold medication or spontaneously combust. Later this year, the band–featuring David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) and Nigel Tufnel (Chris Guest) on vocals and guitar and Derek Smalls (Shearer) on bass–will regroup, once more, for a series of tour dates, including a stop at Carnegie Hall. “Or,” Shearer says, “as Derek likes to refer to it, Carnegie Fucking Hall.”
He’s the performer who’s able to keep reinventing himself while, along the way, satisfying his urges to create or merely play. He’ll slum it in a blockbuster movie like Godzilla just to act like a child among the Tinkertoys, then turn around and pen a piece for The Observer about how Al Gore was at his most popular when he kissed Tipper at the Democratic National Convention–meaning his “peak campaign moment…occurred when he had his mouth shut.” Shearer is, in fact, one of the luckier among us.
“That’s exactly right,” he says, in a tone of voice that suggests grand revelation. “Luck is the right word. I think a lot of people who manage to have careers in show business sort of lose sight of that along the way–how goddamned lucky we are. It is luck. To the right of you and to the left of you, you see signs of the people who aren’t as lucky all the time. Everything works for a different purpose: The radio show works because no matter what else I’m doing, it makes me create something every week, and since I never liked doing stand-up, it really is the most direct connection I have to an audience on a consistent basis. And it’s pretty remarkable in that in a supposedly mass medium, my connection with the audience is absolutely direct, assuming a radio station gets off its ass and plugs into the network. Nobody ever reads the scripts before the show goes on the air; there are never any meetings afterwards about content or anything else, so it really is just me and the audience.
“That’s extremely different from a movie, which is intensely collaborative. Just because there’s no studio involved doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of opinions to be considered at every step of the way, ya know? And writing is solitary and depressing, as writing always is. And then acting is kind of a lark, and the biggest lark is getting onstage with Spinal Tap.”
If Shearer has been Derek Smalls since 1984, he’s been nearly the entire population of Matt Groening’s Springfield for 12 seasons; indeed, he and the cast are the only remaining originals left since The Simpsons debuted in December 1989. And while there are those among us who believe the show needs to be put out of its misery–the nonstop barrage of reruns now serves only to remind us of how sharp the decline has been in recent years–Shearer will say that he finds doing the show now as rewarding as he did a decade ago, but only on occasion.
“It depends on the script,” he says, sounding at first like a man trying his best to be diplomatic. “There are writers’ names that, when I see them on a script, I get very happy and look forward to the week, because I know there’s gonna be a pretty sound script that is satirical but smart and not just sort of pointlessly parodic, if I may. And there are other writers’ names that make my heart sink. It’s sort of unavoidable this far along that that’s going to be the way it is.”
Though he never comes out and says it–It’s time to kill The Simpsons–Shearer does say there have been many times when he and the other cast members have had to castigate writers for being too careless with the characters. He mentions one episode in particular: “The Principal and the Pauper,” which aired in September 1997. Writer Ken Keeler handed over a script in which Principal Skinner (voiced by Shearer) is revealed to be, in fact, a former “no-good street punk” named Armin Tamzarian–a little plot point that negates seven years’ worth of back story. When Shearer saw the story, he was quite unhappy. And unable to do a damned thing about it.
“I said, ‘That’s so wrong. You’re taking something that an audience has built eight years or nine years of investment in and just tossed it in the trash can for no good reason, for a story we’ve done before with other characters. It’s so arbitrary and gratuitous, and it’s disrespectful to the audience,'” he recalls. “Then it was, ‘OK, action.'” He laughs. “Really.”
Somewhere along the way, Shearer also found the time to write and direct a film called Teddy Bear’s Picnic, which is only now beginning to hop on the film-festival circuit. (It premieres at the USA Film Festival in Dallas, having only just been transferred from digital to film.) Starring his old friend Michael McKean, George Wendt (Cheers‘ Norm), Fred Willard and Alan Thicke, the film offers a sneak behind the velvet curtains of an exclusive Northern California retreat where, Shearer explains, “some of the richest white men in America cavort like frat boys.” (Essentially, they drink till they drop and dress up as women.)
Shearer has directed a few shorts in recent years, but he hasn’t helmed a full-length feature in 13 years, since Martin Mull’s Portrait of a White Marriage. And, quite simply, the reason he returned to filmmaking was because he missed the rush. But unlike his pal Christopher Guest’s films, Teddy Bear’s Picnic is not at all improvised, partially because Shearer could ill afford to spend the time or money sifting through dirt to find gold. Such things are impossible when you’re paying for the movie out of your own pockets, no matter how deep other people might think they are. Shearer mentions something about what little effect This is Spinal Tap seems to have had–on the culture and his influence. There is a hint of bitterness in his humor, which is why it’s so effective: He delivers anger with a grin.
“I was saying something to my wife the other day about how people in this town love to quote H.L. Mencken: ‘Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public,'” he says. “But it’s wrong. People do go broke doing that all the time. Talk to the guys who lost $50 million on a movie called Super Mario Bros. And yet they get to keep doing it. Nobody ever says, ‘Ah ha, you made a mistake by underestimating the public. You can’t do this anymore.’ But you have low grosses with something smart or subtle, and they use it as an object lesson: ‘See, the dogs don’t eat that food!’ And you never get to do it again. So the deck is totally stacked.
“But it’s stacked by the industry. I don’t think it’s the audience. The audience doesn’t impose the rule of mediocrity and blatancy. It’s the industry. So, yeah, in that sense, you really have to fight to get a different style across. But I’ve felt that for a long time and in a lot of places, which is sort of why I try to make my own little spaces within this industry.”