Harry Shearer may be one of the regular Christopher Guest cabal, but this 64-year-old is an actor, best selling author and hosts a weekly radio show on America’s National Public Radio. Shearer began performing in the early 1950s as a child actor on “The Jack Benny Show” and in the feature “Abbott and Costello Go to Mars” (1953).
He took time off to grow up, attend UCLA and began graduate work at Harvard before returning to performing. Shearer co-founded the comedy group The Credibility Gap with whom he re-entered films in the little-seen comedy “Cracking Up” (1977). He teamed up with actor-director Albert Brooks to write and act in “Real Life” (1978) before returning to TV for a season on “Saturday Night Live”.
Shearer went on to craft various projects that showcased his knack for voices and social satire beginning with “The TV Show” (1979), a busted pilot for a sketch comedy series co-written and produced with Rob Reiner. He co-starred with future collaborators Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Billy Crystal.
Shearer and company knowingly lampooned aging rockers and their vanity movies with the hilarious and influential “This Is Spinal Tap” (1984). Starring and scripted by Shearer, Guest, McKean and Reiner (who also directed), the film told the fictional story of English rock band Spinal Tap while spoofing such “rockumentaries” as Led Zeppelin’s “The Song Remains the Same” (1976), The Who’s “The Kids Are Alright” (1979) and, most notably, Martin Scorsese’s document of the “final” band concert “The Last Waltz” (1978). A huge cult success, the film became a prototype for future mock documentary features.
Shearer performed small roles in some big screen hits “The Fisher King” (1991), “A League of Their Own” (1992) and “Wayne’s World 2” (1993) but he saved his creative juices for his own TV and radio projects. Shearer has written, produced, directed and starred in several cable specials since the mid-80s.
He wrote and starred in the occasionally uproarious public radio program, “Le Show” where political comedy still thrives. Shearer has also been part of the animated phenomenon “The Simpsons”, providing voices for Mr. Burns, Smithers, Reverend Lovejoy, Principal Skinner, Ned Flanders, God, the Devil and Hitler among others, the further results will hit the big screen next year.
Shearer is currently part of Christopher Guest’s “For Your Consideration”, a satire on Hollywood’s Indie film scene. In the film, Guest’s debut feature director Jay Berman steers cast and crew through a typically tumultuous independent film “Home for Purim,” an intimate period drama about a Jewish family’s turbulent reunion on the occasion of the dying matriarch’s favourite holiday.
When Internet-generated rumours begin circulating that three of the film’s stars–faded luminary Marilyn Hack, journeyman actor and former hot dog pitchman Victor Allan Miller [played by Shearer], and ingénue Callie Webb–may be perpetrating Award-worthy performances, hence a rumble of excitement rattles the cast.
Despite suffering a recent death in the family, it was a slightly melancholy Mr. Shearer that talked one-on-one with Paul Fischer
Question: When Chris Guest says, okay, we’re ready to do another movie you obviously just say I’m there, no problem.
Shearer: I say when do you want me and where do I go.
Question: Right. How much easier is it to do a Guest film and you come back? Does the process change, is it easier, is it more challenging at this point?
Shearer: I don’t think it becomes easier because it’s always daunting. You’re still diving from the high board, into a pool that you’re not sure is filled with water. But the fear is mitigated a little bit because of your familiarity with your colleagues in the sense that the trepidation is the same but the trust has increased, is the best way I can put it.
Question: How different was the experience doing this movie than the last one?
Shearer: Well, you know, the absence of music was a big difference. It was such a treat to have music be around us all the time, you know, during Mighty Wind. And also I had done that character… you know, we had done the Folks men characters for almost 20 years by that point, so we knew those guys pretty well. This was a new character from scratch so it was a little more challenging. On the other hand, being an actor I know what this guy goes through.
Question: Well that’s the thing. While it deals specifically with Hollywood and can be perceived as a Hollywood insider film anyone who thinks that actors have it easy if they look at the movie stars will get a different sense of that when they see a film like this. Do you agree with that?
Shearer: Well I mean I query whether Tom Cruise goes through the same thing that Victor Allen Miller does…
Question: Right, but the people who are the middle echelon of actors who work for a living as opposed to becoming movie stars are the ones who are depicted in this film.
Shearer: Yes. I think the iconic image in this movie of their life is the image of Victor waiting by the phone, because that’s what these guys spend most of their lives doing.
Question: Which is quite depressing if you think about it.
Shearer: Yes, it is. And, you know, they’re not just waiting to hear about awards they’re waiting to hear if they’re working again, ever. And I mean I don’t have this anymore but I remember not so long ago when I thought there was a likelihood that I was going to be asked to leave show business. You know, it’s like your time is up please, please leave the business.
Question: How do you react to something like that?
Shearer: Well what I did for Victor was sort of take away all my coping mechanisms, and one of my major coping mechanisms is ‘do other stuff’, so I just wrote a book for example.
Question: Which is?
Shearer: It’s a novel called Not Enough Indians. It just came out. It’s a funny book – if I do say so myself. So, you keep trying to keep busy whether the phone rings or not and it is the best way to avoid staring at the phone.
Question: And you have a day job too, right. That little tiny TV show…
Shearer: That little… yeah, the show with the yellow people. Yeah. And then the radio show.
Question: How are things going with the Simpsons movie?
Shearer: We have been working on it since June. We continue to work on it. I think they just had a test screening – top secret test screening somewhere in the South Pacific or somewhere where they used to explode H bombs. That’s all I know.
Question: Do you think that to try to turn a 30 minute sitcom into a feature would be a daunting task? Do you think that a Simpson’s movie is genuinely workable?
Shearer: Well if you’re asking conceptually, because I can’t tell you anything about the actual film or you’ll be killed, but conceptually…
Question: What a way to go though.
Shearer: It is… it’s a good cause. (Laughter)
Shearer: For the greater riches of 20th Century Fox. But conceptually I don’t think it’s that difficult. I mean the South Park movie I thought was a brilliant expansion…
Question: So when you do an animated feature normally those things take forever and a day but because I guess they’re not animating the movie in a different way to the television show…
Shearer: See, I don’t even know that.
Question: You’re just voicing it and that’s basically it, right?
Shearer: I mean we’re doing the performances and we’re doing recording pretty much weekly.
Question: Well how long is the process… I mean most animated films take five years; this is only taking one. So how much time do you have to spend in the studio…
Shearer: Well as I say we’re there pretty much like every week…
Question: Doing both the TV show and the movie?
Shearer: Oh, yeah. I mean the TV is every week no matter what, but I mean now we’re getting calls every week to do the movie as well, and that’s been basically since June. So there’s been a lot of recording on the movie. A lot of rewrites.
Question: Tell me about your decision you made into doing your radio show, which obviously has nothing to do with acting, all to do with mostly politics and the often silliness of the media. How did you came up with the idea of doing that and how much of a kick do you have continuing to do that?
Shearer: It was my idea because I don’t do standup and I needed a place to sort of work every week no matter what and write and develop new characters. And radio is something that I’ve done for so long. I learned the technology of it very early so that I can do it all myself and so it’s… I don’t require a large support staff and it’s basically utterly self contained with me and my computer, and that makes it possible to do it in any circumstance, if I’m here or if I’m in another city.
Question: So you don’t actually go to NPR studios or a particular studio and work everyday you can do it from home.
Shearer: I do it from home. I usually go to ‘a’ studio to put everything together and generate the live show, but it’s… you know, when I’m in a city my assistant finds some studio – it may be an NPR station it may not be – just to originate from. And sometimes I do the show from there and sometimes I’ve done it all on the computer and just handed them a CD and say play it. So it’s… it’s the relative ease of radio that’s allowed me to keep doing it, you know, and the fact that in that particular environment I have no executive to report to. I have no memos to read. I have no meetings to go to. So it’s strictly the creative work and the interaction with the audience.
Question: What role is recent political events going to play in your next broadcast?
Shearer: Ah, you mean the election? I’m sad to say that because of this little private thing that’s sort of made me kind of melancholy it’s probably not going to be the freshest show in the world this week. But I do think that, sweet as it is to see the prospect of some great television hearings in the future, I do think there’s going to be some stuff to laugh at about these new guys too.
Question: What are you doing next, Harry, I mean apart from the Simpsons?
Shearer: I’m partners in a musical comedy about J. Edgar Hoover that we’re trying to get on the London stage right now.
Question: When will that debut do you think?
Shearer: Ah, as soon as I can make it happen. But, you know, I don’t know.
Question: And you would play Hoover?
Shearer: No, no. Kelsey Grammer probably would play Hoover. And I’d play Walter Winchell. So that’s the plan.