Harry Shearer started out in radio and continually returns to it; he's dabbled in virtually every medium, but radio seems tailor-made for his smooth baritone and eclectic arsenal of voices. A child star on The Jack Benny Program, Shearer worked in television and radio throughout his childhood and teenage years. In the late ’60s, he joined The Credibility Gap, a radio comedy group that included future collaborator and Spinal Tap bandmate Michael McKean, and in the late ’70s, Shearer became one of the first additions to the original lineup of Saturday Night Live. He also co-wrote Albert Brooks’ prescient and vastly influential mockumentary Real Life, paving the way for 1984’s This Is Spinal Tap; Shearer co-wrote and co-starred in the latter film, which became an enormous cult hit, serving as a template for many of the mockumentaries that followed. In the ’80s, Shearer rejoined Saturday Night Live, but since then, he’s had a much happier experience as a cast member on The Simpsons. In addition to providing the voices for such characters as Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner, and C. Montgomery Burns, Shearer has written a weekly column for the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine and a book about Bill Clinton. He’s also released several comedy albums, including a two-disc collection of O.J. Simpson material, and he hosts a long-running radio program called Le Show. Shearer recently directed a feature film (Teddy Bears’ Picnic) and reunited with Spinal Tap bandmates McKean and Christopher Guest for Guest’s latest mockumentary, A Mighty Wind, in which Shearer plays a member of the folk trio The Folksmen. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with Shearer about his days as a child star, improvisation, Spinal Tap, and the politics of The Simpsons.
The Onion: Not a lot of people know that you were a child actor. How did you get into performing at a young age?
Harry Shearer: I had a piano teacher when I was a kid. She at some point went through a decision to change careers, and I'd like to think I helped move her in that direction. She became a children's agent, so she asked my parents if it would be okay if she could try and get me some work, and they said "sure." Seven months went by, and we didn't hear anything from her. Then she called one day and had an audition for me for The Jack Benny Program, and I went in and got it. That was it. It was like being in heaven. I loved the show as a listener, and now I was walking through the looking glass. As a kid, I really did want to hang out with the grownups, so it was hanging out with the hippest grownups in the world. This was the nicest bunch of people I've worked with in show business, with the exception of the people around A Mighty Wind. It really was a wonderful eight years.
O: Were you intimidated to be working with Jack Benny?
HS: No, because he wasn't an intimidating person. He was very warm and approachable. I started doing his radio show first, and then did his television show. And after the third show, he came up to me and my parents and gave us a vinyl disc of the show we'd just finished doing, and hugged me, and hugged my mom. Nothing intimidating went on there. There was a high level of professionalism. He was a guy who dug the idea of other people on the show getting laughs, which sort of spoiled me for other people in comedy. I have a very strong visual memory of the first time I made him laugh. That was remarkable. I was like, "Oh, God, I just made Jack Benny laugh." I also had a friend there, and when there were problem moments, he'd help me out. And that was Mel Blanc, because I always used to sit next to Mel Blanc when we'd do the shows. When you have Jack Benny on one side and Mel Blanc on the other, you're not going to go far wrong.
O: Then you made your film debut in Abbott And Costello Go To Mars.
HS: I only worked one day on it. I had one line, which I repeated over and over again, which was "But how does the spaceship work?" I was working with Lou [Costello]. Bud Abbott wasn't there that day. I remember much more about the next movie I did, which was The Robe, where I was the first Cinemascope kid.
O: Did it make you feel different from other kids, to be making movies and appearing on Jack Benny's show?
HS: Yeah, but as I say, I thought the grownups had the hip stuff anyway. I was never into candy and games and clowns. But I would come back to public school for usually about half the year. I was ahead enough in class anyway, so I was out of my peer group to begin with. It was actually better for me to be out of school a lot, because I was two years younger than everybody, which is a bad situation, socially. The more I was in this other world, the better.
O: Did you always want to be in show business? Did you ever want to do anything different?
HS: Oh, yeah. This was going to be something I was going to do as a kid, and then I'd stop when I was 15 and have a serious adult life. I thought maybe journalism, maybe government, maybe politics, maybe teaching. I tried a little of all those things, and as soon as I could, I got back to show business.
O: Your web site says you were the original Eddie Haskell on Leave It To Beaver.
HS: Yeah, that was just on the pilot. I don't even remember doing the show. I just remember that when we sat around the dinner table afterwards, my parents said they didn't really want me to be a regular in a series. It was fine with them if I did occasional work, as I'd been doing, but they thought that would tip the balance a bit much, putting me too far into the show-business world and a little too far from a normal childhood. I don't know whether it got offered or not, but they made the decision that they weren't going to accept it if it was offered.
O: Did that make you mad?
HS: No. As I say, I don't remember. Some shows stick out in my mind, but that one didn't, so I can't remember whether it was particularly fun or not fun. It was just another day, another show to do. As long as I kept working, it didn't upset me.
O: Which shows stick out in your mind?
HS: I remember doing a show with Ann Sothern, The Ann Sothern Show. I remember doing the Hitchcock show. I remember doing all these Benny shows. I remember doing a live Dodge commercial on The Lawrence Welk Show. The strangest things stand out. Jack Benny had done a movie in the '40s called The Horn Blows At Midnight, which hadn't been a big success, so it became a big joke on his show. That was his joke flop. So about 12 years later, there was this Sunday-afternoon, very classy television show called Omnibus. They usually did operas and things with sculptures. This was back when network television knew there were such things. One week, they decided to go a little light. Everyone had heard of this movie because it was a running joke on the Benny show, but very few people had seen it. So they did a television production from Los Angeles of The Horn Blows At Midnight, and I was in that. I remember doing The Red Skelton Show live and having him ad-libbing all around me. I remember going, "Hey, I'm 9 years old. I'm sticking with the script, I don't know about you." Those are some of the things I remember.
O: Was there much improvisation in radio and the early days of television?
HS: No, it was all scripted. And what Skelton was doing was technically not improvisation. He was ad-libbing. He was just making up stuff, but he didn't listen to anybody else, and he didn't care what anybody else said, and that's why I didn't particularly enjoy it. It was with no warning. I mean, he'd rehearsed the script, but then when we went live on the air, he started ad-libbing. I felt that was a little unfair to a 9-year-old. Otherwise, everything was scripted.
O: How did The Credibility Gap get started?
HS: Well, they started before I got there. It was a bunch of newsmen at the number two station in town, and they wanted to do more than just straight news. It being the number two station, they were willing to try something different. They were at it for about three months, and then, since they weren't professionals at this, they started burning out one by one. So the station was in the market for people who had voice talent and comedy talent. I'd heard about it from a friend, so I brought over a tape, flung it on the receptionist's desk nervously, and then ran home. By the time I got home, there was a message on my answering machine asking, "Can you come to work tomorrow?"
O: Your web site also mentions that The Credibility Gap was associated with Firesign Theater.
HS: We were connected to them in people's minds, because in both cases, it was four guys on the radio. At the time, both of us were on the air from a station in Pasadena, both doing a new kind of comedy for that era. The Firesign Theater was more surreal and we were more real, I guess. We were basically doing comedy about the news of the day, and they were doing comedy about the state of people's minds.
O: Did you consider The Credibility Gap to be countercultural, as well?
HS: I guess, in that era. We were basically just trying to make people laugh, but we had this great straight line every day, which was called the news. We just got better and better.
O: What attracted you to radio?
HS: I'd always loved radio. I loved Bob And Ray. I loved Stan Freberg. Then, when I started doing it with The Credibility Gap, we did three 10-minute shows a day. You can't do that on television. You can get an awful lot of effects into the customer's mind for a great deal less time and money in radio than you can in television. I was basically a studio rat in those days, hanging out late at night, learning the board, and learning new tricks. You could do that with radiO: You could learn everything you need to know on your own. Whereas television is pretty much a group operation. You can't learn the cameras and the lights and the switchers and all that stuff.
O: Why do you think conservatives have such a strong hold on talk radio?
HS: I think there are two reasons right now. First of all, the people who are branded conservatives in talk radio were radio guys first, and picked up this conservative shtick when they figured out that that's what was happening. Rush Limbaugh was a Top 40 DJ and learned radio. The guys the liberals put on the air, Mario Cuomo or Jim Hightower, are pols, and they sound terrible on the radio. The first thing you've got to do is know your craft, and then you can do something else with it. But there hasn't yet been somebody in this era–there have been plenty in earlier times–who really was a broadcaster first and then the politics have come in the wake of that. I think that until you do that, you won't really be successful. The other thing is, on the extreme right side of the agenda, there's been a tradition of Christian fundamentalist right-wing preachers on the radio. I think a lot of people grew up with that and then wanted something like that from more commercial stations. There's not a tradition of left-wing rabbis on the radio haranguing people.
O: Was any specific band the inspiration for either Spinal Tap or The Folksmen?
HS: No. We basically, in both cases, were combining bits and pieces of different groups and different individuals in groups we'd seen over the years. It's always been a pastiche. There are a lot of people walking around saying, "That's about us." That's nice, but it's not true. In neither case was it about a particular band.
O: Did you have any idea Spinal Tap would have the longevity it's had?
HS: Absolutely not. We were trying to sell it to these Hollywood studios who were telling us that rock 'n' roll movies never work. We kept saying, "No, this is a story that's pretty familiar to people. We're not introducing them to anything they don't really know." So I thought it would at least have some resonance with the public. But nobody makes a movie thinking it's still going to be watched and talked about and quoted 20 years later. It's just a wonderful stroke of luck, and it's doubly improbable because when the movie opened theatrically, it was not that big a success. That movie rose to prominence because it was one of the first films to benefit from the home-video revolution. People found out about it on video much more than they did from seeing it in the theaters. We were chased out of theaters–not because people weren't coming to see the movie, but because we were distributed by a company that was in the process of going bankrupt. The theater business, we learned at that point, is very much about "Hey, if you want our big blockbuster at Christmas time, you'll play our piece of crap in April." So we came out in March and were doing very well, but Paramount had a picture that they wanted to shove down people's throats, and they were saying, "Hey, we've got this big Christmas picture." The company we were being distributed by said, "We'll be in Chapter 11 by Christmas."
O: How did working on A Mighty Wind differ from working on This Is Spinal Tap?
HS: My role in the picture was totally different. In This Is Spinal Tap, Chris, Michael, Rob [Reiner], and I were the co-creators of the movie, so we were involved in every step, from the devising of it to the casting of it to the writing of the songs together to the acting. Then Rob went behind the camera. In this picture, Chris, Michael, and I had created The Folksmen and written some Folksmen songs, but the devising of the picture was done by Christopher and Eugene Levy, the co-writers. We all came in afterwards and, as in Tap, we did consult on how our characters looked and dressed. As in Tap, we improvised the dialogue. But it's Christopher and Eugene's concept, and it's Christopher's movie.
O: What did the scripts for both films look like?
HS: For Spinal Tap, we wrote it basically just because the film company needed something to hang their $2 million on. But Christopher's script looks like a movie script, but with the dialogue missing. A movie script more than anything else is a plan of action for the crew. Everybody in the crew looks at the script to see what they're going to do. It has to contain where you are, and how many people are there, and what they do, and what time of day it is, and what time of year it is. All that information tells the different departments on a picture, "Okay, we've got to do this today." It's got all that information, but it doesn't have the dialogue. So it looks, in form, like a movie script where someone came in and hit "delete" on all the blocks of dialogue.
O: How would you compare creating comedy and making music?
HS: Hmmm. They're both very satisfying. I don't know. I can't even conceptualize that. The thing about this stuff is, analysis doesn't really help the doing of it. One analyzes it as little as possible. I think probably… Music often happens even faster than comedy in terms of the creation. Sometimes, songs spill out of you very fast, and sometimes you have to wrangle them to the floor. But the same thing is true of comedy, where sometimes it really flows. I think in most cases, if you're with good people, comedy creation happens faster in collaboration. That's how I can tell if it's a good collaboration: If it's faster than me by myself, then it works. If it's slower than me by myself, then I get out of the room. Music can happen with equal ease as a solo or collaborative venture, it seems to me. I wrote one of the songs in the picture by myself, and then I wrote a couple with Michael, and a couple with Chris and Michael, so it doesn't seem as dramatic a difference as in comedy, between working alone and working with a collaborator.
O: Why do you think more comedies aren't improvised? Why is it still such an anomaly?
HS: It works in the right hands. You're leaving out all the really bad imitations of Spinal Tap that have come out over the years and proved that it's not as easy as it looks. You really do have to choose very carefully–which Chris does–people who can do this work in a very particular way. You're not just looking for laughs, but you're trying to do the characters first, and then the laughs come afterwards. Also, there's too much trust involved for most people in Hollywood to put up with it. There's such rampant insecurity and fear in that town, in that industry, that the idea of trusting the director, who in turn trusts the actors, who in turn trust the audience… That's just a totally foreign concept. "People are monkeys," is the way they think, so you can't trust the actors, and God knows you can't trust the audience. You can't trust anybody, so you have to nail everything down, which is why all these movies look so nailed-down.
O: Do you think studios feel contempt for audiences?
HS: Absolutely. You can see it every day in the stuff they put out, and the way they talk to them. That's one of the differences. We try to trust audiences to get the joke. Before Spinal Tap came out, the guy from the studio said to us, "Don't you think we have to, in the first 30 seconds, wink at the audience to let them know you're kidding?" "No, no, that's exactly what we don't have to do, but thanks for the input." Those people are in control, but Chris is in this very enviable situation where the studio is not in control. They basically say, "It's your movie, so whatever you want to do is fine." Very few people have that.
O: How did you get on The Simpsons?
HS: Matt [Groening] was a fan of my radio show, and knew I did a bunch of characters on there, so when The Simpsons was going from one minute to a half-hour, his partner Sam Simon called me up and said, "Matt and I really want you to do this show." I said, "Nah, I don't want to do a cartoon show." But they were like, "No, it'll be fun. It'll be really fun." They twisted my arm a little bit, and that's how I came to do it.
O: What was your first impression of The Simpsons?
HS: I thought it was funny. I thought it was very peculiar that the members of the cast–the cast that was held over from the one-minute pieces on The Tracey Ullman Show–were so adamant about not being known to the public as the people behind these voices. I thought it was a pretty cool way to work. It was not done the way normal animation is done, where it's written, then drawn, then voiced. We did the acting first, after the writing, and then the animation followed us. At the time, when we created these characters vocally, we had no idea what they looked like. So it was just guessing. "How about this? Okay, how about this?"
O: Did you have any idea that you'd still be doing the voices 15 years later?
HS: No, I honestly didn't think that there'd still be a Fox network.
O: It does seem a little ironic that The Simpsons is probably the most overtly left-wing show on network television, but it's on the most right-wing network.
HS: Well, first of all, I think both those assumptions need to be questioned. The Simpsons really did take a lot more shots at Bill Clinton than they have at George W. Bush. The first group of writers was probably, I'm guessing, more to the left than the more recent groups of writers have been. Harvard Lampoon, where a lot of these guys come from, has never been a bastion of leftism. I wouldn't say that they were classically satirical in their approach. It did seem to be, at times, satire more aimed at the powerless than at the powerful. I think The Simpsons ultimately ends up spraying its shots across the board. The right-wingness of Fox is basically the news channel. I don't think the broadcast network has any politics at all. It's sub-political at best.
O: Well, I'm just thinking that Mr. Burns, for example, does not represent a flattering picture of capitalism.
HS: No, no, he does not. I think the one thing the writers across the board at The Simpsons share, whether they're left or right, is Matt's essential suspicion of authority figures. I think that's what suffuses the show, rather than a political agenda per se. They're on the side of the family, and against all the authority figures and institutions that beset this family.
O: Would you say that the essence of satire is contempt for corrupt authority figures?
HS: Well, I don't know if it's contempt. I did a satirical movie [Teddy Bears' Picnic] about a year ago about the retreat where the richest and most powerful men in the country go for about a week, which is a real place. It can be as brutal as that, but what I learned from doing that picture was, if you're going to do something that lasts 90 minutes, you can't really do it with stick figures. Where comedy and satire meet is, you can't take it easy on these people. They have the power and they have the guns, but you also have to understand something: If you and I were put in the position that they're in, chances are better than 9 out of 10 that we'd act the same way they do.
O: Power corrupts.
HS: Yeah, and privilege has its own way of seeing the world. It's not about the kind of people they are; it's about the situation they're in.
O: Who is your favorite character on The Simpsons?
HS: C. Montgomery Burns. He reminds me of people I've worked for.
O: Anybody in particular?
HS: Everybody in particular. No, just a few. Including some at the moment. You figure it out.
O: How often do people ask you to do voices from The Simpsons?
HS: About as often as I say no.
O: Does it get irritating after a while?
HS: No! Anybody who says that having the public recognize them and relate to the work they do is irritating should get into another line of work. You're in this business for people to know what you do and like it.