Whether It’s Spinal Tap, “The Simpsons” Or Creating His Own Brand Of Musical Merriment, Harry Shearer Proves Comedy Isn’t Always A Laughing Matter
By Lee Zimmerman
Considering his amazing capacity for creativity over the years — credits that include key roles in cult classics like This Is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind, cultural landmarks such as “The Simpsons” and a series of pointedly political, Grammy-winning comedy albums — it seems astounding that Harry Shearer finds time to do anything other than work, much less chat. And indeed, having recently completed the taping of his weekly radio show, and with a trip to London and preparation of yet another new project looming in the next 24 hours, Syndicated News felt fortunate that he found time to fit us in.
The reason for our conversation is his recent album, aptly titled Can’t Take A Hint. More so than any of his other albums, it features a cast of all-star musicians, many of whom taking starring roles in songs that Shearer originally wrote for his aforementioned radio show. It’s an impressive roster indeed, one that includes Fountains of Wayne, Dr. John, actress/comedienne Jane Lynch, singer Jamie Cullum, Brian Wilson arranger Jeffrey Foskett, ace bassist Danny Thompson, guitarists Steve Lukather and Jeff “Skunk” Bassist, and singer Judith Owen, who also happens to be Shearer’s wife of nearly twenty years.
Is it true that you got your start in show business as a child actor on “The Jack Benny Show?”
Yes, The Benny show was my start in show business, I’ve been working my way down ever since.
Still, This Is Spinal Tap was the vehicle that practically made you a household name. Did you have any idea at the time what an incredible impact that film would have?
Anybody who said they expected that is lying through their teeth or other parts of their body. We made a film for a struggling studio which went bankrupt the same year so even though people were filling theaters to see the movie, we couldn’t stay in theaters long enough to make it a real theatrical hit. In one particular instance, we were kicked out of a theater — even though we were selling out — because Paramount told the theater that unless you want our Christmas picture, you’ve got to give us your theater now, whatever it was, in the middle of April. That’s how the movie business works. Given that, it was still one of the first non-porn movies to make a splash in home video and that’s really what saved us. It’s absolutely amazing, and yet, according to the people who own it now, it’s never made a profit. That’s another part of the movie business.
You guys seem to have had such a natural affinity for the material, both in This Is Spinal Tap and in its successor, A Mighty Wind. Did you have a personal connection to the music world that you could draw from?
In both cases, we were pretty close to the material. It wasn’t like we were playing a polka band. We knew a lot about both genres for having grown up around the tail end of the folk music boom and having friends in various parts of the rock ‘n; roll world. So we were not having to make things up. We were only having to retrieve things that we heard, or things that we’d seen, or things that we’d experienced. We are blessed to be funny at times, but the thing that kind of delights each of us is to be able to surprise and delight the other guys with the nuances and facts and characters that we can retrieve from these experiences, and to say “what about this, what about that?” In a way, that’s our way of entertaining each other, and it’s also just filling the screen with as much real stuff as we possibly can in the hope and faith that if we fill it with enough real stuff, something funny will happen.
And yet, you seemed so earnest.
That’s one of the things we’re making fun of — the earnestness of those people. And you couldn’t be a frontline cancer researcher and have more earnestness than these guys in a heavy metal band. It is sort of amusing.
Was it difficult to make the transition when it came to writing for your albums?
No not at all. I write a lot of music as material for my radio show, and more and more, I found I was spending my time playing music or writing music. At first, I put out one almost entirely spoken word record – I think there was one song on it – a song about Barbara Waters called “Age and Facelift” but it soon became obvious to me that my style of spoken word comedy wasn’t connecting at this point in time. People think of comedy records — if they think of them at all — as guys doing stand-up. So I figured I might as well do something that fits the recording medium, which is making songs, which I enjoy doing anyway. So starting with my album #Pointed and Pointless#, I started doing as good as I could at taking these songs to the highest level they could be. On this record we decided to move it up a notch by having all these guest vocalists and instrumentalists. We’ve always had great instrumentalists on the records, but to have guests vocalists too was a change.
You seem generous to a fault. On many of the songs, you actually cede the spotlight to a guest singer.
That was sort of the idea. I do know a lot of people in the music business who happen to be extremely talented and so I try to take advantage of that. On my best day, I’m an okay bass player. I can sing certain things okay. Probably given the criteria one might give it, I might be the best person to sing some songs, but there are also certain songs that I’m not the best person to sing, so we tried to get other people to sing them.
How exactly did these songs come about?
I would do these piano demos for the radio show, and basically that set the stylistic template, given my modest skills on the keyboard. Then I would bring in the producer – C.J. Vanston in this case — and he would use those demos as a template, and because he’s a brilliant arranger, he could see what those songs demanded stylistically and then move them up in terms of playing, in terms of arranging. For example, on the song “A Few Bad Apples” — which is an incredibly difficult thing for me to have tried — he blew it out of the room with all these great players and created this great arrangement that I couldn’t have even envisioned in the stylistic template I brought to him in a demo form.
Many of the songs do have very rich arrangements. Do you play an active role in conceptualizing the songs?
I grew up listening to all that Sinatra stuff. So I’d say, “Couldn’t we have trombones do this?” As we’re going through, once C.J. has done the major work, there’s a very collaborative process that goes from the semi finished to the finished state of the tracks. My ideas may be little ones or big ones, but we bat them around.
Still, it seems that oftentimes people don’t take comedy seriously, especially when it comes through song.
I get pressure from the other side because my wife is a brilliant musician and a singer and songwriter. So when she first saw me veering off on this trip, she said to me, “You know, I hate funny music! It’s never really music. So if you’re going to do this, make it music.” Which was my intent anyway, but I had a good push from that direction. I’m really not a fan of comedy music where there’s someone at a piano and because it’s the most rudimentary kind of performance, it becomes a complement to call their melodies even serviceable. I bring the same sort of thing we all brought to This Is Spinal Tap and to A Mighty Wind. That is, if you’re going to do music, it’s got to be fun to play and fun to hear. If you’re using film as a medium for comedy, you don’t deliberately set out to make a technically ugly or bad film. Some people do, but we don’t respect them. So if you’re using music as your medium as your music to be funny, you shouldn’t set out to do less than the best music you can do.
You seem to be following in the footsteps of folks like the Tubes, Martin Mull and Steve Martin, artists whose intent was to be funny and yet still had great musical talent.
I could also mention Frank Zappa and Randy Newman. They never skimped on the musical side of things, even though they were most often trying to amuse. I shouldn’t put Randy Newman in the past tense, because he’s still working. But that’s a great example. I’m not comparing myself to Randy Newman, I’m just saying there’s a guy who’s trying to be amusing, but is also profound with his music.
This album isn’t as overtly political as some of your past albums, Songs of the Bushmen for example. And yet, there are many topical themes spread across this record. How did you choose what you wanted to include?
They were songs I liked the most, and then I had to figure that some of the subjects of the songs still wore well, Sarah Palin is still with us, for example. We can’t get her off the stage. Joe the Plumber recently ran for congress. So these weren’t people from way back in the past. They were still good characters as far as the people I was portraying.
There’s also a remarkable diversity in terms of song styles.
I did like the variety of styles. I was thinking the other day, I really didn’t have a definition of the record when I started it, but now that it’s done, I’ve started thinking about that even more. When someone asked me about it the other day, I realized that with this list of guests and this very stylistic array, it’s like a little variety show. I think that’s the best way to describe it. You might go to a revue and see all this stuff happening. That’s sort of the way it developed. Harry Shearer presents.
Did you know all the musicians that participated in the proceedings?
I’ve known Jamie Colum for a little while. He came on stage with Spinal Tap at Glastonbury. Danny Thompson I’ve known through Richard Thompson, who my wife has worked with. Mac Rebenack I’ve known since I started living in New Orleans. I’ve been around the music scene there a lot and we’ve run into each other and had a couple of great chats. Jane Lynch, Fountains of Wayne – hey were definitely personal relationships… The whole idea was to get people I knew because it might be easier. One or two people had to decline because their record companies wouldn’t give them permission. That’s why we have to get rid of record companies.
Fountains of Wayne seemed an especially unlikely choice on the song “Celebrity Booze Endorsers. How did you coax them into participating?
I told them I wrote this song after I was riding around listening to either Welcome Interstate Managers or Utopia Parkway in my car, and I saw this phrase “celebrity endorsers” in this article about Madonna. However, I was under their influence when I wrote this song, so I told them they had to play on it. They said, okay, and they were just like, judging by the emails that went back and forth, kind of enthusiastic about the idea. There wasn’t a lot of arm twisting involved. It was just kind of like they’re a geographically diverse band, so the main thing was trying to figure out when we were all going to be in L.A.?
What was it like watching them record?
My producer and I were just flies on the wall. We told them do this session the way you would one of yours and we’ll watch you. So it was great to watch their process, They had a lot of good ideas, I write on a piano, so in some cases they took the piano chords and transferred them into much more appropriate guitar chords. Adam had a couple of lyric ideas and a couple of chord change ideas that were great. They all contributed something. It was great to watch Fountains of Wayne in the studio creating the song.
Given your past political pontificating and the no holds barred opinions contained on your earlier efforts, do you ever get any criticism from any political sector?
I occasionally get a little pushback from liberals because I’ve been making kind of strong fun of the president lately in regards to what he’s doing. I think they think I’m supposed to be on their side. I don’t believe that the Republicans expect anyone in show business who does what I do to be on their side, at least the way the liberals do.
That’s true. If your in show biz, most people assume you’re a liberal.
If you line up Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert against a wall, I think they’d eventually ‘fess up to being supporters of this president. I don’t think I could make the same statement.
Are you ever asked for endorsements or to do a benefit for one party or another?
Occasionally, but I tell them that I don’t endorse, I don’t make public statements about who I vote for or any of that. That’s not congruent with what I view as a political comedian or a satirist’s job, which I believe is not being kept in anybody’s house.
Are there other political comedians that you fashion yourself after?
Mort Sahl absolutely. Mort was the first guy I saw who early on, after his first wave of national success, turned on the liberals and said, “I don’t belong to you either.” I don’t agree with everything he said, but I do think he was kind of consistent in saying, “I do what I think is funny.” I think the satirist’s job is to make fun of whoever has the monopoly of the guns — which is the European version — and the American version would be whoever has a majority of the guns. But Mort was profoundly influential on me in that regard. Stylistically, it’s been a different range of people – Bob and Ray, and then Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and the Goons and a lot of character comics.
Musically, who influenced you?
I’d say Sinatra. I was a fan of when he was making records at Capitol. I wasn’t a fan of that wing a ding ding period where he became a crooner, but those records in the mid to late ‘50s at Capitol were just astonishing. I would put any of those back to back with one of the later Reprise Records. I mean, he was obviously aging and he sounds it, but I loved the way his voice was so beautifully recorded at Capitol, and how it never sounded so good later on. But I’m a big rock ‘n’ roll fan, and I also love Brazilian music. I live in New Orleans so obviously I love New Orleans music as well. And I was raised on classical music. I have very, very broad musical tastes and I get exposed to things that I wouldn’t ordinarily think were my taste. For example, I love the old country writers like Mary Chapin Carpenter and I’m a big bluegrass fan… so my ears go a lot of places.
You seem to define the word “multi-tasker.” Is it hard for you to sit still?
My wife and I, the one thing we have in common — actually, we have a lot in common — is that we love our work. And it’s not a work ethic — it’s a work joy. The only thing that’s hard is to get away from is the assholes that seem to dominate in show business. Their job is to take the joy our of it and my job is to take the assholes out of it.
Still, how do you find the time to be so productive, what with the radio show, and “The Simpsons, and the records and all your other projects?
I don’t watch a lot of crap. My one big sport that I follow is basketball, so there’s six months of the year where I have that time available. And I don’t eat lunch. I don’t! I’m serious! You’d be amazed — you can get a lot done in that extra hour, hour and a half every day.
Are you at the point where you’re able to satisfy all your artistic ambitions?
As time goes on, I get more opportunity to do what I want. I was looking back the other day and thinking, in my life, I wasted some time in the ‘90s trying to get other people to let me do what I wanted to do and I finally got to the point where because I have the resources or enough of a reputation that I can just do what I want, and I don’t have to ask somebody’s permission. Or if I do have to, I get it. But there was a time where I was basically creating stuff and you never heard about it because I never got permission from anyone to release it. That makes it seem like you’re not working, but I was working just as hard then. Only now, you’re seeing the fruits of it now because I have more ability to get it out there.
We read somewhere that you were initially reluctant to work on “The Simpsons” because you thought it would be too solitary.
That’s what I feared, because it didn’t seem that much fun to go in and track these lines with no one else around. However, it turned out that the way we did it is more like an old radio comedy show where we’re all in the same room together. So it’s more like acting. Acting is as much listening as it is talking. When you can hear the other people and react to what they’re doing, then it’s a better performance and that’s what I was interested in.
So you prefer to work with other people rather than do things on your own?
I do. That would always be my choice, even though there are things that I end up doing by myself – like the radio show – because that’s just the way it is. But to me, one of the things I adored about Bob and ray, beside their comedy and their voices and just their whole aesthetic, was the fact that they worked together for all those many years. I just thought that relationship — as a listener, as a viewer, as an audience member — gave me such happiness. I coveted that for myself. By contrast, nothing made me sadder than the breakup of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. When I first saw them, I thought those guys would be working together until the day they died, because they were just so perfect with each other. Their talents blended so perfectly. Of course it ended with a lot of acrimony and that was too bad. But I love it when like-minded people work together. No three individuals are more different from each other than Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and me. We’re startlingly different individuals, but we’re like-minded enough so when we get together, we can still make each other laugh, we can still have fun playing together… nothing’s better than that.
Would you ever consider making a sequel to This Is Spinal Tap or A Mighty Wind?
I don’t think so. Chrisis involved in a television series of his own which I think is going to be scripted. I don’t want to speak for him, but the last movie we made, #For Your Consideration# — personally I don’t think it got treated very well by the studio. If it were me, I wouldn’t think about having that experience again. I loved it, but you work a long time doing all that stuff. You’ve got a comedy about award season and you release it at Christmas time. Doesn’t make much sense.
With your celebrity, are you part of the Hollywood show biz scene?
Good lord, no. I don’t get involved. I live in New Orleans, so I have a whole different group of people I regard as my friends — in New Orleans, in Los Angles and in London. Unless it’s a very close friend who we want to show support for, I will not be found at those Hollywood things. And I’ll give my money to my charities in some other way than footing the bill for a Hollywood ball.
Any plans to tour behind the new album?
I’m trying to carve out some dates. And come up with a name for theband. My band for the Bushmen record was anchored by Lee Sklar. We called it the High Value Detainees. I was in Whole Foods the other day and I saw this sign and I thought that it would be a perfect name for a band. So when we go out the next time, we’re going to call ourselves The Young White Coconuts.