As the voices of the sinister C. Montgomery Burns and Burns’ subservient sidekick, Waylon Smithers, on The Simpsons, Harry Shearer enjoys something that most actors only dream of: acting out entire scenes of dialogue that star only himself. “I get to have a bad boss and be a bad boss at the same time,” he says wryly.
While Shearer’s voice is most recognizable from The Simpsons — he’s also Ned flanders, Principal Skinner, Reverend Lovejoy, among many others — he made his most lasting visual impression as Derek Smalls, the bass player in Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap. More recently, the 59-year-old Shearer co-starred in Christopher Guest’s folk send-up A Mighty Wind.
Yet Shearer’s most enduring gig is as radio host of Le Show. For the past 20 years, Shearer has been broadcasting a subversive mix of news, satire, and music “from deep inside your radio, from the edge of America.” Le Show airs on NPR, but it has the feel of pirate radio. Shearer does voice impressions, skits, and parody songs, but the show is at its best when he lets people in the news hang themselves with their own words. In a segment called “Apologies of the Week,” Shearer recounts in his driest baritone the empty mea culpas of the powerful and the profligate. During the war in Iraq, a simple act like reading every member of the “Coalition of the Willing” cut through the Bush administration’s propaganda better than any joke.
Mother Jones caught up with Shearer and spoke with him from his Los Angeles home about radio, media bias, and Fleischer vs. Rumsfeld.
MOTHER JONES: You were a child actor, making your film debut in Abbott & Costello Go to Mars, yet there is no Harry Shearer E! True Hollywood Story.
Harry Shearer:Thank goodness.
MJ: How have you managed to stay so fit and productive and out of trouble?
HS: Yoga. [Laughs.] I was raised by people from Europe. Even though that seems like a non sequitur, the one thing that I imbibed from them was a European concept — I know it sounds subversive in these modern times — a European concept that is totally alien to American culture, and that’s a concept called moderation. My parents would smoke one cigarette a week after Sunday breakfast. Once when I was eight they said, “Do you want to try this?” Of course I took one puff and went [coughs theatrically], and that was the end of that.
MJ: Starting with your first radio comedy group in Los Angeles, the Credibility Gap, you have been skewering the news media for more than 25 years now. What was that like in the early days?
HS: It was huge fun. We were doing three shows a day, which is like when you hear people talking about vaudeville say, “Yeah, we did seven shows a day.” It’s insane. We were writing and performing three 10-minute shows of comedy about the news. Every single day. You can make kids do a lot.
MJ: Was there less to make fun of back then?
HS: No. There were just a lot fewer media outlets. You had the AP wire and the three networks and that was all you had to keep track of. Now I’m reading half a dozen newspapers from around the world every day, and watching and listening to the BBC and other non-U.S. broadcasters as well as the welter of stuff here. The propaganda machine has gotten more sophisticated and more overwhelming. You have to read all that other stuff to be able to filter through it.
MJ:Le Show is both a news show and a comedy act — and a lot of the humor stems from the news you unearth. Is it a challenge to educate people about the subject of the joke and then tell the joke?
HS: The news is the straight line. So you have to make sure everybody has heard it. Like the story about Iraq needing lawyers for their new legal system. That was a story in the San Francisco Chronicle and it wasn’t widely passed around. But I wove it into the show because I’d gotten this goofy idea for a sketch where F. Lee Bailey is applying for work in Iraq. You had to hear that story before you understood the gag.
MJ: All governments dissemble, prevaricate, distort, and fabricate. Having lampooned four administrations with Le Show, how does this administration compare?
HS: It’s interesting. Clinton used to brag about learning lessons from Reagan. But these guys really went to the University of Deaver. From their preoccupation with putting repetitive slogans on the backdrops of every photo op — “Rebuilding America’s Economy!” “Rebuilding America’s Economy!” “Rebuilding America’s Economy!” — to their pugnacity in the face of questioning to their blitheness when confronted with, shall we say, discontinuities in the narrative, they are really amazingly Deaver-esque, even to the point where Deaver himself might be embarrassed. And then you compare the pugnacity of the hard right toward Clinton — the mantra of repeating the word “felon,” even though of course no felony was ever alleged, let alone proved — compared with the timidity of the so-called left with regard to these guys. Who’s not eating their spinach?
MJ: There seems to be a cottage industry now devoted to exposing liberal media bias.
HS: That debate obscures a lot more than it reveals. I worked in journalism, and the biases are so much more deep-seated and significant than simple ideology. One thing I’ve always observed about journalists is that left in the proximity of the people they cover for any length of time, journalists tend to begin to try to resemble the people they cover. Not in terms of protective coloration but in terms of mindset.
MJ: A sympathy develops for your subject?
HS: Of course. This debate about embedding is basically absurd: What do you think the Washington press corps is? It’s the biggest process of embedding we’ve ever seen. All the things you’ve read about the military embedding process — “Well, my God, they’re sleeping with them! They’re eating with them!” Well, what do you think the guys in Washington are doing? They’re seeing them at parties, they’re dining with them, they’re hanging with them every day.
I thought the one guy they should have talked to during the embedding process was Vin Scully. He’s traveled with the Dodgers for years and he’s utterly objective about them. You know, find out how Vinny does it. The other thing journalists do is not just develop sympathy for their subjects but try to be like them. You see Ted Koppel — his first big job was [covering] the State Department, and he has always talked and carried himself like the deputy undersecretary of state for European affairs. There is an emulative and aspirational quality. These are the people who really do things, and we’re the people who just write about them. They have arguable superiority that you’re always trying to emulate.
MJ: What are some of your observations about the media during the war, especially what you called the “Fog News Channel”?
HS: I think Fox was the worst example of jumping to foregone conclusions, if you can jump to something foregone. They had a story line they were plugging news stories into as they seemed to fit. Of course, everybody had a story line. I experienced this when I was working at Newsweek in the ’60s. I was a reporter in their bureaus and I saw that your job was basically supplying the quotes that would be inserted in the story lines that were already conceived in New York.
So to say that Fox had a clearly discernible story line is not to say they are in any way unique. They are more brazen about it.
MJ: Do you worry more about government censorship or do you think self-censorship is enough to keep Ashcroft off our backs?
HS: If you read enough American history and go back to things like the Palmer Raids, you never trust the government in times like this. What is more disturbing to me because it’s new is the phenomenon of all these broadcasting consultants, radio consultants in particular, saying, “Hey, what your public wants to hear is support for the war and patriotism, so soft-pedal that anti-war stuff.” That is a form of self-censorship that’s infinitely more disturbing. That is just part of the larger picture of media being shaped by this obsessive testing, the science of which is questionable and the cultural effect of which is execrable.
MJ: Ari fleischer or Donald Rumsfeld? Who’s your favorite?
HS: Rumsfeld. His skill at what I guess you would call blunt dissembling is really remarkable. And by comparison, fleischer is just another in a long line of White House flacks. Rumsfeld is certainly far more interesting. For me as a performer, I’m spending more time trying to perfect my Don Rumsfeld than my Ari fleischer.
MJ: That tells you something.
HS: That definitely tells you something.