Dopey and Sleepy
Harry Shearer is, well, you know, Harry Shearer—man of a thousand voices on The Simpsons, host of the NPR radio show Le Show, author of the just published Not Enough Indians, former cast member of Saturday Night Live, bass player for a little band called Spinal Tap that changed the face of entertainment. Besides all that, and blogging, Harry, who splits time between homes in New Orleans and Los Angeles, does a lot of live performance, like his upcoming gigs at Cal State Long Beach's Carpenter Center.
OC Weekly:My daughter saw you perform in Scotland in something calledThis Is So Not About the Simpsons. Is this going to be that show?
Harry Shearer:No, that was something I did with my wife. This is going to be more of me talking, probably a little less about performance. It will be a monologue with a little musical piece at the end. There will probably be a video piece also. Then I'll probably ask for questions from the audience and ignore them.
Will it be very political?
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It'll be as political as I am right now. Which is to say I want to talk about things without being one of these people that, when you look a little closer, it looks like they're working for a candidate. I don't want to mention any names, Al Franken. I just want to tell people what is crazy and funny about things right now.
Speaking of funny, I was talking with my brother and he was saying that though he enjoysThe Daily Show, he sees it as emblematic of something that's going on in the country—that people today see humor as an end, not some kind of spark to action. That laughing at something derisive Jon Stewart says about George Bush makes people feel comfortable and right and like they don't have to do anything besides laugh at George Bush. Their responsibility ends there.
I understand that criticism, but I think it's too big a burden to put on performers. It's not The Daily Show's fault that a leader hasn't showed up to inspire people to get off their asses. That's not Jon Stewart's fault.
Okay, but I remember immediately after 9/11 people saying that it was the end of irony and that America was going to become a much more serious nation. There would be no more fluff.
And now it's all fluff.
Well, we're silly. More than that, I think, we've become dopey. We're one of the seven dwarves: Dopey heading toward Sleepy. I take it as a reflection of a culture, and I use that word loosely, that is more amenable to the blandishments of advertisements than actually being concerned with doing something. Again, I don't think you can blame performers for that. It's much bigger than that. I mean, that's not our job. To a certain extent, I've modified what I do over the last four years when I saw that people inside the country, especially leading up to the war, weren't getting the same information that people outside the country were getting. I had a microphone, and I decided to use it to start sharing that information. Certainly I've done it as I've started blogging. But I don't feel the need to lecture people.
Yeah, you blog. What's that been like? What kind of responses do you get?
Well, blogs seem to draw people who just want to have a political argument. When New Orleans was drowning, the bloggers who would write to me didn't seem interested in talking about what went wrong over the last 45 years that led to it, they wanted to say, "This is Clinton's doing" or "That was Bush's fault." And I've been amazed at the hostility toward New Orleans, some of which has a racist tinge to it and some has totally different roots. I can tell you that people in New Orleans feel in some ways that we're not a part of the United States, and these people will make it clear that they would prefer that—that the body would benefit from removing the offending growth. Funny thing is when I respond to these people, and I do it in a restrained manner, they're usually very nice: "Oh, my God, it was just a weak moment." You get the feeling they wrote what they wrote because they thought that was how they were supposed to act—that that was what the show was about. That goes so far across the board. You see the guys who are on those political yelling shows. That's not who they are, but everyone is in a conspiracy to engage in a yelling act. You sense that everybody is in a reality show; everybody knows how they're supposed to act. It's not about being authentic and spontaneous, and it's become the same way in public discourse. You do this not because you necessarily believe it, but because that's how you do the show right.
Andpeople seem to have an insatiable appetite for the business of show business these days. People would rather watch the making of the movie than the movie itself. Everything is about behind the scenes. Now NBC has not one but two shows—Studio 60, 30 Rock—that are behind the scenes atSaturday Night Live. What do you make of this?
Basically, it's the CSI approach to television. Everything is about the procedural aspect of things. I can tell you, Studio 60doesn't look or sound like anything I ever saw at Saturday Night Live. People do not stand in the hall and say, "Fuck me? Fuck you!" No, power at that level is exercised more subtly. It's: "I'll schedule a meeting then be two hours late for that meeting just to show you I can."
You have a long history with radio. One thing you always hear is where is the counterbalance to Rush Limbaugh? I'm assuming you've been approached about that.
Yeah, I've been approached to do it, but I have zero interest in being on radio every day. If you're doing that, several things happen. Just in terms of the art, the mandate switches from honing and refining to stretching and repeating. Your work just isn't going to be as good. If you want to do anything else with your life, you're going to have to hire support people, writers, and now it's not really your voice. Instead you become a caricature of yourself.
I'm also assuming Air America came calling?
Yes, I was approached by Air America. But I don't want to be on a network where they might say, "Hey, hey, hey, hey! Stop making fun of Al Gore!"
Why do you think Air America didn't work?
Because they didn't hire radio people. They thought they could just hire anyone and it would work. What they missed is that radio is its own specific art. When you look at people like Rush Limbaugh or Laura Schlessinger, these people were on radio for years and years before coming up with their present personas. They understand radio. For whatever reasons, liberals don't respect radio.
Yeah, I've noticed that on Air America you'll have a lot of dead air, which is, well, death.
Well, you can have dead air if you know how to use it. You know, Rush will shuffle papers and it kind of builds the suspense. You can use the pauses if you have something to say. Air America can't seem to think of anything to say.
Harry Shearer performs at the Carpenter Center on the campus of Cal State Long Beach, 6200 Atherton Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 985-4274; www.carpenterarts.org. Fri.-Sat., Oct. 13-14, 8 p.m. $45; students and seniors, $40.
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