Harry Shearer discusses Spinal Tap, ‘The Simpsons’ and angering Jerry LewisWritten by Jason Webber | | firstname.lastname@example.org
On the scale of pop culture relevance, Harry Shearer goes to 11.
Not only did the guy co-invent the world’s most infamous guitar amp as the bassist of satirical metal band Spinal Tap, but Shearer also provides the voices for no fewer than 10 characters on “The Simpsons.” He is part of Christopher Guest’s stock company in Guest’s acclaimed series of mockumentary comedies (including “Best in Show” and “A Mighty Wind”) and is also a bestselling author. Plus, he gains extra hipster cred for being one of the only people on Earth to have publicly acknowledged seeing the legendary unreleased Jerry Lewis film “The Day The Clown Cried,” in which Lewis plays a circus clown during World War II who is forced to lead concentration camp children into the gas chamber Pied Piper-style. Shearer told Spy magazine that the film left him in “slack-jawed amazement” because it was so horrible.
Shearer’s musical talents go far beyond his role as Spinal Tap bassist Derek Smalls. On Aug. 27, Shearer released his new album “Can’t Take A Hint,” which contains a healthy dose of his irreverent brand of thinking-person’s humor. Toledo Free Press caught up with Shearer for a few minutes to discuss his long and varied career.
Toledo Free Press Star: One of the songs on “Can’t Take A Hint” is about Joe the Plumber, who of course is from the Toledo area. So what’s your take on Sam Wurzelbacher?
Shearer: We heard during the Olympics about all of the obstacles that people had to overcome. Here’s a guy whose name isn’t Joe and who isn’t licensed as a plumber so he’s had to overcome those obstacles to become known as Joe the Plumber. It’s an amazing story. I did a song about him because he seemed to symbolize this fetish or cult in America these days for “common sense.” Those are the two words you hear politicians use all the time — “We need common-sense solutions.” And my reaction to that is, “You think that’s really how we got to the moon? Yeah, you know, just aim up.” Common sense will get you only so far, so if you want common sense solutions, ask Joe the Plumber about anything.
Star: How much hate mail do you get from conservatives over your political humor?
Shearer: I get almost no hate mail. I get into arguments on Twitter, but because I’m a satirist I make fun of everybody. I’m not carrying water for the liberals or the conservatives. I think there’s enough blame to go around and so I’ll get angry notes from Obama supporters sometimes on Twitter if I say something that’s critical or making fun of the administration and I’ll get the same sort of reaction from the conservatives when I make fun of one of their guys. It just goes with the territory but it’s just rarely in the category of hate mail. I know that people do get it and I don’t want to deny that it exists but I’ve been lucky.
Star: On the new album, you do a song with Jane Lynch. What was it like working with one of the stars of “Glee?”
Shearer: Well, Jane is one of the great people in show business. This business is sort of a snake pit and when someone you know gets famous, the usual reaction is “Ohhh, I hope she breaks her leg.” But everyone who knows Jane, I think, is so glad that finally something good happened to a really good person. We worked together on the Christopher Guest movies and my wife and I do a series of Christmas shows every year as a benefit and Jane performed at the one in LA last year and just sang everybody else offstage. She’s so great a singer. So it’s great fun to work with her, she’s just funny and sweet and always coming up with great ideas so it was a real treat to work with her.
Star: Let’s talk about “The Simpsons” a little bit. You’ve been pretty vocal about saying that the show quality has been declining for a while now. Do you remember the exact moment when you suddenly realized the series had jumped the shark?
Shearer: I’m not authorized to comment on that.
Star: Is it true that we’re starting to see the end of “The Simpsons” in sight?
Shearer: What I can say is, I don’t know anything. The Fox executives do not take me out to lunch and confide in me. But I think the conventional wisdom around Hollywood is that it most likely will be 25 [seasons] and out because that is such a round number and such a landmark. But on the other hand, what I know about show business is that as long as the show makes money for Fox it will stay on the air.
Star: Of all of the voices you do on “The Simpsons,” which one is the hardest to do?
Shearer: Probably Otto. The really hardest one to do was a character early in the series — he was a family therapist — that the Simpson family went to and the idea was that he was supposed to be the most irritating family therapist imaginable, so I gave him a really irritating voice. Unfortunately, he was really irritating for me to do and fortunately one day I was watching a Halloween episode and they always begin with the little ride through the graveyard and you always see the funny names on the tombstones and I saw that the name of that character was on a tombstone and that was their way of telling me that they had killed him off.
Star: Was that Dr. Marvin Monroe?
Shearer: (in character) That was Dr. Marvin Monroe!
Star: Nice! What is Derek Smalls up to? Are there any plans for another Spinal Tap project?
Shearer: Well, with Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and I all having unfortunately flourishing careers, it means sort of pulling the emergency cord in stopping our personal momentums to get together. So it’s a bit of a wrangle to do — not “wrangle” in the sense of an argument — but just as a bit of a job to get our schedules to coalesce to do that. But we all love doing Spinal Tap. The 30th anniversary is coming up, so who knows?
Star: One of my favorite movie projects of yours has been rather forgotten and that is your role in the John Landis movie “Oscar.” What was it like working with Sylvester Stallone and Tim Curry?
Shearer: (laughs) Oh, yeah. Well, I mean the cast of that movie was just filled with such amazingly funny people. I loved working with Tim; that was the first time I’d met him. I just thought he was one of the great funny people and just so much fun to hang around with and swap stories and make up stuff with. Stallone was a lovely guy. I think he felt he was maybe in the wrong movie because he was working very hard to do it. If you look at that cast, there are some amazingly funny people in it and it was fun to do but I felt a little sorry for him. It’s like if you cast me in an action movie, I’d feel the same way. ‘Oh, boy! Look at the muscles on these guys!’
Star: You’re one of the only people to have publicly acknowledged seeing the Jerry Lewis movie “The Day The Clown Cried.” Have you ever heard anything from Jerry’s people asking you to shut up about it?
Shearer: No. Jerry was on a television show I was part of in Australia a few years back and I heard from folks afterwards that after he gave me a big hug and a lovely, “Hey, great to meet you” and all that, he turned around and said to someone “I’ve been waiting to meet that a-hole.” So that’s as close as it came.
Star: In addition to “Can’t Take a Hint,” what else are you working on?
Shearer: No movies at present but I’m doing a television series in Britain that will hopefully come over here eventually. I’m going to London in a few days to begin shooting on a six-part series that will hopefully be on British television next spring. It’s called “Nixon’s the One,” which was the campaign slogan for Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign.
Harry Shearer’s album “Can’t Take a Hint” was released on Aug. 27 on Courgette Records.
Tags: A Mighty Wind, Best in Show, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, Jerry Lewis, Joe the Plumber, John Landis, Michael McKean, Olympics, Richard Nixon, Spinal Tap, Sylvester Stallone, The Day The Clown Cried, The SImpsons, Tim Curry