The Harry Shearer Interview

September 19, 2003

Today is the day to tell a sports columnist that he's not as cool as he thinks he is.

Have you ever heard of a little cartoon called "The Simpsons"? Ever hear of a movie called "This is Spinal Tap"? Familiar with a show titled "Saturday Night Live"? Then you probably know today's interviewee. Sure, you may also know him by other names, such as C. Montgomery Burns, Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner or Derek Smalls, but you know his work. It is a thrill to feature him on my site today to have him discuss his past and present projects, as his work has touched nearly all my favorite projects in the entertainment world for decades, and hopefully decades to come.

The Harry Shearer Interview: Slightly Less Than Twenty Questions

What inspired your new movie, “Teddy Bears’ Picnic”?
It was inspired when two female film producers from San Francisco approached me with an idea to do a film about Bohemian Grove. I said, if I write it, I direct it, and it's a comedy. They agreed, and provided me access to a lot of former members, sons of members, prostitutes who serviced members, and so forth. Then, about two months after I'd completed the first script, they scrapped their partnership
and the script eventually reverted to me.

With a funny premise, star-studded cast and your name on it, how come more people haven’t heard of the film?
Many of the media outlets where I believed I had friends decided not to do stories about the film. I am still not convinced about the reason for their decisions

You’ve worked on so many different projects throughout your career. What do you get asked most about?

Spinal Tap and the Simpsons.

Regarding “The Simpsons,” I’m sure a lot of people think that voice work must be the easiest job in the world. What’s difficult about it?
Working for Rupert Murdoch.

What’s your favorite “Simpsons” character that you perform?
C. Montgomery Burns. For the reason, see the answer to the previous question.

One of your first jobs was appearing on “The Jack Benny Show.” Do you have any memories of Benny himself?
Yes, he was smart, generous, and always encouraging to me. I worked for him over an eight-year period, and it was like the graduate school of professional comedy, before I'd even taken a survey course.

It seemed that when Bob Hope died, younger people had a harder time grasping why he was so important in the world of comedy. Do you think comedy can bridge generations, or some genres just can’t really be understood outside of their context?
I think what didn't get said at the time, which should have, was that Woody Allen copped a lot of his physical shtick from Hope's movies. That might have connected with younger audiences more than footage of Hope in Khe Sanh.

Which was the more difficult task on “Saturday Night Live:” writing or performing?


You were quoted in Tom Shales Saturday Night Live book, Live From New York. Did you read it? Do you think that it gave a fairly accurate portrayal of life on the show?

I did not read it. Tom has always been a rather shameless partisan of Lorne Michaels. He was, for example, the only critic to give a rave review to Lorne's prime time failure, "The New Show".

How did you end up with your own radio program?

I asked for it.

How did you come to collect “Apologies of the Week”?

It struck me after 9/11 that a lot more people and organizations were choosing to make public apologies.

You have some real gems in your “Found Objects” section of your site. You also say, “Comedy is good, reality better.” What do you make of the reality TV fad, then? And will it go away?
Reality TV is not about reality, it's about staging reality and saving money on writers and actors. And, like every fad that's overexposed (see "Millionaire") it will die soon.

When you’ve had a long and diverse performing career, is it pretty normal for actors to plop down and watch their “Best Of” reels, either for an ego boost or for the memories, or do most performers look ahead to the future and refrain from looking back too much?
I don't know about most, but I sure don't look back.

Is it easier to write alone or to collaborate?
Much easier to collaborate. The ideas come faster, and there are more laughs.

With whom do you, or have you, collaborated best?

Michael [McKean], Chris[topher Guest] , Martin Mull, Martin Short, Paul Shaffer, Tom Leopold.

It’s obvious from “This is Spinal Tap,” “A Mighty Wind,” and your work with Judith Owen, that you’re a music lover. What have you been listening to lately?
Fountains of Wayne. I love their new CD.

You wrote a book on why exactly people hate Bill Clinton so much. After being a political observer and working in an industry that lampoons our leaders, would you say that any particular president has been lambasted more than another, or does it always seem that the current President is really, really hated by a lot of people?
No, I think Nixon, Clinton and now Bush are the only ones in my lifetime that have been truly and widely hated.

If somebody told you that you had to stop and focus your career on one thing, whether it was voice-over, writing, directing, performing, what would it be?
I would tell that somebody to fuck off.

And finally, how does it feel to be the 73rd person interviewed for
A thrill I can't quite describe.