Few cult films have had as big an influence on pop culture as the 1984 mockumentary, “This Is Spinal Tap,” about a floundering hard-rock band whose amps go to 11. As pants-stuffing bassist Derek Smalls, actor Harry Shearer delivered a hilariously deadpan performance with partners Christopher Guest and Michael McKean -- the near-telepathic improvisational team that would create such satiric comedy classics as “Waiting for Guffman” and “A Mighty Wind.”
A child of Hollywood, Shearer got his start working for the legendary Jack Benny (he was also the original Eddie Haskell in “Leave It to Beaver”), and his 1953 film debut came in “Abbot and Costello Go to Mars.” Later he was a two-stint “Saturday Night Live” writer in the '70s and '80s and launched his own successful radio variety program, “Le Show,” still syndicated weekly (it airs Mondays at 10 a.m. on WRIR-FM 97.3). Perhaps his biggest break came as a lead voice actor on “The Simpsons,” now in its 21st season, providing the voices of Ned Flanders, C. Montgomery Burns, Kent Brockman, the Rev. Lovejoy, Principal Skinner and Otto, among others.
A Newsweek writer out of college who covered the Watts riots, Shearer, 65, resides part-time in New Orleans and is working on a documentary about engineering and planning failures involved in the Hurricane Katrina disaster. He's coming to Richmond to present a special 25th anniversary screening of “This Is Spinal Tap” at the Byrd Theatre, a benefit for WRIR. Style spoke with him from Los Angeles.
Style: Do you have a fixed idea going in what you want from your Katrina documentary?
Shearer: The film is basically a response to my surprise over the last four and a half years. Surprise at how badly the mainstream media missed the actual story of what happened in New Orleans, then turned around and patted themselves on the back. … If the country doesn't get what happened, there's not the political will to prevent it from happening again. My goal is to get the film out by the fifth anniversary when there will be a lot of new media attention. The media love nothing more than anniversaries, especially anniversaries with fives in them.
There are plenty of mockumentaries now but few stand up to the original, “This Is Spinal Tap,” when it comes to respecting the audience.
Thank you. But I don't think most people get that that's part of the picture. They think shaky camera or moving in odd ways gets the job done. But unless you really are serious about trusting the audience in saying, “We're all in this together, let's take this journey,” it ain't gonna turn out right.
So what is the essential element of successful comedic improvisation?
One word: trust. It suffuses those projects. Chris [Guest] has gotten film companies to trust him as we did with “Spinal Tap,” and he transmits that trust to the actors who work with him, and we enjoy that. And the thing that binds it all together is we trust the audience. There's no sense of, “We gotta get a laugh in the next 10 seconds.” If you study classic improv theory, that's the basis of the Viola Spolin book, actors trusting each other.
What's been the most “Spinal Tap” moment to occur during an actual “Spinal Tap” concert tour?
Hmmm. Well, early on right after the movie came out, nobody had seen it, we played this club in Boston called the Channel. And literally during soundcheck there are puddles on stage, rain coming through the roof, right by the microphones. Invitation to electrocution, right there. And that was like, “OK. That's exactly where this band would've been.” Any time you go out on the road there are mishaps, and in the film we magnified them a tiny bit. We weren't saying, “Oh, this is their fault.” Everything in that movie was based on reality, stuff happening to us, or people in bands that we knew.
Of all the greats you've worked with since you were a Beverly Hills Beaver, who had the most enduring influence?
[Laughs] Jack Benny. He was a great comedian, very smart man. He understood the value of ensemble. He liked the idea of people who worked with him getting laughs because he could always get a laugh responding to them. There was never any jealousy. He also had great understanding of what makes a comic character. If you look at his character, on TV and radio, he was mean, vain, miserly, a bad boss, insisted on playing crappy violin. In reality he was smart, generous, great boss, pretty damn good violin player. … But if you brought that character to the people who run television these days, as the people who brought “The Office” to America did, they would say, “Well, he has to have some good, sweet characteristics.” What's funny is the magnified bad stuff, the flaws. All the characters on TV today are likeable first and funny second. That's why they all crack the same kind of wisecracks. Benny really profoundly influenced me.
Last year you got a Hollywood Walk of Fame star for your radio career. Why has there never been any foundation for liberal talk radio?
Most of the right-wing radio gods started out as rock 'n' roll DJs. What that taught them, oddly enough, is really how to communicate on the radio. You'll find that the attempts by Air America to build a liberal talk radio powerhouse have constantly foundered because, until very recently, they wanted to hire people they like or agree with, thinking that radio is easy. Well, it turns out radio is not that easy. Radio is its own thing with its own specific rules. The Air America guys came to me when they first started and I gave them the same pitch: You have to get guys who know radio. They didn't do that. Randi Rhodes is about the closest that they've been in business with. San Francisco would be where I would've gone first because there's the greatest tradition of liberal talkers there. The guy I would've gone for, because he was great on radio, was also unfortunately great at child pornography and he's now in jail [former Roman Catholic priest Bernie Ward].
How would you rate the current writing on “The Simpsons”?
Umm, no comment.
When you're in the Bible Belt, say, do you ever find yourself slipping into the Rev. Lovejoy or Flanders just to amuse yourself or mess with someone?
No, I'm not into stunts or messing with people. Whether it's by choice or out of fear I'm not prepared to say. One reason I like show business is because there's safety in the stage. Wherever our cage happens to be, it's a protective space. When you're out in the world, it's very different. The thing I always say: So many people like to do those voices, how embarrassing would it be if I did that and people thought I was just some guy from merchandising? Better to not go there.
You're known for great ensemble comedy work, but you've always maintained solo ventures. Do you have a preference between the two?
Oh yeah, my preference is to work ensemble. If you get to choose people, and you choose wisely, the days just roll past so fast because ideas, jokes, songs, fly around the room. All you have to do is open up and catch them. I don't love going back and working by myself, it's just something I do because everyone I know has complicated lives. It's not like when everybody was 20 and out of work [laughs]. It's not as easy to commit to each other as it was back then.
For your buck, who are your favorite comedians right now?
Wow. I'm a big, big fan of George Wallace but nobody sees him now unless they go to see his act in Vegas. He came in after Richard Pryor, second generation of black comics. He took over his own show room, books himself, and he's gotten dangerous, which is interesting in Vegas. I'm really a fan of Craig Ferguson. I think he's taken television comedy monologue in a very different direction.
What about the Yes Men and activist comedy?
Well I understand what they're doing. I think it's clever. Me personally, I really don't know if my argument with it is aesthetic or ethical -- but something bothers me about what they do, what Sacha Baron Cohen does. It's just so, so, relatively easy to make butts out of people you disagree with.
Many comedy shows today are written by 99 percent white males usually funneled from the Ivy League. Have they gotten too homogenized for a diverse public?
Well I think that's a small part of it. As I said, comedy today has to be delivered by likeable characters. Television uses these pseudo-scientific research tools and they befuddle themselves. If you look at the batting average of shows today, compared with 30 years ago, it's worse. There's been this radical change since I got into the business. It was still deeply homogenous then, but in a different way. People who broke into comedy back then were older, most were in their 50s and 60s and had been around a long time, through vaudeville, stage, screen. The people who wrote for Bob Hope knew his character well. Now you have 16 writers on every TV show, it's a lot more competitive, they may have a lot less knowledge of their stars, they're all just engaged in this game of who's got the best wisecrack. Harvard people are really good at that but it doesn't tell you much about writing comic characters, real human characters. [Having huge staffs] has the effect of minimizing the importance or value of any individual contributor to the process. When you work on a show with two or three writers, you own that show. If it stinks, we know exactly where to turn.
Critics have drawn comparisons between “Spinal Tap” and the Canadian metal group Anvil. Have you seen this year's acclaimed documentary, “Anvil! The Story of Anvil” yet?
No, I haven't gotten a chance to see that yet. I've seen some quotes that make it sound really funny though. … I'll tell you what I did see and which made me gasp with, “Oh my god, this is funnier than anything we could ever make up,” is “Some Kind of Monster” [the Metallica documentary]. Did you see that? Spinal Tap was designed to be a serviceable band, in every sense of the word. But there's no denying if you've seen 'em live that Metallica is a fucking great band. To see this funny behavior from these people who really pull it together on stage -- in some ways, makes it even funnier.
Your look for Derek Smalls was very mid-'70s metal. Did you ever talk to Lemmy from Motorhead about copping his mutton chops?
No, just saw the look and went, “That's for me!” Never met Lemmy.
Every band that's toured long enough has a Spinal Tap story. I imagine walking around, getting lost under the stage of Citibank Arena or whatever, happens every night.
Exactly. Oh, Rob Halford of Judas Priest told me when I met him that the night before he had been in San Diego and couldn't find his way to the stage.
Back to radio, so the failure of a liberal radio tradition is really not so much an issue of corporate ownership shuttling plans?
Obviously, Clear Channel, as the biggest force in radio and a conservative company, saw a big business opportunity made possible in the '80s with the FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine -- Roger Ailes [Fox TV] saw that opportunity, too. … But I'm at a loss to understand why Air America took so long to realize their mistake. It comes from being condescending about radio. It's the same way, in certain parts of the country, I'm not going to name names, where there may be great music and musicians -- and they think the way to make a record is to go into studio and do what you do onstage. That's not how to make a great record. … I won't call it an art but it's a craft.
It must be nice to draw a fat check from the world's leading media tycoo [Shearer makes 400 grand an episode for the Simpsons]. Have you ever met Rupert Murdoch in person, if so what was your impression?
I met him once at the Fox lot, there was a party in the mid-'90s, he was just making his first foray into the Internet world -- some soon-to-be-doomed Internet venture. I don't think it's a cruel thing to say, but he's smaller in person than he is in our imagination. As we all are [laughs]. The whole idea of our [“The Simpsons” creators'] relationship with Rupert is complex and fraught. I don't think it's the sort of thing that gets easier or harder by personal relationship. Maybe I could've gotten a free dinner out of him [laughs]. No, he has a way of doing business that has been very successful for him.
It's all dandy until you get censor notes from the network.
Funny, in the “Unplugged” Spinal Tap Tour last spring, during one of the comedy parts of the show, Michael McKean had gotten a hold of the censor notes from NBC of what they would have to do to show “This Is Spinal Tap” on NBC -- and he reads them out. That stuff is always funny. There was a legendary book an old gag writer named Leonard Stern wrote, he worked for Jackie Gleason and Steve Allen and those guys, and I think he worked on “My Favorite Martian.” The script note he got from the network one day, next to a particular line, became the title of his book. And the note was, “a Martian wouldn't say this.” You just can't do better than that.
Harry Shearer presents “This is Spinal Tap” at the Byrd Theater on Sunday, Nov. 22, at 3:30 p.m. Tickets are available at WRIR and Plan 9 in Carytown. For information visit wrir.org.
Here are some of our favorite lines by Harry Shearer.
1. “Can I raise a practical question at this point? Are we gonna do ‘Stonehenge' tomorrow?” — This Is Spinal Tap
2. “We're very lucky in the band in that we have two visionaries, David and Nigel, they're like poets, like Shelley and Byron. They're two distinct types of visionaries, it's like fire and ice, basically. I feel my role in the band is to be somewhere in the middle of that, kind of like lukewarm water.” — This Is Spinal Tap
3. “Smithers had thwarted my earlier attempt to take candy from a baby, but with him out of the picture, I was free to wallow in my own crapulence.” — The Simpsons
4. “Nobody is just gonna walk up and hand us a gold medal. Especially since men's synchro swimming is not even in the '88 Olympics, yet.” — Saturday Night Live
5. “To do then now would be retro. To do then then was very now-tro, if you will. — A Mighty Wind
6. “I'll make you a deal, Homer. I'll shave off the old soup strainer if you'll give the potty language the old heave-ho.” — The Simpsons
7. “‘Le Show' comes to you from Century of Progress productions that originates from the facilities of KCRW in Santa Monica, a community recognized around the world as the home of the homeless.” — Le Show
8. “If absolute power corrupts absolutely, does absolute powerlessness make you pure?” — Harry Shearer
9. Marty DiBergi: “Do you feel that playing rock 'n' roll music keeps you a child? That is, keeps you in a state of arrested development?”
Derek Smalls: “No. No. No. I feel it's like, it's more like going, going to a, a national park or something. And there's, you know, they preserve the moose. And that's, that's my childhood up there on stage. That moose, you know?” — This Is Spinal Tap
10. “Release the Hounds!!” — The Simpsons
— Compiled by Brent Baldwin