Harry Shearer

Harry Shearer

One of America's sharpest comic commentators on Dick Cheney, politics as show business, and finding

By Dean Kuipers

We are talking about Harry Shearer's studio compound, which occupies two houses in an L.A. beach community, and which we both refer to as the "undisclosed location," when Shearer quips, "Hey, did you see Dick Cheney's Christmas card?"

MSN's online magazine Slate ran a full reproduction of the vice president's official greeting card, which quotes Benjamin Franklin in a less-than-secular mood: "And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?"

This is exactly the kind of factoid Shearer tends to bring out in his weekly public-radio comedy hour, Le Show, now in its 12th year: the powerful acknowledging their own imperial ambitions, and thus their foolishness. Le Show (Sundays at 10 a.m. on KCRW, 89.9 FM) is a peek behind the curtain of the spectacle that is government and media and entertainment. That spectacle is the subject of much of his work, from the ground-breaking 1984 "mockumentary" This Is Spinal Tap, to his most recent film collaboration, last year's folk-music send-up A Mighty Wind. From his work as a child actor with The Jack Benny Show to writing and performing on Saturday Night Live, and in his journalistic work with Slate, he brings a sense of joy at discovering those human failings. As he says, "We're all in the mud, here."

CityBeat: Now that the recall is over, what is your feeling about the whole thing?

Harry Shearer: One, it's a real good advertisement for shorter election campaigns; the whole thing was over in eight weeks. Two, it stands as an indictment of the news media's decision to stop covering Sacramento. The loudest sound in California for years was the sound of Sacramento bureaus being shut, then, all of a sudden: "What? Deficit? Power problem?" What they hadn't noticed was that these problems basically started during deregulation.

You lampoon politicians relentlessly - Republicans, Democrats, and others. Is that because you have strong political opinions yourself?

It's partly that. Politics has been called "show business for ugly people." I'm making fun of that show. I like to expose the artifice of show business, when it comes disguised as show business or when it comes disguised as politics or when it comes disguised as religion or sports. Everything gets run through [Access Hollywood's] Pat O'Brien. I did obsessive amounts of stuff about the O.J. trial because that was, for that year, our dominant form of show business. People in the media claim that we don't have an attention span of any length. The problem is, they don't. It's always "What's new, what's fresh, what's hot?" They project that onto us and think we are like that. We're not.

Have you picked on Bush more than you did Clinton?

No. The guys who have the guns are always the target. That's sort of the rule. Everyone else is just running around talking. They are the ones who are actually doing something, changing people's lives for better or for worse. Other people the media calls "satirists" don't work that way. Al Franken is basically a paid court jester for one side of the argument. You'll never hear him saying something funny about Al Gore, ever. It's the same with Ann Coulter or Michael Moore or Bill O'Reilly - they are all in the same business: "Yay for our side, boo for the other side, come on, troops, let's go." Just mindlessly getting the testosterone going. Which is not a knock on testosterone. It's a perfectly fine hormone.

In your film, Teddy Bears' Picnic, you point out that right-wing parties and corporate scandals are the kind of thing that anybody would do if they had that amount of money.

If they had that amount of money and power, anybody could act that way. I suffered for taking that point of view in that movie. I think that people were expecting it to be more polemical. My background as a child working for Jack Benny kind of raised me in the spirit of human comedy. What's funny are the flaws and the weakness and the evils that we all share. A lot of supposed satire banks on moral superiority. Dennis Miller is banking on the moral superiority of the right, and Al Franken on the moral superiority of the left. We're still just animals - we just happen to be the animals that get to kill all the other animals. Oh, it doesn't mean they can't kill us - ask Steve Irwin. Crikey!

What will be the defining issue of this coming presidential election?

The question of whether the United States is going to have a policy of preemptive war based on dubious intelligence seems to be the big, if not the only, question to be decided by this election. And that's a big difference - it involves how many people die and in what uniform. I was pretty amazed watching The Fog of War, recently, by how [Vietnam War-era Defense Secretary] Robert McNamara seemed to be an earlier generation's version of Donald Rumsfeld. The only difference being that McNamara was young enough that he could live 25 years 'til he was ready to say, "Oops! Whoa! What was that?" Rumsfeld won't live that long. So, we'll be deprived of that thin pleasure.

What made you lose interest in the Los Angeles Times?

I hate 'em. With the easy availability of the best newspapers all over the world on the Internet, it became such a waste of time to bother with it. It's a very chicken-shit operation. I was covering the O.J. civil trial, and I wrote this piece about fame and notoriety and O.J.'s prospects for the Opinion section. And there was a line in it that said, "Even if there was a temporary dip in his fortunes, he could weather that storm by learning to do some rapping and going on an Asian tour with Michael Jackson." And the next part of that sentence was: "Jackson's popularity doesn't seem to be on the wane in that continent, possibly because of the prominent role children play in the commerce of most Asian cities." And I got a note from the editor saying, "That sentence has to come out." I said, "What in that sentence is not true?" On that very day, The New York Times had run a Page One story on the government of Singapore trying to get eight-year-olds out of the business of manufacturing soccer balls. "Well, people might think you're being racist." So the factual basis of what I'm saying is now not enough of a defense for an argument in an opinion piece? What people might think is now how you're editing the paper?

What about your relationship with Fox? It did this jingoistic war coverage, but it's also the network that has The Simpsons, arguably one of the best shows on TV.

You have to live with all sorts of contradictions. I think that Fox has been indisputably a force for evil in the world. But the Simpsons exist totally through a series of flukes. Chief of which was that, because the network was such a fledgling joke network back then, they gave Jim Brooks a contractual provision that there would be no network interference in the broadcast of The Simpsons. They could do censor notes, but there'd be no show notes.

The Fox people do a particularly ruthless kind of business. In a cannibalistic industry, it's really hard to outdo some of the other people, and they succeed on a regular basis. Just as a trivial example: We've made them a few billion dollars on that little show. And yet, they send the most insultingly cheap-ass birthday gifts. Just don't bother, then. Don't send some little $14 piece of shit and think that I'm going to think anything but "You asshole."

The first time we were having a discussion about money with The Simpsons, the then-president of Fox said to The New Yorker, in print, "We can get people from any high school campus in the country to do these voices." Some of us remember that.

Published: 01/15/2004

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