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COMEDY REVIEW : Harry Shearer Explores the ‘Magic of Live’

Times Staff Writer

Despite the huge and growing volume of comedic expression on television and in the clubs, it remains to be seen whether the ‘80s will go down as a great decade for comedy--one should never, as Dorothy Parker warned, confuse the first-rate with the fecund-rate. Still, Harry Shearer took one step further Saturday night in his emergence as one of our premiere satirists.

His new show, called “The Magic of Live,” which played one performance at the Doolittle Theater, is in several respects an outgrowth of the material he’s been developing on “Le Show,” the program he airs Sunday mornings on KCRW-FM. “The Magic of Live” was taped for HBO, which, happily, didn’t skimp on production values (not too much, anyway; the furnishings for Shearer’s presidential skits have a drafty country club look).

One of the show’s pleasures, aside from its merciful brevity, was its (mostly) live-ness (much of it was pre-recorded on tape and integrated into live action). It seems odd to celebrate a comedy performer for having the courage actually to perform new material without benefit of the automatic hindsight of videotape editing, whose ruthless perfection levels off any real sense of play, and in another age (and still, in the theater) it might not seem such a big deal. But Shearer was up there, giving a show that played.

Sketches included a full-bore production number parodying Michael Jackson’s plastic surgeries (in one unveiling, Jackson comes out looking like a Hasidic Jew); a send-up of Alan Thicke (Shearer) and Meredith MacRae (herself) droning in the endless cheery banality of TV parade commentators, in this instance talking about a Hollywood parade that never materializes; an extravagant David Copperfield magic sketch in which Copperfield attempts to re-seal Al Capone’s vault through telekinesis and has a violent run-in with a coked-out-looking Doug Henning (Martin Short, looking eerily like the real thing--Short and Shearer have played beautifully together in the past, though there’s less for them here).

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And, of course, the sine qua non of the current Shearer repertory, “Hellcats of the White House,” in which Ronald Reagan tries to learn his lines for the upcoming summit from a TelePrompTer while John Poindexter telephones, fishing for his pardon, and Mommy dearest beams proudly, after having had her old eyeliner buffed off, reminding him “Please remind Mr. Gorbachev of our ‘Just Say Nyet’ campaign” (“Marlin Fitzwater says what I think,” Reagan tells Poindexter. “If you want to know what I think, ask Marlin”).

There is also Shearer’s wicked sendup of a “serious” writer’s breathless, overperfumed treatment of baseball (“The wind’s shifting currents wove a tapestry in itself”) as he intones his grave prose from the lectern of the Valley Jewish Community Center, where there is always cake at the end of a program.

Much of the material is either intermittent (in a Vegas legends send-up, a roly-poly Elvis works well, but a Judy Garland singing after a laryngectomy does not), or limited by Shearer’s overextension of his performance skills. (He doesn’t sing well enough to rescue a showy love song to Fawn Hall, despite an excellent R & B backup trio; and his Barry Manilow-style tribute to the writers’ strike is muddy and oblique.)

When Shearer’s in form, there’s no keener satirist alive. But in the prizefighter’s parlance, he’s not a finisher. He has a great eye for detail, which rescues his premises from banality (it’s almost impossible to do Reagan now that he’s become mired in self-parody); he’s often a superb writer; and he has a genuine capacity for comedic response to whatever’s in the air. It may be that our state of flux is so great these days that it defies any formalized reflection, and Shearer shouldn’t be asked to do what no one else can. He comes as close as any of his contemporaries to greatness, which eludes him like the flash of an inside joke that never materializes. But he’s always worth watching for what he’ll come up with next.

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The show will air on HBO June 8, 14, 15 and 17.


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