Fame? What's the Problem?

Sean Mitchell is a frequent contributor to Calendar

There are fans of Los Angeles radio satirist Harry Shearer who may find it odd to discover their iconoclastic hero up on the big screen in, of all things, "Godzilla," but anyone so inflexible as to question this apparent incongruity risks a response from Harry along the lines of, "So, you're new to town, are you?"

Listeners to Shearer's Sunday-morning program, "Le Show," now in its 15th year on KCRW-FM (89.9), are accustomed to hearing the clever and astringent host firebomb the totems of American media and politics, employing his merciless mimicry in great comic disservice to the Clintons, Newt Gingrich, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, O.J. Simpson, Casey Casem and, yes, on occasion the beloved Vin Scully. (How many people have dared make fun of Vin Scully?)

Even Manhattan's axman in the morning, Don Imus, gets sentimental now and then, allowing an earnest plaint for a seriously ill athlete or celebrity to interrupt, briefly, his steady stream of invective. Not Harry. Over these 15 years, his antipathy to the power, posturing and sanctimony of the status quo has seemed so absolute as to approach a kind of purity.

Yet, as he will tell us, this is a bit of a misconception. And for proof, there's, well, his role in "Godzilla." It's not a large part. He plays a venal New York City TV anchor trying to put the moves on a female assistant while the monster terrorizes Manhattan.

"I think people who listen to the show are surprised that I do anything of an income-producing nature," says Shearer, a little defensively but with a characteristic archness. "You might think that I have utter disdain for the entire mechanism of show business, and I don't. I have utter disdain for a lot of what it produces."

Shearer had not yet seen "Godzilla" as he said this, seated near a window at a beach cafe in Santa Monica, roller-bladers on the bike path whizzing past. Nor had he seen the entirely more respectable "The Truman Show," which opened Friday and in which he has another small but better role as an obsequious in-house interviewer, tossing softballs to the pompous director (Ed Harris) of television's first 24-hour-a-day documentary. He will play a talk show host in Ron Howard's upcoming "Ed TV."

These are paying jobs, of course, in contrast to what he gets for the more ambitious one-hour-a-week public radio gig, which, in the spirit of public radio, is zero. Nothing. Is there possibly a place in the Southern California Book of World Records for such a person who has for 15 years, give or take a few months, continued to produce by himself a daunting hour of high-wire satirical radio every week for free while living within the circulation area of Daily Variety? And not just living here but pulling down quite a bit more than rent money as a member of the cast of "The Simpsons" since it went on the air in 1989?

People come up to him and say, "I love that radio show of yours. Are you still doing it?" Which is not really what he wants to hear after spending another Saturday night in his home studio crafting scenes for "Clintonsomething," devouring newspapers online for sketch material and ironic commentary, then bouncing out of bed on Sunday morning and making his way to KCRW by 9:30 to get ready to perform his many-headed one-man show from 10 to 11--for the love of it. Or something.

"He's like a sculptor working in that studio," says Tom Leopold, a writer who provides the occasional additional voice for "Le Show" and co-authored with Shearer "J. Edgar," a musical comedy about the former FBI director. "He needs to do that. It's an art to him." "I feel like a survivor," says Shearer, "and I'm very grateful to the people who give [pledge] money because that's the only reason we're still on the air, as far as the station is concerned. As far as I'm concerned, I have no idea why I'm still doing it. No, I do know why exactly I'm doing it: because I'm not doing it on TV. I started doing the show with the thought in the back of my mind that not being able to do the kind of material I wanted to do on television, I would do it on radio and [a TV network executive] would get the idea. And I'm still trying to do that. So, for my money it's been spectacularly unsuccessful."

He's being arch again. Or is he? In fact, for more than a year he's been developing an adaptation of "Le Show" for HBO, and should such venture ever progress to liftoff, it would likely mean bye-bye to his radio following here and in the 70-odd cities that also carry it. The end of an era? Yes, but someone else will have to say it besides Harry.

What strikes you about Shearer in person is that, though quick, quick, quick on his feet, he is not nearly so acerbic as his racing radio persona might lead you to expect. There is even the hint of warmth around his words. The motor is turned down and, unlike a lot of actors, he does not speak at a volume level calibrated to draw attention to himself. He has weighty eyebrows, a prominent nose, big camera-ready hazel eyes and slightly drooping jowls that make him look--can it be?--tender-hearted.

He was introduced at a recent America Online chat session as someone in Hollywood "who has never sought fame and fortune." "And where would 'Godzilla' fit into that?" he said, preempting a reporter's question. "To get to do what I want to do, I've got to be more famous. Not because I crave fame but because you can trade it in for something in this town. So it was not even a question in my mind. It was a good part and it turns out they were great people to work with," he said, referring to German-born director Roland Emmerich and his producing partner, Dean Devlin, whose previous credits include the alien invasion hit "Independence Day," "Stargate" and a Jean-Claude Van Damme picture about rival cyborgs.

"My calculation was, I've got to raise my profile to get more strength in this town to get what I want to do done. It's not gonna happen through goodwill. It's not gonna happen because people are fans of mine. It's gonna happen despite the fact that they're fans of mine. A lot of executives in this town tend to think of liking me as one of their refined tastes that they're not willing to share with the masses. And I have to disabuse them of that particular illusion. I'm trying consciously to make a move to become a better-known personality in the wider business."

Wait. Was that Harry Shearer talking? The man who each week wryly "reads the trades for you"? However reasonable on some level, how can these words not sound strange coming from someone so hilariously at odds with the excesses of the "Show Me Your Grosses" logo-laden culture in which we dwell? Would it take Holden Caulfield to be disconcerted by the discovery that Harry Shearer has a press agent? Should we begrudge someone so talented having it both ways? That is the question.

A tall blond swooped down on Harry from behind and said, "I hope this is not your double."

Harry turned, recognized her immediately and said in the ersatz announcer's voice familiar to anyone who has ever heard his show, "June Chadwick, ladies and gentlemen," introducing her to the reporter and photographer at the table. Then to Chadwick, "I'm sorry I didn't call you back but I was in Japan and New Orleans."

Chadwick is the actress who played the troublesome girlfriend in "This Is Spinal Tap," the 1984 satirical film about British rock band dementia, directed by Rob Reiner. Shearer played the group's horny bassist, Derek Smalls, opposite fellow band members Christopher Guest and Michael McKean.

"This Is Spinal Tap," which he helped write along with the others, remains his most memorable film role, though he claims it didn't do much to spark his acting career. "It had no appreciable commercial success," he points out, while acknowledging the film's critical approval and continuing cult status. "I'm very glad to have done it and been a part of it." He confirms the stories that the four-year, four-way collaboration was not always smooth and that he and Rob Reiner were often "at the polar ends of the conversation."

Indirectly, the film led to his meeting his wife, Welsh singer-songwriter Judith Owen, described last year by one critic as "a blond Tori Amos." In 1992, when Shearer, McKean and Guest regrouped for a 26-city Spinal Tap tour, actually performing those terrible heavy-metal sound-alike songs in theaters, they touched down in London for a date at the Royal Albert Hall. "We were staying at a cheaper hotel in Chelsea because the tour was losing so much money," he recalled, "thanks to our friends at MTV, who refused to play either of the singles." (Really?) "We got to the hotel just after noon and brunch was going on in the brunch room and this decidedly unbrunchy music was coming out of there and I went in and sat down to listen."

It was Owen, accompanying herself on piano. Shearer, who was in character, wearing his Derek Smalls hair extensions, introduced himself. "It turned out it was one of her favorite movies. I invited her to the show." Etc.

If Shearer is funnier in "The Truman Show" than in "Godzilla," he says it is possibly because "there's no room for any comedy that takes more than two beats in an action picture." His favorite review of his performance in "Godzilla" appeared in the online magazine Slate (for which he covered the O.J. Simpson civil trial). "Harry Shearer did not disgrace himself entirely," it said.

In "The Truman Show," directed by Peter Weir, he plays Mike Michaelson, "an oleaginous company man," in Shearer's words, the host of a nightly program of highlights from Truman Burbank's day, Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) being the unwitting insurance man whose life has been lived in front of hidden TV cameras since birth. It's not a big part but it shows off what an expert he is at smarm, creepily massaging the ego of the "eminence noir" director played by Ed Harris. Their scenes together are memorable even though the two were on separate sets, talking to each other's TV image, a la "Nightline."

Shearer got himself into some hot water at Paramount two months ago when Details magazine published his diary of working on "The Truman Show," under the wholly misleading headline "The Trouble With Carrey," suggesting Harry was telling tales out of school about big Jim. In the first sentence of the article, he made it clear he had never even laid eyes on Carrey during his time on the set in Florida. Nor did he go on to cast any aspersions on the star's talent, as possibly the editors had hoped. He did recount his audition for the Michaelson part, recalling how he debated whether to inform Weir that he had co-written the 1979 Albert Brooks film "Real Life," which involved a family being filmed by hidden cameras. Finally, he thought not. "I decided that, 'Hey, you know, I co-wrote the movie this one was stolen from!' was not the best way to ingratiate myself with my prospective new bosses."

Amid the craven careerism so abundant in his chosen profession, Shearer, who is 54, stands out as one of its conspicuous truthtellers, "Godzilla" nothwithstanding. He usually appears incapable of caution, saying publicly, for example, what others will only say privately about the hazards of working for Lorne Michaels as a cast member at "Saturday Night Live," an experience he once likened to "a very slow electrocution." He spent two tours of duty with SNL, joining as a writer and sometime performer in the fifth season and returning in 1984 as a cast member for half a year.

In the 1986 history of the show, "Saturday Night," authors Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad described his battles with Michaels and producer Dick Ebersol and claim Harry earned a reputation on the show as "a troublemaker and a prima donna." One unnamed SNL cohort was quoted referring to Harry as "brilliant, funny and detestable." Ouch.

A different view is provided by Ira Glass, the host and executive producer of Public Radio International's popular "This American Life" (carried on KCRW) who used to monitor "Le Show" while working as an editor at NPR's "All Things Considered" in Washington, D.C. It was his job to find Harry pieces that could be re-run on ATC, at shorter length. Glass had to cut them and let Harry know. "He was astonishingly gracious," Glass recalls. 'He was always easy actually. I've heard that he can not be easy with other people." It stands to reason that anyone with a tongue as sharp as Shearer's has made his share of enemies, but he claims his insulting parodies have yet to attract a lawsuit. He says he once ran into Tom Brokaw, whose locution he regularly ridicules, and Brokaw couldn't have been nicer. Likewise, he was invited to a testimonial dinner for Dan Rather. Now, that's funny. On Wednesday he will be presented with the Upton Sinclair award by the prestigious Liberty Hill Foundation, one of Hollywood's most imaginative philanthropic organizations, in a $250-a plate dinner at the Regent Beverly Wilshire, recognizing him as "our last defense against the growing absurdity of our political and media culture," in the tradition of the great muckracking journalist. Previous honorees include Oliver Stone, Alfre Woodard, John Singleton and Jane Fonda.

He never mentioned the Liberty Hill honor during our luncheon interview.

He is the only child of Eastern European Jews who fled the Nazis, met in Havana and then settled in Los Angeles, where his father ran a gas station and his mother worked as a bookkeeper, then took over the gas station when his father died. Harry was 12. Touched by the gleam of show business, he got an early look at Hollywood while appearing in the "The Robe" and "Abbott and Costello Go to Mars." He studied political science and drama at UCLA, did postgraduate work at Harvard and came home to teach high school English and social studies for two years in Compton.

On "Le Show," he has carried on a tradition of political and social satire inherited from men like Mort Sahl and Stan Freberg, whom he often cites as influences. Although he worked for years with the improvisational comedy revue the Credibility Gap in Los Angeles and later wrote for the Norman Lear TV shows "Laverne and Shirley," "Fernwood 2-Night," and "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,' he has never done stand-up, the form of comedy that swept the next generation. "I hate the whole stand-up environment," he says.

So where does what he does . . .

"Fit in?" he finishes the question. "I'm trying to figure that out myself. Join the club."

It is Sunday morning and he has just wrapped another "Le Show" at KCRW's studios on the campus of Santa Monica College. He wears a "Jimmy's New Orleans" T-shirt, khakis and black athletic shoes. We are sitting in an adjoining studio, where the television is turned to the NBA playoffs. Professional basketball, the Lakers in particular, is a passion.

Among the voices he did this morning was James Carville, worrying that Clinton's secretary Betty Currie would be Bible-baited by Christian conservatives into spilling all about her boss and Monica Lewinsky; Hillary Clinton channeling Eleanor Roosevelt; and Ozzie Nelson while discussing son David Nelson selling his Encino home ("priced at $1 million, a little more than an acre"). The latter item is quoted sarcastically from the Hot Property column of this newspaper, a long-standing ritual in celebrity bashing that predates his own two-year stint writing the "Man Bites Town" column for the Sunday magazine, an experience that ended badly a few years ago and is the reason he refers to The Times on the air as "The Daily Dog Trainer."

Thinking that his show not only defines political incorrectness but is ruthless in its unflattering observations about the famous, one wonders, is he ever sentimental? Barbara Walters would surely ask him, "Do you ever cry?"

"The first thing to say is that there's a monumental difference between sentiment and sentimentality. I'm as heartfelt about things as the next person, at the very least."

Then, in what could be a scripted moment in a sketch about himself, his glance turns in alarm at something happening on the TV screen, where the Knicks and Pacers are winding down. "Oh, this is serious," he says. "They're starting the Laker game before this game is over."

"When things are coming to an end, when I'm gonna leave some place I've been, I'm nostalgic, I'm sentimental, I'm all those things. I have deep attachments to people in my life and people that I work with. I felt really bad when the Credibility Gap broke up. Prick me, I bleed," he says, with a touch of Shakespeare.

Seeking an antidote to Hollywood, last fall he bought a home in New Orleans and has been spending a lot of time there, drawn to its music scene and ethos. "It's where people do things for love and not for money," he says dreamily. It's true that he and other cast members of the Simpsons held out for more money during fractious contract negotiations this spring with the Fox network, resulting is a raise to $50,000 per episode. "I have enough money and they have enough money" he says about this. "Let's just argue about who's earning what for whom." For the record, his car of choice is a late-model Volvo. Public radio hero, $50,000-a-week voice on "The Simpsons," character actor in two huge summer movies, man of all media, what is it exactly that he wants to do that he hasn't done and needs to be more famous in order to accomplish?

There's the television version of "Le Show." What else? "I've followed a long and patient and circuitous path trying to get to do the stuff I want to do. And I'd say where I've gotten to is that I don't do anything I don't want to do. But I've written several movies that haven't gotten made yet. I still hope to see 'J. Edgar' done on the stage."

Friends of Shearer's frequently use the word "idealist" to describe him. Surprise, he doesn't agree. He says, "I don't approach politics necessarily with an eye toward propagating my point of view. I just find it entertaining."

Where he wants to be, besides New Orleans on any given weekend, is walking the line between parody and fact, where people aren't sure if it's real or if it's Harry. When fans turned out to see Spinal Tap on tour, he remembers, many were in on the joke, but others came just to hear "the latest loud band, and they weren't disappointed." During the Menendez brothers murder trial, he aired segments on "Le Show" featuring Tom Leopold as an acting coach who was supposedly working with the accused.

"Many people thought it was true, including apparently the D.A.'s office for a while. That's what makes me the happiest. My problem with a lot of fictional stuff is that I can't suspend disbelief. So that's my standard. It really delights me when people think it's real."

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