Harry Shearer has us hearing voices
Harry Shearer became an actor at age 7, at the urging of his piano teacher. As a kid on “The Jack Benny Program,” when the cast was doing a read-through, there was one line in the script where, he told me, “I just got it in my mind to do it with a slight Brooklyn accent, and when I did that, Benny just started howling, banging the table and laughing.” That moment was an auspicious omen.
Foremost among Shearer’s talents is an ability to mimic with satirical precision the voices, mannerisms and points of view of countless public figures -- entertainers, politicians, news anchors -- on his radio program, “Le Show,” which has just completed its 25th year. It is broadcast every Sunday morning at 10 on KCRW-FM (89.9) in Santa Monica (“From the edge of America, from the home of the homeless”) and syndicated to around 100 stations in this country, plus one in Berlin, NPR in Europe, an audio feed on Japan’s cable system and American Forces Radio.
For all these years, Shearer, who turned 65 Tuesday, has never been paid for doing “Le Show.” But what about the perks?
“Well, one advantage of doing weekly radio shows is that you tend to forget them as soon as they’re done,” he said. “The great part, since gaining Internet coverage, is hearing feedback from listeners in places like Japan and Africa, where this broadcast would never be heard on terrestrial radio.
“But the real highlight from a life standpoint has to be when I had a chance meeting on the street near the newsstand just off Melrose with somebody who was a fan of the radio show, and whose then column in the then LA Reader I was a fan of. It was Matt Groening, and that meeting led to a little remunerative gig in the Murdochian vineyards.”
Shearer was referring, of course, to “The Simpsons,” on which he performs the voices of several cartoon personalities. Since he does both Mr. Burns and his assistant, Smithers, I asked, “When you’re taping ‘The Simpsons,’ do you sometimes just stand there and talk to yourself?”
“Yes, and that happens a lot,” he said. “When Hank [Azaria] plays Apu and Chief Wiggum, he’ll talk to himself, and when Dan [Castellaneta] plays Homer and his dad, he’ll talk to himself.”
One voice he does on “Le Show” is Dan Rather. When the Museum of Television & Radio (now the Paley Center for Media) honored Rather, he invited Shearer to attend. Shearer wanted to discuss issues, but Rather preferred to talk “Spinal Tap,” the rock ‘n’ roll mockumentary in which Shearer played bassist Derek Smalls.
Ironically, the band was put together and existed only for the sake of the movie, yet it ended up going on tour. During a London appearance, Shearer entered the brunch place at the hotel where they were staying -- still dressed as his character, with fake hair extensions but a real beard -- and was awe-struck by a gifted vocalist, Judith Owen. They eventually got married and now divide their time between Santa Monica and New Orleans. Sometimes when she performs at a club, Shearer accompanies her on electric bass. And in keeping with his eclectic taste and his keen sense of nepotism, he often plays songs from her albums on “Le Show.”
Shearer always presents a few “copyrighted” features on his program. I won a bet with my wife that they’re not really copyrighted, and perhaps as a result of that bet, he introduced “Tales of Airport Security,” in which he reads listeners’ accounts of such misadventures, as “a copyrighted feature of this broadcast, and when I say that, of course I am lying. That’s full disclosure, ladies and gentlemen.”
Another “copyrighted feature” -- “If it ain’t copyrighted,” Shearer admits, “who knows the difference?” -- is “Apologies of the Week,” such as Brazil’s government apologizing to the country’s senior citizens for forcing them to show up at Social Security offices to prove they’re not dead and Burger King apologizing to a woman ordered by a franchise employee to stop breast-feeding her baby or leave because it made a customer uncomfortable.
In the tradition of Lenny Bruce, he plays all the characters in mini-theatrical sketches that serve as vehicles for his incisive humor. He has frequently presented phone conversations between George W. Bush and his father, taking the part of both and capturing the nuances of each. In his own voice, alluding to the younger Bush’s crusade to stamp out global terrorism, Shearer has observed, “It’s like the war on drugs. It’s a totally metaphorical war in which some people get killed. I expect the Partnership for a Terrorist-Free America to start soon.”
But how will Shearer handle Barack Obama?
“I think there’s going to be something sadly funny about the collision/intersection between the sky-high hopes and expectations of his supporters with the sky-high mountain of crap left on his desk by his predecessors,” he says. “I’m still learning his speech pattern, but there’s something about the way he emphasizes certain words, especially the ones at the ends of sentences, that gives the aura of decisiveness whether there’s anything decisive being said or not.”
In any case, as a dedicated news junkie, Shearer will continue to share bizarre reports on “Le Show,” remaining true to his philosophy: “Comedy is good, reality is better.”
Paul Krassner’s latest book is “One Hand Jerking: Reports From an Investigative Satirist.”