In his Web series "Nixon's the One," originally made for the U.K. satellite network Sky and now unfolding domestically on YouTube, Harry Shearer crawls inside the skin of the 37th president of the United States. With a text taken entirely from Richard Nixon's secret Oval Office tapes, with a bonus scene based on footage of the president in the moments before his 1974 resignation, it is a fascinating portrait, in mosaic form, of a man with whom history is still grappling.
"Self-made man, self-destroyed man," Shearer, 70, said recently over the phone from New Orleans, where he lives much of the year. "I think of it as the darkest kind of comedy."
Such material is a lifelong pursuit, pastime and passion for the actor-writer-humorist-musician. Best known for his work on "The Simpsons" and in "This Is Spinal Tap," Shearer majored in political science at UCLA, and as a freelance reporter covered the Watts Riots for Newsweek.
The Credibility Gap, the satirical comedy troupe in which he played alongside Michael McKean and David Lander — and whose life span neatly contained the Nixon and Ford administrations — grew out of the news department at Los Angeles radio station KRLA. "Le Show," the public radio series (now also a podcast) Shearer has hosted since 1983, is his own digest of the week's news, sometimes read straight, sometimes turned into sketches in which he almost always plays all the parts.
While these pieces are made to be funny and are often framed in genre parody — the Reagans as "Hellcats of the White House," "Clintonsomething," "Father Knows Best" with Barack Obama — there is also something oddly plausible about them. Shearer's presidents, though they are mocked, are not merely mocked: They have a normal, bumbling humanity that makes them graspable and understandable and oddly endearing.
"There's plenty of cheap and mean comedy masquerading as satire about any presidency, and so if I'm going to do anything interesting, it has to involve trying to figure out who these people are and play them in their situation as opposed to just playing a stick figure. Nobody is just an idiot, nobody is just evil; they're flawed human beings, and if you understand and play them as flawed human beings, I think you get a richer idea of what's going on than just, 'Ooh, bad man does bad thing, good people to the rescue.' You have to reach someplace where you can, not sympathize, not empathize — you can still have your opinion of him — but to act any of these people at all, you have to approach it at that level of 'he's one of us, we're one of him.'
There is no exaggeration for effect in "Nixon's the One." Indeed, that the material is so carefully unadulterated — past the new visual element and the unavoidable filter of its being enacted — makes it all the much stranger. Shearer and his cast mates would listen to the tapes "over and over through rehearsals" to reproduce as carefully as possible "the inflections, the pauses, the places were people talked over each other."
As Nixon, Shearer wanted to play all "the hems and the haws, the weird word order or the weird word choices — every time he backtracks, stumbles, mispronounces, it's coming out of character."
Shearer plays Nixon in full makeup, in custom-made suits such as the president wore.
"I'm not one of those stand-up type guys who says, 'I think he sounds something like this' and turns around and makes a face like the character; I need to look in the mirror and kind of lose my sense of 'me in there,'" he said. "The Credibility Gap sketches way back when, we had no resources, but I still could put on a suit and kind of do my hair right and do what I could to look like him. But the more resources that were allocated to me, the more I wanted to look like him."
The makeup takes some getting used to. But the character quickly takes over, and the material comes to the fore with an arresting clarity.
Shearer's co-creator and writing partner was historian Stanley Kutler ("The Wars of Watergate"), whose lawsuit against the National Archives and Nixon made the tapes public.
"He'd been going through the tapes professionally, I recreationally," said Shearer. "We both encountered these weird conversations that had nothing to do with Watergate, or Vietnam, or politics, and said, 'Let's focus on those.'"
"Nixon's the One" presents the president as a compulsive talker. Even with national security advisor Henry Kissinger (Henry Goodman), who spends a lot of time propping up his boss' ego — "This was two spiders in a bottle, but they needed each other and were willing to play this game" — he dominates the conversation. He gossips, theorizes, plots and pontificates. To chief of staff H.R. Haldeman (Demetri Goritsas), he holds forth on race and espionage: "If you were nuts enough to plant Negro spies.... they're not smart enough.... The Jews are born spies ... they're just in it up to their necks."
"He's such an ill-suited guy to the job he chose," Shearer said. "He wasn't a telegenic presence, to put it mildly; he didn't have a warm and ingratiating smile, he had that weird furtive smile that occurred at odd moments. He had no gift for small talk, didn't like being with strangers. These would be the basic skill sets of going into politics even at the city council level. And he rises somehow to the top of the greasy pole. I think it was the molten core of him, these burning resentments and fears that never could be extinguished, that helped to propel him through this improbable career path."
Has doing this series changed his relationship to Nixon?