interview

The Simpsons’ Harry Shearer on the Spinal Tap sequel and ‘loathing’ SNL boss Lorne Michaels: ‘He’s an expert at manipulating people’

The voice of Mr Burns and Ned Flanders talks to Louis Chilton about speaking truth to power on his long-running radio series ‘Le Show’ and why he never saw Elon Musk as a business genius

Monday 04 December 2023 06:40 GMT
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<p>Harry Shearer: ‘When you’re very influential, you can’t avoid the fact that some of the people you’ve influenced aren’t that good’ </p>

Harry Shearer: ‘When you’re very influential, you can’t avoid the fact that some of the people you’ve influenced aren’t that good’

Elon Musk was a guest on The Simpsons?” Harry Shearer repeats back to me. He doesn’t seem to know what I’m talking about. Ordinarily, you might expect an actor to remember when the richest man on Earth appeared on the same TV show as them. And not just that – Musk had a whole Simpsons episode devoted to him, 2014’s “The Musk Who Fell to Earth”, in which the much-criticised tech magnate becomes embroiled in a feud with the nefarious Mr Burns, voiced by Shearer. But this is, of course, no ordinary TV show. Having played dozens upon dozens of characters across a staggering 757 episodes, Shearer can be forgiven for dropping one or two into his memory’s dustbin.

Now 79, Shearer speaks to me from his home in New Orleans. It is Thanksgiving, and his wife, the Welsh singer-songwriter Judith Owen, is in Paris performing. It’s immediately a surreal experience hearing his voice over the phone: every so often, you can hear his characters – cheery, churchgoing Ned Flanders and fusty school principal Seymour Skinner among them – as they creep into the sturdy nasal tenors of his natural speaking pattern. Shearer has a face, too, of course. It’s been curtained in long glam-rocker hair for Spinal Tap’s Derek Smalls, rushed through dozens of different get-ups for Saturday Night Live, and even caked in elaborate prosthetics to portray Richard Nixon in the Sky Arts series Nixon’s the One. But today, he’s purely a voice.

Despite turning 35 next year, The Simpsons isn’t even Shearer’s longest-running project. That would be Le Show, his public broadcast service radio series and podcast, which is now celebrating its 40th anniversary on the air. “Radio is in my blood,” he tells me. “I love radio. There’s no art director that can compare with the listener’s imagination.”

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There’s a looseness to the format of Le Show (titled as something of an in-joke about “Frenchified” local business names that draw on New Orleans’ history as the former capital of French Louisiana). Episodes can feature sketches, monologues, impressions or music, as well as discussions and serious interviews. Over the years on Le Show, Shearer has fine-tuned impressions of many US presidents, and regularly lampooned Donald Trump throughout his tumultuous time in office.

He’s proudly “gone after everybody” over the past four decades – Democrats and Republicans alike. In the past few years, he’s pared back his critiques, however, when it comes to the current sitting commander-in-chief. “Joe Biden is the first president that I’ve never been savage towards,” Shearer notes. “Partly because of the existence of Trump at the same moment. But I just don’t feel the need to go after him. It might just be pity.”

Shearer notes that the show has “evolved” down the years, with the Iraq war prompting a pivot to a more serious tone in places. In the run-up to the 2003 invasion, he says, “I noticed that I was getting information from sources outside this country that were not being broadcast or printed inside the US. I decided I had, if not the duty, then at least the opportunity to share that kind of information with the audience. So it became more information-loaded, and it’s stayed that way ever since.”

This factual bent would prove invaluable in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when accurate reporting about the disaster and its causes was woefully absent from mainstream media coverage. On Le Show, Shearer platformed experts and specialists, challenging widespread misconceptions about the human errors in engineering and judgement that had led to the breaching of the flood-prevention levee, causing an unconscionable loss of life as well as infrastructure damage. 

In 2010, he directed a documentary about the flood, The Big Uneasy. But if he had been expecting a bombshell, he was disappointed. “My plan was to have the film completed and available by the time the fifth anniversary [of Katrina] arrived, and I knew all the national media would arrive back here. So that’s what I did. And they totally ignored it.”

There’s a slight aloofness to Shearer’s conversational manner, but he’s happy to talk about pretty much anything (save for one anecdote he aborts early on, joking – or not – that it would make him “look bad”), and is enjoyably frank when it comes to grievances. After the mention of Musk’s Simpsons appearance, Shearer launches into a detailed account of his experiences as a Tesla early adopter, and the “really, really poor customer service” he received. “I never saw Musk as a business genius,” he says. “Founders of companies are bad managers.”

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Mama’s boy: Seymour Skinner is one of many characters in ‘The Simpsons’ to have been voiced by Shearer

Shearer started out young, even by showbusiness standards. He was appearing on the radio, in The Jack Benny Program, at the age of seven. He worked across TV, film and radio as a child and young man, joining the radio comedy group The Credibility Gap in 1969. His breakthrough into the mainstream came with Saturday Night Live, where he was a cast member and writer from 1979 to 1980 – brought in to replace the departing John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd – and again from 1984 to 1985.

The supposed challenges of SNL are well documented: many former stars have spoken about the immense pressure that live comedy sketches exert. I mention this, and Shearer practically scoffs. “No, no, no, no,” he says. “I broke into show business in live network radio. I basically worked in live television when I first broke into television. But when I started at SNL, I had produced a pilot for a network comedy show – I knew the value of having the opportunity to tape it, to get it right and make it as close to perfect as you could. The idea of doing it live seemed absurd. ‘Let’s do it in a format that prevents it from being as good as it can be’?”

Describing SNL’s writing process as a “college dorm kind of thing”, he notes somewhat sceptically that the lack of rehearsal time left performers reliant on cue cards. But Shearer’s issues with SNL go beyond creative gripes. “I grew to quite loathe the producer of the show,” he says, referring to SNL’s powerful showrunner Lorne Michaels. He recalls his first encounter with Michaels after being hired, with the pair meeting in the audience of a theatre. “The first words he said to me were, ‘I never hired a male Jew for the show before,’” Shearer recalls. “And knowing that he was Jewish gave it an extra tang.”

Shearer’s apprehension when it comes to SNL seems to be a two-way street: producer Dick Ebersol suggested that Shearer was “demanding” and “difficult to work with” during his second stint on the show. But Shearer’s animosity seems to linger more with Michaels. “SNL was basically an unending fight to get on the air,” Shearer adds. “[Michaels] is really an expert at manipulating people, and playing psychological games with people.”

It was between his first and second runs on SNL that Shearer created what would be his best-known live-action role, as one of the airheaded musicians in This is Spinal Tap. Days after we talk, director Rob Reiner announces that filming is to begin in February for a Spinal Tap sequel. “We just had a week of music rehearsals, refamiliarising with the old material and talking about new songs,” Shearer reveals. “We spent the first half of last year creating the framework for the story... next, it’s the funny old rocker wardrobe.”

You can see why he would have agreed to this follow-up: Shearer’s voice fills with endearment when our talk turns to the original. “We had so many obstacles in our way,” he says. “The fact that we [Shearer and co-stars Christopher Guest and Michael McKean] came together at this one moment and had an absolute shared vision, and were able to execute it, is almost miraculous. We had to fight to get it released... it was such a gift to us.”

‘This is Spinal Tap’ has endured as one of the finest comedy films ever made

One of the problems a Spinal Tap sequel must face is its own Jupiterian influence on screen comedy and the mockumentary genre – which runs through everything from The Office to The Blair Witch Project. A trace of dismissiveness leaks into Shearer’s voice when he describes some of the less successful Spinal Tap imitators. “When you’re very influential, you can’t avoid the fact that some of the people you’ve influenced aren’t that good,” he says. “I’m not mentioning Ricky [Gervais] in that context at all. But the number of people who say, ‘Well, I’ll do the poker version of that,’ or whatever... it’s [like], OK, fine. Good luck.”

Spinal Tap isn’t the only thing coming Shearer’s way in 2024. There’s more Simpsons, of course, a project for which Shearer sees no end in sight. The show’s widely acknowledged “golden era”, spanning seasons three through eight, was done by the turn of the century. Of the regular cast members, Shearer has probably been the most vocal about the show’s decline in quality. In 2015, he announced he was leaving the series during a contract dispute, only to reverse the decision shortly after. Today, he’s diplomatic about the current state of the show.

“I probably have too close of a view,” he says, “because I know who writes what, who’s still there and who’s not. I tried writing one episode at their invitation, and decided that’s not for me. But I think that the show had a sharper edge earlier on. I think the writers who were there earlier on had a tad sharper edge. It’s got kind of warmer now. These are minor adjustments, but you notice them.”

He pauses, briefly. “It’s still a very funny show, I think,” he continues. “And it’s been a godsend. You know, the idea of having a job in show business that lasts for 35 years? You dangle that in front of anybody, in Hollywood or New York or Pittsburgh... they’ll fall at your feet and kiss your toes. It’s an amazing thing.” For Harry Shearer, an entertainer in the classic American mould, the show – and Le Show – must always go on. And on, and on, and on.

‘Le Show’ is available to listen to on Shearer’s website, https://harryshearer.com/le-show/

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