Harry Shearer has been there, done that, and done it better than just about anyone else in show business. From Saturday Night Live to Spinal Tap, from The Jack Benny Show to The Simpsons, over the last forty years, Shearer has made a name for himself as one of the top writers, improvisors, and voice actors. The Poetry Question had the opportunity to interview Shearer on his incredible career.
TPQ: People often overlook the collaborative nature of writing, sharing words, can you comment on your experience writing for SNL as well as collaborating with Rob Reiner? Maybe compare the two?
HS: To me, collaboration is the most fulfilling form of creative work, AS LONG AS you get to choose with whom you collaborate. Rob and I, along with Chris Guest and Michael McKean, chose each other to become involved in the process that resulted in Spinal Tap, and, though we are very different people, we met on a common ground that allowed us to do that work. SNL? I basically ended up writing alone much of the time, although the stuff that reached air was written with Chris and Marty Short.
TPQ: In the past, you referred to your radio work as the way to force yourself to write every week. How important is it to maintain consistency with your writing and creativity? Is creativity something you can force?
HS: No, but deadlines give me the incentive I need to get up off the couch. Consistency? I’m open to any idea that strikes me as funny, so, for example, right now, I’m doing a little web series that’s as cheap and low comedically as you can get, all for the purpose of satirizing something deeply disturbing in modern American “culture”. While, this fall, I have a TV series in the UK enacting the stranger, funnier conversations, verbatim, from the Nixon White House tapes.
TPQ: Can you compare voice acting and poetry? Both force the artists to convey a lot with only words, so it would seem they share similar traits.
HS: Since I’ve never written poetry, I don’t feel competent to compare the two activities. But voice acting is conveying a lot with more than words: choice of voice, style of performance, pace, dynamics–there’s a lot going on there.
TPQ: Do you have a different writing process for the varying styles of projects in which you’re involved?
HS: There are radio pieces that are improvised, a la the Tap and Chris Guest films, but most of them are written. I’ve long since become accommodated to the fact that I can only sit at a keyboard for about 20 mins at a time, after which I have to walk around, in or preferably out of, the house. That activity, I finally conceded to myself, was writing, too.
TPQ: I had the pleasure of seeing you in Portland, Oregon on the Break Like the Wind tour. In fact, I still have my 1-800-Bitch-School t-shirt. I remember you coming down from the rafters in pods, and attempting to break out in order to start your first song. The Spinal Tap shows were always exciting. What was that time of your career like? How would you compare the Spinal Tap work to all other areas of your comedy pursuits?
HS: Well, Tap was the most complete, most fully-formed comedic invention I’ve even been part of. We’ve been allowed to inhabit every facet of those characters, and to play out their lives both on and off the stage. Wildly, we got to do very much the same thing with the Folksmen, inventing them, writing their songs, and then playing them in “Mighty Wind”, and finally touring them with the rest of the bands in that film. Nothing beats doing comedy and music in the same project; it flexes all the muscles.
TPQ: Who is your favorite voice over character on The Simpsons, and do you ever find yourself slipping into those voices on your own time? Maybe one of them in the voice you hear when you talk to yourself?
HS: Talk to myself, what do you think I am, nuts? Actually, C Montgomery Burns is the favorite, because he doesn’t fall prey to the temptation to dilute his evil with even a scintilla of good. Fox owns the voices, so if I did slip into one, I’d owe them money.
TPQ: You have such a huge political science background with studying at both UCLA and Harvard, do you ever regret not heading in that direction with your career? Do you miss political journalism?
HS: God, no. I did work at the California state legislature for a year, that was enough to convince me that, if I were going to act, I’d get paid actor money, not politician money. As for “political journalism”, that has devolved into a combination of self-important stenography and herd-mentality stampede.
TPQ: Who were your earliest comedic influences, and what about them did you enjoy?
HS: Bob & Ray–I loved their interplay, their chemistry, their subtlety. Jack Benny, for whom I worked for 8 years–I loved his generosity with his fellow performers, and his calm professionalism.
TPQ: We are The Poetry Question, so we’d be remiss if we didn’t ask the following question: What is Poetry?
HS: I once watched Rodney Dangerfield editing his jokes before doing a monologue on SNL. He was surgical and relentless in removing every word that was not essential to the idea of the joke. That was poetry.
TPQ: And finally, if you could sit down for a conversation with one actor, author, comedian, or artist, dead or alive, who would it be, and why?
HS: Most people tell you their most valuable stuff in their work, so a conversation with them would be a letdown. That being said, I’d love to talk to Kubrick about his early work, and then his shift away from satire.