Harry Shearer’s voice is beloved by fans of mordant comedy (This Is Spinal Tap, The Simpsons, A Mighty Wind); biting political analysis (on display in his cult radio program, Le Show, and his revelatory documentary, The Big Uneasy); and musical combinations of the two (as in the latest of his CD outings, Can’t Take a Hint). Writer Helen Eisenbach [full disclosure: the two have been friends since Eisenbach edited a Spinal Tap “tribute” book in the ’80s] spoke with the writer-director-actor-philosopher while he was in London, on a break from filming the series Nixon’s the One, a comedy based on the actual Nixonian transcripts.
City & State: Thank you for talking to me.
Harry Shearer: [Laughs] “Your call is important to us.”
CS: How is London?
HS: London is great.
CS: Was it necessary for you to travel halfway across the globe as a buffer from the conventions?
HS: I wouldn’t say necessary, but it certainly is desirable. After watching the conventions every year—and every year saying, “This is so stupid; why would I ever come back to these?”—I finally made good on my threat. Actually, I was in Denver for two days in 2008…so this is the first year in a long time that I’ve managed to go cold turkey. And what a turkey.
CS: You’ve been watching the coverage from afar?
HS: A little bit. I saw Clint, I saw Mitt’s speech, I saw Obama’s speech, I saw Clinton’s speech, and then I saw yesterday a little of as they say in boxing “the undercard” … the parade of people in the non-prime-time hours who are given three minutes and told “Keep it snappy, keep it up, keep it pro-Obama, here are the points you have to make.” [Booming announcer’s voice:] “Ladies and gentleman, the mayor of Kansas City, Missouri!”
CS: Any impressions—
HS: I don’t do impressions, you know that. … Clint gave improv a bad name. … I thought Clinton was just ridiculously great at being Clinton. And I thought Obama … I summed it up on Twitter: “Yes, we really can this time. No, really, I really mean it, because…God bless America.”
CS: I understand that he was less aggressive than you wanted him to be—
HS: Aggressive? Or progressive? I’ve never faulted the man on his level of aggression. If you happen to be the wrong American citizen and he decides you’re a terrorist, he can keep you in jail forever without a trial. That’s plenty aggressive for me.
CS: Maintaining our level of hope for the future, are we?
HS: My hope for the future is there will be one. I don’t put the odds any higher than that.
CS: Do you find doing Nixon keeps you grounded in the important aspects of rulership?
HS: [Laughs] Well, you know, one of the things … that has just leapt out to me—I’m doing a show not about his policies but about his character, which is far more the subject of comedy—is you can’t help noticing along the way this guy was so far to the left of Obama it’s ridiculous. He started the EPA, he started OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration], he proposed a guaranteed minimum wage. I’m not saying he was a great guy, but you look at those policies and you look at this guy and you think, Whoa.
CS: Did Nixon have an opposition party whose sole purpose was to stop him from accomplishing anything he tried to do?
HS: Well, that’s sort of the notion of an opposition party, if it has balls. … The best way to convince an opposition party to drop that position—the one thing that will change them, if anything can—is racking up a significant amount of popular victories on issues that people care about and that are the urgent necessities of the day. That is to say, you take your Democratic majority and you spend all your political capital on getting the biggest stimulus through, not the littlest, and get as many people back to work as possible so that … they stop trying to stand in your way because they’re f—ing scared of you. Because you’re overwhelmingly popular for having done stuff that put people back to work.
CS: Is consensus no longer a legitimate goal or possibility? Is the idea of politicians working together to serve the country’s needs now nothing more than a joke?
HS: Consensus is not a goal; it’s a means to an end. When Obama made it a primary political goal, he handed a loaded gun to Mitch McConnell. While I might have preferred that McConnell not fire it, I can recognize his awareness that by doing so—by refusing to jump into the hot tub—he could fairly easily brand Obama as a failure.
CS: Do you think the Republicans will do a better job with the economy? Do the Ryan budget and the Republican social contract give you pause?
HS: I do not base any opinion on what’s said during the campaign, since modern campaigns, Democrat or Republican, are for the purpose of alternately seducing and scaring the rubes, and have no predictive power when it comes to the actual administration that follows.
CS: Moving on to the future, who do you see, after this cycle, as our next group of potential candidates?
HS: I didn’t see any of the audition speeches. … I was going to go look at Jennifer Granholm to just see. I understand that she freaked out a little—I don’t understand it, I just saw that on Drudge.
CS: So it must be true.
HS: And I didn’t see Castro’s speech—the mayor of San Antonio, who did the keynote—you know, in the Obama slot? You know, we don’t remember who gave the keynote speech four years ago, do we? I mean, the only two keynote speeches on the Democrat side that I remember are Clinton in ’88, which was a disaster, and Obama in 2004, which was a smash. And both of them ended up becoming president. So the lesson is: Be remembered. The only person out of this whole bunch who is going to be elected is Clint Eastwood.
CS: I know your love of New York is vast. … Tony Danza may run for mayor of New York. Would you consider a run?
HS: [Laughs] I would run for mayor of New York only on the condition that I never set foot in the city and govern it from a distance. That’s a good platform: “You’ll never see me in the city.”
CS: And what would you do for the city, other than not visit it?
HS: I’d sell Gracie Mansion, because I wouldn’t need it. [Laughs]
CS: And that money would go to the city. Very ingenious.
HS: I think the only platform that I’ve heard a celebrity, demi-celebrity in this case, adopt that I think would be advisable is the late John Brent, who was a member of the original Committee in San Francisco, just a brilliant comic actor. He once ran for mayor of San Francisco, and his slogan was quote “Anything You Want.” That’s what his bumper sticker said. John Brent: Anything You Want.
CS: Why haven’t we heard of him, with a slogan like that?
HS: I guess people weren’t in touch with their desires. The Buddhists are wrong.
CS: If you want big jumbo sodas…
HS: You know, it’s really ironic that Bloomberg turns out to be the great micromanager of the city’s life like that … because he was a business executive who clearly wasn’t designing the terminals.
CS: I understand the response to the “nanny state” idea…
HS: First of all, the necessity for it to be done on a municipal level makes it almost silly—you know, it’s reminiscent of the success American cities have had at knocking out fireworks. Everybody knows where to buy fireworks; it’s just across the line. So it’s like, that’s not the way you really get hold of something, take a position to be in favor of apple pie—or not enough apple pie—or motherhood, but not really to get the job done. Obesity takes a much more profoundly national and thoughtful and tough set of approaches than “You can’t have a Giant Gulp.” The very puniness of it in the face of the problem makes it almost laughable. You’re going to get rid of obesity by banning Big Gulp. What about all that shit that people eat before they even pick up the cup? What about what’s in the food? What about the, you know, the influence of the food industry on our food safety—all that stuff? It’s like, “No, I’m gonna work on the size of the cups here.”
CS: In other local issues, I don’t know if you’ve followed the sexual harassment scandal one of our power brokers—
HS: A politician with too much testosterone? I find that hard to believe.
CS: It is a shock. What shocks me is the behavior has allegedly been widespread and there was silencing money paid—that’s part of the issue, both the acts and the cover-up.
HS: I go back to what I thought when the whole Bill Clinton thing happened: Anybody who seeks moral leadership from their politicians should be sentenced to a year in St. Patrick’s cathedral.
CS: Among the priests?
HS: Well, that would be a good start. [Laughs] No, in the nave. That is what I respect about the Louisiana view of politicians: “We know they’re rogues. Get over it.”
CS: Sort of like the British version; you have a figurehead so you can revere the figurehead and leave the governing to—
HS: Exactly. You revere that figurehead, and you realize that the rest of these guys are swimming in slime.
CS: The problem is that women are the recipients of the slime, and what are they supposed to do?
HS: I’m not saying I approve. But I think that’s true of women in every field of endeavor where men are powerful. I mean, it’s true in Hollywood.
CS: New York is also riled up over stop-and-frisk.
HS: Yeah, I’ve been reading a little bit about that. You know, stop-and-frisk doesn’t have a really great pedigree. I believe that was one of the less progressive things that was encouraged during the Nixon administration; that was the first time I heard of that, and I think they were encouraging local police around the country to do that. As so many things do, it has a nasty habit of having a much heavier impact on people who don’t happen to be white for some unknown reason, like the instances of jailing people for like amounts of illegal intoxicating substances. Just happens that for the same possession people of color tend to get longer and more severe jail sentences. … Obviously there are those in the left of the black community who call this the new Jim Crow, because as the conspiracy theorists always like to begin and end their paragraphs, there’s no accidents. All I can do is just notice it and say, “Huh.”
CS: So you choose to observe without commenting, is that it?
HS: I think when you see it crop up in enough patterns you have to say, “Somethin’s goin’ on”—but whether it’s conscious or not is a question. The first act, it seems to me, is to bring it to consciousness and to say, “Are you aware of this? Are you aware that this is happening, that this coincidentally seems to be happening?” Maybe we need to—God knows we don’t need to have the great national conversation on race that we keep being threatened with all the time. … The thing we never have is the great national conversation on class. You notice how there’s only one class mentioned at the Democratic convention?
HS: Yeah. There’s only one class in America. Everything else is just this other stuff.
CS: In New York City with Occupy Wall Street it seems there’s only the artist class and the millionaire class.
HS: There was an Occupy London last year. They occupied St. Paul’s Cathedral and got kicked out. They were there for two months. … This was not a city that was going to be amenable to something like that, between the Queen’s Jubilee and the Olympics. I think you would have had to have been crazy to try that this year; the security was overwhelming. They were putting antiaircraft installations on the top of apartment buildings. … The remarkable thing was it was very much like when Los Angeles had the Olympics and all the dire predictions had the effect, perhaps desired, of scaring s—loads of people away from the city, so that, as it was in L.A. in ’84, traffic here was much less than normal. … Their normal tourists stayed away. And the Olympic tourists were a third of normal tourist load—and they were all out in the place where you had to walk through Europe’s largest mall to get to the stadium.
CS: We had a little of that when the Republican convention came here, where it was meant to bring all this business to New York and instead it did the opposite.
HS: It’s very much like the stadium scam—you know, where NFL teams say, “No, you have to build us a stadium or we leave because look what an economic driver we are.” That’s a closer argument. But these big events, it’s a total scam, and New York should be on its knees thanking the gods of the Olympics that they didn’t get the games.
CS: I find it odd that London embraces Nixon, whereas America—is it a show America would have made?
HS: No, America wouldn’t have made it this way, this kind of show. Hopefully America will get to see it. But I was thinking about it a couple of months ago, and I realized why it may have whatever appeal it has over here is because the Brits learn history through the succession of grotesque and weird and damaged and scary monarchs, you know? And so in that gallery Nixon is just another one of those guys; he just doesn’t happen to have worn a crown or had German royal blood. But America, we learn our history, in terms of our leaders, it’s kind of the lives of the saints, you know, it’s hagiography and so it’s a very different view of leadership that the Brits have or at least coming out of the way they learn history. So I think that may have something to do with it. That’s just a theory.
CS: That would explain why they know their history better than we know ours, because it’s a history of twisted—
HS: Yeah, great colorful characters, as opposed to one marble hero after another.
CS: “Nixon’s the One” is such an eerily sinister, prescient slogan for him; it resonates on so many levels.
HS: And of course, like the taping, it was his choice, that was his slogan. It all comes back to haunt him. Even his f—ing slogan.
CS: Is he Dickensian or Shakespearean?
HS: I think he’s Shakespearean. But, I mean, I think he’s Greek, really.
HS: Well, but a Greek comic character, too, because everything that happens to him is from his own flaws. For example, the reason that the taping system was voice-activated so that everything was recorded, as opposed to just stuff that he wanted to keep for history, was because he was such a klutz that he couldn’t be trusted to turn on the machine.
CS: Are you finding him seeping into you as you perform him?
HS: As we do rehearsals or as we were taping last year, I find gestures of his seeping into my body language, yeah, I’ve noticed it. For, like, two weeks after we finished taping I was making Nixon arm gestures.
CS: Did the wife slap you away?
HS: No, no, I just had to let it sort of fade. It’s like a bad day in the sun.
CS: Slightly pink with Nixon. Sorry to force you to talk politics—
HS: You know, I don’t wish I were still able to be swayed by all this stuff, but I think I started by forcing myself to kind of stay out of the emotional bath four years ago; even though I recognized the importance of that particular election and its result, I didn’t get into the emotional tub with the guy—and so I don’t think my experience is necessarily one of falling out of love like some people are doing, or some rappers have done, for example—but I will admit that his decision to ignore the warnings that were put up about the new system in New Orleans. … They just couldn’t care less. So I respond with a like sentiment.
CS: Congrats on your new CD collection. Are you touring with your various guest stars?
HS: I’ll be doing it in the beginning of the year in America and we have a gig—me and a band have a gig—Nov. 23 in London, which is sort of the kick-off. But then Christmas intervenes, so we don’t really start up in the States until after the 1st. … [Nixon’s the One is] five episodes, and then Judith [Shearer’s wife, singer songwriter Judith Owen] and I go to L.A. to do this amazing show of Richard Thompson’s called “Cabaret of Souls.” And then we’ll do the Christmas show [Shearer and Owen’s annual series of benefit concerts for New Orleans school music programs] in New York Dec. 2 at the City Winery. And Chicago and L.A. and New Orleans, and we’ll probably do Christmas in New Orleans.
CS: Do you find yourself a different persona in each of the various cities you call home?
HS: You know, the late Herman Leonard, who’s a great legendary jazz photographer, said, “I’ve lived in London and Paris and Ibiza and L.A. and all over the world, but New Orleans is the one place in the world where I felt totally comfortable in my own skin.” And I’ll second that. My version of that is I used to say, “Most Americans don’t work at anything as hard as at trying to appear normal”—and in New Orleans people just don’t bother with that.
CS: That’s a lot of energy wasted.
HS: It is! That’s not saying they’re better or…. There’s probably an irreducible amount of scalawag-ness in any population, but it’s about general nature of the day-to-day rubbing up against other people and how it makes you feel as a result.
CS: I understand it’s actually been cooler in New Orleans than it’s been in New York, which is insane. So, really, climate change has been a conspiracy of New Orleans to shift it so that everything is better there.
HS: That’s right.
CS: Both you and Judith Owen have new recordings. Do you ever feel competitive with each other?
HS: I certainly don’t feel competitive with her—she is in another league. What I can say is she encourages/urges/nags/threatens me into a higher level of musicality in this stuff than I would maybe otherwise aspire to, because she said early on, “I hate comedy music; it’s always so unmusical, these serviceable ditties. If you’re going to do it, do music.”
CS: It is a unique beast you’ve created: these sophisticated, biting lyrics—beautifully instrumentalized.
HS: Ideally, the first time through, you might be digging the sound, and then the second time through, “Oh, this is what it’s about.” I agree with Judith; I’ve never seen the attraction of bad music. The fun part is trying to make good music; the fun part is playing and singing with great people trying to make music that isn’t just a comedy word-delivery vehicle.
CS: I’m glad you’re coming to New York, even if fleetingly—and I’m going to start the write-in campaign for mayor regardless.
HS: [Laughs] Yeah: Absentee mayor. That’s my slogan: “You’ll never see me. I’ll never bother you.”
CS: It’s working for me already.