Harry Shearer talks about his new album and its real-world inspirations
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When The A.V. Club last spoke with Harry Shearer, eight years ago, he talked about breaking into show business a child actor, getting involved with the legendary sketch-comedy troupe The Credibility Gap, and his two most famous gigs: as bass player Derek Smalls in the parody rock band Spinal Tap, and as a voice actor on The Simpsons. In the years since, Shearer has continued to work on The Simpsons, and off-and-on with his Spinal Tap collaborators Michael McKean and Christopher Guest, but he’s also been focused on getting back to his Credibility Gap roots as a recording artist. As the host of the weekly public-radio broadcast Le Show, and on albums like Songs Of The Bushmen and Greed And Fear, Shearer has taken on the issues of the day via audio sketches and satirical songs; and via his record label Courgette, he’s released his own work as well as music by his wife, jazzy singer-songwriter Judith Owen. Shearer spoke with The A.V. Club about his new album Can’t Take A Hint (out August 27 from Courgette, and featuring guest appearances by Fountains Of Wayne, Jamie Cullum and Dr. John, among others), the state of the comedy album today, and, yes, about The Simpsons.
The A.V. Club: Anyone who listens to the new album without checking the liner notes first might think that Celebrity Booze Endorser is a band doing an uncanny Fountains Of Wayne impression.
Harry Shearer: [Laughs.] Yeah, well, what happened was that I had noticed that phrase in an issue of a Hollywood trade paper, in an article about a singer who had recently inked—as they say in Hollywood—a deal to peddle vodka. The headline said, “So-and-so joins the ranks of celebrity booze endorsers.” And just coincidentally that day, I’d been driving around L.A. listening to Utopia Parkway, so that kind of song was in my head. When I called the guys I said, “Look, you inspired me to write it, you might as well play on it.”
AVC: And there was no trouble getting them?
HS: Surprisingly not. They’re, among other things, geographically dispersed, so just to get them all in one place was amazing, and they were lovely to work with. My engineers and I said, “In terms of playing this, just do it like you do one of your songs.” So we got to see their process at work, which was great, and they had a lot of great ideas that we incorporated. Because why wouldn’t you?
AVC: You also have Dr. John, Rob Brydon, and Jane Lynch on the record.
AVC: Was there anyone you wanted to get, but couldn’t?
HS: There was one. I don’t want to embarrass him by saying who it was. It was not because he didn’t want to do it, but because his record company wouldn’t give him the release, which is a reminder of why the end of record companies is a good thing. The rest were folks that I’ve known in one capacity or another for years, so I just said, “Hey! You wanna do this?” and the response was pretty much, “Yeah, okay, great!” Jamie Cullum I’d met a few times, and he joined us on stage in Glastonbury with Spinal Tap, so we’ve collaborated before. The great Danny Thompson, the British bass wizard, we worked together on a show of Richard Thompson’s called Cabaret Of Souls, and we’ve become really good friends. I really, really, really wanted Danny on a song. And Charlie [Wood], I’d been a fan of when he was making records in Memphis, and we started an email correspondence. Then when he moved to London, I was in London and we actually met. Fountains, I had them on the radio show a while back, and my wife Judith and I have a Christmas show that we tour every year to raise money for the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic. And a couple years ago in New York they were on that show. Nobody was called straight out of the blue. I don’t have that much nerve.
AVC: Music’s been a part of your comedy pretty much from the beginning. Do you get respect from musicians as a musician?
HS: [Laughs.] It’s hard to know what you get, or to talk about it. I get treated well by my musical friends. I don’t presume to be anywhere near the musician that any of them are. Spinal Tap got all of us a lot of cred, just for getting rock ’n’ roll right in a movie. I don’t push it. When I’m around people who can play a lot better than I can, I sit down and listen. Maybe that’s what gets their respect.
AVC: Does the subject matter of your songs suggest what the style is going to be?
HS: Sometimes. It was just happenstance that I was listening to Fountains that one day. The subject matter, for example, of “Deaf Boys” really told me right away what the style should be. It was going to be sung in the voice of a miscreant priest, and so I immediately thought of the voice of the least miscreant priest, in terms of singers: Bing Crosby from the old ’40s movies, where he was always [in Bing Crosby voice] “a happy-go-lucky priest.” Then I thought that the background should be sort of pseudo-Gregorian a cappella, and I got that together immediately. Others take a while. I knew that “A Few Bad Apples,” since it’s about such a retrograde attitude, needed a swingin’ retro setting. The ideas sort of come with their styles or their approaches baked in, to a great extent. Sometimes I have to work a little harder to figure it out. The way “When The Crocodile Cries,” the Rupert Murdoch song—oops, did I say that?—came out was a ways distant from the way it started as a demo. It became really a collaboration between my producer and I in the studio. It started out with a much busier bass part, which is always a bad idea. He helped me tone it down and get it to where it is now.
AVC: It’s got sort of a Donald Fagen thing going on.
HS: A little bit.
AVC: And you’re saying it’s not about Rupert Murdoch?
HS: [Laughs.] I didn’t say that. I’d be a fool to say that.
AVC: Were these songs written as they occurred to you, or written when it came time to record the album?
HS: Over the last couple of years. I just went through the songs I’ve written for the radio show, and picked the ones I thought were the best, or that held up over time, or were the funniest, or whatever the criterion. Some of them are just little portraits of goofy people, like the Sarah Palin song or the “Joe The Plumber” song, and some of them are more about attitude, like “A Few Bad Apples.” But I liked the fact that they were all musically different. In the Sarah Palin song, when I thought up the idea of her writing a love song to “The Bridge To Nowhere,” it reminded me of this trend in the pre-rock-’n’-roll ’50s, which was called exotica, which was sort of fake Polynesian orchestrals or small-group instrumentals that were exotic. Having no real ethnic characteristics, just “Hollywood exotic.” That gave me the idea to write that song. But yeah, I do quick-and-dirty versions for the radio show, that are basically demos and then give them to my collaborators and say, “Let’s make it nice now. Let’s make it good.”
AVC: Robert Christgau reviewed one of your earlier albums and called it “today’s best-researched protest songs.” Would you say that’s true? Or something you’d take pride in?
HS: [Laughs.] That is the strangest quasi-compliment in the world. I pay attention. That’s all I can say. I don’t regard what I do as “research,” because I just keep my eyes and ears open. Actually, I’d say the best-researched protest song I’ve ever written is one that’s not on this record, but that just spilled out of me for the radio show a few weeks back, on the same day The New York Times reported that President Obama was personally picking targets for drones to kill from baseball cards that had descriptions of suspects. He reportedly insisted on personally picking the targets of his kill list, and that story hit on the same day that Bob Dylan accepted The Presidential Medal Of Freedom. I just thought, “What would the 23-year-old Dylan write for the 71-year-old Bob Dylan to sing at this event?” So I wrote a song called “Listers Of Kill,” which was very well-researched. It’s just that I try not to pop off on stuff I don’t know anything about, whether it’s comedy or musical. I try to bring something more than just, “Oh, I hate that” to the table.
AVC: You mentioned being inspired by the phrasing of “celebrity booze endorser” or the idea of the President’s “kill list,” and there’s a song on one of your earlier albums called “Light Sweet Crude” that’s similar. It’s a political song, but it’s seems to be mainly about your fascination with the wording.
HS: Yeah, you hear that at the end of the financial news; they give you a price for “light sweet crude.” The juxtaposition of those words just fascinated me. You don’t hear “sweet” and “crude” together very much, let alone “light.” Then, obviously, it’s a song about oil. The last record was about the financial mess and it was all about the words they used. “Bad Bank” described the bank that they’d dump all the toxic assets into, or “Troubled Assets.” When they decided that “toxic” was a little too harsh, they changed the name to “troubled assets,” and I thought, well that just sounds like some hooligans on the street that need Father Flanagan to take them in. So yeah, very often words or phrases, jargon, those kinds of things, inspire me to write a song.
AVC: Do you have to maintain a certain amount of remove from your actual opinions in order to be a good political comedian?
HS: Yes and no. I think that to be a good political comedian or satirist, you need to bring the same suspicion of people in power to whomever is momentarily occupying the chair, no matter what their label. And I’ve always tried to do that. I’ve come to a point—or the system has come to a point—where that’s become much easier, if you understand what I’m saying. I find it almost impossible now to have a side that I favor. It’s not quite “a pox on all their houses,” but it’s damn close. But the job is to make fun of—as one would say in another country—whoever has the monopoly on guns. Or in this country, a majority of the guns.
AVC: You worked on one of the best comedy albums of the ’70s: Albert Brooks’ A Star Is Bought, which consists of a series of audio sketches, spoofing trends in radio. Was there a broader conception of what a comedy album could be back then?
HS: Oh yeah. I mean The Firesign Theatre broke it wide open, and then The Credibility Gap record that we did for Warner followed suit, and then Albert and I thought, “Well let’s take this another step farther.” I think people were trying to do that then, saying, “Let’s see how far we can push this.” That was one of the casualties of the stand-up comedy boom of the ’80s. HBO flooded the market with stand-up specials, and comedians thought, “Well all I need to do is record my act.” It was so cheap and easy to do that it wiped out any interest in doing anything else. The first of this series of records I’ve done was mainly sketches, and then I realized, “Oh shit. This isn’t happening anymore.” That’s why I’ve been doing musical records ever since, besides the fact that I like doing music and I like songwriting. It just seemed to me that a comedy album of sketches isn’t a form that anyone relates to now. There’s no, “Ooh, what interesting new audio thing are you doing?” That’s not going on now. That was a moment in time.
AVC: Earlier you mentioned the record companies, and how they can’t die too soon. Aren’t comedians still working in some of those audio forms you tried to in the ’70s, just maybe not on “albums” for “record companies?”
HS: Sure, like podcasts, you mean. People are still trying stuff, but you needed a certain amount of resources to do something like that Albert Brooks record. That was a big-ass deal. We had musicians, and we had guest stars, and we had all sorts of stuff going on. Yes, you can do some of that today, just sitting in your room. I do a radio show, and try to do things that sound different and try to push it as far as I can. But in terms of that overarching experience of sitting down and spending 40 to 45 minutes with a record as you would watching a TV show? I don’t think people are prepared to do that.
Well, I’m guessing they’re not. I don’t know. I try not to pontificate too much about what the audience does or does not want. Just that reluctance sets me apart from everybody else in show business. [Laughs.]
AVC: Is sketch comedy generally the kind you prefer? Do you follow stand-up at all?
HS: No, I have very few favorites among stand-ups. I prefer character comedy. That’s what I do, that’s what I like to see other people do, and that’s what makes me laugh. There are a few guys that just crack me up and I can’t help myself. But the form itself? Look, there are people who are great joke writers and there’s no two ways around it and I admire that skill. It’s a great craft. I saw the late Rodney Dangerfield hosting an episode of Saturday Night Live once, and I watched him edit his jokes and just marveled at that craft, that skill he had of getting every non-essential word out of the joke, to make it like a piece of poetry. That’s a great skill. As I said, there are guys who make me laugh. George Wallace is one. And of course Richard Pryor. But Richard, I think, was not a joke teller. Richard was a comic actor who was just incredibly funny on stage. He basically crossed between those two worlds of character comedy and stand-up. Generally, as I say, I respect the craft of joke-writing; it’s just not what I want to be watching.
AVC: The last time The A.V. Club interviewed you, you talked about the use of improvisation in movie comedies, which at the time was something that Christopher Guest was doing a lot of, but otherwise was fairly rare. Now it’s far more common. Do you think maybe the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, and that comedians are relying too much on improv in films?
HS: Oh, I don’t know. I haven’t seen a lot of the supposedly improvised stuff, and I don’t like to talk publicly about other people’s work. I mean, who appointed me? [Laughs.] I will admit to being immensely surprised when, for example, I got to know Ricky Gervais a little bit, and found out that the original Office which I thought was improvised, was not. Totally scripted. And, obviously, beautifully acted, to give it that improvised feeling. So you can’t always tell.
I don’t think that there’s one good way to do anything. It all depends. I think the first thing that Christopher would say is that he might not ever do an improvised movie were it not for the fact that he knew he had access to this incredible pool of really talented improvising actors. If you can’t get Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy and John Michael Higgins and Parker Posey to be in your movie, you might not decide to do an improvised movie.
Anyway, it’s not the style that’s important; it’s the execution. And in the hands of brilliant people like that, improvisation sounds like a good idea. In the hands of lesser people, it might not.
AVC: Were you aware that the next Coen brothers movie is set in the folk scene of the early ’60s New York?
HS: Really? No, I wasn’t.
AVC: That’s something you have some familiarity with from Guest’s film A Mighty Wind. Will you be able to watch that movie without comparing it to what you know from your own experiences and research?
HS: Well, I’ll tell you something: I don’t even know if I’ll see it. That depends totally on the Coen brothers. I don’t go to movies with violence in them, and most of their movies, I hear, have a lot of violent scenes, so I stay away. Not because I don’t like the Coen brothers, just because that’s not part of my movie-going diet, stuff with violence in it. So if they don’t have folk guys bludgeoning each other with Martin guitars, I might go see it.
You know, I went to see Rock Of Ages, and I wasn’t thinking about Spinal Tap when I saw it. That was not what I was thinking about. I was thinking, “When can we leave?”
AVC: Do you any have plans to make another movie?
HS: The last movie I made was a serious documentary about why New Orleans flooded, and I ended up spending half of last year on the road with it, showing it and doing Q&As. So I’m going to give that a rest for a little while, I think. I do have a plan to do a very different documentary next year, about a great musician and character who should be documented on film. It’s both sides of him: the great playing and also the amazing stories that he tells. And everybody that he’s played with. That’s all I want to say for now, but I am planning on doing that.
AVC: What about The Simpsons? How much longer do you expect the show will occupy your time? And do you have a preference about how much longer it lasts?
HS: My preference? I haven’t been consulted about anything regarding The Simpsons in that manner probably since episode one. My guess would be that they might well stop at 25 seasons. They might decide, “Well, nobody’s going to match that, so let’s retire at 25.” But I don’t know. They don’t consult me. They don’t confide in me. They might decide to just press on. As long as they want to do it, I’d love to do it. But as I say, I’m not part of the decision-making process in that particular enterprise. I await further developments.