I speak Simp­son

He’s the satirist who helped cre­ate spoof rock group Spinal Tap and who pro­vides voices in The Simp­sons. Now he’s ex­press­ing his con­tempt for Ge­orge Bush... in song

The Jewish Chronicle - - Features -

SOME­TIMES IN SHOW­BUSI­NESS, an op­por­tu­nity presents it­self which is too good to turn down — a project whose po­ten­tial is so ob­vi­ous that every­one in­stinc­tively knows that it will suc­ceed spec­tac­u­larly. When ac­tor, di­rec­tor and satir­i­cal comic Harry Shearer was of­fered the chance to voice some of the char­ac­ters in a new se­ries called The Simp­sons back in 1989, he had his an­swer ready. “Matt Groen­ing [the cre­ator of the se­ries] was a fan of my ra­dio show. I did char­ac­ters and a lot of satir­i­cal stuff. He had his part­ner, Jim Brooks, called me and ask me whether I wanted to take part. I told him I didn’t want to be in a car­toon show. Af­ter two or three calls, he man­aged to twist my arm, and even­tu­ally I said: ‘Oh, OK.’”

It was one of the bet­ter de­ci­sions in Shearer’s life. He be­came the voice of the evil Mr Burns, plus a range of other iconic char­ac­ters, in­clud­ing Way­lon Smithers, Ned Flan­ders, Rev­erend Ti­mothy Love­joy, Kent Brock­man and Scratchy the Mouse. He has also voiced a range of guest stars. “I’ve done every­one from Hitler to Bill Clin­ton and the Devil,” he laughs.

De­spite the fact that Shearer is the only one of the main cast who has not re­ceived an Emmy (he has been called the Peter O’Toole of The Simp­sons, re­fer­ring to the vet­eran film star who never won an Os­car), there are com­pen­sa­tions — the money, for ex­am­ple. He is said to earn well in ex­cess of £25,000 per episode.

How­ever, this is merely Shearer’s day job. By the time he stepped up to the mi­cro­phone for the first episode, he was al­ready a cult in his own right, as the co-writer and co-star of the 1984 spoof doc­u­men­tary This Is Spinal Tap, which hi­lar­i­ously fol­lowed the epony­mous fad­ing Bri­tish rock band on an ill-fated US tour.

Spinal Tap, morethan The Simp­sons (which is af­ter all Groen­ing’s brain­child), sums up Shearer’s hu­mour. “It was the first of that kind of spoof. The an­i­mat­ing im­pulse was to do rock ’n’ roll right. The four of us [Rob Reiner, Michael McKean, Christo­pher Guest and Shearer] had been around rock ’n’ roll and we were just amazed by how re­lent­lessly the movies got it wrong. Be­cause we were funny peo­ple it was go­ing to be a funny film, but we wanted to get it right.”

Even af­ter 25 years, Shearer re­mains happy to chat about Spinal Tap. “I’m very proud that the movie has this life that went way be­yond what any­one could have ever ex­pected. If you af­fect that pose of ‘I’m so bored of the fact this movie is still be­ing quoted by peo­ple’, you should get out of the busi­ness.”

He has an in­ter­est­ing per­spec­tive on why the movie — which proved once and for all that Amer­i­cans can do English ac­cents if they try hard enough — was suc­cess­ful. Shearer, who played bass player Derek Smalls, says: “We had so lit­tle money to make it that there are very few gad­gets or TVs or phones. Noth­ing ages a movie like ob­so­lete gad­gets.”

And of course the world of rock and celebrity is also still in­stantly recog­nis­able from the movie. “Rock ’n’ roll doesn’t change. All the id­io­cies and pre­ten­sion con­tinue.”

If Spinal Tap high­lighted the gen­tly satir­i­cal side of Shearer’s na­ture, his new project, Song of the Bush­men, is more sav­age. Shearer has been com­pos­ing and per­form­ing satir­i­cal num­bers about Pres­i­dent Ge­orge Bush and his cronies on his US ra­dio pro­gramme, Le Show, for a num­ber of years. It occurred to him that he al­ready had al­most enough tracks for an al­bum.

“I had al­ready gath­ered quite a few songs about th­ese peo­ple who work for Bush, so I thought if I write four or five more there will be a mu­si­cal im­peach­ment, since they clearly won’t get any other kind.

“When the pop­u­lar­ity rat­ing of this guy is lower than Hitler, it seems like the right time. Satire at its best is fu­elled by anger and if you can’t get an­gry at the stuff th­ese peo­ple have done you need a hor­mone trans­plant. The first track sums it up. The orig­i­nal idea for the pro­posed bail-out for this eco­nomic dis­as­ter was for the Trea­sury Min­is­ter to spend $700 bil­lion any way he saw fit. Nei­ther Congress nor any judge would have been able to en­gage in a re­view. In other words, they were telling us: ‘We know best, we’ll do what we want and no­body else will even know what we’re do­ing. It will be se­cret and our jus­ti­fi­ca­tions will be se­cret.’”

He adds: “There’s a lot of con­cen­tra­tion by a lot of peo­ple on the [US pres­i­den­tial] elec­tion. But I’m still keep­ing my eye on the peo­ple who have the power, rather than those who as­pire to it. Th­ese guys still have four months and they can still do a lot of dam­age. Bush said fa­mously: ‘I’m go­ing to be sprint­ing to the fin­ish line.’ That scares me.”

Shearer de­liv­ers the line in an un­canny im­per­son­ation of the Pres­i­dent. His ver­sa­tile tal­ents as an im­pres­sion­ist have been a sig­nif­i­cant fac­tor in his suc­cess and, through The Simp­sons, he has made enough money to be able to present his weekly ra­dio show without ask­ing for any pay­ment. So which is his favourite char­ac­ter? Shearer adopts the per­sona of Mr Burns, the sin­is­ter owner of the nu­clear-pro­cess­ing plant where Homer Simp­son is em­ployed: “I like Mr Burns be­cause he is pure evil. A lot of evil peo­ple make the mis­take of di­lut­ing it. Never adul­ter­ate your evil.”

The fa­mil­iar voice sounds strange com­ing from a man who is not yel­low in the slight­est. Ac­tu­ally, Shearer, speak­ing over a min­eral wa­ter in a Cen­tral Lon­don club, looks much younger than his 65 years. His par­ents were Jewish refugees from the Nazis — his mother from Poland, his fa­ther from Aus­tria. They met in Ha­vana, Cuba, while wait­ing for en­try per­mits into the USA in the late 1930s. They set­tled in the Pa­cific North-West be­fore mov­ing to Los An­ge­les (“thank God”) when Shearer’s mother was preg­nant with him.

The ex­pe­ri­ence of grow­ing up the child of im­mi­grants gave him what he de­scribes as an “out­sider sen­si­bil­ity”. “I had to teach my­self about Amer­ica and that made me more cu­ri­ous and more ex­ploratory. My dad was a soc­cer player but knew noth­ing about base­ball. It made me avid about ab­sorb­ing me­dia.”

Did their ex­pe­ri­ences make them, and sub­se­quently him, po­lit­i­cal an­i­mals? “We al­ways talked about stuff at the din­ner ta­ble. I don’t know whether that had to do with their ori­gins or the way they were,”

He does not see any ex­plicit Jewish­ness in his work de­spite the fact that, since his first foray as a child ac­tor on The Jack Benny Pro­gramme in the 1950s, he has worked with a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of Jews, (in­clud­ing Rob Reiner and Christo­pher Guest in Spinal Tap).

“I was al­ways amazed that New York Jews were so fix­ated on their Jewish­ness,” he says. “It seems to me in my work al­most ir­rel­e­vant. I never deal with mat­ters of re­li­gion. I don’t think it’s a good idea to make fun of the stuff that peo­ple ap­pear to need in their lives. The self-con­scious­ness of Woody Allen and Philip Roth is in a way the dif­fer­ence be­tween New York and LA. New York im­prints you with a tribal iden­tity in a way that LA doesn’t — it’s much more of an in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic place. Peo­ple go there to shed their iden­ti­ties.”

Looking back on a ca­reer which, given Shearer’s ob­vi­ous en­ergy and en­thu­si­asm for life, is clearly by no means over, he is torn over what has given him the most sat­is­fac­tion. Spinal Tap spawned a whole genre of spoofs, in­clud­ing most notably The Of­fice, which Ricky Ger­vais has ac­knowl­edged was in­spired by the 1984 cult hit. He also loves di­rect­ing, which is, he says, “like surf­ing on a wave of prob­lem-solv­ing”.

The one project which was less than fun was his 2006 novel Not Enough In­di­ans — a darkly satir­i­cal ex­plo­ration of the Na­tive Amer­i­can com­mu­nity. Without the plea­sures of col­lab­o­ra­tion, spon­tane­ity and im­pro­vi­sa­tion which char­ac­terise his other projects, it was a strug­gle. “The only fun thing about it was hav­ing writ­ten it. It was lonely, I had no deal for it and it took six years to do. It was a pro­foundly dis­turb­ing act of self-dis­ci­pline.” Songs of the Bush­man is avail­able on iTunes

Harry Shearer voices many of The Simp­sons reg­u­lar char­ac­ters, in­clud­ing ( be­low, left to right) Kent Brock­man, Prin­ci­pal Skin­ner, Ned Flan­ders, and his favourite, Mr Burns ( top)

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