20 Questions: Harry Shearer

Harry Shearer
Can't Take a Hint

What can one say about the irrepressible comedic cultural critic Harry Shearer that hasn’t already been said – or that he hasn’t already said, himself (in an array of voices)? The Hollywood-born Renaissance man has got his fingers in everything and I mean everything pop culture; he’s in film (yeah, yeah, he’ll forever be known as co-creator and for his role as Derek Smalls in This Is Spinal Tap, but let’s not overlook the award-winning 2010 documentary, The Big Uneasy, about his beloved New Orleans), he’s in television, he’s in radio, he’s written (and even published) books… yadda yadda yadda.

On that voice, surprisingly, the fictional character most like him (PopMatters 20 Questions: question # 2) is not The Simpsons’ Mr. Burns, Smithers, or Ned Flanders. Thankfully, it’s not Richard Nixon, either, although he talks like Nixon in his upcoming six-part TV series, Nixon’s the One. Oh wait, Nixon wasn’t fiction. (Alas, the truth really is much worse than fiction… or something like that.) Which fictional character is most like Shearer? For that, you’ll have to read on.

And of course, Shearer is a singer, too! Well… sort of. His CDs, Songs of the Pointed & Pointless (2007) and Songs of the Bushmen (2008) garnered him Emmy nominations, but not for the gift of his golden voice, to lift a lyric from Leonard Cohen (whom Shearer could probably also mimic. I wonder if he’s tried?) or for his “OK bass playing” (to paraphrase Shearer in some interview I saw on the Internet, somewhere).

In his latest CD, Can’t Take a Hint (Courgette, 27 August 2012) (see video, below), Shearer does a fine job of speaking — or rather singing (and sometimes rapping) — for himself in his characteristic, satiric fashion. Whether or not he’ll get this close to another Emmy again with this CD, he’s no doubt had fun making it. He’s in fine company on Can’t Take a Hint with the likes of Dr. John (“Autumn in New Orleans”), Jane Lynch (“Like a Charity”), the Fountains of Wayne (“Celebrity Booze Endorser”), Jamie Cullum (“A Few Bad Apples”), Alice Russell (“Trillion Dollar Bargain”), Judith Owen (“Your Thing”) and other notables.

PopMatters 20 Questions

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

Rock of Ages, but that was crying with relief as my wife and I realized simultaneously that we could leave the theater early.

2. The fictional character most like you?

I don’t read/see a lot of fictional material, so the closest I could come is the Abraham Lincoln in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, because I like to hunt vampires in my spare time, too.

3. The greatest album, ever?

It’s a tie between The Beatles’ Revolver and Apple Venus by XTC.

4.Star Trek or Star Wars?

Space: 1999

5. Your ideal brain food?

Brain of Britain on BBC Radio 4. It’s much harder than Jeopardy!, but even so, I know some of the answers.

6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?

I was the first person to use the word “twat” in a comedy sketch on American radio. Actually, I was the first person to react to it, I didn’t say it, but I helped write it.

7. You want to be remembered for…?

I want to be remembered as somebody who survived in American show business for a remarkably long time without creating anything particularly stupid. (Editor’s note: Except, perhaps, the song from Can’t Take a Hint, “Your Thing” on which Shearer raps. He tells Will Coviello of Best of New Orleans, “It’s a song about how dumb a pop song can be and still exist,” he says. “Just repeat the same thing and have a two-note melody. Simplicity and repetition. And did I mention the simplicity and repetition?”, 21 August 2012)

8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?

Bob & Ray, Peter Sellers, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, John Kennedy Toole, Stanley Elkin, Stan Freberg, Mort Sahl.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

Dr. Strangelove.

10. Your hidden talents…?

I’m a pretty good cook and a pretty good (basketball) passer.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

My mom used to say, “Make use of all your talents.” She was right; it may not have made me any more successful, but it sure has made me happier.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

My satellite dish. First I built one with the help of friends Chris Guest and Archie Hahn. Then I bought one. The Big dish, not the Dish dish. It gives me more viewing pleasure, bidden and forbidden, than one could ever imagine.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or..?

Natural fibers.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

I actually met him once at a dinner party in London, but we didn’t get to talk for long enough, so I’d love to have a second chance with Salman Rushdie.

15. Time travel: where, when and why?

Can’t imagine a time I’d rather be in than now. Failure of imagination, I know.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?


17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or..?

Chocolate. The darker, the better.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

City. New Orleans.

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

Go home, turn it over to the next guy, go make your millions in speaking fees.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

A six part series for British television (the Sky Arts channel) called Nixon’s the One, featuring scenes from the White House tapes having nothing to do with Watergate, Vietnam, or politics–just the bizarre, character-revealing moments that recur throughout the tapes. We’ve just finished casting, I play Nixon, and I’ve co-written the shows. We started filming the last five episodes right after the Olympics ended.