Whether hosting KCRW-FM's 'Le Show,' handling multiple characters on
'The Simpsons' or appearing on the big screen, the 64-year-old
performer always has something to say.
By Paul Krassner
December 24, 2008
Harry Shearer became an actor at age 7, at the urging of his piano
teacher. As a kid on "The Jack Benny Program," when the cast was
doing a read-through, there was one line in the script where, he told
me, "I just got it in my mind to do it with a slight Brooklyn accent,
and when I did that, Benny just started howling, banging the table
and laughing." That moment was an auspicious omen.
Foremost among Shearer's talents is an ability to mimic with
satirical precision the voices, mannerisms and points of view of
countless public figures -- entertainers, politicians, news anchors
-- on his radio program, "Le Show," which has just completed its 25th
year. It is broadcast every Sunday morning at 10 on KCRW-FM (89.9) in
Santa Monica ("From the edge of America, from the home of the
homeless") and syndicated to around 100 stations in this country,
plus one in Berlin, NPR in Europe, an audio feed on Japan's cable
system and American Forces Radio.
For all these years, Shearer, who turned 65 Tuesday, has never been
paid for doing "Le Show." But what about the perks?
"Well, one advantage of doing weekly radio shows is that you tend to
forget them as soon as they're done," he said. "The great part, since
gaining Internet coverage, is hearing feedback from listeners in
places like Japan and Africa, where this broadcast would never be
heard on terrestrial radio.
"But the real highlight from a life standpoint has to be when I had a
chance meeting on the street near the newsstand just off Melrose with
somebody who was a fan of the radio show, and whose then column in
the then LA Reader I was a fan of. It was Matt Groening, and that
meeting led to a little remunerative gig in the Murdochian vineyards."
Shearer was referring, of course, to "The Simpsons," on which he
performs the voices of several cartoon personalities. Since he does
both Mr. Burns and his assistant, Smithers, I asked, "When you're
taping 'The Simpsons,' do you sometimes just stand there and talk to
"Yes, and that happens a lot," he said. "When Hank [Azaria] plays Apu
and Chief Wiggum, he'll talk to himself, and when Dan [Castellaneta]
plays Homer and his dad, he'll talk to himself."
One voice he does on "Le Show" is Dan Rather. When the Museum of
Television & Radio (now the Paley Center for Media) honored Rather,
he invited Shearer to attend. Shearer wanted to discuss issues, but
Rather preferred to talk "Spinal Tap," the rock 'n' roll mockumentary
in which Shearer played bassist Derek Smalls.
Ironically, the band was put together and existed only for the sake
of the movie, yet it ended up going on tour. During a London
appearance, Shearer entered the brunch place at the hotel where they
were staying -- still dressed as his character, with fake hair
extensions but a real beard -- and was awe-struck by a gifted
vocalist, Judith Owen. They eventually got married and now divide
their time between Santa Monica and New Orleans. Sometimes when she
performs at a club, Shearer accompanies her on electric bass. And in
keeping with his eclectic taste and his keen sense of nepotism, he
often plays songs from her albums on "Le Show."
Shearer always presents a few "copyrighted" features on his program.
I won a bet with my wife that they're not really copyrighted, and
perhaps as a result of that bet, he introduced "Tales of Airport
Security," in which he reads listeners' accounts of such
misadventures, as "a copyrighted feature of this broadcast, and when
I say that, of course I am lying. That's full disclosure, ladies and
Another "copyrighted feature" -- "If it ain't copyrighted," Shearer
admits, "who knows the difference?" -- is "Apologies of the Week,"
such as Brazil's government apologizing to the country's senior
citizens for forcing them to show up at Social Security offices to
prove they're not dead and Burger King apologizing to a woman ordered
by a franchise employee to stop breast-feeding her baby or leave
because it made a customer uncomfortable.
In the tradition of Lenny Bruce, he plays all the characters in
mini-theatrical sketches that serve as vehicles for his incisive
humor. He has frequently presented phone conversations between George
W. Bush and his father, taking the part of both and capturing the
nuances of each. In his own voice, alluding to the younger Bush's
crusade to stamp out global terrorism, Shearer has observed, "It's
like the war on drugs. It's a totally metaphorical war in which some
people get killed. I expect the Partnership for a Terrorist-Free
America to start soon."
But how will Shearer handle Barack Obama?
"I think there's going to be something sadly funny about the
collision/intersection between the sky-high hopes and expectations of
his supporters with the sky-high mountain of crap left on his desk by
his predecessors," he says. "I'm still learning his speech pattern,
but there's something about the way he emphasizes certain words,
especially the ones at the ends of sentences, that gives the aura of
decisiveness whether there's anything decisive being said or not."
In any case, as a dedicated news junkie, Shearer will continue to
share bizarre reports on "Le Show," remaining true to his philosophy:
"Comedy is good, reality is better."
Paul Krassner's latest book is "One Hand Jerking: Reports From an