Monday, March 05, 2007

I'm Just So-So about Harry

I've always wanted to like Harry Shearer more than I do, but (here comes the heresy) I even feel that way about This Is Spinal Tap. Both I tend to admire more for their cleverness than bust a gut over, no matter how many times people do variations on the "this one goes to 11" joke. I mean, on Le Show, Shearer's syndicated radio program, he thinks it's enough to make us hear his winks (and his voice is that good, we do, but...) as he reads the corrections from the Los Angeles Times. I guess I just hope that there's more to comedy than pointing at the absurd and to say observe. Now go do something with that observation. Shearer can do that--just listen to one of his brilliant 41 talks to 43 phone calls--for here the misspeaking of the two Bushes isn't just cheap jokes, but more like a language of privileged doofusness overheard, where the slips really do sink ships (of state). It's just that Shearer doesn't always seem willing to make that much effort or that it's beneath him to pander. Note that while he's probably most famous for superbly voicing Mr. Burns et al. on The Simpsons, according to the Santa Barbara Independent "he doesn’t like the show much after the fourth season;" note also he still collects the checks.

All that said, when he's on, he's on, so I went to see him in "An Afternoon with Harry Shearer" this Sunday at UCSB Arts & Lectures, hoping he'd be more on than not. Instead he was more all over than not, moreso than a Larry King USA Today bullet column. (As part of his show, Shearer actually screened a clip of King "singing" the rare third verse of "America the Beautiful"--Shearer collects, and has even exhibited in galleries, the raw feeds that stations put out before and after actual "real" shows.) There was a theme--you're not as dumb as they say you are--but if someone has to tell you that, either you are, or he might just think you're not the sharpest tool in the shed himself. That didn't mean he didn't score some great lines, including "the most hopeful people in America today are gay Republicans," and that he didn't even have some wiser, larger messages, including exploring the problem with an American culture aimed at 18-35 year-olds "who are just trying to get laid for the first time." As he replied when queried in the Q&A about Ann Coulter, "She's an emblem of what passes for political discussion in this country, so lame and so coarse at the same time."

I guess keen observation should be enough for me, especially when delivered in Shearer's mellifluous tones (alas, he didn't do enough voices--the only "ex-cell-ent" of the afternoon came from one of his audience questioners). It is funny, and word-alert wise, when someone points out, "Ten years ago we were worried about whether the president thought a blowjob was sex. Now we're worried if the president thinks simulated drowning is torture. [just the right pause] In ten years maybe we'll be worried if the president wonders if simulated torture is sex...or vice versa." Plus he got in one stingingly mean one-liner when asked about Al Franken's senatorial bid, "He always belonged in a profession that he was better suited for than comedy."

Shearer also related some intriguing The Simpsons anecdotes. He said, "Mel Gibson came in and seemed to get along with the Jews well that day...but in fairness it was in the morning and he wasn't drunk." The he told about the time Michael Jackson was the guest artist (yes, MJ really did do the voice in that episode about the 300 pound white man from the asylum who thought he was Michael Jackson). When it's time to record the show, Jackson does all the speaking parts, but when it comes time to sing a song ("Happy Birthday, Lisa" a take-off of "Ben"), some white guy at the table sings. Shearer leans over to Yardley Smith (the voice talent for Lisa) and says, "I guess we paid enough for the talking Michael and not the singing Michael."

And on a closing note, we did pay for the singing Shearer, and he could have kindly cut the two musical interludes that did not come close to raising a mighty wind of laughter from the audience. While Shearer as W. singing "Addicted to Oil" had a few moments (particularly the "I'm an oil man" line, just to remind us of Shearer's SNL cred), the shit-kickin' country tune "Let the Flag Burners Fry on the Fourth of July" never got funnier than its title. But it did get longer.



Blogger Mike said...

Once I get over the revelation that you're not crazy about Spinal Tap maybe I'll be ready to think about the rest of this piece.

4:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shearer's show hit the spot for me... he is not nearly as cynical in person as he is on the radio. I took his songs as goofiness, which was refreshing, and countercynical. I also was impressed that he had been a schoolteacher and a legislative aid... those activities added some depth.

Shearer's got a real no-nonsense perspective, which I appreciate. His sendup of network honchos is way better and way more real than others... just saying network honchos are cynical egotists is one thing, but Shearer nails their small-town ambition and distrust of the people from which they arose.

Sometimes I think Shearer brings a genuine SoCal voice to his satire; similar to John Carroll at the Chronicle and Joan Didion... true California perspectives, which are elusive given all the immigration into this place.

8:50 AM  
Blogger George said...


I knew that comment would get a response from you. I wish I could say differently, but if I lied I might go up in smoke like a Spinal Tap drummer.

Anonymous 8:50 am--

Indeed, he's no nonsense, especially when it comes to New Orleans, which he clearly loves and fights for, and I left that stuff out. But perhaps it's that SoCal satire that's the problem--it's a bit too laid back for originally from the East Coast me.

9:27 AM  
Blogger Trekking Left said...

I really wanted to go to this, but after reading about the Al Franken crack, I'm glad I missed it.

9:58 AM  
Anonymous numfar said...

The thing I kept wondering as I watch was, Why is he doing this? He pretty much phoned it in, and only a few times did I get the sense he was enjoying himself. So why do it? He sure doesn't need the money, and it's not like he's breaking any new ground, comedic or othewise. So why bother?

7:44 PM  
Blogger Drew said...

first off, i feel like none of the simpsons cast is really all that funny without a script in front of them. did you see the inside the actors studio with the cast?

secondly, it would have to be a script from seasons two through eight, as that's when the show was really on. where does he get off thinking the show went south in season five?

10:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

George, I agree about New Orleans.

Perhaps those who grow up in California are a bit less strong about arguing strongly for `how it should be'. You see so much here, particularly Shearer does, because he really grew up in Hollywood. A strong sense of rectitude is kind of absent.

It is hard to say Shearer is not productive, however. His output is pretty high, he is just kind of jazz-like about it... he doesn't miss a beat and is unflappable. Not like Robin Williams, another California native.

8:51 AM  

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