Harry Shearer Takes a Hint

Comedians have been effective political commentators ever since Aristophanes used his wit to satirize the foibles of the ancient Greeks. Harry Shearer has a long history as a satirist dating back to his work with the Credibility Gap, Albert Brooks, Fernwood 2Night and the transcendent musical mockumentaries Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind. Shearer’s acting career runs the gamut from a childhood part in Abbott and Costello Go to Mars to the clueless anchorman in Godzilla who demands to know what the lead story is as the monster passes behind him. Well-known for his voice roles in the Simpsons and his great radio program Le Show, the Los Angeles-born Shearer has adopted New Orleans as a spiritual home and been a stalwart advocate for the city for years. His documentary The Big Uneasy attempted to raise public awareness of the Army Corps of Engineers’ culpability in the flood that destroyed New Orleans in 2005 following a massive failure of the substandard levee system in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. On August 27, Shearer releases a new album, Can’t Take A Hint, on which he’ll be joined by a variety of guests.

Harry Shearer

You’re known as a political satirist. How much of your new CD is politically oriented? And please tell us why you chose your duet partners.

All but two of the songs are either culturally or politically satirical. The guests were chosen largely on the basis of being people I know, closely or loosely, who could sing the songs in question far better than I could. The fact that many of them are quite well-known and might help this record break the four- figure sales barrier is just a happy accident, as well as the whole point of the enterprise. All of them, I’m happy to say, were quite agreeable to participation.

“The four-figure sales barrier,” what a sobering summation of our recording biz. Most of our readers would know Jamie Cullum, Tommy Malone and Dr. John, but would you care to give some pithy descriptions of some of your other collaborators?

Jane Lynch is best known from Glee, but I know her from working with her in A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration. She also did Judith [Owen] and my Christmas show in Los Angeles last year, where I was reminded what a kick-ass singer she is. Fountains of Wayne is one of my favorite rock bands—smart, melodic songs. I guess they’re called “indie.” Rob Brydon is well-known in the UK as a very funny comedian. He was seen this year in the film The Trip as well as a guy blessed with the usual Welsh set of amazing pipes. Charlie Wood is a wicked pianist-singer-songwriter, educated at Tulane University, made a bunch of swell records in Memphis, and is now living in London. Danny Thompson is a legendary British upright bassist who has literally played with everybody from folk to jazz to rock performers in the UK. Alice Russell is a stunning blue-eyed-soul singer from the UK. She’s having sudden success now with her collaboration
CD with the English producer Quantic recorded in Cali, Colombia. Judith Owen is well-known to New Orleanians for, among other things, her Christmas shows at the CAC. She’s just released an album of impossibly confessional songs called Some Kind of Comfort. And she’s my wife.

It’s been about a month [we’re talking in mid-June] since the Times-Picayune, or the Sometimes Picayune as you call it, announced its cutbacks. Can you summarize what you’ve written elsewhere about this situation and perhaps add some new thoughts?

I’ve argued, as have others, that given the combination of the highest reader-per-citizen rate of any metro daily in the top 50 cities and the 36 percent of the New Orleans population that is not internet-connected, this is the last city in the world for the New York-based absentee owners to roll out the model they propose. If you believe the critics on the local weekly up there, it hasn’t even worked in Ann Arbor, where it originated. I’ve suggested that there’s no track record of a three-day-a-week newspaper habit being formed anywhere, and newspaper reading is a habit. And I would add to that: Advance Publications—or as I call them, Retreat Publications—says they’ll only print a paper on the three days advertisers most want to advertise. It seems likely that there are months—July and August seem probable—when advertisers least want to be in the glossy pages of the magazines owned by that absentee owner, the New Yorker and Vanity Fair. So why don’t they cease print publication of those magazines in those months? Why don’t we help them by boycotting those publications, about which they clearly care more than they care about the one-time daily in a city they just as clearly do not understand? That’s my rant and I’m sticking to it.

Rant on, sir. Tell us about the BBC series you’re filming in London about the Nixon presidency. Did it somehow grow out of your Hoover musical J. Edgar!?

No, nothing has grown out of J. Edgar! as of yet, except my impatience. Nixon’s the One is a very different kind of work. J. Edgar! is, as my co-author Tom Leopold and I describe it in its subtitle, a musical fantasia on the life of Hoover. The Nixon show is totally factual, based on the White House tapes, but with a difference—no Watergate, no Vietnam, no politics, no break-ins. Just, as I hope I can describe it in the genteel pages of OffBeat, the crazy motherfucker conversations that pepper Nixon’s recorded days in the White House—conversations, occasionally rants, that reveal the real character of the man in all its bizarre configurations. We shoot it as if Nixon hid not just mics but cameras as well in the Oval Office, and every word is taken verbatim from the tapes. Scary and funny is what we intended, and, based on the reactions to the pilot (shown in the UK in May), it’s what we got. And I play Nixon, one of the towering comic characters of the century.

I know you’ve said that for all the work you did on The Big Uneasy, you didn’t feel it changed enough people’s views, or at least the right people’s views. With that in mind, do you foresee any other New Orleans-centric projects? Hearing Le Show broadcast every week is great, but we could use more Harry than that.

Like my friend, Sandy Rosenthal of Levees.org, I spend a remarkable part of every week chasing after people in the national media who use phrases like “natural disaster” or “New Orleans was slammed by a humongous hurricane” in lieu of referring to the failure of the Corps of Engineers’ “hurricane protection system.” Given the failure of my film to penetrate the national understanding of what happened in New Orleans, Sandy and I will be on that beat for quite a while. As to other projects, my interests wander all over the place, and I try to avoid working in the medium that I’ve just finished a project in, since there’s some inevitable wound-licking time that has to take place.