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Random Acts of Satire 

Harry Shearer’s search for truth

Wednesday, May 30 2001

In 1953, Harry Shearer played a crippled boy in the Richard Burton vehicle The Robe. That same year he landed a small part in Abbott and Costello Go to Mars, and he was off and running. ”That’s range,“ says Shearer, of his show-biz debut. ”I‘ve spent the rest of my life filling in in-between.“

Shearer, a Los Angeles native, is heard hereabouts every Sunday at 10 a.m. on his radio program of political punditry, Le Show, on KCRW. Internationally, Shearer is best-known as Derek Smalls, bassist with the satirical metal band Spinal Tap. Introduced in 1984 in the mock documentary directed by Rob Reiner, This Is Spinal Tap, the band has attracted a devoted cult following and plays this Friday to a sold-out house at the Greek Theater. Opening will be Spinal Tap’s alter ego, the Folksmen, a trio that debuted locally with Shearer, Michael McKean and Christopher Guest in April as part of the Harry Smith tribute presented at UCLA.

Shearer recently wrote and directed Teddy Bears Picnic, a spoof of the Bohemian Grove, a nature retreat for blueblood millionaires that was established in Northern California several decades ago. Starring Fred Willard, McKean, George Wendt, Henry Gibson and Morgan Fairchild, the film is currently being shopped for a distributor. In his spare time, Shearer provides multiple voices every week to The Simpsons, and is at work on a comic novel about Indians and gambling.

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”Anybody who says they enjoy writing is full of shit -- it‘s lonely and hard,“ says Shearer, who lives on the Westside with his wife, musician Judith Owen, and a dog named Victor.

L.A. Weekly: What’s the most annoying thing about Los Angeles?

Harry Shearer: The thing that immediately comes to mind is the traffic, but because I‘m a local I pride myself on knowing how to not use the freeway and get where I’m going. The next most annoying thing is the vast, continuing influx of New Yorkers and their ilk who come to Los Angeles for what they think will be brief periods of time, stay way too long, never develop any roots, and then complain about the lack of community in Los Angeles. I‘m perfectly happy with people who come from other places and want to be here -- that’s what makes a place come together -- but these complaining parasites are deeply annoying.

Every week on Le Show you sift through the blizzard of media and present a cogent analysis of recent news events. How do you find out what‘s really going on? What are the news sources you trust?

You start by not believing what you hear on television. I spend an hour or two every day reading news, and the more places you turn for information, the greater the likelihood that you’ll find something true -- and not necessarily because you‘ll arrive at a consensus-based opinion, because that, too, can be a lie. But, in a world this big, with this many people having at least small megaphones, some usable information does get through. I also try to make imaginative leaps, and always bear in mind that local news tends to be sensationalized. Here’s my theory as to why that is: The most desirable audience for advertisers, especially advertisers in local television, is young people just forming households because they‘re buying the most stuff, and they’re believed to be the least brand loyal. If they‘re just forming households and having kids, they’re hard-wired by nature to be at their most paranoid, because having children brings out paranoia in people. ”Are you strapped in??!!“ ”You mean he wasn‘t at school??!!“ So, how do you get those people to watch your news? By airing shows like ”Three Things in Your Kitchen That Could Kill,“ tonight at 11.

If you had the opportunity to eliminate one of the following, which would you choose: leaf blowers, police helicopters or car alarms?

Car alarms, basically on the grounds of utility. Police helicopters actually may accomplish something for the police from time to time -- I don’t think they‘re always just joy riding. Leaf blowers are a stupid way to do something, but they still do something. I don’t know the last time a person heard a car alarm and exclaimed, ”Oh my God! Somebody‘s stealing my neighbor’s car! I should go see what‘s going on! I could prevent a crime!“ Car alarms don’t rouse citizens to protective action.

Knowing what we know about how they affect the environment, why are educated yuppies driving around in gigantic SUVs?

Selfishness and vanity win. This is a generation that wants to deny that it‘s aging, so the idea of buying a station wagon to drive its kids around is anathema. Here’s something that‘s sporty and kinda young -- but it’s still for carting around your kids. The fantasy is that you‘re four-wheeling it up the dirt road, but you’re actually taking the kid to private school. That, I think, is the essence of it -- they appeal to the vanity of people.

If you were seated next to Bill Clinton at a dinner party, what would you want to talk to him about?

What the hell is going on with that marriage! I should add, by the way, that I think Bill has been unfairly pilloried for his personal problems, and that we expect a lot of political figures. Partly because we don‘t have some dunderhead with a crown on his head, the presidency gets freighted with all kinds of inappropriate stuff. We do have faux royalty in this country, thanks to all our movie stars, but it’s not enough. Nonetheless, the idea that you would turn to the world of politics for moral leadership is laughable. This is the greasiest pole in the country, and yet we expect the guy who gets to the top to walk away with clean hands.

How do you explain the explosion in awards shows? There used to be a few every year, and now there are several a month.

It‘s the accomplishment explosion -- there’s more good stuff going on! Those are easy shows to package, and they make a lot of money for the organizations that put them on. You‘ll notice that there are almost no awards shows during sweeps months, so they’re not a sure-fire source of ratings, but during those months when there are lots of reruns on, awards shows are like little exclamation points.

What‘s the scariest place in Los Angeles?

To me personally? Probably the executive offices at NBC. I say NBC for no good reason -- they’re no better or worse than any of those executive offices. I‘ve been to meetings in all those offices, and they’re infuriating because those guys start the meetings by telling me what big fans they are. They‘ll really be serious about it, and quote chapter and verse from my radio show, but giving me a show is the last thing they plan to do. This business is full of people who think that if they like something, that disqualifies it from something they’d actually put money into. They flatter themselves into thinking that their taste is so elevated that it‘s beyond what the masses could grasp. These guys will put $50 million into a Super Mario Bros. movie because that’s business, but the fact that they enjoy my radio show is part of their personal life. These are the gatekeepers who stand between artists and their audiences, and somewhere along the way they got the idea that they‘re more important than the artists.

Will O.J. kill again?

Yes. He’s already had problems with one new girlfriend who reportedly looks just like Nicole Brown Simpson, and there‘s already been a 911 call. Any woman who gets involved with him has a death wish.

  • Harry Shearer’s search for truth

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