“It’s finally true, anyone has become president,” intones Harry Shearer in his best Tom Brokaw anchor-ese. “We’re not ignorant of history, ladies and gentlemen, we’re utterly dismissive of it.”
It is August in Edinburgh, which means it is festival time, a month of theater, readings, film, music and standup that the Scottish papers like to describe as “the most important live arts event in the world.” With singer-songwriter (and wife) Judith Owen, Shearer is performing the comedy revue This Is So Not About the Simpsons.
The show is basically a dozen funny, genial monologues and skits interspersed with some folk-jazzy original songs by Owen, who sits at an electric Yamaha keyboard while Shearer accompanies on standup bass. Of course, as soon as they take the stage, Owen refers to The Simpsons, and Shearer obliges in the voices of Mr. Burns and other characters from the show. And then they move on to a lighthearted attempt to explain to the rest of the world just what the fuck is going on with us.
Owen offers up the observations of an apple-cheeked Welsh chick transplanted to Hollywood. Actresses here are generally divided into two camps, she says: those under 30 from “the driftwood school of acting” (who are usually called Jessica), and the rare older birds who we all watch run the “Teri Hatcher race against time,” visibly starving themselves to death in their attempts to look like 12-year-olds.
A couple of days later, Owen and Shearer meet me for lunch on Grassmarket, a main street in this lovely city that is like a London so tiny you can explore it completely without once setting foot in a taxi or bus. In August, performers outnumber civilians, lending the streets a giddy carnival atmosphere. On the way to the Internet café you’ll look up and see a man walking toward you in full pirate regalia or a lady maneuvering a huge puppet made up to look exactly like her. Hopeful young actors jostle one another to hand you brochures for their shows — one woman begged us to come see her comedy about incest, while a competing actor assured us that her show wasn’t funny at all.
Shearer and Owen met cute; she was playing piano and singing in a London jazz bar and was feeling down: “If one more person asked me to play something from Cats, I would have killed him,” she says. She heard a familiar voice behind her and turned around to see Shearer — in full Spinal Tap makeup, standing alongside Christopher Guest and a dwarf (who had just come from a performance). “Well, you don’t see that every day,” she thought. Shearer says he made out better than the dwarf that night.
Conversation with Shearer and Owen tends to continue the themes of their show; they are given to statistics. “Only 5 percent of Americans own passports,” he notes. “$1 billion is spent on plastic surgery in Britain,” she says, suggesting that the U.K. is becoming as shallow as the U.S. Eventually, political issues give way to the state of pop culture — and the American version of The Office. Shearer, a Ricky Gervais fan, is unimpressed. I point out that it’s on network in prime time with no laugh track. Shearer reddens. “Excuse me,” he says, “but The Simpsons has never had a laugh track. Are we so far in the muck that to not have a laugh track is a defense of something?”
Shearer is not shy when it comes to expressing himself, but his ability to remain genial while combative has served him well — onstage and off. Owen is describing how much better U.K. radio is when Shearer leans forward in his seat. “Don’t interrupt me, Harry,” she says, suddenly raising her voice. “I’m not finished.” He sits back without a word, everyone smiles, and Owen continues making her point.