by John O'Kane
Cut, no. 41, May 1997, pp. 85-92
Harry Shearer is certainly one of LA's most versatile talents. Actor, scriptwriter, producer, journalist, essayist, comedian, political satirist: he realizes these vocations along the spectrum from fringe to mainstream. What lingers for me from inspections of this activity and a series of confrontive conversations with Harry is a question as to whether he merely dabbles in the fringe as a means for occasional self expression, off-handed forays which serve to assure him that the commercial arts are really where it's at after all; or if he makes a living in the mainstream while entertaining fantasies of changing if not subverting it, extending a more complex version of funny life throughout all the cultural industries. Or does he offer testimony that these kinds of worries have largely passed by the way, becoming so much noisy irrelevance when commercial dependencies have made fringe and center near mirror images of one another? Harry certainly maintains an ambiguity which is far from detrimental to cultural expression. In fact, his peculiar positioning as a cross-cultural media sage may finally foster some uniquely provocative gesturings which escape him.
My first encounter with Harry Shearer was through the satirical rock documentary — the "Rockumentary — "THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1982), an irreverent commentary on MONTEREY POP, GIMME SHELTER, THE LAST WALTZ and others from the imaginary rock canon. Harry was a major force in this shattered illusion of documentary truth, playing Derek Smalls, the "cucumber man," the bass player for the fictional band SPINAL TAP which brought suspicion to bear on rock culture and its manufacture of stardom and authenticities. But such a mocking suspicion has been a mainstay throughout a series of seasoned entertainings which first emerged in the late 60s — intersecting with a revolting generation's irreverences — in a variety of experimental radio formats around LA that continued well into the 70s.
Most notable was Shearer's contribution to The Credibility Gap, an alternative radio show in LA that lasted until the mid-70s. This show's timeliness and tone of anti-establishment mockery bore a striking similarity to Saturday Night Live, which started in 1975. Both were a breath of fresh air in the comedy world: the one in the aesthetics of radio, the other through an expanded television space outside prime time. They were adventures in a market opened up by baby-booming sacrilege in receivership over the fates of 60s radicalism, and the shows expressed a pent-up demand for intelligent comedy-with-a-punch. This was at a time when "alternative" would begin to fade as a viable expression, to be increasingly overcome by mainstreaming into the 80s and beyond. Harry was a member of Saturday Night Live during the late 70s, a second generation arrival, and for a short time in the mid-80s. The comic skits innovated by these first wave of satirizers focused on taboo and neglected topics, and the show presented them in ways stylistically alien to the television fare engulfing the prime time image consumer. It was spiritually alive and sufficiently off-center to captivate a marginal audience. It had a work-in-progress aura that defied slickly crafted spectacle. It is this early rawness, the repeated simulations of realism and liveness, that most closely conjures Harry's "intelligent" comedy, though he himself sees the entire legacy as only a variation on the same trendy ploy to get and keep an audience. The show stopped short of mature political satire through a look at the languages of social difference, letting entertainment formulae reign, which limit agendas and terms for discussion while recycling stars and trends. Perhaps this is why Harry spouts most of his wisdom through the radio waves of KCRW in Santa Monica, an "alternative" outlet linked to a national audience that allows him considerable freedom of expression for a continuous hour a week. His comic vision radiates throughout the land as an intelligent simulation of risk-taking that contests the shrinkage of comic frontiers. His satire isn't always obviously funny.
Harry's risk-taking may at times threaten the system or merely gloss it over with a few fashionable disruptions. The radio slot (titled "Le Show" and known as "Hour of Power" and "Voice of America" in the early moments of 1983) is an eclectic stew ready to be consumed by any one market segment attentive to this or that style. This hardly means it has an absence of content. Alive to the productive associations with that rawness investing his earlier work in Saturday Night Live and The Credibility Gap, Shearer takes on the worthy topics of the contemporary world with hilarity and hip deconstruction, sparing few poses or ideological jockeyings. During any one week the show offers a smorgasbord of social, political and cultural consumables representing some facet of the newsworthy events from the week just ended. This diverse fare simulates an exercise in maximum openness and ironic suggestion, helped along by Shearer's frequent use of an offbeat montage principle where we find ourselves quickly leaving the spaces of one commentary or portrayal to enter another. Often the transitions are patched together with an eclectic mix of traditional, popular and experimental music from Harry's own personal collection, which enhances the openness and is high on mood generation (effects that are entirely accidental according to Harry).
The regular offerings of "Le Show" include the following:
One thing this surely demonstrates is Harry's amazing facility with the radio medium. He is known for his ability to recreate voices and does it often in the show, needed where the visual component is lacking and various sound effects serve to compensate (Harry's current work with The Simpsons is therefore quite consistent with where he's been). It is tempting to try to compare much of this one-hour entertainment package to what has become the norm for commercial media of all sorts: the frenetic pacing of image flows, the refusal to linger long on one representation for fear of instilling a capacity to read through and out of the illusions that keep the (not always benign) contents at bay. Where the excessive artifice and bogus jump cutting in advertising and commercial media are a ruse that privileges style over a vanishing content, Harry's constructions add up to a more sophisticated use of the entertainment aesthetic. The sometimes quick cuts in "Le Show" are countered by the much more prominent use of lengthy skits and portrayals where everything, including his own conscious input, is framed, mocked, and up for grabs on the way to exposing the vacuity of events and personalities in virtually every facet of public life.
If Shearer's mastery of the put-down is not gonzo radio in the best fashion of Thompson, Wolfe or Mailer in the realm of the written word, it is surely far from being the worst that entertainment (he insists that he is primarily an entertainer) can offer. It remains funny, at least as much as skits showing the Pranksters flitting from one elusive caricature of counter-American Dream to another. But then a journalistic project of Shearer's, writing columns for the LA Tunes Magazine (compiled in book form as Man Bites Town in '93) captures this same spirit in the print medium, which nurtured some of his early work. No medium or institutional support system can hold Harry back. His anything-goes satire can blossom anywhere it is given a chance to perform, and this is perhaps what allows it to circulate in so many scenes. The question is whether his end-of-ideology deconstruction, which spares nothing in a riot of irreverence, can get him out through the in door!
O' Kane: What led to the type of creativity reflected in Le Show? You mentioned you were a child actor. What specifically took you in the direction of this kind of satirical comedy?
Shearer: I was a child actor. Then I quit the business, went to college very young, got out very young, spent a year of graduate school at Harvard.
O'Kane: When was this?
Shearer: This was the mid-60s. I was writing for Newsweek during this time, both here and in Boston when I was going to Harvard. I spent a year working at the State Legislature in Sacramento, two years teaching school in Compton. Then I got back in the business. I joined a group that was doing satirical radio shows everyday, three ten-minute shows a day when we started out. They were kind of mock news shows, and they actually were news shows; we were in the news department at the station. And often the second or third story would bounce into a sketch or piece of music about the story. This was at KRLA first, and then it went to the station which is now KROQ. We were on the air for three years every day. That's why I laugh when people bring up the pressure of Saturday Night Live; we did three ten minute shows a day, with more demand for material than SNL ever exerted. And there were at most four of us.
This was in the late 60s/early 70s. That group stayed together until '76: it was called The Credibility Gap. We did live shows, a couple of record albums, some educational films.
I've run into people who'd seen our Intro to Statistics film in college. Bizarre, to be made to sit and watch that. When that group broke up, I was a creative consultant to a show called Fernwood Tonight with Martin Mull. It was Norman Lear's follow up to Mary Hartman. I also worked with Albert Brooks; I wrote his first movie for him with Monica Johnson, called Real Life. We did an album together. I started devising and producing a show for very early cable TV called Likely Stories, and then I co-wrote and co-produced a special for ABC with Rob Reiner and Chris Guest and Billy Crystal and Martin Mull and a bunch of other guys, called The TV Show; it lasted one episode. Then I went to New York.
O'Kane: Many people see you as a lefty, a progressive media critic. Have they misinterpreted the radio show? Is there more than one performing Harry Shearer? Do your intentions sometimes get twisted around and changed in the performance as public property? Perhaps your public persona is a contradictory one.
Shearer: Well, people can see me the way they like. The fact is if you do political humor, the tendency is for people on the left to feel you are speaking for them, grinding their axe. I've been really interested in not doing that. The most complaints I've gotten on the radio show have been, for example, when I've made fun of Jesse Jackson. The calls are calls of betrayal. I feel that as a comedy person I reserve the right to find whatever funniness I like. I don't do what I do to be part of a cause or movement or political structure or to persuade or convert. I do what I do to make people laugh. I started doing this kind of thing in the late 60s and early 70s, when a lot of the people who would show up were political. I was against the war and all that, but I didn't think it appropriate to mix comedy and politics. I couldn't turn around and make unbridled fun of Jerry Rubin or Tom Hayden, the things I tend to do.
O'Kane: You make fun of everybody. What I see you doing best is satirizing an idea, person or event in a way that makes us really think about things in a little depth. You are so good at showing how things need to be exposed, show us how things are phony, bring us into this whole process of image making, force us to look at them, unravel them a little better.
Shearer: We live in an age of the most elaborate and persuasive artifices that man has ever created. I'm lucky in that I know how a lot of this stuff is done, and I think it is important to keep reminding people how flat the walls really are around a lot of these things we see. One of the things that pleases me is the comments I get from people. Someone said they can't watch David Copperfield anymore, I spoiled it for them. It's not so much screwing with the magic but the theatrical artifice that he uses surrounding his act. Thatg's what I was pointing out, the wind machine, body suit, the posing, etc. A lot of what's funny in what is going on is that we get suckered into these over and over again because there are powerful machines at work to make us believe this stuff is real. And I like getting hold of these powerful machines and saying, in different ways, they are not real.
O'Kane: What strikes me about your skits is the effect they have on the way we look at the original, the prime time show, the personalities you parody and the stories, personal as well as media-generated news performances. The original and the parody seem to have different meanings after your operations. We go back to these shows and they seem different after we see your parody. And a re-viewing of, listening to your parody after this is also different, in the sense that the first run-through of your performance is sometimes just an initially funny experience. This is so, for me at least, because you can mimic the originals so well, show how they are composed, what they are made up of, but all as a simultaneous piece of entertainment to be enjoyed.
Shearer: Yes, some of my favorite stuff on the radio show is the exposure of behind the scenes at CBS. I just try to imagine how the news might be delivered. Rather may be standing up to deliver his newscast when he comes back from vacation, or whatever. I just try to present how these things are made and what people's emotional reactions to them might be, show the endless amount of time wasted thinking about things like that, the minutiae of their jobs, that take more time than the important things. There's no journalism that can get you into a room where Dan Rather is talking to Charles Kurrault in his hotel room in Beijing right after the Chinese Government pulled the plug. There's no journalist that can get you there and tell you what they might have been talking about. So, that's something I like to do. That's about the only ability I have, to take what I know to be reality and imagine the rest of it. I can't imagine alternate universes or genetically mutated life forms.
O'Kane: Do you think there is a compatibility with your performances and prime time? Would the content and format have to change? Don't prime time shows have certain bytes you have to conform to, certain time restrictions and visual taboos that amount to subtle censorship? People seem to be cut off a lot, stopped short of important revelations by the always looming commercial, diverted away from uncomfortable topics in clever ways toward meaningless babble.
Shearer: There are time slots you have to fit into, and you can't expect them to throw away their format for you. It's a specialized version of the entertainment aesthetic, a particular internalized clock they have, which is not the only clock existing in entertainment, but it is the one ascendant right flow. So you have to deliver what you do in those slots, and it does no good to bitch about them censoring you if you can't fit into that. That's the game, the deal. But I've been able to go to these places and do my thing, make people laugh who didn't go there to see me perform. To me the fact that I haven't had a lot of primetime exposure is not because what I do can't be seen or done there, it's because people who run prime time think this at the moment. This isn't necessarily a permanent condition.
The radio show has no strictures or rules. I make them up. It is my game. Nobody says anything to me. My show is on WGN in Chicago, a very large commercial station. You can't get more mainstream, heartland mid-America than that. I've never had one complaint about content or anything else from them. That's my game. In prime time there's a different set of rules regarding keeping and maintaining an audience and about the pacing of a show. I pride myself in knowing enough about show business in being able to abide by their rules and still do what I want to do.
O'Kane: You must have some semblance of motivation for what you are up to. Do you just do what you really want and kind of work it all out of yourself with the finished product?
Shearer: Yeah, it's the only way not to lose yourself in the midst of this because, it's a cliché but it is true, if you lose touch with the thing that made you want to do this in the first place, then you're really lost. You've got no clue, no reference point. So the motivation when I'm writing and thinking something up is to amuse myself, and when I watch or hear it back to feel pleased in kinda getting it. These are the main goals. When someone comes up to me and says they can't look at Brokaw, David Copperfield or whoever again without having a new set of thoughts in their mind, that's great, wonderful. I love that, but I can't really say that that's the primary goal. That's the result of my achieving the primary goals, pleasing myself and succeeding in a certain way, in the same way I sense Magic Johnson is pleased when playing a basketball game. He seems to be trying to approximate in the real world — unlike many other players — a game which he imagines, an ideal realm mentally which he's trying to create in reality as a close approximation to that ideal game he sees. His goal is to do that. The cheers, admiration, championships, what follows from that is nice. But, like with Magic, it seems to me that when you boil it down, the basic goal is to try to get things to follow from the true source of inspiration.
O'Kane: Your vision feeds on other visions. I don't mean this negatively. You're like a scavenger. You position yourself in relation to a particular person, ideal, and…
Shearer: Everything is a matter of just observing human behavior. It's what everybody does. I just don't choose to build myself around observations of my family when I was a child, for example, which a lot of others do. Everything is observing human behavior in one way or another: that's the basis of comedy. There're certain kinds of human behavior I'm interested in — politics, sports, corporate life (feeling lucky not to be enmeshed in it, observing from the outside), the media, music. I just observe people in these worlds behaving, and then I try to draw out those things I think are funny and do the least amount of exaggeration necessary to have the audience respond the same way that I do. I don't necessarily see myself as making up funny things so much as finding funny things, separating out the non-funny, distilling the funny parts and using the tools to bring attention to the funny stuff. It's opposed to the run-of-the-mill comedy routine, a type of satire which tries to impose an outside sense of what is funny on a character and on a situation. Everybody's already funny. The difference between the civilian sense of humor occurs at the bar or at the office, telling this week's Leona Helmsley jokes, and the only difference between it and the professional sense of humor is that the civilian sense jokes about the easiest, hottest, the obvious missteps, goofups. This is no knock on the civilian sense, this is people's job. But the professional sense works a little harder to see what's funny about a wider range of things.
O'Kane: By this "wider range" do you mean you want to be funny in more than one way simultaneously? Do you want to edit together the funny and the non-funny or painful while still being entertaining? Do you try to create a tripwire for the release of something you lack complete control over? Nobody could sit down and talk about the things you talk about in a serious vein. Everything you do testifies to the fact there's this absurdity out there that can't be described in a logical way, by simply saying, "this is absurd and this is why." It takes a comic or satirical intelligence to really drive it home. Politics is an attempt to do things in a serious causative way, and so it seems you could never fall into the trap of being that kind of person or critic. You are one step beyond that all the time.
Shearer: I don't know. This century has been full of people who have tried to blast their minds into some state where they could make the kinds of lunatic associations that modern life actually constructs on a day-to-day basis. It just seems to me that a certain kind of comedy offers me the best chance to approximate the way I see things in the world. It's a medium in which you can make those kinds of leaps. If you guess right, then you've gotten as close as you can to the way things actually are. Quite frankly, I think most people in comedy are incredibly serious people, in contrast to most of the people I know in politics who have absolutely wicked senses of humor. So it's all mixed up in everybody. I have experience in journalism and dabble in it from time to time; there are things I think are interesting about it as a way to approximate what goes on. I do a lot of reading and watching and listening. I try to approximate that reality comedically, recreate it comedically. I just think that's the way I find most useful in trying to say, "This is what this is like." And maybe this is the part we don't know about.
O'Kane: There's definitely a journalistic component to your show. One of the things I like about it most is that when you come on every week, there's usually some event that just happened which you are usually enraged by but always definitely taken by. You want to comment on it immediately. The telethon satire, the Iraqi War, scandals in the White House, there's always something. You get to something substantial very quickly about the nature of these seemingly obvious events, some of the ironies and contradictions of our whole media reality, reading between the lines the key points begging to be addressed all that week. You are often articulately enraged by these things. You are a brilliant reader of the press. Some of your readings remind me of what Paper Tiger Television has done with the mass media. And a lot of the time what you come up with in these moments isn't funny as such; it's like a breaking through of a vision, a commentary between the puns that lasts and diverts us into streams we hadn't noticed.
Shearer: One of the things comedy does for me is that it channels the anger I feel about things I see around me. We are barraged by information; we allow ourselves to be, I do. Enough input and you need some output; you need some reaction. You need to have a way of going, "Wait, lets cut through all this." It's my good fortune that I have a place to do that. The thing is, people often say to people who do what I do: Aren't there some subjects that are just too delicate or unpleasant or grim or frightening or whatever to try and make fun of? The fact is that if the fun you are making is trivializing or goofing, then yeah, there probably are. The thing is, there are a lot of people in comedy who don't really take comedy all that seriously. They think comedy is a medium for the light, the goofy, the superficial, the nutty, and that if you want to talk about things that really concern you, what you really care about, then you have to go dramatic. Mr. Allen is the best example of that, Woody Allen. With a few exceptions, when he wants to talk about the things he really cares about, he has to go serious on you. It's because somewhere along the line he's not convinced that comedy is a substantial enough medium to support these heavy thoughts of his. For me, it's capable of supporting anything I want to put through it, so there's no subject I think can't be seen in this light.
O'Kane: When I first heard your show in 1985, 1 never really saw it as comedy. It was entertaining but it had more than just funny skits. I've always thought of you as someone who could use comedy to embrace a fresh vision of the world. This was mainly because of how you could mix things together in an interesting way. You go from the journalism to biting criticism, then you go to Frank Sinatra for a couple of minutes, then back to a Steely Dan song, then you shift gears again to a skit.
Shearer: In talking about the show's aesthetics, look how the media today are obsessed. I mean buy a copy of Radio And Records and look at the narrow frameworks into which radio has been slotted. There used to be a thing called Vaudeville (sounds like a speech), there used to be a thing called rock and roll. Now there's CHR and AOR, a dozen different variations, there's classic rock, oldies, there's formats and formulas. You can't play this music on that station, etc. There always has to be an appeal to the right demographics. They use these polls of pseudo-science to erect so many lines and barriers and formulas and pigeonholes. What I like to do is break 'em apart, beat 'em down, just go, "I'll do this and then that, and the Republic will stand nonetheless, and people will listen." People tend not to do this at home. I love to blur the line between journalism and a certain kind of comedy. I like the idea of trying to make people guess which part of it is real and which part is me making fun. That's why I sometimes produce things that sound very real, and I'll give you the illusion for a moment that you are listening to something real.
And the production techniques, there are certain things where the techniques are deliberately not that realistic. "Hellcats of the White House" was deliberately theatrical in style and production technique because I thought they, the Presidential family, lived a very theatrical existence inside their own heads. They were living movies, not reality but other people's fictions. In the "Backstage at CBS" stuff, I attempt to make sounds which make you believe you are actually in that room. Sometimes you actually do hear stuff that's real and I do try to blur that. It's a dangerous line to blur if there's somebody not as responsible (or irresponsible) as me doing it. Then you get something like A Current Affair or Inside Edition or all this pseudo-news on TV now. It's like they are blurring the line to entertainment. But entertainment's so shitty and the news is so shitty, who cares about the line? And it's just going to get worse.
O'Kane: But isn't that where the problem is, that people won't care about the line? Is this why you want to explode these categories? Is the mass media trying to dictate what they think people want or should want and end up missing the unique experience that needs to be expressed?
Shearer: They aren't trying to dictate; they're trying to find out in a way you cannot. This is the difference I have with people who have a conspiracy theory of the mass media. They maintain that the mass media is trying to dictate, which is an evil kind of model. My feeling is that they are more engaged in a desperate attempt to kind of predict and find out using tools of pseudoscience, to protect themselves from the consequences of guessing wrong. If anything, it's pathetic as opposed to evil.
O'Kane: Not evil in intent, but what about the mass media's effects? In fact, you chronicle some of this in your shows. It couldn't all be that harmless, could it?
Shearer: I'm not saying any of this is harmless. I do think that the essential harm is narrowing choices. There's this frantic attempt to guess what the next hot thing will be, so in the nature of the way they do things, at any given moment of time they narrow the range of choices the public has. The essential harm is to sort of say that for the next year there'll be one kind of flower. This year's hot fruit is cantaloupe, and if you don't happen to like cantaloupe, if you are one of those people who likes apples, you have to wait till that becomes the hot fruit. You wouldn't put up with that in supermarkets, and its equally insulting and demeaning at the entertainment and cultural level.
O'Kane: How do you see your "comedy" in relation to standup comedy? With the in-joke standup comedy routine, there seems to be a sense that, yeah, that's it. You tend to get it fairly quick, you either get it or you don't, and most will get it fairly quick. They understand, and you get a laugh, and it's over. With your routines there's something to get right away, but there's always something left over.
Sheafer: Stand-up is like the fast food of comedy, except for very few people who can orchestrate the timing of it, like Albert Brooks. He would delay the laugh; he had the patience and the confidence if need be to go quite a long time before...You can be entertaining people without having them laugh every ten seconds. That's not necessary...in the same way that fast food is not necessarily the best way to satisfy someone's nutritional needs, but it sure satisfies the needs of the company that provides it. Every ten-second-laugh formula cannot be the best way to entertain the audience, but it reaffirms the perennially insecure comedian's question, "Am I funny?" Yes! "Do they like me?" Yes! And so when somebody like Albert gets on stage and has the guts to go minutes without getting that feedback, and you see how much better and bigger and fuller and richer the laugh he gets in the end is, as opposed to the time-reflex laugh, you can see that stand-up has the potential to be more than that.
O'Kane: It's like the Improv or the other similar places around town where that comedy genre is working all the time. This is a lot different than what you are doing. Do you see yourself then in the tradition of a Lenny Bruce?
O'Kane: Paul Krassner kind of does.
Shearer: Paul does stand-up. I rarely get on a stage and stand there and say, look at this, look at that. I'm much more often in character, one way or another, which has nothing to do with what Lenny Bruce did.
O'Kane: He also had a hard time getting that immediate laugh. He was much more into assaulting audiences.
Shearer: He had a very aggressive approach to it, which I don't. I don't think audiences need to be assaulted with or confronted with... I grew up working on the Jack Benny show. I see myself working very comfortably within the confines of entertainment, and I don't think it takes an aggressive or assaultive tactic to say those confines aren't as narrow as people sometimes think they are. That's all. Lenny Bruce is a sort of radically unique talent, but basically as a member of the audience I resent being assaulted. I hate it when Andy Kaufman stands up there and tries to drive me as a member of the audience crazy by reading badly from William Faulkner for half an hour, and everybody in the room is going "SIT DOWN!" I don't find that entertaining. What did I do, I didn't toilet train him badly. All I did was walk into a club, pay some money and order some over-watered drinks and now this guy's assaulting me. I never agreed with that aesthetic. I don't think an audience is misguided or criminal in thinking that entertainment should somehow, on some level, be enjoyable. I think there's a weird offshoot of Lenny Bruce and certainly Lenny Bruce doesn't bear responsibility for it, but a lot of people see themselves following down that path. I don't include Paul Krassner because Paul is very funny and satisfying to watch.
O'Kane: Paul seems to be right in the tracks of Lenny Bruce in a lot of ways, though he's not as assaultive.
Shearer: Yeah, I think he is. He's the true inheritor. But a lot of people see this need to radically diverge from the values of entertainment, and often all they have to say is "Booh" to the audience. I don't think Andy Kaufman had anything interesting to say in terms of content; all he had to say was, "Look how much I can put you through and you'll still sit here." He's much more of a linear descendant of bad 60s experimental theater like where actors would run into the audience and make you smell their arm pits than of Lenny Bruce.
O'Kane: Coming from what you said before about the fact that what we have nowadays is a kind of whittling down of possibilities in the entertainment industry, less choice about creative possibilities in the nature of the things you do, etc., given that fact it's interesting that you can be doing what you do for so long and have such a wide following. It raises the question about, well, if there were the appropriate channels, someone with the clout who would take that chance to open up the system to a greater extent to have more of this kind of thing being done, this would be a worthwhile goal, a good. It's also interesting because perhaps people are really not that stupid and want something more substantial and "quality" and they aren't getting it because people from above are saying, well...
Shearer: Look, it boils down to this. When I was with The Credibility Gap we were doing stuff very much like what I'm doing now, topical satire, political, social, cultural. And we did this record album which we were proud of at the time and many feel it was one of the best comedy albums ever made, and this is fifteen years later and we are very happy with it, it was a nice piece of work. But people would come up to us and say, after a show or something, "You guys and Cheech and Chong are my two favorite comedy groups." Now, if you asked those people, "Do you like Cheech and Chong?" and left it at that, you could assume that their taste for comedy was for Cheech and Chong, or for that kind of comedy which is sort of a low, broad, low-common-denominator comedy. Everybody has a higher level of taste for that which is done in their field. Nowhere is it written that people's tastes can't range over a very wide area. There's nothing to say that people at the very same time like the low and the broad and also something different. The assumption is made that because you like X, because we can rely upon you to like X, we'll only sell you X. We won't even bother to think about Y. It's a commercially safer bet. It has nothing to do with what's out there in the audience. As I say, it's unknowable.
O'Kane: Your performances and your comments at times almost seem different. Something you're doing on your show is literal and obvious, but there's also a dimension to it that almost escapes you. Getting back to its aesthetics again, going back and forth between these various modes of expression, playing with comedy mixed with drama, the mix of the journalistic, the different kinds of music, the play with history, so on and so forth, reading the trades, all these different mixes of expression say one thing and another at the same time. It seems to me the history of experimental artistic expression, way back to Dadaism and Surrealism, was always a mixed mode, like yours, to break up formulas and mix them together. And as a result there was always something greater than the sum of the parts.
Shearer: Absolutely. But what keeps it in the area of entertainment is that there has to be a literal text, a literal level to it. It can't all exist on a subtext with auras and emanations. There's a level for people who want things available on an immediately accessible level. That's definitely there. And then the other stuff too. I was just reading the introduction to Paul Prudhonne's Cookbook because I'm interested in doing that kind of cooking; he mentions using different kinds of pepper in his cooking, white, black, and red pepper, because they affect different parts of the tongue at different times. So there's an immediate taste, a later one, etc. Or with great Indian food, for example, which you rarely get to eat here. If you eat Indian food in England there's an immediate wave that hits you, there's a second wave of flavors, a third wave of flavors, there's a combination of each of those that adds up to another. You can just enjoy the surface of it or learn to pay attention to the other levels that are there too, and if you want to cook it, you have to pay attention to this. You can eat really spicy food and just say this is hot, or you can dig into those other flavors that are underneath. It's the same thing, you know. I put the other stuff in because there're a lot of things that I'm interested in saying. I'm not particularly interested in just saying, "Here's what I think, bam." I'm not particularly interested in saying things in a literal way. I don't even know in a lot of cases what I think about them. I just want to bounce off against them and see what happens.
O'Kane: What do you mean by "bounce off?" Do you do this subconsciously?
Shearer: I don't particularly have a program to advance in which all of these things fit. What they all have in common is that they somehow engage my curiosity and my interest, and I bounce off them in different ways and in some of them let the listener make the connection and piece it together.
O'Kane: Like when an experimental video maker puts together something that is very emotional and very visual and very suggestive in terms of sound, but they don't know why they did exactly what they did? It just kind of worked, an emotional statement of some kind. It seems that your show is edited in this way. It works; there's an emotional uplift and the mood of something happening, a flowing together of useful doses of music and commentary that somehow speaks for itself. You go just far enough with an essay or opinion about what's on your mind, not too much that might bore the listener, telling him that it's just another public affairs rap so he might switch channels. There's a quick cut to some music that might be counter to that particular statement or feeling or tendency. People may be just getting to the point where their attention span is trailing off, and you give them something else, a relaxed, emotional moment to ease the brain cells. But it seems to work together. It's not just eclecticism.
Shearer: It's my sense of taste, my sense of how a show is made. That's where I would say with most confidence that I'm an entertainer because my sense of how things are paced is really derived from show business. It's why I submit that what I do can be done on prime time or network TV. I have a strong sense of how to pace a show that I've learned from the business. Those skills can be used on a wider range of material in terms of content and still be pleasing to a large audience.
O'Kane: How do you put the show together, the voices, etc.?
Shearer: Normally about Thursday or Friday, it starts occurring to me that I have no ideas for the show. I've gotten better at clipping things from newspapers (I'm an avid newspaper reader). There'll be quotes in my mind from the week, and I'll sort of refresh myself with a few of the TV "Week in Review" shows on Friday. Then, depending on what my schedule is, during the day Friday or that evening or sometime on Saturday, I'll force myself to go, "Okay, there's got to be a couple of things here. Write 'em," and I produce 'em.
The production is all done in this 8-track studio I have. When I started working by myself, it occurred to me that I'd never heard pieces where one person did dialogue with himself doing different voices which sounded real. And the reason was that the way people had done it up to that time didn't work very well. Normally they'd do, let's say, two voices, A and B, and so they'd lay down all of Mr. A's lines, leaving in their minds holes for Mr. B's lines; then they'd go back and do Mr. B's lines and fill in those holes. It doesn't work. It's not a good way of doing it because Mr. A has nothing to react to and Mr. B is trying to fill a hole rather than act. So I figured out a way of getting around that that allowed me as an actor to both hear each character and react to them as an actor would and to have as much time as I wanted to do each line, rather than fill a preset hole. It's a technique that also allows you, if you want to, to do it totally improvisationally as well.
O'Kane: Do you believe this incredible restriction of options and possibilities within the current entertainment and media scene bodes well for our supposedly democratic culture? Do you see yourself as countering these trends?
Shearer: The worst effect on our democracy is... I was at a conference for the Radio and Television News Directors Association on the subject of "zoo news." Morning zoos are popular morning radio programs where there's not only a disc jockey who's supposed to be funny but who drags in his weather person or his traffic person or his news person, and they all just joke around together. So it's a menagerie of voices as opposed to one guy. A lot of conventional broadcast news people were saying, "How can you retain credibility when you are telling jokes with the disc jockey and you turn around and do these stories?" And one guy at the conference says, "How do you choose the news items that you put in your broadcast?" "Oh, we are always doing research on our audience, focus groups to find out what news stories they want to hear." Now that strikes at the heart of a democracy. You are supposed to be giving people information they need to make informed choices, yet you are asking them, "What information?" — information they don't have yet that they want to hear. You are taking what may be at the top of their mind that day, which may not be anything related to what they need to know to make an informed choice as a citizen. You're setting up this artificial feedback loop where you now are going to reinforce their choice, doing that purely for the purpose of making your news as entertaining as possible, which is your defined goal. That's harmful. There's no defense for it.
O'Kane: People are being manipulated, told what their real needs are?
Shearer: No, they're being asked what news they want to hear. It's the absolute opposite of manipulation. It's panderous.
O'Kane: It sounds like a penultimate democratic gesture! Giving people what they want.
Shearer: It sounds like a democratic gesture. But how do people know what news they want to know?
O'Kane: People know what they want in a sense. Consumers in a consumer culture have certain wants they can identify.
Shearer: But consumer wants are based on prior experience. You've tried X kinds of soaps or foods or other tangible goods, so you know from those past experiences that you might want more of this, and not more of that. Gee, I would like a soap that smells like linen instead of like lye. But the point I was making before about entertainment, you can't research a desire for information. Information is that which you do not yet know. How can you know what you do not want to know, something that you do not yet know? It's insane. You are right. It has the aura of being a democratic act, and it is a profoundly anti-democratic act.
O'Kane: Like the 900 number responses on A Current Affair, the answers are already implicit in the question and just regurgitate the obvious.
Shearer: It's just masturbating the audience.
O'Kane: So Harry Shearer gives the audience what they don't want wrapped up in something they do? Uses the restrictive, limited tools of mass entertainment against themselves, in ways that turn them into something else while staying entertainment, staying in phase enough with entertainment culture to keep your popularity but just out of phase enough with mainstream expectations to do something democratically different and stimulating?