Harry Shearer gets his own DamnChannel
The busy satirist talks to EW.com about his new Web video site, ''The Simpsons Movie,'' the recent Spinal Tap reunion, and his new satirical CD
It’s an exxx-cellent week to be Harry Shearer. The Simpsons Movie (in which Shearer reprises his TV voice roles of Mr. Burns, Ned Flanders, and others) had a boffo opening weekend. Earlier this week, he became the flagship face of MyDamnChannel, a new entertainment-clip aggregator site where he’ll drop a regularly scheduled series of satirical music videos (yep, that’s him as Dick Cheney). And next week, the musical chops he displayed in such films as This Is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind find their way to CD with the release of Songs: Pointed & Pointless, on Shearer’s own Courgette Records label (”Courgette” being a British word for zucchini, the vegetable he famously stuffed in his trousers in Spinal Tap.) In a midtown Manhattan office lobby, where he was surrounded by video screens playing his MyDamnChannel clips on a nonstop loop, he spoke to EW.com.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How surprised were you by the overwhelming response to The Simpsons Movie?
HARRY SHEARER: I was pretty surprised. I knew Fox was going to mount a leviathan marketing campaign, and I think it worked to a T. But at the end of the day, nobody’s able to say with any certainty how something’s going to do until it does it. Everything in that business is a surprise, ultimately. You open the theater doors, and people either come or they don’t come.
Was the experience of making the film qualitatively different from that of making a regular ”Simpsons” episode?
Yeah. For reasons unknown to me, they had two mics on every actor instead of one. So we’re twice as good.
Any idea what new challenges the writers can throw at you on The Simpsons after 18 years?
It’s not up to me. I just show up and open my mouth.
As a satirist, do you worry that you can’t keep up with the absurdity of current events?
The scarier reality gets, the more we need satire, and the easier it is. Freud said we make fun of what we fear, and the scarier it gets, the more we need to make fun of it. It’s basically our only weapon. The one thing I can be thankful for, over the recent couple of decades, is that [reality] has been a wonderful source of material.
Tell me about the Spinal Tap reunion at last month’s Live Earth concert at London’s new Wembley Stadium.
It was great. It was spectacular, playing for 65,000 people and saving the planet. What could be better? We were louder than ever. And the experience of going backstage and having all these other bands saying, ”Can we pose for pictures with you?” was remarkable. It was great fun. Michael [McKean], Chris [Guest], and I have always loved to get together and play, so we’re always looking for a good reason to do it.
Spinal Tap seems like an example of a satire that, according to many musicians, isn’t really more ridiculous than reality.
Well, Spinal Tap wasn’t a satire. Our basic goal, when we set out to make that movie, before we even knew what form it was going to take, was, ”Why doesn’t someone do a movie that gets rock and roll right?” We all got sick of seeing movies where the guys were clearly not playing and were clearly joking along. So we weren’t trying to do an exaggerated critique of rock and roll. We were just trying to tell, in a funny way, the truth about life on the road.
How did your new CD, Songs: Pointed and Pointless, come about?
These are songs, some of which are in the music videos for MyDamnChannel. The album’s called Pointed and Pointless because some of the songs are very political and satirical, and some of them are just — for example, ”Corn Wine” is a song written for A Mighty Wind but not used in the movie. Because we did Spinal Tap and Mighty Wind, I’ve become more and more interested in musical stuff over the years, and I found myself writing more and more songs, and I have this radio show [public radio’s Le Show] where I’ve done demo versions of them. And I thought, ”Wouldn’t it be fun to get out of the demo situation and do them with great musicians and see how good they can sound?” And my wife [singer/songwriter Judith Owen], who’s a professional musician, said a long time ago, ”It’s okay if you want to do funny music, but don’t do funny music that doesn’t sound like music.” She said she likes this record, so I’ve passed that hurdle.
Which satirists and comedians do you enjoy right now?
What I enjoy right now most is the work that Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant are doing: The Office, the original British version, and especially the second season of Extras. As far as political satire, I tend not to watch other people, lest I subconsciously get an idea that migrates into my head and then it’s, ”Oh, it’s my idea.” But for sheer comedy prowess, power, and skill, Ricky and Stephen are my favorites right now.
I interviewed Ricky Gervais recently, and he said he thinks American comedy is the best.
I know, he’s living in a fool’s paradise. We say this about each other’s countries. You’re only seeing our best stuff. You’re not seeing the dregs, and there’s plenty of dregs in both countries. I happen to be partial to Ricky and Stephen’s stuff; to Steve Coogan, who does this great character, Alan Partridge; and I love watching Father Ted, which is one of the great sitcoms. My wife is British, so that probably inclines me more toward British comedy. And I don’t see a lot in American comedy that stands up to that. But Ricky, coming from another place, looks at it entirely differently. That’s what makes ballgames.
There are so many websites trying to do what MyDamnChannel is doing. Why will this one work?
I think the premise for this is great, that somewhere on the Internet, there’s a place for video that is not network programming and not cats in a bathtub, but professional entertainers set free from rules handed down by the suits.
What can you do at MyDamnChannel that you can’t do on your own website or your blog?
Blogging is great for writing, but I’m a performer. I love doing political comedy, political satire, social satire, media satire. And this is a place to do it without anyone telling me, ”You can’t say that. You can’t step on these toes.” And that’s where I make a beeline for, places where they don’t tell me things like that.
How will the site balance creative freedom with the need for advertiser support?
Nobody has said anything about advertisers having any say over programming. The way this is being sold is, they’re riding on a page that has eyeballs attached, and I happen to be there. There are plenty of advertisers, and there are plenty of other places for skittish advertisers to go.
What else are you working on?
I have a play, a musical comedy, going into production next spring in London, about the life of J. Edgar Hoover. It’s called J. Edgar! And my novel [Not Enough Indians] is coming out in paperback in September. And I still do Le Show every week on public radio, and I’m still doing The Simpsons.
With all the different things on your plate right now, how do you make time to do the MyDamnChannel stuff as well?
I get a bigger plate. [Laughs] It’s something that I really want to do, so I say, in the words of Moe Howard [imitates the Stooge], ”Spread out!”