Harry Shearer is spending Christmas with the devil, as he does every year, when the Spinal Tap holiday chestnut comes up as part of the annual “Christmas Without Tears” live shows he and his wife, singer-songwriter Judith Owen, do for charity. This year, the event is going virtual, with an array of new guests such as Donald Fagen, Richard Thompson and Ringo Starr taking part in a webcast that begins at 2 p.m. PT on Friday, Dec. 11.
It’s the cap to an unusually busy year. Along with hosting duties on his weekly syndicated public radio program, “Le Show,” Shearer also has his regular gig voicing 14-plus different characters on “The Simpsons.” The satirical, spot-on impressionist just released a rich musical album as the president, “The Many Moods of Donald Trump.”
There was activity on the Spinal Tap front, too. The faux metal thundergods reunited in October for a Democratic fundraiser. The real heat, though, was in the just-settled, long-gestating lawsuit with StudioCanal and its French parent company, Vivendi, on accusations that the companies withheld money from the stars — this, a year after Tap and its label, Universal Music Group, settled a soundtrack copyright dispute.
On the afternoon that Shearer got on the phone with Variety to discuss all this, the comedian brought up his old friend from the Credibility Gap, David Lander, out of the blue. Shortly after Shearer spoke about Lander in glowing terms, Lander passed away from the long-term effects of multiple sclerosis. For Shearer, Lander was a “masterful” inspiration.
(To tune in to “Christmas Without Tears” 2020, visit Nugs.net at 2 PT/5 ET, with a $9.99 donation.)
As a satirist, musician, writer, radio host: how would you define the arc of your 2020?
Mainly in the radical lack of personal relationships. My wife and I moved to New Orleans several years ago, part of the reason being that we have so many friendships there, with such a wide set of occupations attached. I’ve never lived anywhere where two of my friends were death penalty defense attorneys… this incredible range of people with whom we’re in contact, and it’s necessary not to see people more than two at a time.
Considering that your job is that of an observationalist, how has the lack of richness — in regard to the diversity and amount of people you’re seeing — affected your humor?
I haven’t been short on things to observe this year. The arc of my life has gone from more to less collaboration, not necessarily of my own volition. I’ve learned from the people I have collaborated with how to do for myself what they used to do…
As an artist, what was that initial connection?
The very first collaboration that I had in my professional life was with a couple of people in a comedy group, and one of its members was David L. Lander — very famous as “Squiggy” for a while on TV. He was just the most masterful person. You could throw a ball into the air, and David could hit it for a mile in terms of a punchline. It was magical. I started out as a set-up guy, and ended up having to do the punchline. Not to compare myself, but the only guy I ever witnessed being famous as straight man and the guy who gets the laughs was George Burns.
As far this year is concerned, people under pressure either crack or grow. The cracking is, often, how comedy works, unless it is you that is doing it.
Even then, the cracking can work to the betterment of the humor.
The amount of attention we’ve had to pay to a certain occupant of a certain house has been the greatest gift to comedy since bananas.
Many comedians, playwrights and musicians, though, claim fatigue set in and couldn’t find him funny anymore.
The secret factor in the election would be something that didn’t show up in the polls because pollsters don’t ask this question: fatigue was having to pay attention to that guy every day. Most Americans aren’t interested in paying attention to national politics, like I am, every single day. Now, they have been commanded to by a fatal unmindful collaboration between him and the media that covers him. That fatigue was probably a critical factor during the election. I suspect that the key to Biden’s strategy was to be the guy you don’t have to pay attention to.
You’re an obsessive chronicler of faults and goofs. How close is Trump to the Jerry Lewis of “The Day the Clown Cried” or telethons, which you wrote about? Is there a line between the hubris of Lewis and Trump?
As far as we know, Lewis didn’t syphon off any of the $2 billion that he raised for muscular dystrophy. We can’t make the same assumption of the money Trump’s raising for his defense against the election’s integrity. They say that the more folds in your cortex, the more bright or complicated your personality. These are two guys with interesting sets of folds. They both had in common a stunted-ness at the 5-year-old level. “Look at me. Made you look.” That sort of thing. Everybody gets into show biz to have people pay attention to them, but there’s an adult way of doing so. Theirs is a more juvenile way.
What informs your Trump?
I can’t take possession of him…. He had a father clearly on a par with Brian Wilson’s and Michael Jackson’s. Real father-of-the-year stuff. What Trump did, now that his father had passed away, was trying to win the argument as to whether he was a piece of shit or not. In dramatizing or singing about it, I’m writing what I imagine is him, as opposed to what I want him to say; his point of view, rather than mine.
What can you say about your decision behind each musical “mood” on the Trump abum? “Acquittal “ has a prog-rock edge. “Very Stable Genius” is a power ballad; “Executive Time” is cosmopolitan jazz-pop. What about “Acquittal” said the band Rush to you?
I picked the genre first. That told me how the length of the lyric line would work. Certain styles of song require shorter lyric lines, some longer. I indulged, too, in what I readily admit was fantasy. Trump has never expressed an affection or interest in two things: dogs and music. “Dogs” he only uses as a pejorative. Music? Other than maybe “The Star Spangled Banner,” he’s never made any real reference to a piece of music. So I just made a leap as to what musical styles he’s been exposed to — like, the up portion of “COVID 180” is what I imagined he heard during his days at Studio 54: disco.
On the subject of Spinal Tap: You’ve been vocal in making sure the financial situation between Vivendi, StudioCanal, Universal and Tap has been rectified to the tune of $400 million for yourself, Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Rob Reiner regarding the film and its merchandising earnings. Are you happy with the outcome now that the case has been settled as of 2020?
I’m not really free to say much about this until the final settlement has been agreed to, so I’ll beg off.
This subject also involves your multiple roles in “The Simpsons.” In both cases, you make certain you and your fellow artists get what you believe is your fair share of all monies. Your experience in the biz goes back to working on “The Jack Benny Show.” What motivates where you stand financially on fair play and pay?
That’s interesting you mention breaking in to the biz with Jack Benny, whose character, legendarily, was a miser, but who in real life was very generous. I had a child’s eye view of that show, but it was confirmed by what my parents observed, that that was an ideal situation in terms of the way everyone was treated. Fairness and sanity were key in how I was treated. So, as life went on, and you saw the opposite, it was like, “Hey, wait a minute. That’s not how that works.” I got my feathers ruffled. If you come in to the business in your 20s, hungry and desperate – and the clock is ticking – you’ll put up with a lot of crap. I didn’t, however, have that type of career in my 20s. I came back to show business, after trying other things, because of something close to my heart as a consumer: listening to Bob & Ray on the radio. The opportunity came to play many different characters on the radio every day, to be funny, and to talk about the news. That’s what my 20s were about.
That’s the Credibility Gap, the comedy troupe you shared with David Lander and Michael McKean.
Being there was like a little playground. We made OK money — OK radio money — but there was a moment when we did get screwed. That was the real start. I had a cockeyed sense of humanity: treat and pay people fairly and sanely. It gets more complex as time and situations go on, but, it’s nothing more than that.
How do you feel about the move with streaming for “The Simpsons” going from Fox to Disney?
So far it’s made no difference to me, how I’m treated or what’s gone on. So far. If my checks hadn’t changed, I wouldn’t have known.
You made a point earlier this year after the producers of “The Simpsons” said white actors would no longer be allowed to voice characters of color. You followed that by saying that people from all backgrounds should be represented in the writing and producing ends of the business, but that when it came to the job of acting, it is to play someone you’re not. What’s the reaction been so far?
I was on Irish radio doing an interview when I repeated that line — “the job of an actor is to play someone you’re not” — and I don’t know the supply chain specifics, but by the time it got reported by additional media in the UK, then here, it had transmogrified into “Shearer Criticizes Simpsons for Move.” I didn’t rise to that bait. I was quick to tamp down any misreporting that I was critical of the show. The comment wasn’t about “The Simpsons.” It was about what an actor’s job is, pure and simple. For those tempted to misinterpret what I said, the decision-making roles in the business, decisions as to what stories to tell and how to tell them, should be filled by a representative sample of the audience so that they could see their stories represented in our work. It just makes sense.
The year 2020 marks 15 years of “Christmas Without Tears.” What do you recall about concocting the first one that Judith and you hosted?
There were two firsts. One was 20 years ago in the same house where we’re making the virtual showcase this year. It started as a party to cheer Judith because she came over here from Wales, and the prospect of a Christmas in bright, sunny, warm Southern California depressed the hell out of her. She longed for the Welsh-London, dank, Dickensian Christmas she knew. So a friend of mine — a showrunner and a baker — and I decided to have a party where he’d cook, we’d have singalong carols, and it would be reminiscent of a dark and gloomy holiday in England. We did that for a few years; (it) became known by friends in the business. Then we got an invitation to join Keb Mo at his Christmas show at Disney Hall, followed by an opportunity the year after to do our own Christmas show there. That was in 2005, the year of the great — and I mean that in no other way but “huge” — New Orleans flood. If we made that move, we could raise money for New Orleans, so that was the second first: the public iteration of our show, and one where Judith had 2,000 people in Disney Hall acting out “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
Considering how magical that all sounds, how will you bring intimacy to a virtual setting and keep it warm?
With 15 years of these shows under her belt, Judith has become a great show-person. She’s been thinking about this, while bemoaning that essential exchange of energy between a performer and an audience. It’s not a new problem. That’s what record-making is all about: taking all that same energy with no energy and no crowd. When that happens, a producer’s job is to create that energy another way. Every producer has their tricks, bring the excitement of what happens live and forge it — mimic the punch and force you can’t recreate. This is the same process. Make a virtual show informal and intimate, but with that same live crackle. Now, it’s more of a variety show: more spoken word, more circus stuff.
Plus you have, for the first time, a Beatle.
We have a Beatle. Plus, I write a new Christmas song every year for the show, and this year, it’s a bonus Donald Trump track, not on the album, good for this particular moment in time: “I Won Christmas.”
And your hope for “Christmas Without Tears” in a year with plenty of tears to cry?
I hope the whole show just makes people happy and persuades them to give money beyond the ticket price to musicians in a time of crises and the small independent venues where most musicians work. It’s not a telethon, but we’re hoping the audience feels a kinship with their colleagues and where their colleagues play.