Harry Shearer's latest project, Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing) features everyone from Steely Dan's Donald Fagen, the Foo Fighters' Taylor Hawkins, Jane Lynch and Red Hot Chili Peppers' Chad Smith, among a host of others. He describes the album as "halfway between 'rage against the dying light' and trying to find the light." Here, he shares his insights on smashing taboos, his three decades on The Simpsons and playing at Glastonbury.
It’s never too early to work it out
My first TV role came at the age of seven when I was cast on The Jack Benny Program, and it pretty much all flowed from there. I originally thought that show business was something I’d do during my childhood and then I’d do something proper and serious as a grown-up. And I sort of did – I was a teacher for a couple of years, then I worked in the state legislature in California and I even did journalism, too. Each of them was partially satisfying, but sooner or later I’d find myself running screaming back to show business. The end of my serious phase came in 1969, when I was hired on The Credibility Gap, a new LA radio show. I was cast on this show with David Lander and Michael McKean and I just thought to myself, “This is it. This is exactly where I need to be.”
Making people laugh is an addiction
My family were comedy fans, but going in and working with Jack Benny was something else. I remember this one moment when we were reading the script at a table, and I ad-libbed something and I made Jack laugh. I didn’t even ad-lib the line, I just ad-libbed a way of saying the line and he started slamming the table and threw his head back and laughed. That was my first feeling of, “Okay, this is definitely what I want.” Making people laugh is very addictive. I had an experience on the same show where I went out on stage at a moment when I wasn’t supposed to and suddenly everyone in the audience was laughing at me. I’ve realised that one of the best reasons to go into comedy is to control when people are laughing at you. You’re laughing at me because I made that happen, not because there’s something wrong with me.
There’s always something you’re not meant to say
I don’t think that much has changed in what makes people laugh, only in what people are allowed to say. I look back to Lenny Bruce, who was martyred by his desire to say the unsayable, and all of those things that made him a pariah in the ’60s are now sayable. But his jokes made people laugh then and they make people laugh now. It isn’t the audience that’s different, it’s the regulatory and religious climate. Here’s what I think: there’s an almost Newtonian law of the conservation of taboo. That is to say, there’s only a certain amount of taboo permitted by each society. But taboo gets attached to different things at different times. In the 1970s I could make jokes about different groups of people by talking the way they talked. That’s now taboo. But on the other hand, explicit references to sexual activities were taboo in the ’70s and now they’re perfectly acceptable. There’s always going to be taboo, and part of comedy’s job is to go up to the very edge of the line and work out how to cross it.
You can make a go of it in the long-term
I was in my early 50s when I first had the thought: “You know what? I don’t think they’re going to kick me out of show business.” It was a long time coming, but even that knowledge doesn’t stop the sense of struggle that comes with making a go of it in comedy. It’s a battle to get done the things you want to get done, the way you want to get them done. That never stops. What you need to understand is that the business exists to flush you out – to find the thing you can do in your 20s, to squeeze all the energy and creativity out of you while you’re young and then look for an even younger person who can do the same thing. What I learned is: don’t let them do it. Keep coming back with something different. Avoid being pigeonholed, because then you won’t be “the young Harry” or “the ageing Harry” or “whatever happened to Harry?”
Getting ahead means getting lucky
My plan was well conceived, or at least was lucky enough to be well executed and turn out right. But you can’t plan on luck and luck is such a huge part of show business. I think that it’s ungracious in the extreme for people who do succeed not to acknowledge the part that luck had to play in their success. There are a lot of talented people in the world and you have to be extremely lucky to be the one who has the successful, long career. But you have to be ready for luck to happen. You can’t wait for luck to happen because then it means nothing. An interesting shot that you’re not ready for is wasted. You have to do all this work and hope to god that some chance thing happens. And I’ve been lucky enough to have three or four of those.
Frustration and failure can be excellent motivators
All too frequently my sense of what to do next in my career has been fuelled by having to lick my wounds over the last thing that I did. The project is never going to be what you thought it might be, your high hopes for something will never quite meet the reality, and sometimes people will just treat you like shit. So rather than going back to do the same thing with some ill-considered hope that maybe it’ll turn out different this time, I tended to turn to another medium or another form of expression. There have been times when I was like, “Well, screw you guys, I’m going to write a novel,” or “Screw you guys, I’m going to make a film.” It’s an endless hope that I’ll find a better experience doing something else.
Love your characters if you possibly can
I’ve been doing The Simpsons for 27 years, and in that time I’ve realised that any performer working in television is serving the writers, not themselves, so I’ve had to find other ways to feed my comedy beast. The reason I still love The Simpsons is the reason I started doing the show in the first place – because I didn’t want to play only one character. It still gives me that pleasure, and every once in a while the writers give me a new one to play with. Knowing these characters and continuing to play them is a treat for me. I’ve been doing Derek Smalls from Spinal Tap for more than three decades now. There’s something very satisfying about playing these characters as they go through time and being able to slip into them like an old robe.
A lot of comedy is about being pissed off
Comedically, what’s pushed me forward over the years is anger. I make fun of things that make me angry. It may be heavily disguised, but outrage sits at the base of a lot of what I find funny. But that can be mixed with a certain amount of affection too, especially in the musical satires that I’ve done with Christopher Guest and Michael McKean. The anger is a background colour to that – more bemusement. But I always try and infuse my comedy with some level of critique. I know people who, if they play famous characters, are always doing people they themselves would like to be. It’s a comedy of exaggeration. That’s not me. There’s always some level of critique at a minimum – and fury at a maximum – behind what I try to make fun of.
It’s important to find people to play with
A good comedic partnership is as complex as any good marriage. Probably more so. My relationship with Christopher and Michael has been going for 40 years, and it changes all the time. We’re three radically different personalities. But the magical sense of comedic discovery you have with other people is often driven by this difference. It’s about finding a common ground between your different sensibilities, a place to meet and play in an almost childlike sense, and then when it’s done to go off and be our very different adults. I’ve always sought collaboration – the people who make you think, “Oh god, let’s play some more.” It’s very much like music. You find people you want to play music with and you stick with them. It’s a relationship built upon your ability to find this little space in a cantankerous world where you can find harmony with somebody else.
You’ll find satisfaction where you least expect
When people say what is it you do that you love best, I’d like to be able to respond: I love everything I do best. That’s why I do it. But there was a point maybe eight years ago where I was looking back in August and realised I’d been playing concerts and writing music for the entire year – a few of my own projects and then a run with Spinal Tap that finished in Glastonbury. And I looked back at this streak of musical work and realised I’d never been happier. I love doing comedy, but music takes you to a different place, and if you can get to do it as part of your professional life then I reckon you’re a very lucky person.
Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing) arrives on April 13th via Twanky Records/BMG.
This interview was first published in Smith Journal volume 20.
Image: Rolling Stone magazine