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Harry Shearer: The Voices in my Head

As the comic genius quits The Simpsons after 25 years, we publish a never seen before interview with the man behind Ned Flanders, C. Montgomery Burns, Principal Skinner and, of course, Spinal Tap's immortal bass player, Derek Smalls

Today the news broke on Twitter that Harry Shearer, the voice of over a dozen Simpsons characters including Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner and Montgomery Burns, has quit the show after 25 years. The veteran character actor tweeted a message by the lawyer of the show’s producer, James L. Books, which read: “Show will go on, Harry will not be part of it, wish him well.” Regardless if FOX executives hire other actors to mimic Shearer’s voices, this acrimonious end to his involvement in the show leaves the future of America’s favourite family hanging in the balance.

Unlike the rest of the cast, Shearer has had a high profile career outside of Springfield. After carving a reputation as a comedic actor in the 70s and producing the radio program Le Show, Shearer hit the big time in 1984 with his portrayal of Derek Smalls, a mustachioed bass player in Spinal Tap, the fictitious glam rock band in Rob Reiner’s classic mockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap. The band released three albums, played Glastonbury and even headlined Wembley Arena. Last year Shearer took on the role of Richard Nixon in Nixon’s The One a comic series revealing the tragic and humorous reality of the White House as his lies began to unravel in public.

On November 6th 2003, I met Shearer at the Dorchester Hotel to interview him about his career and his new film A Mighty Wind. He was hilarious, self effacing, and a real comedic scholar. He talked about the origins of his characters, his “odd, negative bond with C. Montgomery Burns”, Richard Nixon, and of course the legend that is Derek Smalls.

As the interview was coming to an end, Ricky Gervais unexpectedly invaded Shearer’s room to confess his love for Spinal Tap and The Simpsons. He had just sold The Office to America and was making his first steps into Hollywood. Shortly after this, Christopher Guest (who played Nigel Tufnell in Spinal Tap) cast Gervais in his film, For Your Consideration. So, I guess, a small part of Gervais’s subsequent transatlantic success can be traced back to this moment in time. Make of that what you will.

To celebrate Shearer’s contributions to comedy over the past five decades, here is the extended, never-seen-before edit of the interview. 

Harry, you started you career in Abott and Costello’s film Go To Mars. Did you always want to become an entertainer?

Harry Shearer: I guess, although I didn’t think of it that way, I just wanted to hang out with adults. I really hated the whole kid scene, it seemed really lame and jive. I thought that toys and shit like candy was just there to keep us quiet and that the adults had the really good stuff so I wanted to get into that world as soon as I could. The fastest way to do that was through show business and I was fortunate enough to have that door open for me. Suddenly I was out of school for half the time, hanging out with amusing and amiable grown-ups.

You also had a part in a show called Leave It To Beaver. What was that show all about?

Harry Shearer: Leave It To Beaver is a fairly famous show in America, but I don’t think it travelled. It was one of those typical 50s family comedies. I was in the pilot episode as sort of the dark presence, my character was called Eddie Haskill.

Why did you get chosen to play the darker parts?

Harry Shearer: Mainly because of my dark hair and swarthy complexion. The parts I got more often than not were either little criminals or the dark, brooding kid. I always played Italians, I never played a Jew because in America at that time Jews never played Jews! So I would get various different ethnic parts and most of these characters were troubled - all the bright, sunny roles went to kids with red hair and freckles or to the blond kid. After a while I got fed up with those roles and moved on to other areas. I got out to become a serious grown up but obviously that didn’t work.

Have you ever done any type of stand up comedy?

Harry Shearer: No I can’t bear it. It’s the worst job in show business because you’re on your own and there’s usually a bunch of drunks watching you. I don’t really like those odds.

So when you were at Saturday Night Live did you have an oppurtunity to adlib your lines?

Harry Shearer: One of the problems with SNL is that if you tried to adlib the director would put you off camera and off the mic, so only you would know that you ever did it. The director always directed to the script, he wasn’t listening to what you were doing, he was calling shots whilst looking at the page. I wrote almost all my own material and only appeared in a few sketches that I didn’t write.

What ever happened to your idea of making a show called Saturday Night Dead?

Harry Shearer: I’d optioned a novel called Saturday Night Dead and had written a screenplay for it and was trying to get it made but there were rights issues and all other sorts of problems so it got shelved. It came about from a guy who used to write for SNL but had left and started doing a series of mysteries and this was the second about a murder at a late night TV comedy show.

So the title wasn’t your opinion on the show?

Harry Shearer: No no my opinion is far darker than that!

Was it during your years at SNL that you guys came up with the original idea for Spinal Tap?

Harry Shearer: That had actually happened before I went to SNL. I had produced a pilot for another sketch series with Rob Reiner. In the run up to that show, me and Rob with Michael (McKean) who was a friend a former colleague from The Credibility Gap and Christopher (Guest) who I had hired to help write and perform the show, felt the need to come up with this rock band for the show. That’s where Spinal Tap came from. Whilst we were doing the show Chris had already been doing this Nigel Tufnell character and we all started chiming in with other characters just to bide the time whilst the prop guy was trying to arrange the smoke effect. Seriously, the smoke effect was turning into drops of hot oil on our faces and rather than go after him with guns we started talking as these guys. When the show was done we all thought there was probably more in these guys so we set about seeing if there was something else we could do with them. So after I came back from SNL we started getting the movie together.

At the time there was a lot of hair bands around like Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin. Was Spinal Tap a parody of one band in particular?

Harry Shearer: Not one band, we took little bits from all of them. We saw all the rockumentaries that were around at the time. We went to a lot of shows like Judas Priest. I went for a few gigs with Saxon to watch them in action. Their bass player had this trick of playing as many open strings as possible so his left hand was free to pump his fist in the air, so I took that on board for the Derek Smalls character.

“Unless you really want to fuck everything that moves, touring is probably the worst lifestyle imaginable. There’s only two hours a day that really count – when you’re on stage playing real loud. The rest of it you might as well be narcotised.” - Harry Shearer

Derek Smalls described himself as the lukewarm water between the fire and ice of Nigel Tuffnell and David St Hubbins. How would you describe your relationship with McKean and Guest?

Harry Shearer: It’s clearly not as simple as Smalls so eloquently put it. It’s had many wrinkles, as we’ve known each other for a long time and worked in various combinations. Each of us have directed each other and traded off different roles. I think that unlike the guys in Tap we are able to shift roles, where we can alternately play the subordinate and then another time be the leader. We do that with relative ease and grace. But we’re very different people. As time goes on it becomes dramatically more obvious how different we are. Chris’ favourite hobby is fly-fishing. He likes to tie his own fly, I can’t think of anything that sounds more twee and like a cranky grandpa, or at least a cranky uncle, but that’s his favourite thing in the world. Michael has his own obsessions, and mine I’’m sure are goofy to them. We come together because we share three things. We’re all pretty smart, we all have an ear for music and for the way people talk, and of course our shared comedy sensibility, the same things tend to make us laugh. Michael and I are more into wordplay whereas Chris is into more goofy, physical stuff. But we meet in the centre where the same kind of stuff makes us laugh. The best way to describe our sense of humour is whatever isn’t in standard Hollywood comedy.

In the Spinal Tap film you got busted for having a cucumber stuffed down your pants…

Harry Shearer: It was actually a courgette! A cucumber would be a little too warty to give the proper image.

Well Lemmy didn’t have much problem with the ladies and he was proper warty.

Harry Shearer: True, but Derek needed a smoother skin, well at least on his vegetable.

So throughout this whole Spinal Tap period from the film to the tours, what was the most ridiculous thing you saw through the eyes of Derek Smalls?

Harry Shearer: On the Break Like The Wind that we did in 92, when we did Christmas With The Devil, Derek had to put on a devil suit, complete with tail. I remember we were playing at the Albert Hall and I was going off stage to have the tail applied by the tail wrangler. Anyway, I was walking through the wings and this guy who was kneeling on his haunches in the darkness looking out at the stage gave me the thumbs up as I rushed by. When I saw his face I realised it was George Harrison! Now that was the best thing ever.

You’ve experienced the best of both the acting and music worlds. What was it like to tour as a proper rock band?

Harry Shearer: Well unless you really want to fuck everything that moves, touring is probably the worst lifestyle imaginable. It’s just hotel, bus, plane, hotel, bus, plane. There’s only two hours a day that really count and that’s when you’re on stage playing real loud. The rest of it you might as well be narcotised. So when we actually went through with it ourselves after parodying it on film, it did cross our minds that we were being stupid to actually go through with it for real. But we had fun and played some great shows. I always thought the best show was the one the audience put on for us, because we never knew how many people there got the joke or were there to actually see the “band”. We got our fair share of groupies, but we quickly came to realise that groupies self select based on the lyrics of the bands most popular songs. Our most popular song was “Big Bottoms”, so draw your own conclusions.

Do you think there are still people who believe that Spinal Tap are a real band?

Harry Shearer: P T Barnum, the great American showman once said that, “there’s a sucker born every minute” so I guess some people probably still do.

In A Mighty Wind, your character Mark Shubb is a closet tranvestite. Do you think all the best charcters have something to hide?

Harry Shearer: Yeah! To me the funniest American of the Twentieth Century is Richard Nixon because he had the most to hide and he was so bad at hiding it. To me that’s what’s really funny - people who think they’re doing a great job of hiding stuff and it just keeps leaking out. There was a time when the Watergate thing was starting to blow and he said “No no I’m not thinking about that, I was having a great meeting today with Governor Evidence, err Governor Abott!” that kind of stuff.

Spinal Tap were almost killed off when they appeared on the Simpsons which is where many people know you, or rather your voice from these days. Have you been on the show from the beginning?

Harry Shearer: Yes from the beginning when it was a half hour show. Before that it was a one minute tiny cartoon and I wasn’t in that.

“I’ve got an odd, negative bond with C. Montgomery Burns. He reminds a lot of people of bosses they’ve worked for. He certainly reminds me of someone I’m working for” - Harry Shearer

I don’t want to sound rude, but you must have a lot of voices in your head to actually come up with all these characters. Have you got a strong bond with any characters in particular?

Harry Shearer: Oh that’s not rude! I suppose I’ve got an odd, negative bond with C. Montgomery Burns. He reminds a lot of people of bosses they’ve worked for. He certainly reminds me of someone I’m working for now! I voice about 15 regulars and a bunch of others who come in and out.

Did you formulate the characters voices from looking at the illustrator’s drawings?

Harry Shearer: No, I did all from the lines on the script. From the very beginning we didn’t see the drawings, we didn’t see the characters. I don’t know if they were drawn before they heard the voices but they didn’t show them to us before we developed the character voices. There were no meetings, we would just go in, from show one and get told “here’s a script, your name is circled by the side of each character and you’ve got to come up with a sound for him.” I like to work quickly and without thinking as much as possible, so I would just look at the lines and let a voice happen, and if they didn’t say change it I would keep doing it. It was very instinctive in that sense, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking what a rich guy would sound like I just did what I thought would sound good. Then when you’re given more character’s to do, the only thing you’ve got to think about is putting them in a different place so that they don’t sound like any of the others.

Warner Bros rep enters the room

WB: We’ve got a little surprise for you Harry, we just met a big fan in the lobby..

Ricky Gervais enters the room

Harry Shearer: Oh my fucking Christ! Oh jesus! Oh God!

Ricky Gervais: I’ve just had to come in and tell you that Spinal Tap was the influence on The Office.

Harry’s Wife: This is the most exciting moment in my family’s history.

Ricky Gervais: You can have my life, you deserve that. I first saw it in 1985 on a bootleg copy, it had so many classic lines – “That’s all we fuckin need” “Lukewarm water”, I used to do them all the time on set and so many things remind you of it, like someone will say something and you’ll think that sounds a bit like Spinal Tap.

Harry Shearer: We were watching The Office last night. It’s classic comedy TV, from the timing, to the way it’s shot, it’s just a fucking classic.

Ricky Gervais: Me and my friends used to be in a band which was a lot like you guys, guess what our name was? The Savage Hearts! I’ve actually got a Derek Smalls action figure and I was going to take it to an awards show you were presenting at but I thought it would be too nerdy, so I left it at home.

“I’ve actually got a Derek Smalls action figure and I was going to take it to an awards show you were presenting at but I thought it would be too nerdy, so I left it at home.” – Ricky Gervais

Harry Shearer: I was a bit scared when I heard they were going to be doing an American version of that show.

Ricky Gervais: Well Greg Daniels is writing it and he’s great. But I tell you what, I am scared, because it is going to be different. It was going to HBO but now it’s going out on NBC, the pressure’s really on. But I’ve just got to walk away from it really, it’s not my baby, I’ve done my version, that’s on the shelf, that’s safe.

Harry Shearer: Are you gonna do any more?

Ricky Gervais: No just a Christmas special, might do a bit live. I’m going to be in LA in January to dabble with a pilot. But The Simpsons, that’s the greatest show ever isn’t it.

Harry Shearer: We’re on a bit of a hiatus for Christmas, but I still really enjoy it. It’s been 15 years now…..

Ricky Gervais: Okay I’ve got to go and interview Samuel L Jackson for a kids show now, so I’ll pop in after if you like. Let me just say again that you are the influence, thank you very much!

Ricky Gervais leaves

Harry Shearer: Well done whoever found him! Wow, that was so great.

So I take it you’re a massive fan of The Office. That was quite unexpected.

Harry Shearer: Yeah, when you get to see people who’s work you admire, you learn through sad experience that you don’t try to be cool and hold back, because the oppurtunity passes and you may never get the oppurtunity again to say you appreciate their work. You get enough people giving you totally weird, fucked up, totally useless feedback that you never stop wanting to hear good stuff from people you admire.

How does it feel to hear that you’re the inspiration behind one of the biggest British comedies in years?

Harry Shearer: It’s unbelievable, especially given the fact that the history of that movie was so spotty and we came so close to not getting it made. Once it was made we came so close to not getting it released, we went through the fires of hell to get that picture out and when it got out it didn’t do very much. Thankfully the porn industry invented the home video business. Spinal Tap owes a great deal of gratitude to the porn industry because without them home video wouldn’t have got off the ground and Spinal Tap would have been long since forgotten. You think about all those factors and how it gets to the point where a guy who’s done this high quality of work was set on that path by us, it’s just amazing.

Credits: Film stills and videos are from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios. The Simpsons lead image is courtesy of 20th Century Fox Film Corp