NEW YORK (AP) — You know Harry Shearer from “The Simpsons,” voicing Mr. Burns, Waylon Smithers, Ned Flanders, Reverend Lovejoy and so many of its other cartoon characters.
You know Shearer as mutton-chopped bassist Derek Smalls from the 1984 musical spoof “This Is Spinal Tap” and the real-life band this classic “mockumentary” inspired.
But through his decades of memorable projects, Shearer week in and week out has kept one open-ended side gig: his artisanal radio program, “Le Show.”
Shearer this month marks his 30th anniversary as producer, host, writer, aggregator, music director and one-man repertory company of “Le Show,” which (available on some 100 U.S. radio stations and other global outlets, as well as on podcast at iTunes and on his website) likely represents a marathon run unmatched in the annals of broadcasting – with no end in sight.
Shearer’s view of the world is often arch and sometimes acid, flavoring this stew of topical humor, news items, satirical sketches and blistering commentary.
Among the program’s many regular segments are “Apologies of the Week,” a digest of stilted statements of contrition issued by fumbling corporations and public figures; “News of the Warm,” which tracks the impending environmental Armageddon; and jaundiced updates on the latest Olympics, which he dubs “a movement – and we ALL need one, EVERY day!”
It all adds up to a bravura solo act by Shearer, who compiles and writes “Le Show” (plus pre-taping its elaborate, multicharacter sketches, often with original songs) before reporting for duty each Sunday at 10 a.m., Los Angeles time, to broadcast live on his flagship station, KCSN-FM, from wherever in the U.S. or the world his other ventures may have taken him.
“It’s a weekly thundercloud that moves over my life around Thursday afternoon, generating heavy downpours of what-the-hell-am-I-gonna-do-now?” says Shearer over hot tea and honey (gotta pamper that golden throat!) at a New York hotel recently. He’s here on a stopover for his annual “Holiday Sing-Along” tour with Judith Owen, his singer-songwriter wife, and, indeed, as he speaks, it’s Friday afternoon – and raining. Just two days from now, from a studio somewhere in Manhattan, he’ll be hosting this week’s yet-to-be-compiled “Le Show.”
One more thing about this weekly grind: Shearer gets bupkus, zilch, squat for his labors.
When he launched his show in December 1983 on another L.A. public-radio station, he reasoned that if no money changed hands, no one could tell him what to do.
“The show has stayed free in both senses of the word,” he says. “That’s the only way you can do it for 30 years – without meetings and memos – if you have other things to do in your life.”
That’s the way it all started, and, with few breaks or repeats, he has never stopped.
“It’s an act of insensate stubbornness on my part,” says Shearer, a compact man with dulcet voice and soulful eyes who, somewhat implausibly, considering his puckish streak, turns 70 this month (Dec. 23).
“But I get really remarkable feedback from listeners,” he adds, “and as time goes on and things in the world get weirder, I think the intensity of the appreciation increases.”
No wonder. Coming from a man who claims to have “an outsider’s view with an insider’s knowledge,” the program plays like a wry reality check from beyond the orbit of the media-industrial complex – not to mention many of its putative satirists.
“To make fun of this stuff you have to think it’s serious and important, at some level,” says Shearer, who dismisses much of present-day public affairs, particularly in the political realm, as “like pro wrestling: Guys go out and threaten each other, then go in the backroom and take their paychecks, while the media love covering their fight.
“You heard very little on `Le Show’ about the government shutdown, or the budget crisis before that,” he points out. “It’s way too much Kabuki for me.”
But if pro forma Beltway squabbling leaves him cold, the post-Katrina woes of New Orleans (where he has a home) have kept him fired up about government failings after much of the pundocracy moved on.
And what he calls “the grand, grotesque joke of our longest war” continues to provide him rich material. On “Karzai Talk,” Shearer’s lampoon of NPR’s “Car Talk” supposedly heard on Afghanistan Public Radio, he voices both President Hamid Karzai and one of Karzai’s brothers, as well as various beleaguered U.S. leaders who phone in.
“The day I slapped my forehead and said, `Karzai Talk!’ was one of the happiest days of my life,” he says. “Until then, I didn’t have a framework to go after this stuff as much as I want to.”
“Le Show” may be a weekly culture cleanse of the world in disarray, but at its heart, it’s irreverent comedy: A self-styled showcase for a man who long ago eschewed stand-up but wanted a way “to have direct contact with the audience, and to force myself to write, on a regular basis – and to go back to something I really knew and loved.”
By that, he means radio. It was on radio that Shearer began his show-biz career, at age 7, on Jack Benny’s weekly program.
Then, after graduation from UCLA as a political science major, and short stints working in the California legislature and as a high school English teacher, he joined The Credibility Gap, a radio comedy group in L.A.
His hopes that the group might gain a national profile went unrealized, but the job teamed him up with Michael McKean, a future cast mate of “Spinal Tap” and other parodies like “A Mighty Wind” and “For Your Consideration.”
Along the way, Shearer had two painfully brief stays in the ensemble of “Saturday Night Live,” leaving with relief both times. He has appeared in a number of films, released comedy albums, written books and directed “The Big Uneasy,” his 2010 expose on the disaster that befell New Orleans.
A current pet project: “Nixon’s the One,” in which he impersonates President Richard Nixon voicing dialogue secretly recorded in the White House by Nixon with his aides and confidantes. The series was produced and aired in England. Shearer hopes now to land it on a U.S. outlet.
But thanks to “The Simpsons,” which began on Fox way back in 1989, he doesn’t count on piecework to make ends meet.
“Anything I do since that job came into my life is purely for creative fulfillment,” he declares. And that clearly includes “Le Show,” even as, at 30-years-and-counting, it begs the question: Why does Shearer keep insisting “Le Show” must go on?
“I can’t not,” he replies with a laugh. “I usually have something to say every week, an idea I want to get out. I keep doing the show for me – the listener in me.”
EDITOR’S NOTE – Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier .