Five Questions With… Harry Shearer
Most know Harry Shearer for his work on The Simpsons, voicing Mr. Burns, Ned Flanders and countless other characters, or as his alter ego, the lovably lukewarm Derek Smalls of Spinal Tap.
By Jason Schneider
Most know Harry Shearer for his work on The Simpsons, voicing Mr. Burns, Ned Flanders and countless other characters, or as his alter ego, the lovably lukewarm Derek Smalls of Spinal Tap. But those who have followed his career more closely also know the real Harry Shearer as an unflinching political satirist. That side of him will come to the fore this October when he releases The Many Moods Of Donald Trump, a collection of satirical songs timed to coincide with the U.S. presidential election.
Shearer is offering a preview of the album with the track Son In Law, a jab at White House advisor Jared Kushner, and based on the R&B classic Mother In Law by New Orleans fixture Ernie K. Doe. The Big Easy has been Shearer's second home for many years, so it's not surprising that he was able to get famed local musicians such as George Porter Jr. of The Meters, Raymond Weber of Dumpstaphunk, and trombonist Jon Ramm for the session.
Son In Law is accompanied by a groundbreaking motion-capture animation video produced by The Electric Lens Company of Sydney, Australia. Using motion capture technology to record Shearer’s body, hands and face, this footage was adapted to a machine-learning AI face that was trained for weeks on footage of Trump's speeches. This algorithm learned the subtle movements of Trump's face, with the end result seeing Shearer fully transformed into Trump.
In a Canadian exclusive, we spoke with Shearer about the new album, and his experiences working with some of our country’s greatest comedic talent. The Many Moods Of Donald Trump will be released through Twanky Records, the label Shearer founded with his wife, singer/songwriter Judith Owen.
Your upcoming album, The Many Moods Of Donald Trump seems self-explanatory based on the title. What’s your own mood at the moment in terms of Joe Biden potentially pulling America out of this ever-growing disaster Trump created?
My mood is basically relief that I have an outlet for my outraged incredulity about what’s going on now. But I’ve learned not to expect saviours in the White House.
The first single and video Son In Law takes a specific jab at Jared Kushner. What is it about him that you find particularly revolting?
I think Jared is the most authoritative example of the dangers of nepotism in government we’ll see in our lifetimes. His portfolio expands to the limits of his lack of competence, and, as family, he cannot be fired.
I’ve heard other comedians say that Trump has killed satire. As a master of the form, what’s your opinion on that, and did you feel any specific challenges as you wrote this album?
Those are lazy satirists. Really, satire doesn’t have to exaggerate to makes its point. It merely has to accurately observe reality and then edit out the boring parts.
Based on what we see here in Canada through U.S. media, the books, documentaries and other attempts to attack Trump don’t seem to affect his standing among a surprisingly large portion of American voters. Do you disagree, and what expectations do you have that this record might change some opinions?
Satirists who expect to move public opinion are doomed to lives of morose disappointment. The Trump “base” acts more like a cult than a traditional political support group. Cult leaders are always testing followers by saying or doing increasingly outrageous or irrational things. Your investment in the previous absurdities forms a psychological boundary against current dissent; you have to acknowledge your own cupidity and foolishness, and that’s a big ask. People in that situation often choose to drink the Kook-Aid instead.
Lastly, your approach to comedy always seems in sync with Canadian comedic sensibilities—which is reflected in the work you’ve done with Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy. I heard it said that The Simpsons was heavily influenced by SCTV as well. You did two stints on Saturday Night Live, but if given the opportunity, would you have worked on SCTV?
I have no idea what influenced The Simpsons since I spend little time in the writers’ room. Personally, I think I was heavily influenced by an earlier generation of British comedy, specifically the Goons and Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, as well as by American satirists Tom Lehrer, Stan Freberg and Bob & Ray. But to answer the question, I would rather have worked on SCTV even if Edmonton had been rife with coronavirus.