Harry Shearer on Being Nixon, ‘The Simpsons Movie’ Sequel, and Why Obama Should Return His Nobel
The comedy legend discusses This Is Spinal Tap’s Stonehenge visit, his plethora of Simpsons characters, and portraying President Richard Nixon in Nixon’s the One.
Harry Shearer looks nothing like Richard Nixon. And yet, equipped with some nifty prosthetics and ace voice work, the protean comedian fully embodies the disgraced, deeply insecure former president in all his preposterousness on the excellent 6-part series Nixon’s the One, which debuts on YouTube Tuesday.
Along with leading Nixon scholar Stanley Kutler, Shearer studied hundreds of hours of Nixon’s notorious White House tapes and has reenacted the most bizarre and (unintentionally) hilarious Tricky Dick moments inside the Oval Office with remarkable precision. Nixon’s the One first aired back in 2012 as a one-episode TV special on the Sky Arts channel in the UK, and the head of the network offered Shearer the chance to extend the series.
Shearer, in case you weren’t already aware, is one of comedy’s elder statesmen, having starred as a player on Saturday Night Live, in the classic rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, a plethora of Christopher Guest films including Waiting for Guffman, and supporting roles in films like The Truman Show. He’s probably best known to TV fans as the voice of a number of your favorite characters on the long-running animated series The Simpsons, including Mr. Burns, Waylon Smithers, Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner, Kent Brockman, Rainier Wolfcastle, and dozens of others. Shearer took home his first Primetime Emmy Award for his voice work on The Simpsons this past August.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Daily Beast, the 70-year-old comedian opens up on everything from The Simpsons to the intersection of politics and comedy to his disappointment with Obama.
What fascinates you so much about Tricky Dick?
He really was the great American comic character of the 20th century. He was a self-made man, and a self-destroyed man—so he wrote his own punch line. He was so thoroughly determined to keep from public view his authentic reactions to things, and then he was totally incapable of [not] blurting them out in odd moments. There’s this one I like to cite where he’s in the middle of Watergate denouncing the media for being obsessed with this scandal, and says, “I’ve got more important things to think about… I’m not wallowing in Watergate.” And the day he says that, he goes out and has a photo-op with the governor from Washington State, and says, “I was just speaking with Governor Evidence—Evans.”
He was a deeply flawed guy and totally unable to forgive his enemies. There’s a conversation in one of the shows where he’s bitching to Kissinger about how never once in eight years did he get invited to a social occasion in the White House when Johnson or Kennedy was in there. Kennedy by this point is in the ground for five or seven years, and he’s still bitching about it! Let it go.
Do you see parallels between Nixon and Dubya, as far as comedic figures go?
I think they’re very different people. Dubya, for all his manifest faults, is a very gregarious guy. You could see why he’d go into politics because, aside from it being a family business, he could just go into a room and start charming people. But Nixon had no interpersonal skills whatsoever. He hated being around strangers, hated small talk, and politics ideally would be the last business on earth he would’ve gone into. Nixon was a lot smarter than W. And my personal take on W. was that I understood him and a lot of what he did to be tied up with his bitterness at his Dad for having made it very clear all along that Jeb was the chosen one. Nixon’s resentments were directed outward at the bigger world—the East Coast, and those “people who had all the privileges and went to those smart universities and had all the breaks.”
What are some of your biggest political hang-ups these days?
This is the second time in my lifetime that I’ve thought about someone in this country, “Hey Bud, isn’t is time to give your Nobel Peace Prize back?” First it was Kissinger, and now it’s Obama. Sparked by working on the Nixon series, one has to confront a fairly blunt fact: Forgetting his foreign policy, which was ludicrous, a lot of his domestic policies were mind-spinningly to the left of Obama. Under Nixon, the EPA was started, the OSHA was started, the Clean Air Act was passed, the Clean Water Act was passed. And, most startlingly of all, Nixon gave a speech late in his truncated second term calling publicly for a guaranteed annual income for all Americans. How long do you think you’d have to live to hear Obama do that?
He has dealt with a great deal of intransigence from the GOP-controlled Congress.
If Mitch McConnell had said to me on day three, “My goal is to make him a one-term president,” I’d have figured out that I wasn’t going to get a lot done with Republican votes. Instead of trying to prove how much of a swell, bipartisan guy I was, I would’ve played some hardball with a Democratic Congress. Me personally, I think job one in his first term was dealing with the economy, and healthcare reform was the second-term item, and he got them reversed, and we’re living with the consequences of that.
I’ve been following your career for basically my whole life. I was speaking with Rob Reiner recently about an ABC pilot you worked on back in the day with Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Tom Leopold that wasn’t picked up.
It aired in July 1979. It was a pilot for a primetime series, and we wrote the script, submitted it to the network, shot it exactly as approved, and the network rejected this one sketch. I was Tom Snyder and Billy Crystal was Muhammad Ali who was announcing that he was changing religions again and converting to Orthodox Judaism, and they said, “All the Jewish references have to come out.” Rob was executive producing and I was producing, and I said, “No! We played by the rules, and you play by the rules.” They aired it in the middle of July at 11:30 p.m. and that was the end of that.
You were on SNL for a little bit, and it wasn’t the best time for you, right?
That’s putting it mildly! And I went back, stupidly. I went back while Lorne [Michaels] was on his 5-year jaunt in the wilderness, and Ebersol was producing. I thought, “It’s gotta be better without Lorne.” Lorne made it miserable for me. I saw a listicle on the Internet saying, “5 People Who Should Guest Host Saturday Night Live This Year,” and I was on there. I resisted the urge to say, “They haven’t made enough wild horses.”
How do you feel about the state of the show today?
I don’t watch it. I didn’t like it before I went there. I wasn’t an admirer of the idea that at this point in television history, “live” was a good idea. It was basically just an excuse to be sloppy.
Right. I’ve been to a taping of Saturday Night Live, and perhaps it was different back in the day, but now it’s a lot of people reading off cue cards.
No, it was that way back then, too. As a matter of fact, there was a moment the second time I was there and Marty Short, who’s a brilliantly funny guy, was improvising a line in a scene during a camera blocking, and Dave Wilson, the director at the time, said, “Marty, that’s funny! You can say it, but we won’t see it!” He directed to the script, and there was nothing loose about that show.
Why are there cue card readings? There was a show in the ‘50s called Your Show of Shows. Tell me if this format sounds familiar: it was a 90-minute variety show on Saturday night from Studio 8H in New York City featuring comedy sketches and musical numbers. Sound familiar? The only difference was the writing staff was Neil Simon, Mel Brooks, and Carl Reiner, and they started writing on Monday. Monday was the day they wrote the show, and then they rehearsed for the whole week and memorized it. SNL forever hasn’t been written until late Tuesday night, read-throughs were Wednesday, and a third more sketches were put into the production cycle before it aired, so nobody ever remembered it because why would you remember sketches that might not be produced? It all comes from the way you organize the show. I don’t blame the performers, but to run a show that way where you make a lot of the decisions last minute, there’s going to be a spiraling lack of commitment all the way down the line.
The Simpsons is really experiencing this pop culture moment of late, with the all-day FXX marathon.
I know! I was in London doing a play all summer and they don’t have FXX over there, but I did read about it! The Simpsons really does defy all expectations in terms of the normal lifespan. The doctors seeking a longevity cure for humans should study The Simpsons, and it continues to be this big, international hit. You get into this business to be a part of something very successful, and to be a part of something successful that goes beyond the boundaries of pretty much anything that’s ever existed in the medium is really something.
I know you were a bit critical at one point about the quality of the show in the early 2000s, but how do you feel about the quality today?
My stance at this point is that the audience can decide for themselves. They don’t need me to tell ‘em.
Is Mr. Burns your favorite character to voice?
Yeah. He’s my favorite character to do just because, as I was explaining before about Nixon, twisted or characters with huge flaws are a lot more fun to play. And he, being a truly, deeply evil character, is about as flawed as you can get.
He does have every disease imaginable.
[Laughs] He has every disease imaginable, has this great relationship—with a great deal of studied obliviousness on his part—with an amanuensis who only yearns to at least serve. It’s a great relationship.
Was there ever a discussion about having Mr. Burns and Smithers get together at some point?
That’s a writer’s question, unfortunately! As on many TV shows, the writers and actors seem to live in two different worlds, so we’re not necessarily privy to what they toyed with.
Did Arnold Schwarzenegger ever reach out to you about Rainier Wolfcastle?
No! I’ve never talked to him, I don’t believe. I used to do a wicked Tom Brokaw impression and did him on Saturday Night Live complaining to the president of NBC News about there being too many “l’s” in the copy. “Why do we have to say ‘lunar lift-off?’ Can’t we say ‘lunar blast-off?’” I got a note saying that Tom was upstairs watching from the in-house feed and wasn’t pleased.
Do you think there will be another Simpsons Movie soon?
That’s one of those questions that just gets answered by looking at the numbers. You see how much money they made on the first one and have gotta think, “Would they really willingly walk away from that much money again if they could avoid it?” I think the answer is that at some point in time when the stars align, I would bet Fox’s serious money that there would be another Simpsons Movie.
I’m also curious: Do you think Ned Flanders is gay?
No! As in he’s a suppressed gay person who uses Christianity as a cover? I know that personality type exists and I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I’ve never seen that in him. To me, there isn’t the slightest hint of anything representing flare or style in Flanders at all, so I’d say probably not!
I grew up loving Spinal Tap. I read that the gang ended up visiting Stonehenge recently?
We were playing Glastonbury, which in and of itself was a kick-and-a-half, and Christopher [Guest] and I left, along with C.J., our keyboard player, and Michael [McKean] stayed back at the festival with his wife because there was a performer he wanted to see. We’re being driven back to London on a different road than the one we took out there, and it’s about 6:30 p.m. but it’s summer so it’s broad daylight, and we see this thing that looks like Stonehenge but it’s right by the motorway. We thought, “This has gotta be a replica! A gas station should be there, not Stonehenge!” Nope. Real thing.
So we pull in, come up to the ticket window, and the man says, “We’re about to close in 15 minutes, but you can come in if you don’t mind leaving when it’s time to close.” When we went in, we noticed that there are these fences next to the stones so you can’t get next to them, and are standing at a remove. Our keyboard player, who’s more ballsy than the rest of us, walked up to the guy and said, “Look—do you know who these guys are? They put this place on the map. Can you let them walk next to the stones?” So, after everyone left, they gave us the VIP treatment of walking around by the stones. It was quite funny, and great at the same time. It was pretty magical to be so close and feel what people were intended to feel next to those stones.