The Simpsons’ Harry Shearer on Reuniting Spinal Tap to Stop ‘Scary’ Trump
The comedy great who voices Mr. Burns, Ned Flanders, and more on “The Simpsons” opens up about parodying Trump through song and a “Spinal Tap” reunion to raise funds for Dems.
Unlike some of his buddies, Harry Shearer—best known as the man of a thousand voices in The Simpsons and as heavy metal bass guitarist Derek Smalls in the iconic mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap—doesn’t seethe with rage at the maddening presidency of Donald J. Trump.
“I have to say that I don’t feel as emotionally wrought about it as many of my friends because I get a safety valve to blow off some of that emotion in being able to satirize him on a weekly basis,” Shearer told The Daily Beast from his vintage house in New Orleans’ historic French Quarter. “I know friends who can’t do that, they don’t have that outlet, and they end up getting kicked off Facebook for expressing how they really feel.”
Shearer has been lampooning Trump at least since 2017 in a recurring feature, “The Appresidentice”—to say nothing of mocking seven other presidents dating back to Richard Nixon every week for the past 37 years—on his public radio program Le Show. Along with a live HBO special years ago in which he caricatured Ronald Reagan, and a six-part YouTube series, Nixon’s The One, he has skewered Republicans and Democrats alike, even sending up Barack Obama with a ditty inspired by his off-the-cuff admission, “We tortured some folks.”
“I try to be even-handed,” Shearer said. “I think that’s the satirist’s job—to make fun of whoever’s got that obscene amount of power.”
Thus Shearer, a prolific songwriter, has channeled whatever disquiet he feels about Trump into a series of musical spoofs that he initially composed and performed bare-bones for his radio show, for which he played the instruments and sang the parts himself. However, on Oct. 30, in lavishly produced renditions for digital and CD formats—and Nov. 13 on vinyl—he’s releasing 13 of these tunes as an album titled The Many Moods of Donald Trump through Twanky Records, the label he owns with Judith Owen, Shearer’s singer-songwriter wife.
Ranging in style from pop to jazz to disco to R&B—with backup singers and several of Shearer’s musician-friends—the album features two music videos, Son in Law (a subversive paean to Jared Kushner) and Executive Time (a salute to presidential sloth and Fox News viewing), in which the slightly-built Shearer physically occupies Trump’s face and body through the magic of CGI and motion-capture technology. Those videos have already dropped on YouTube, while other tunes such as Covid-180 and Stormy Daniels—in which Shearer croons as a mush-mouthed, raspy Trump—are also available on SoundCloud.
In order to embody Trump, Shearer said, he hired an Australian high-tech virtual reality company, Electric Lens, and collaborated via Skype meetings—Shearer in Los Angeles at 5 p.m. and the Aussies in Sydney 16 hours later at 9 a.m. next day. Shearer performed the videos in his West Coast residence in Santa Monica—which CGI technology transformed into the Oval Office and the White House press briefing room.
“What I had to do is wear something that is sort of like a wetsuit and a fairly tight-fitting helmet with a brace that holds the camera on my head,” Shearer said, adding that he had to obtain a replacement helmet when the brace on the first one painfully poked a hole in his forehead. “It was most excruciating. And then I had gloves to track my finger movements. So there were three data sources—the body, the hands, and the face.”
While the data was sent digitally across the expanse of the Pacific Ocean, a cinematographer-friend captured Shearer’s performance in real time so the team in Sydney could monitor it live. The process was technically challenging and labor-intensive; starting in March, Shearer and the team could complete only two videos in time for Nov. 3.
“He seems to demand a lot of attention,” Shearer said about Trump, “and I complied.”
Not that Shearer, an astute political observer (as well as an old friend of this writer), doesn’t have serious and even grave objections to America’s 45th president, who’s up for re-election in 20 days. Which is why, tonight (Oct. 14), he’s joining Patton Oswalt and various Spinal Tap cast members—including Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Rob Reiner, Billy Crystal, Fran Drescher, and Paul Shaffer—in a live-streaming fundraiser/chat show for Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party.
“We’re going to be appearing each and separately in our own locations as ourselves,” Shearer said. “It’s not a performance. We’re bringing no instruments to this event.”
Instead, amid the showing of clips from the movie, the cast will be answering questions. “I think were we to try to do a musical reunion, it would cost the Pennsylvania Democratic Party more than they’d raise.”
Should Joe Biden manage to win that battleground state and enough others to achieve an Electoral College victory, Shearer predicted that things in this country might still get a tad treacherous.
Trump “has constructed this persona for himself. And a huge part of it—as we’ve seen now in the COVID drama—is that he’s always a winner,” he said. “Trump always had a history of trying to create an alternate reality, as when ‘John Barron’ called the New York Post and said Marla says ‘best sex ever.’ But I think Mark Burnett [the creator of The Apprentice, the hit NBC show greenlighted back in 2003 by CNN’s current CEO, Jeff Zucker] taught him to create an alternate persona... So to experience the biggest, most exposed loss in perhaps the modern world would be a serious threat to his creative persona, let’s put it that way without trying to put him on the couch.”
Shearer continued: “When I was hearing him say things at his rallies a few weeks ago like ‘If Joe Biden is elected America is dead,’ or ‘The American suburban dream is dead,’ I thought maybe he’s not being metaphorical, because I don’t think he’s capable of that. Maybe he’s being literal, and for ‘America’ you should just substitute the word ‘me,’ and that he would really experience it like an existential death. And I thought, well that’s scary. Because somebody who’s experiencing that could do anything.”
Shearer added: “I had one other thought—which is he’s constantly throwing fake stuff at us. And ‘Well maybe I won’t go!’ is just another Trump fake, and the media, as always, is falling for it.”
Assuming Trump’s hypothetical defeat, will he have to be frog-marched out of the White House? “I think airlifted out in some sort of winch procedure,” Shearer mused.
“Clearly things are going very wrong,” he said. “I would make one exception in that we haven’t been dragged into another war in the Middle East. In contradistinction to that, we repeated our unfortunate habit of betraying the Kurds when Trump turned them over to the Turks—which really escaped most people’s notice because they aren’t interested in anything he does with any other country except Russia—and he really gave the Turks a present. ‘Here are the Kurds! Go slaughter them!’”
Shearer continued: “There’s a lot stuff done during his administration that would be done during any Republican administration, like trying to fuck up the EPA and so forth—standard Republican stuff going back to Reagan. But I think the overall picture is of somebody who’s been so demanding of public attention on a constant basis that I suspect a lot of people might be feeling a certain fatigue right about now…This is not to downplay the fearsome wrongness of his approach to the pandemic. That is going to be what historically he’ll be remembered for.”
At which point Shearer shifted into satirist mode: “And catching it himself! And beating it himself! And dying of it himself! It’s a good storyline.”
Citing Trump’s faux-heroic nighttime flight aboard Marine One from Walter Reed Medical Center to the South Lawn of the White House earlier this month, Shearer said: “You saw the balcony appearance? The idea of standing there for-fucking-ever, and then saluting for-fucking-ever and then standing there for-fucking-ever some more, and then going inside with his mask off and then coming out and doing it again because they wanted a better shot—it really tells you all you need to know about this presidency.”
It might be an omen, or at least it might say something about the zeitgeist, that The Simpsons—three-fourths of the way through its 32nd-season production schedule—had yet to do an episode featuring Trump jokes, although Variety just reported that the show’s upcoming Halloween episode, “Treehouse of Horror,” will list “50 Reasons Why Re-Electing Trump Is Terrifying.”
“I have no idea, I’m not privy to the writers’ room, except the one time I wrote an episode,” he said, citing Season 28’s “Trust but Clarify,” an episode loosely based on the Brian Williams scandal in which local news anchor Kent Brockman (voiced by Shearer) tells tall tales on The Late Late Late Night with Jimmy Jimmy about his made-up combat experiences. “I only know they’re doing something when a script pops in for a read-through.”
Shearer, who began his showbiz career as a child actor—appearing regularly on Jack Benny’s radio show and then in the first of his many movies, 1953’s Abbott and Costello Go to Mars—has done very well both creatively and financially in a precarious line of work that has crushed the dreams of many.
His Jewish parents fled Poland and Austria in time to escape the Nazis, and settled in Los Angeles. Asked how that family history informed his attitudes about life and politics, Shearer quipped: “Well, it’s made me not have to go to see any Holocaust movies… I grew up with those stories, so I figured those are for the goyim.”
More seriously, Shearer, now 76, said: “It has left me with a certain reluctance to spend a lot of time in Germany, and it was a long time before I bought anything made there—because I knew it hurt my mom to do so. I bought a Braun shaver one time and I had to hide it from her. But I think it gave me an enduring sense of how freakishly lucky I am… In one generation things went from something horrible to this really fortunate life that I’ve had so far—and how flukish that is. That this package of these genes ended up in a place where things were good, and another similar package—rather, all of the similar packages in my family line—didn’t have anywhere near that degree of luck.”