Kovacs Award Recipient Harry Shearer Talks Richard Nixon, Spinal Tap and Smart Comedy
Photos by Danny Gallagher
The great comedians know that they don't have to create fiction, they simply have to pluck out the insane bits of a world trying to wrestle with its sanity and present it in the way a carnival barker would just before he pulls back the curtain to reveal some horrid mistake of human nature.
Actor and comedian Harry Shearer is one such performer, obsessed with presenting the raw, naked truth of politics and media whether it's the invasiveness of reality TV when he helped write director Albert Brooks' first movie Real Life or the inefficient preparation and inhumane response that led to massive flooding in New Orleans with his documentary The Big Uneasy. Even This is Spinal Tap, the seminal rock comedy movie that launched the mockumentary genre, sprang from real moments.
"We didn't make anything up in that movie," Shearer says atAMS Pictures headquarters in Dallas. "It was stuff that either happened to us or people we knew. Editing reality to get the good part is sort the ideal version of my job."
The Spinal Tap and Simpsons star recently turned his sharp eye for the satirical to one of American history's characters who always seemed to good to be real, former President Richard M. Nixon, for a new web series for My Damn Channel called Nixon's the One. He'll premiere the series tonight at the Angelika Film Center as part of the Dallas VideoFest where he'll receive the festival's Ernie Kovacs Award.
Shearer's entire life has been spent in the pursuit of scoring an honest laugh. It started when he entered show business at a very young age because "I didn't really like the whole childhood thing" and scored a guest spot on The Jack Benny Program.
"I got totally infected with the idea of making people laugh one day at a read-through of the show when I did a little, tiny thing with a line and Jack Benny slammed his hand down on the table as hard as he could and cackled this great, big laugh," Shearer says. "I thought, 'More please.'"
He tried to quit show business and get a grownup job in journalism, education and government when he got older but he eventually "came scrambling back to show business as fast as my legs could carry me." He started a comedy group called The Credibility Gap with future frequent collaborator Michael McKean and David L. Lander, both of whom later would later find TV fame as Lenny and Squiggy on Laverne & Shirley.
"One of the reasons I think my parents thought it was a good idea to get a job in show business is because I was so entranced by show business," he says. "I was at that age where the big radio shows were ending and the first TV shows were beginning. So network TV was the first place where I saw what I modestly called 'Shearer's Law' where every medium is interesting until the guys in charge figure out what the formula is. So I was seeing TV as that magic period where they hadn't figured out the formula yet."
Just like Kovacs' pioneering work as a TV comedian, Shearer could not escape the chances to play with TV and film rather than spit out something that some network executive thought would be good enough for the masses. He recalled a failed sketch pilot that he developed with This is Spinal Tap director Rob Reiner called simply The TV Show in which the audience watched a TV just over the shoulder of another viewer in a Barcalounger as he flipped through an insane series of channels that served as sketches, some without beginnings or endings.
Throughout his life and career, Shearer also couldn't escape the looming shadow of Nixon as a child and comedian growing up in Southern California where he was "always around" and "always in my head."
The late president had something of a recent cultural resurgence when Ron Howard made a film adaptation of the play Frost/Nixon, a chronicling of the infamous and revealing interview conducted by TV presenter David Frost, and scads of Nixon recordings were finally made public.
"It struck me that he was in danger of becoming a standard movie villain and I wanted to remind people what a strange, creepy, spooky character that he was and we had the goods," Shearer says, referring to the tapes that feature the former president candidly sharing his views on homosexuals, diplomacy, minorities and John F. Kennedy.
He partnered with author and historian Stanley Kutler who filed a lawsuit to make the tapes public and decided the best way to reintroduce Nixon was to present the character unedited in a series of reenactments for a British TV series called Nixon's the One. Shearer and Kutler compiled some of the more interesting conversations recorded on those tapes and reenacted them word for word under a heavy layer of prosthetic makeup as cameras were also rolling alongside the tapes that ultimately led to Nixon's downfall.
"We shot it not as a standard television show but as if he had hidden cameras in the White House all these different angles," he says. "We screwed around with the tape to make it look older than it really is."
The final episode ends with Nixon's resignation, the only moment that Shearer and Kutler recreated from a video that recorded the awkward and sometimes jovial events that led to his historic resignation speech. Nixon's final occupancy in the Oval Office features a weird mix of blunt requests and awkward jokes that ends with him wishing the staff "Merry Christmas" in the early part of August.
Shearer says he came to a startling revelation while preparing to film that final scene for his TV series.
"The last words were not on the tape," he said. "The tape ends when the speech ends but while we were preparing the show, I found on the Internet a memoir of a guy who had worked in the White House who had been in the room that night and it was there that I found those parting words and that's when it clicked in my head. I get it. He's starting his next campaign. He's starting his rehabilitation on the night he resigns because in his head, all the crew is going to leave that room saying, 'He wasn't upset. He wasn't depressed. He was nice. He wished everyone a Merry Christmas.'"
Shearer immediately took the show to Great Britain because he said he knew he'd have a hard time getting a pure Nixon experience on an American screen. The character would always be open to shaping in the hands of a meddling network executive.
"All of that would be subject to arguments in this country," he says. "I imagine there would be one meeting that started with, 'Look guys, I know he didn't like black people but does he have to hate Jews too?'"
Besides, Shearer always works best on the fringe where an overpaid producer dare not tread for fear of delivering something that would just go over the audience's heads.
"I've always wanted to do what some people would describe as smart comedy so I've always felt sort of on the outs of the comedy establishment," Shearer says. "Hollywood and NY are united in one for their contempt for the audience in a lot of cases. Mort Sahl, the great satirical comedian, once said, 'Pretend that the audience is intelligent. Whether it's true or not, you'll do better work' and I've always thought that was a great idea."
Tickets to the spotlight screening and award presentation are $12 and available at videofest.org.
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