Time to waste time with Harry Shearer
October 18th, 2011
04:29 PM ET

Time to waste time with Harry Shearer

Editor's note: AdultSwim.com, one of our geeky friends in the Time Warner universe, got really nerdy when discussing seminal intellectual comedies with Harry Shearer. Check it out!

Do we really need to introduce Harry Shearer?

The man is one of "The Simpsons'" heaviest hitters, playing everyone from Ned Flanders and Principal Skinner to Otto Mann and of course, Mr. Burns. You know who he is.

Just in case you don't, though, you might also remember him from "This Is Spinal Tap" and plenty of other Christopher Guest movies. If that doesn't jog your memory, then we have only one conclusion: You are an alien from Dimension X57Y18-Z. We'll take you to your leaders after you read this - a chat with Mr. Shearer about three of the bravest comedies ever made. (Hint: Stanley Kubrick fans might already be able to guess one of them.)

Speaking of brave movies, you should check out Shearer's recently-released New Orleans documentary, "The Big Uneasy," which investigates the damage truly done by Katrina.

Also, before the rest of your space-brahs touch down, can they pick us up some space ice cream?

AdultSwim: So what is it about these movies that brought them to mind?

Harry Shearer: I did a talk at the Motion Picture Academy a few years back on this subject, and it's always kinda griped me that there are certain people in the comedy world - names not supplied on request - who do comedy as a lesser form. You know, joke writing comes easily to them, perhaps, and so they feel it's a trivial form. If they want to express deeper concerns or sentiments, that they have to resort to some other arena. I just feel, and I always have, that the stuff I really care about, the stuff that scares me, the stuff that pisses me off, is something I've always dealt with comedically. I've always been a fan of folks who do that in the film medium, and these three films I think are really great examples of pulling it off to perfection.

Shearer: Each of these films is made in the middle of the times that their subject matter takes place. They're not retrospective in any sense. They're not safe. This is not meant to be a criticism, but just an observation: If you go and see "The Producers" today, it's a bit safe to say that - the very success of "The Producers" shows you the safety of making fun of Hitler at this point in time. To go to the other film, "To Be Or Not To Be," was doing it when Hitler was still really scary. When he was alive. When he was a serious threat to the world. That's a very different, very very different kind of dimension.

Similarly, "Strangelove" was not looking back at the Cold War from some superior vantage point of, "God, weren't those people silly? What were they scared of?" It was in the middle of it! It was when everybody was really scared. It was right after the Cuban Missile Crisis. There's a ballsiness, there's daring, there's an ability to go right up and look in the face of the thing that's frightening most of the people at that moment in time and say "Boo!" right back to it. That to me is profoundly interesting.

AdultSwim: Do you think that ballsiness is more effective when there's a comedic slant to it? That if you can make people laugh, you might be able to make them think more?

Shearer: I don't know if that's true, but I think that it's easier to get people to reconsider their preconceptions if they're laughing, perhaps. That may be true.

Shearer: Now, I'm sure that the vast majority of people who went to see "To Be Or Not To Be" were not Nazis. It was, to a certain extent, preaching to the converted. That's more debatable with "Strangelove," and even more debatable with "To Be Or Not To Be," which I don't think ever found its audience because it was really making fun of something that we didn't have this name for back then, but which we've learned to call "the culture war" since then. The only person who could look at it from that sky-high point was an outsider from outside this country. I don't think an American could've made that film. The temptation would've been to take sides. I saw it at the time. Again, it was not looking back, taking cheap, easy shots because we're not them. It was made when we were them. We were the people in the film. Some of us were on one side of that divide, and some of us were on the other side.

AdultSwim: It's interesting that you mention "The Producers" and now "To Be Or Not To Be," because Mel Brooks of course remade "To Be Or Not To Be." But what he'll likely be remembered for is safely making fun of Hitler many decades after the fact.

Shearer: Yeah, and to me, if you wanted the stage production of "The Producers' to be as daring as, let's say, even the original film, in terms of being on the edge of transgressive, it would've been a musical about Saddam Hussein or Bin Laden.

AdultSwim: Which sounds more like South Park's territory.

Shearer: Yeah, and just to say that reminds you of who Hitler used to be.

AdultSwim: "Taking Off" is the movie with the famous "How to Smoke a Joint" scene, right?

Shearer: As I say, it was about an outsider's being agape and aghast and agog at this culture war that was playing out in this country, and how bizarre it was. How bizarre the behavior on both sides was. I just thought, you know, it was beautifully observed. I remember seeing all the Hollywood attempts to come to grips with that stuff. Those films are not even remembered by most people, for a good reason, because they were clumsy and trying to ingratiate themselves with one side or another. Usually with the younger side of that debate.

But this was not made in any sense to pander to either side. It was not made to say, "Love me because I agree with you." It was made to say, "Look at this behavior. Isn't this f***ing daffy?" I thought it was remarkably well observed in terms of the parents and the kids. The parents were goofier of course, because people who are frightened - you know, panic tends to make people act more goofily. I think that's one thing that you have in all three films as a common element: Making fun of how strangely people behave when they're really, really, really afraid.

AdultSwim: Yeah, they always say in a drama you worry, but in a comedy you really really worry.

Shearer: Right. [Laughs.] I see "To Be Or Not To Be" every three or four years and it still makes me laugh. There's not a lot of films that I can pop in midway through and enjoy. My wife does it all the time and it drives me crazy. But I can see "Strangelove" in progress on TV and just sit down and get ensnared by it all the time. And "Taking Off" I've seen recently because an acquaintance sent me a really beautiful print, because I complained when I showed it at the Academy that there were no good prints to be had. And when I saw it again, I thought, "Yeah, yeah. It's got it, it really does."

When's the last Iraq War comedy you saw? When's the last War On Terror comedy you saw? It doesn't happen. It takes a certain mentality of writer and director. It takes a certain ability of the film industry to be willing to put that out. I think the latter has disappeared much more than the former. I don't think this is a film business that would even understand why anybody would want to make a movie like that. That's where we've gotten to. "Why would you want to do something like that?"

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soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Howard

    Harry's Le Show on Sundays is great.

    October 19, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
  2. rexedie

    harry shearer is a brilliant individual....(as are his fellow "Tapians") .and amazing how many projects he is involved with at any given time...too bad...the american intellect has faded so badly..... comedy requires insight.... but so many people today are one dimensional and flat brained.....duh huh duh huh.... which way ded he go....! !!

    October 19, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • mrburns

      I agree. The American intellect has faded. I blame The Simpsons....err ahh wait..

      October 20, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
      • Supriya

        The Simpsons is rubbish. It is a metnfastaiion of the increasing ease with which commercialised crap is accepted by America to be good. The Simpson's preaches religion, numbs the brain, stereotypes men, puts kids off reading, introduces kids to unneccessarily adult subjects, and disesteems? the development of the virtually non-existant artistic community in America. Plus.. FUTURAMA'S so much BETTER!

        May 24, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • rexedie

      American intellect has faded without a doubt, but much of the blame for the dummying down of movies is the management within the industry itself.

      Hollywood is no longer about taking risks to make a valued statement or point. It now prefers the low-hanging fruit that is the low-brow, formulaic action/comedy/thriller or more and more often, the last bastion in the search of easily-bought credibility, the remake.

      October 19, 2011 at 2:25 pm |