Moving Target: Harry Shearer on His New Album, The Simpsons, Spinal Tap, Nixon, New Orleans…
In terms of expectations, jumping to another of your recent projects. You direct a documentary on Katrina, The Big Uneasy, which to me at least seemed to come out of left field. Can you talk about the feedback and impact that followed its release?
Well first of all, it came out of left field for me. It’s not like I was expecting to do a serious documentary at any point. But it was something I felt really impelled to do by the circumstances, that all this stuff was knowable and known, and on the public record, yet not known to most Americans, and nobody was moving a finger to make it known to Americans. And I just felt an irresistible compulsion to be that person, I didn’t see anybody else doing it. The reactions—I toured the country for six months last year with it, so I got to see audiences in big cities and small towns, in New Orleans and away from New Orleans, and the reaction in theaters was pretty uniform. I mean people stayed almost to a man and woman for the Q and A afterwards. The responses that I got verbally were really very favorable, very positive, and almost universally they were of two ilks: “I had no idea,” and “What can I do?” That being said, the impact, I must say, has been disappointing. The first and most important to me part of the project was to gain the attention of the national media for the story, and that didn’t work at all. It’s still a big secret to anybody who hasn’t seen the film.
How do you account for that?
I did about an hour long talk at the National Press Club trying to explain my view of it, but to boil it down, I think that people who ascribe media bias to basically left or right wing politics are missing the point. Having worked in the news media for a while, and having watched it fairly closely since, I think the biases are money, logistics, and ego, and I think all three played a role in how the story of New Orleans was covered in 2005. Money dictated that, at that point, no news media in the United States aside from the New York Times had anybody in New Orleans, so everybody was flying in, which made the coverage in New Orleans like the coverage in Name Your Foreign Country—arrive in town and ask the cab driver what the mood here is. Then logistics dictated that they would go to locations that were close to interstate off ramps, which were the Convention Center and the Superdome, and not go to places that weren’t. Therefore you saw all of the black people suffering, and you didn’t see the folks in St. Bernard Parish ten miles away, on their roofs for four days and nights with no electricity, no food and water, who happened to be lower working class white folks, because they weren’t near a freeway off ramp. And then third, ego, was a big factor. They mustered what resources they had to cover the story, and they got great pictures and great stories, and they were really proud of their coverage of the flooding, and because nobody was staying in town, they picked up and left before the real story became apparent, and then it was like, well, the hardest thing to retract is a boast.
In terms of the climate of American culture, your current Nixon project, were you surprised that you couldn’t get someone in the United States interested [it airs on the BBC]?
HS: No, I wasn’t surprised; I just assumed it. I didn’t even try. I knew better. I knew that the first thing out of the mouth of an executive who’s purchased the American project, if I chose to do it there, would be, “You know, I understand that he doesn’t like blacks, but does he have to hate Jews too?”
It’s the nature of the beast. I mean, there are so many great stories about American networks buying rights to shows from abroad and then missing the absolute, basic, essential point of the show, of the project, in starting to make their notes. And I just thought, “It’s not worth it.” I rather go someplace where—you know, I took my chances, there was no guarantee I would get to do it here, but I just thought If I got to do it here, the chances would be pretty good that we’d get left alone, and that turned out to be true.
To me that’s like the American Office is a perfectly fine show, but it can’t hold a candle to the British version.
That’s right, that’s right. I agree. I think it was Greg Daniels in the New York Times who actually cops to one of the basic reasons for the difference. He said he was very aware in adapting the show that he had to give what was in Britain the David Brent character some likeable characteristics.
Well, that’s funny. It’s always funny to be likeable. ..
In terms of, so as your working on this next set of shows for the Nixon series, do you find that you have to provide any back-story for the U.K. audience, or do you just tell it the way you want to tell it?
Well, you know, there’s been a little discussion about that. Me personally, since I feel it’s an entertainment show, I want to provide—and I think everybody agrees on this—the minimum possible explanatory material. I want people to not feel like they’re watching a history lesson or a documentary. They’re watching a very bizarre entertainment, and we tell them a little bit, but there will be a companion show after the six actual episodes with Sir David Frost and my co-writer, Stanley Cutler—Professor Stanley Cutler talking about what all this means and the larger context of the Nixon presidency, so that we don’t leave people with the wrong impression.
How did you happen to work with Stanley Cutler, who is a well-known historian but I can’t recall ever doing a project like this?
We started being booked on the same shows to talk about Nixon anniversaries or Watergate anniversaries and we just struck up a conversation because he got that I was obsessed with his stuff from a totally different vantage point than he and when I thought about this project he was the only person I thought to call.
Last question, which references the range of your projects: when you set out to begin a career, however one defines it, did you anticipate that you’d be doing all of these, working on all of these different areas?
No, no, no. No. I had a fairly simple goal in mind, which was to do satirical comedy—comedy with a satirical edge to it, as opposed to flat out satire. But no, as I’ve gone on, the wisdom of something my mother said fairly early on became more and more apparent to me, which is if you have an aptitude for anything, utilize it. To be honest, having been around show business since I was pretty young, it became clear to me fairly early on that unless you’re remarkably lucky, show business exists to sort of harvest from you what they think your particular specialty is, exploit it for a maximum amount for a very short time, and then toss you out of the car in case of the next one. So, you know, I did sort of knowingly, at that point, begin to adopt a strategy of being a moving target.
Golden Bloom stopped by Relix to perform a tune from their latest EP No Day Like Today.
The Chapin Sisters share an tune from their new album A Date With the Everly Brothers.
Minneapolis-based Night Moves share a song from their record, Colored Emotions, live at Relix.
Cloud Cult share a song from their latest album live at Relix.
The Giving Tree Band enjoy a spring day on the Relix rooftop, while performing a classic Grateful Dead tune.
Canadian singer-songwriter Hayden performs a duet with his sister-in-law Lou Canon. The song appears on Us Alone his first record on Broken Social Scene’s Arts & Crafts Productions.
The Milk Carton Kids share the first song from their new album, The Ash & Clay.
Here is the new video from Serbian guitar ace Ana Popovic. “Object Of Obsession” appears on her latest album Can You Stand The Heat.
Ron Sexsmith visits the Relix office to perform a tune from his latest record Forever Endeavor.
Crystal Bowersox stops by Relix to perform a song from her new album, All That For This.
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