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There is no good place to begin with Harry Shearer, because he doesn't sit still long enough to allow one the chance to focus. He is a blur, forever in motion--on his way to the radio station, on his way from the movie studio, on his way to the publisher's office, on his way from the concert stage. One minute he's Ned Flanders, giving Homer Simpson the okiley-dokiley; the next, he's hair-band bassist Derek Smalls, yanking a foil-covered cucumber out of his pants in order to pass through airport security; the next, he's an anxious Eisenhower lackey, searching for astronauts with the right stuff. Sometimes, behind a computer's keyboard or a microphone or Bill Maher's swollen head, he's even Harry Shearer, expostulating about Bills and Dubyas and Dicks (Nixon or Clark, your choice). He is, in fact, as ubiquitous as oxygen--or "promos for The Weakest Link," Shearer says, sounding over a phone very much like, well, himself.
"I have this theory about being a moving target," he explains, "and it works, because just around the time one situation sours, another one opens up. One has to keep sort of going with the flow, as the kids used to say when they were kids."
When the 57-year-old Shearer was a kid, he was already consumed by and with the popular culture: He made movies with Abbott and Costello, appeared as Eddie Haskell in the pilot for Leave it to Beaver, showed up on The Jack Benny Showand Alfred Hitchcock Presents, even made his way into Henry Coster's 1953 film The Robe, the first shot in Cinescope. As writer Karl French notes in last year's freakishly fetishistic This is Spinal Tap: The Official Companion, Shearer "may in fact be the missing link between Jean Simmons and Gene Simmons." Raised in Los Angeles, he's as much a part of the town as the sign in the hills and the smog above them. He's character and commentator, play-actor and pundit, smart guy and smart-ass. In other words, Shearer is what Al Franken wishes he were in his wildest dreams.
He constantly pens columns for whomever will give him space and a paycheck, be it The Observerin London, The New York Times or the Los Angeles Times(a collection of his columns for the latter, written between 1989 and 1992 and dealing with everything from L.A. mayors to mini-malls to Madonna, appear in the 1993 book Man Bites Town: Notes of a Man Who Doesn't Take Notes). In February 1999, Ballantine published his book It's the Stupidity, Stupid, in which he insists that Bill Clinton was despised in large part because he had an affair with "the least powerful, least credentialed women cleared into his official compound."
Shearer likewise turns up on NPR's Fresh Airso often they should think about renaming it Fresh Har; he's the go-to guy when Terry Gross needs a jester to talk politics (he was ever-present last November, the celebrity equivalent of the word "chad"). This is in addition to his weekly show (titled Le Show) on KCRW-FM, the Santa Monica-based public radio station that allows him free rein to talk about everything from George Dubya to "Yob culture" (the British, that is) to the XFL's dismal ratings. (Le Showis available over the Internet at www.kcrw.org.)
Shearer also remains one of the few constants on The Simpsons, which limps toward the end of its 12th season; it's perhaps easier to name the characters he doesn't voice (all of the Simpsons) than those he does (everyone else, for the most part; he is a one-man cast of thousands). Then, of course, there is Spinal Tap, the band that will never break up no matter how many drummers overdose on cold medication or spontaneously combust. Later this year, the band--featuring David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) and Nigel Tufnel (Chris Guest) on vocals and guitar and Derek Smalls (Shearer) on bass--will regroup, once more, for a series of tour dates, including a stop at Carnegie Hall. "Or," Shearer says, "as Derek likes to refer to it, Carnegie Fucking Hall."
He's the performer who's able to keep reinventing himself while, along the way, satisfying his urges to create or merely play. He'll slum it in a blockbuster movie like Godzilla just to act like a child among the Tinkertoys, then turn around and pen a piece for The Observerabout how Al Gore was at his most popular when he kissed Tipper at the Democratic National Convention--meaning his "peak campaign moment...occurred when he had his mouth shut." Shearer is, in fact, one of the luckier among us.
"That's exactly right," he says, in a tone of voice that suggests grand revelation. "Luck is the right word. I think a lot of people who manage to have careers in show business sort of lose sight of that along the way--how goddamned lucky we are. It is luck. To the right of you and to the left of you, you see signs of the people who aren't as lucky all the time. Everything works for a different purpose: The radio show works because no matter what else I'm doing, it makes me create something every week, and since I never liked doing stand-up, it really is the most direct connection I have to an audience on a consistent basis. And it's pretty remarkable in that in a supposedly mass medium, my connection with the audience is absolutelydirect, assuming a radio station gets off its ass and plugs into the network. Nobody ever reads the scripts before the show goes on the air; there are never any meetings afterwards about content or anything else, so it really is just me and the audience.