Unlike pretty much every other person on the planet, actor, voice artist and all round comedy star Harry Shearer, 76, found lockdown a thoroughly productive experience. “The bonus time from not having to drive around Los Angeles every day really adds up. My wife and I would say to each other at the end of every day, ‘God, we accomplished a lot today!’”
This is a heck of an understatement. During the past seemingly static eight months, Shearer busied himself recording and making videos for his new comedy-music album, The Many Moods of Donald Trump; kept up his radio show, Le Show, which has been going since the early 80s; and did his weekly work for what he describes as “this TV show I’m involved with”, AKA The Simpsons. For the past 32 years, Shearer has been the voice of pretty much every beloved Simpsons character who is not an actual Simpson: Mr Burns, Smithers, Principal Skinner, Ned Flanders, Reverend Lovejoy, Kent Brockman, Dr Marvin Monroe and, until recently, Dr Hibbert, the African American doctor who laughs at the most inappropriate moments.
But Dr Hibbert may have laughed his last laugh. It was announced this summer that – in the wake of the furore over the Indian character Apu, who was voiced by the non-Indian Hank Azaria – characters of colour on the Simpsons would no longer be voiced by white actors. In the past, Shearer has grumbled about this, saying: “The job of the actor is to play someone who they are not.” But perhaps he is feeling less combative – or more obedient – today because when I ask if he’ll miss Dr Hibbert, he replies in his equanimous way: “I got plenty of work there, so I’m good.”
Shearer is talking to me by video link from his home in New Orleans. He also has places in Los Angeles and London, thanks in no small part to the nice chunk of change he gets from The Simpsons of $300,000 an episode. Hanging off his face is a very familiar long hank of a moustache that belongs to Derek Smalls, the Spinal Tap character he has been playing for more than 40 years. Has the spoof heavy metal bassist’s facial hair become a permanent fixture?
“Not normally. I’m growing it now because I was asked to do Derek next week for a streamed charity show,” he says with a little moustache twiddle. One of the myriad advantages of being associated with so many beloved decades-old comic characters is that Shearer is constantly surprised by what’s asked of him. “Nothing is more corrosive in showbusiness than contempt for the audience. I know people who, whenever someone comes up to them, it’s because they’re going to say that one catchphrase from that one sitcom. But I can never tell what people will want to talk about, whether it’s Derek, or the radio show, or Mr Burns. It keeps the experience interesting.”
Surely people are always asking him to say something in a voice from The Simpsons, I say, just about resisting doing so myself. “Sometimes. But they don’t come up and go, ‘Excellent!’” he says in a Mr Burns voice, bringing his fingers together Burns-style. It is so surreal to hear that voice coming out of Derek Smalls’ face that I am not ashamed to say that I make a little shriek.
Shearer is taking a break from his non-stop work schedule today to discuss a relatively new character for him: Donald Trump. He satirised the president once before, in 2016, when he provided the voices for a video imagining Barack Obama showing Trump around the Oval Office. (Sample line when Trump is looking over Obama’s bookcase: “I don’t see Art of the Deal!”)
On the album, he explores Trump’s somewhat limited psychology in songs with such titles as Very Stable Genius (“Pelosi thinks that she’s so smart / She can just spit out subpoena-e-as / But she’ll learn soon enough / Who’s a very stable genius”) and Executive Time, about Trump’s love of Fox News. I tell Shearer I particularly enjoyed the song Son in Law, about Trump’s reverence for Jared Kushner: “He knows just what to do / What’s more he’s a Jew.” What does Shearer – the son of Jewish immigrants – make of Trump’s feelings towards Jews, given he says one day how smart they are, and the next that antisemitic protesters are “very fine people”?
“Trump doesn’t have coherent thought structures, which makes him very frustrating for those who do. He has a salesman’s cast of mind – which is, ‘Forget what I said yesterday, don’t worry about what I’ll say tomorrow, I’m going to say what I need to say now to close the deal.’ I think if you asked him, ‘What do you think of the Jews?’ he’d be, ‘Oh they’re great’ – with something about how he likes it when they do his taxes. But if that conflicts with something he says tomorrow, he wouldn’t notice. If you imagine him as an encyclopedia salesman who has 10 minutes in your living room, he makes a lot more sense.”
Like many people, Shearer first became aware of Trump in the 80s, “back in the days when he was a blowhard real-estate wannabe. That’s when he came into New York and built what I think of as his giant golden penises to say to his father, ‘See? You just build apartment buildings. But I’m not some pisher from Queens. I’m a serious Manhattan guy!’” Unsurprisingly, Shearer has little truck with the cliche that Trump is beyond satire: “That phrase is basically an admission of defeat.” He says the trick is “not to exaggerate reality, but to be a close observer and cut out the boring parts”.
Shearer largely made the album remotely, from his home studio, which is also how he’s been recording Simpsons vocals during lockdown. Isn’t it weird to be doing dialogue in a room on his own? “No,” he says. “I’ve been doing it for a while because everyone’s schedules were too difficult to coordinate.” Do they not hang out together, given they’ve all been doing this show for four decades? “I saw a couple of the cast members at the Tribeca film festival last year. But otherwise, no, not really.”
Shearer’s relationship with The Simpsons reached a nadir in 2015 when he appeared to tweet that he was leaving over, according to rumours, arguments about pay. Shearer says the coverage was “a real good example of – I’m sorry to sound like Trump – media misinterpretation”. Instead, he says, the argument was “definitely” not about money, but about clauses that had been inserted into his contract hampering his ability to do outside work. (Producers on The Simpsons have insisted they never tried to curtail his creative freedom.) Eventually an agreement was reached but the whole thing stank of acrimony. Surely things were awkward when he went back to work? “Things got better, partly because of personnel changes. It’s a better relationship these days.
Largely because of that furore, Shearer has a somewhat prickly reputation. During our interview, he is a little reserved, rarely giving more than necessary, though happy to talk about anything. More revealingly, in 2017, when Guardian sportswriter and Simpsons superfan Dan Lucas unexpectedly died at the age of 31, Shearer, who had once been interviewed by Lucas, sent a message of condolence to the funeral. I tell him how much that meant to Lucas’s family and friends.
“Oh I’m glad. I’ve known too many writers who have died too early,” he says sadly, and mentions Dan Baum, the US journalist who recently died from cancer. Another friend who died too early was Phil Hartman, one of the very few voice artists worth mentioning in the same breath as Shearer. Hartman also worked on The Simpsons, playing, among others, Troy McLure and Lionel Hutz. In the late 90s, he was a rising star, with plans being made for a Troy McLure movie.
But in May 1998, when he was 49, his wife killed him and then herself in a still shocking murder-suicide. “Oh, Phil was great,” says Shearer. “What a wonderful guy. I only knew him from The Simpsons but what happened to him is just unimaginable,” says Shearer with a disbelieving shake of his head. Was there ever talk about Shearer taking over Hartman’s characters? “Oh no, that wouldn’t have been possible. [Simpsons producers are] very respectful that your characters are you.”
Shearer was born and raised in Los Angeles, the only child of parents who fled from the Nazis to the US in the mid 30s. Before, his father had been training to be an opera singer and his mother wanted to be a palaeontologist. In the US, his father ended up running a gas station and his mother became a bookkeeper. Did he get his work ethic from them? “They never lectured me about it, but they modelled a serious work ethic and moderate cultural behaviour. They introduced me to wine at Passover – Manischewitz wine!” – a kosher brand. “It’s a miracle I drink wine at all.”
Shearer’s father died when he was 12. How did it affect him having to become the man of the house? “Well, my mother was a very strong person, so she was the man of the house,” he says, correcting me.
When Shearer was seven, a friend of his parents put him forward for a role on The Jack Benny Show, a hugely popular radio programme. He got the part. He became a successful child actor and was befriended by Mel Blanc, who voiced Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Was that what sparked his interest in voice work? “That seems like the obvious connection, but Mel was more like a surrogate father than someone who taught me about voices. That never happened. It’s just one of those flukes.”
After college, Shearer joined a radio comedy group, The Credibility Gap, where he met Michael McKean. Shortly after that, he met Christopher Guest – and soon Spinal Tap was born. “Maybe it’s because I was an only child, but I’ve always craved collaboration, whether it’s with The Credibility Gap, and then Spinal Tap,” he says. And he certainly seems to have a closer relationship with people from those groups than he does with people from The Simpsons. Shearer and his wife have, he says, “regular diner breakfasts” with Christopher Guest and his wife, Jamie Lee Curtis.
It was thanks to the Tap that he met the woman he invariably refers to as his “lovely” or “talented” or “beautiful” wife of 27 years, the Welsh singer-songwriter Judith Owen. Shearer was touring with the band in London and, while checking into their hotel, he happened to hear some music being played in the restaurant. “I turned around and Chris says my eyes went out like on stalks, like a cartoon character.” He convinced her to come to their show and, on his way back to New York, he realised he already missed her, so he sent her a plane ticket. Soon after, they got married. “I’m not fond of registering my feelings with the government,” he says, “but I wanted to keep her around.”
Both Shearer and Owen have spoken about her struggles with depression. “I had a lot to learn about all that,” he says. “But we’ve both supported each other in important ways. That’s what a good marriage entails.” I ask if the depression played a part in their decision not to have children. “I know Judith never wanted to and I wouldn’t want to characterise her reasons. My thought process was, on the one side, I was an only child, the last in the line, so if I didn’t have kids, Hitler wins.
“And certainly, if Judith and I didn’t have a child, the world would be deprived of one hell of a musician. But I have seen enough children of showbusiness parents to see that was not a really good thing for the kid. The other thing was, I have no complaints about my childhood, but from an early age, I wanted to be an adult as quickly as possible. I do think people who have children like the idea of re-experiencing that world. I have zero interest in that.”
We are now plum out of time, because it’s Thursday and Shearer has to do his weekly Simpsons recording. There’s also a movie project he’s got cooking, and there are some other ideas on the back burner. Is busy his preferred state of being? “My wife and I are happiest when we’re working on things we love,” he says. “The things I do are so intrinsically enjoyable. They reward me every time – hanging out in my studio, just having a high old time,” he says, and not even that moustache can hide his smile.