interview - HARRY SHEARER
Burns, Baby, Burns
Harry Shearer talks about his obit, The Simpsons Movie, and the toll that dastardly Mr. Burns takes on his vocal cords
By Earl Dittman
At the age of 10 he began performing on The Jack Benny Show, he’s a Saturday Night Live alumnus, has appeared in such movies as The Truman Show and A Mighty Wind and hosts a show on America’s National Public Radio.
But to 63-year-old Harry Shearer it’s clear that when the day comes for newscasters to give a 10-second obit
summarizing his career, he’ll chiefly be remembered for two things — playing British rocker Derek Smalls in director Rob Reiner’s This is Spinal Tap and the nearly 20 voices he provides for TV’s animated phenomenon The Simpsons.
“If people only think of me for these two creative endeavours, that’s fine with me,” says a smartly dressed Shearer during a Beverly Hills interview.
“This is Spinal Tap really kicked open the door for every mockumentary after it. Its release is a real milestone in the history of moviemaking,” says Shearer. “But who would have ever guessed that a cartoon short for Tracey’s show would become one of the biggest, smartest and longest-running animated shows of all time, and now a movie?”
The Tracey to which Shearer refers is Tracey Ullman, the British comedian whose sketch-comedy series — The Tracey Ullman Show — introduced the world to a simply animated, yellow family called The Simpsons back in 1987. Created by Matt Groening (previously best known for his Life in Hell comics), the family began its life as a series of 30-second shorts used as filler between sketches.
That dastardly Mr. Burns
When The Simpsons
became a half-hour sitcom on America’s fledgling Fox TV Network in 1989
it was an instant hit. Talk of a movie about Bart, Homer, Marge, Lisa,
Maggie and their hometown filled with irreverent and politically
incorrect characters began almost immediately.
In fact, the “Kamp Krusty” episode from Season Four was written for
the big screen, but when time ran out on turning the script into a
feature it became that season’s premiere episode.
“We all wondered if a film was even going to happen,” confesses Shearer.
But in April 2006, Fox officially announced that the movie would be made.
However, when it comes to the film’s plot, Shearer apologizes, saying that he’s bound to preserve the mystery.
“Conceptually, I can’t tell you a single thing about the actual film or I’ll have to report you to The Simpsons Police for immediate extermination,” Shearer says, joking. “We really have been sworn to secrecy. And for the people who have seen it they have been physically threatened if they breathe a word about what they saw.”
David Silverman (Monsters, Inc.) directs the film that was written by Groening and a group of the show’s top scribes. Shearer once again lends his voice to Seymour Skinner, Lenny Leonard, Dr. Hibbert, Ned Flanders, Reverend Lovejoy, Kent Brockman, Scratchy, Otto Mann and, most famously, Mr. Burns.
“Someone once asked me which of the characters I found the hardest to do, and I said Mr. Burns,” says Shearer. “It’s difficult, simply because doing the voice is rough on your vocal cords. After a day of doing Mr. Burns, I honestly need to drink a lot of tea and honey to soothe my vocal cords.”
Several trailers for The Simpsons Movie have given only tiny peeks at what to expect, and the plot synopsis released by Fox is among the shortest on record: “In the eagerly awaited animated feature film based on the hit TV series, Homer must save the world from a catastrophe he himself created.”
There are reports that Lisa will finally find herself a tree-hugging boyfriend, and that Albert Brooks will voice a power-hungry villain trying to take over the world. But, according to Shearer, not everything you read about the film should be believed, particularly when producer James L. Brooks is out there spreading misinformation.
“Brooks told me that he was going to leak out a lot of fake plots on the internet and to the media so that when audiences finally see it they’ll be totally surprised and excited,” Shearer says with a grin. “Plus, there was a lot of rewriting going on while we were recording our vocals, so there could be a lot of dialogue or even plot changes in the final cut.”
Are these last-minute changes a bad sign? Shearer simply laughs at the concerns.
“Anyone familiar with the way the regular show is done would understand that the last-minute changes are just a part of the creative process of the series,” he says. “You can always make something funnier or change a line for bigger laughs. You even do that for regular, live-action comedies. In a lot of ways, being animated allows you so much more room to make those last-minute changes in the dialogue. Quite simply, it’s all about getting those laughs — period.”
Earl Dittman is a Houston-based entertainment writer.