NEAL CONAN, Host:
Harry Shearer is a man of many parts, best known for the voices he provides on "The Simpsons," to characters including Montgomery Burns and Ned Flanders, and as an actor in films like "Spinal Tap," a webcaster, a blogger for Huffington Post. He uses his own voice as the host of "Le Show" on public radio stations.
But he also gets attention for presentations of significant silence. Amid the noise of the 2008 election season, Shearer hosted online "Silent Debate" that paired up presidential candidates caught on camera in the moments before they went live. An exhibit at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Connecticut features videos that Shearer has collected of politicians and media personalities all taken in the moments before their images and voices are broadcast around the country.
If you would like to talk with Harry Shearer about his project, give us a call. We'd also like to hear from those of you who make public appearances of one sort or another. What's your routine for the minutes between the green room and the air? The phone number is 800-989-8255. E-mail is email@example.com. You can also join the conversation online. Go to npr.org, that's our website, and just click on Talk of the Nation.
Harry Shearer's video installation is called the "Silent Echo Chambe,r" and he joins us from the studio in Hollywood. Happy New Year, Harry.
HARRY SHEARER: Thank you, Neal. Same to you.
CONAN: And while this latest project involves 2008 candidates, you've been eavesdropping on TV shows for a long time now.
SHEARER: You know, you use these words eavesdropping, interception - it implies a certain skulking. No, I received this material, and I catalogue it, and I assemble it, and I savor the fact that in these moments, television returns to its roots as a visual medium.
So much of television today is basically radio with pictures for economic reasons. The cheapest form of television is to slap a couple of guys or gals in seats with, you know, robot cameras and have them yak at each other. And this sort of - what you do as a viewer when you see that kind of television, I think, is a different response and a different behavior than you indulge in if the TV isn't yelling at you, if there's something actually to look at.
I noticed this when I, you know, turned down the sound on basketball games. I don't hear guys yelling at me, and I see I watch the game in a different way. And I think you view these personalities that we think we know in a different way when they're not talking at you, when they're just looking at you...
SHEARER: And you're looking at them, and you get to kind of clock their behavior.
CONAN: I think it was the director of the gallery there in Connecticut called it sort of like a Rorschach test.
SHEARER: It is without the ink...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SHEARER: You start interpreting - you know, part of the fun for me is, you know, in the comedy world, you really have to sort of state your premise and hope the people get the point, and especially if you're trying to do something for a commercial venture, you have to pitch it and say, it's this, and it's not that, but it's this. You have to be very specific.
And in the art world in which this thing exists, you sort of put it there and say, you figure it out. You interpret it. And you get to kind of linger if you're not too well-known and can hear people - overhear people kind of explaining it to themselves or to each other, and that's part of the fun of it.
CONAN: I understand you first saw these raw feeds, and these are broadcast by television networks sort of on satellites to various facilities. They're not intended for broadcast per se. But I gather you first noticed them on the set of "Saturday Night Live." Of course, NBC gets a lot of feeds from a lot of places.
SHEARER: Yeah, not on the sets necessarily, but in my office. And in your office, you have this what was - what looked like a cable box, but it got all the feeds from - that were coming into NBC, and you got to see - actually, the very first thing like this I saw, though, was the famous video tape some brilliant engineer made of Richard Nixon in the 10 minutes before he resigned the presidency, and it was so revealing of Nixon's character and so, you know, hypnotic and mesmerizing that I think that's really what hooked me.
CONAN: And there are some that are not necessarily in this installation, but some that are sort of gotcha videos - there's a famous one of Dan Rather...
CONAN: Deciding whether he put on his coat or not.
SHEARER: And whether to wear the trench coat with collar up or the collar down.
CONAN: Yes, yeah. And a later one that you've posted of Katie Couric sighting that episode and fussing with their own coat.
SHEARER: Yes, yes. Making fun of it and then, you know, it's the problem a lot of us have, you know. We make fun of something, and then we become what we make fun of, and those talking ones are posted at mydamnchannel.com.
CONAN: And that's your website?
CONAN: Yeah, and the difference with these, the silence, and they are quite different. John McCain, for example, just sort of looking steadily into the camera, not moving very much at all.
SHEARER: Yeah, those are the ones that I think, you know, really - when they're assembled in a room and at the Aldrich museum in Richfield, Connecticut, they are assembled in a little room that they built, and you have people like John McCain just sort of staring at you in what look likes real time.
And it - when you get a bunch of them, it's starts getting a little creepy and starts, you know, you start feeling like - feel like people are looking at you. So it has a lot of different - you're looking at them, they're looking at you, and it has a lot of different sort of resonances that start going on.
CONAN: I wonder, does it make you self conscious in the moments before you go on air?
SHEARER: You know, I was a going on air with Rachel Maddow last week, and they were having technical problems. And so I was sitting there for about 20 minutes, and with myself in mind, I just sat and closed my eyes because if you don't have the eyes, you don't have anything.
CONAN: (Laughing) So, self conscious enough to close the eyes to make sure...
SHEARER: That's right. That's right. Well, also just a way of relaxing, but and also, if you don't have my eyes, you don't have me.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller on the line. 800-989-8255. What do you do before you get ready to go on mic or on air. Give us a call or send us e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org. Aaron's calling, Aaron from Nampa - is that right - in Idaho?
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
AARON: Thanks for taking my call. I just want to say, I'm a big fan of yours, Harry.
SHEARER: Thank you. Thank you very much.
AARON: I play in a rock band, and I play in front of hundreds of people on a pretty regular basis...
SHEARER: Good - lucky you.
AARON: Yeah. And, you know, in order to deal with nerves, besides carrying around a bottle of Pepto-Bismol...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
AARON: I picture myself just doing all the logistical stuff myself...
AARON: I'm lucky enough not to have roadies, so - and I can't imagine what people would do with their nerves if they have no menial task to do ahead of time, if they're just sitting there alone with their nerves.
SHEARER: Yeah, you know, that's a great point. Sometimes money just buys you misery, and that's a great example, where you have to do the logistical stuff yourself, your anxiety has a place to go.
The one thing I've learned in a long time in show business is that you really do have to experience the anxiety some way. If you try to escape it, it's going to come bite you later on when you're on stage, and when you really don't need it. That, you know, it serves a great purpose. It generates the adrenalin that makes you bigger than life when you get on stage. So, it's a good thing to experience. It's not pleasant to experience, but it's a necessary part of a process.
AARON: Totally, yeah.
CONAN: Aaron, when is your next gig?
AARON: February 5th, actually.
CONAN: And where are you going to be playing?
AARON: We're going to playing at a local coffee house called the Flying Inn. Hopefully, there will be hundreds of people (laughing).
SHEARER: All right, Aaron. I got three words of advice for you. Turn it up.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
AARON: All right. We may go to 11.
SHEARER: All right, man. Thanks.
CONAN: Good luck, Aaron.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go now to - this is Will, Will with us from Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
WILL: Yeah, hey. How you doing?
CONAN: All right.
WILL: Big fan of Harry Shearer...
SHEARER: Thank you.
WILL: Glad to hear you not as Mo or Mr. Burns.
SHEARER: Thank you.
WILL: Quick question for you. It's interesting how these people prepare themselves for their on-camera face...
WILL: To see their off-camera face. Do you really think that gives you a good view into their personality, or is it more something we all do, and we all have our on-camera face or our off-camera face?
SHEARER: Yeah, no. I mean, obviously, we're all different in public than we are behind closed doors. That's no revelation. But to see who they are when they don't have the public face on is something revealing about who, you know, about character.
If you see, to take that example I gave earlier, Richard Nixon sitting there waiting to resign the presidency of the United States, it's very revealing what he does. It's very him. It's - nobody else I would bet - I would wager would be doing what he's doing at those - in those crucial 10 minutes. So, it does give you a sense of who he really was.
And it's not about the stuff that, you know, ooh, he picked his nose, or ooh he blinks, and when his eyes are closed, he looks goofy. It's the stuff that's really unique to the individual in the moments before they put a - the public faces, you know, when you're trying - my theory is nobody - none of us work as hard as we do trying to be normal. So, you know, we are all trying to look like - well, I'm normal now, you know, I'm in public. But it's the other thing that's unique and sort of interesting and revealing, I think.
WILL: Thanks a lot.
CONAN: OK, Will, thank you for you call.
SHEARER: Thank you.
CONAN: What - you've been doing this for quite some time...
CONAN: What is the most surprising thing that you've ever received?
SHEARER: Well, I would say the most unique - you can't be most unique, but you know what I mean - was the only uncontrolled piece of footage of Ronald Reagan during his presidency because they were great in controlling his access to the camera and vice versa.
And he was rehearsing the coin toss for the Super Bowl because ABC was doing its first Super Bowl, and they thought - ooh we'll do a big thing with a coin toss, and Ronald Reagan in the White House will toss the coin via satellite, and we'll have it in Standford Stadium where the game is being held. And so there is 20 minutes of Ronald Reagan rehearsing the Super Bowl coin toss, which I've - I do believe is the only uncontrolled, unscripted video during the entire Reagan presidency.
CONAN: There was a unrehearsed moment on radio...
SHEARER: Yes, the famous five minutes until we bomb Russia, right?
CONAN: Yes, indeed. We're talking with Harry Shearer about the moments of silence that he's captured - he's put them in an exhibition that is now on display, and if I can find the right piece of paper, it's on the...
SHEARER: Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Richfield, Connecticut.
CONAN: And there you go.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: And you're listening to the Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Let's see if can we get a caller on the line. This is Eric(ph), Eric with us from St. Louis.
ERIC: Good afternoon, how are you?
CONAN: Good, thanks.
ERIC: Well, you mentioned people who find themselves in this position. I was a newspaper reporter reporting on media in New York for about 10 years, and invariably there would be cable shows, Brian Williams, Court TV, whatever that would want somebody, sort of a media person, to talk about media coverage or thing.
So, I was sitting in these rooms and conscious enough that somebody like Harry Shearer might be watching and recording the damn thing. But you really just have to - you have to pray that you're not going to do something stupid or look stupid like pick your nose or fiddle with your hair like John Edwards did. I mean, it's a harrowing kind of thing because you really do have to assume that somebody is watching all the time.
SHEARER: Well, look, when the camera's on, and the lights are on, yeah, that's a good assumption to make. By the way, I must, you know, in all modesty say that the John Edwards hair fluffing footage was mine from a previous show at a gallery in Washington, D.C. So I gave that gift to the Internet.
CONAN: Is there other stuff...
ERIC: Oh, thank you.
CONAN: Thanks. Thanks for the call, Eric. Is there other stuff that we should know the attribution of?
SHEARER: Oh, no. I think that's the one because that really flew free. Slate.com did a piece about that exhibition, and they said, can we have a piece of footage? And I gave them the John Edwards, and then somebody put music to it and put it on YouTube, and it just, you know, went viral. So I'm just staking my claim to it.
But no, I think generally, pretty much everybody knows what I've done. But, you know, just to reiterate, what I do is not try to - in the silent pieces is not try to catch people looking stupid. That's not the point. The point is to catch them - their real selves or as close as one can get to their real selves if they've got, you know, clothes on, which is these moments.
And sometimes they stretch into half hours and 45 minutes, you know. It's remarkable really if you start totting it up how much time famous and highly-paid people spend sitting doing nothing in front of a television camera. It's a waste of energy among other things.
CONAN: Has anybody ever complained to you about the images you've received?
SHEARER: Yeah. The lawyer for Diane Sawyer, to make an inappropriate rhyme. I did a game show on Comedy Central, and the last round, the lighting round, had celebrities participating via satellite, you know, with basically this footage because they never said anything, so they never won. And that was the joke of the bit.
CONAN: I see.
SHEARER: And ABC's lawyer called, you know, and they have a Diane Sawyer because they thought it was inappropriate. But by that time, the show had been cancelled, so it was moot.
CONAN: And I wonder, are people like Diane Sawyer - this installation is mostly about politicians, but there are on-air personalities...
CONAN: Chris Matthews, that sort of thing, James Carville, I think Keith Olbermann. Do media types behave any differently than the politicians?
SHEARER: I think they behave a little more spontaneously, as befits their comfort level in front of the camera, you know. They live so much of their life - especially cable people who, you know, spend hours a day in front of a camera, that on the air, off the air, it sort of blends, you know.
I mean, they get a little hyper. They talk louder. They yell more. But aside from that, you know, it reminds me of the early days of this, when ABC had a three-anchor format for their nightly news, and there was a guy named Max Robinson in Chicago who was satellited in every night to do two lines of, you know, Wall Street stocks were up today and then, you know, one little lead in. But they did the show three times because of its technical complexity.
So he spend an hour and a half in front of the camera every day to say, you know, 40 seconds worth of stuff. So he really lived his life in front of the camera. You know, you hear him talking to - you know, calling up and ordering stereo equipment and stuff like that. He literally lived his life on the air.
CONAN: Now, these images, I've seen them on the Internet. I think a lot of people have. Whose idea was it that they make a great installation at a museum?
SHEARER: Well, I've been doing them in arts contexts starting in like 1988 at a museum in Orange County, and this series really started in 2004 with the Conner Contemporary Art Gallery in Washington asked me to do a show right before the election, so I did, you know, everybody in the election cycle that year. It was called "Face Time."
And then Lee Conner talked to a gallery owner in New York, Susan England(ph), and we did a similar show this year, and that's the show, "The Silent Echo Chamber," that traveled to the museum because Richard Klein(ph), the curator of the museum, saw the show at the gallery and said, I want that. I said, OK.
CONAN: All right. Never know who's going to be going through the gallery.
SHEARER: That's right.
CONAN: And at one point, it was in the storefront of a - in the store window.
SHEARER: In Barney's windows in 1992, when the Democratic Convention was in New York, I did all the characters in the Democratic Convention, and they were just arrayed on TV monitors through the windows at Barney's downtown. And that was the most fun to walk just on the street corner and listen to people explain it to each or to their kids. That was really the high point of that. I wasn't as well know then visually, so I could hear people do that.
CONAN: Harry Shearer, thanks very much, and good luck with the exhibition.
SHEARER: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Harry Shearer, with us from a studio in Hollywood. "The Silent Echo Chamber" is on exhibit at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Connecticut. Harry also hosts "Le Show" on KCRW and many public radio stations and has a new CD out called "Songs of the Bushmen" that's been nominated for a Grammy. So we wish him good luck with that.
Tomorrow, Clay Shirky joins us to talk about the next phase in the social and economic evolution of the Internet. Join us for that. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.