'Now You See It': The Comedy of Harry Shearer Versatile writer, actor and comedian Harry Shearer talks about his new DVD, which compiles some of his funniest material from the 1980s. He talks about his sketches -- and how much he enjoys satirizing network television news anchors.
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'Now You See It': The Comedy of Harry Shearer

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'Now You See It': The Comedy of Harry Shearer

'Now You See It': The Comedy of Harry Shearer

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


I'm Robert Siegel. And --

(Soundbite of NOW YOU SEE IT)

Mr. HARRY SHEARER (Satirist and Actor): (as Mike Wallace) I'm Mike Wallace. The novelty store or joke shop may seem like the home of innocent fun, but according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, it may more often be the cause of serious, even permanent injury.

SIEGEL: Okay. It's not 60 Minutes, and that's not really Mike Wallace. It is Harry Shearer, actor, writer, radio show host, voice of several characters on THE SIMPSONS, featured performer in the movies THIS IS SPINAL TAP and A MIGHTY WIND. Some of Harry Shearer's funniest stuff has been compiled on a new CD and a new DVD. The CD contains his impressions of network television anchormen and correspondents. The DVD is called NOW YOU SEE IT. It includes sketches from Saturday Night Live and HBO in the 1980s.

And just as he does on the CD, Harry Shearer appears as Mike Wallace, uncovering fraud and threats to our health on the DVD.

(Soundbite of NOW YOU SEE IT)

Mr. SHEARER: (as Mike Wallace) Herb and Al Minkman are third-generation joke-makers. They grew up in a world of (unintelligible) glasses and Chinese fingers persons, but they're growing old in a very different world, one overrun with pirate novelties.

SIEGEL: It's not just that it's a Mike Wallace impression, the whole piece, the 60 Minutes piece done by Mike Wallace, that's just as good a send-up today as it was in 1980s.

Mr. SHEARER: Well, they haven't changed their formula, so I thought why should we? It was Christopher Guest and Martin Short and Billy Crystal and I, did this piece that was a send-up of the entire 60 Minutes investigative style, that sense that Mike had flown in on a weekend to shoot it. The defendant in the investigation nailed like a butterfly on the 60 Minutes bulletin board.

(Soundbite of NOW YOU SEE IT)

Mr. SHEARER: (as Mike Wallace) This is an affidavit to be from a woman who's got severe nerve damage on her upper thighs from sitting on one of your defective whoopee cushions. I have read it. It does pertain to your company.

SIEGEL: You have invested so much in the anchormen and the senior figures of network television broadcasting.

Mr. SHEARER: Well, invested in the sense of artistically, I put no money into it.

SIEGEL: Yes, but, I mean, in addition to the changes for NBC and CBS, you're losing a lot of material here nowadays.

Mr. SHEARER: I'm already working on the new generation. Having done Mike Wallace, I'm now hard at work on my Chris Wallace. And thinking about Anderson Cooper.

SIEGEL: You're thinking about him. I see.

Mr. SHEARER: Well, I'm thinking about how to do him. I've already been thinking about him a lot. The goofy thing about TV is that it's not enough to be something. You have to play it as well. Anderson is playing, he may be a caring guy. I don't know the man, but it's so clear that that's what he's playing, and one of the reasons I love that kind of television and the political and journalism sides of television is because all those figures get handled and consulted so much that they become characters of themselves, and all I have to do is kind of be accurate. I'm already being vicious.

SIEGEL: But what are you going to do about Katie Couric?

Mr. SHEARER: Me, personally?

SIEGEL: Well, can you do a good Katie Couric, is what I meant.

Mr. SHEARER: I haven't yet, but, I mean, I did, on the CD, I'm flattering myself to think a passable singing Barbara Walters, so.

SIEGEL: It's a little generic, the Barbara Walters.

Mr. SHEARER: (as Barbara Walters) You think? Generic's a good thing, right?

SIEGEL: Generic as opposed to completely unbelievable, I guess, is a very good thing. It's your female voice that you --

Mr. SHEARER: (as Barbara Walters) No, it's a very different voice from other females that I do, and you know that.

SIEGEL: Now, I want you to talk about another item or a couple of other items that are on the DVD. One of the items on your DVD is a send-up of a genre about a genre. The first thing, which is funny enough, is the industrial film.

(Soundbite of NOW YOU SEE IT)

Unidentified Woman: You wouldn't believe our world, and that's why we're changing our name.

Mr. SHEARER: Though many dichotomists' interests we do.

Unidentified Woman: The butcher, the baker.

Mr. SHEARER: The missile-maker, the Pollock, the Irishman, the Jew.

Unidentified Woman: Had trouble believing, too.

SIEGEL: This is a piece which is about the making of the documentary about the international conglomerate changing its name from Majesko to MJI.

Mr. SHEARER: Well, there's a few things there that make me laugh. The amount of time and energy that's spent in branding these days always amazes me, then there's the industrial, these lavish productions that people have to sit and watch, and then the making-of genre, which is just nothing is as fascinating as the backstage of anything.

(Soundbite of NOW YOU SEE IT)

Mr. SHEARER: See, we were one of the first multi-nationals to totally abandon the old house-orian concept and to opt instead for the video presentation philosophy. This is key to us because we have so many members of our corporate family scattered in 17 foreign countries now, not including Mexico, that it becomes a central for the members of the corporate team, if you were, to know what it is --

SIEGEL: You did a sketch where you played the baseball writer for the Atlantic Monthly, who had to cope with the challenge of describing baseball games months after they'd actually taken place.

(Soundbite of NOW YOU SEE IT)

Unidentified Woman: Our guest this evening is the baseball writer for the Atlantic Monthly magazine. Join us in welcoming Mr. Robert Bloom.

SIEGEL: People, not being able to see your reading right now of Mr. Bloom, the sportswriter, the baseball writer for the Atlantic Monthly, don't quite see the gestures you've got down of the author reading his work at the Valley Jewish Center, the Author's Speaking Program.

(Soundbite of NOW YOU SEE IT)

Mr. SHEARER: (as Robert Bloom) The air was thick with humidity and expectation. The grass forth was still real grass, though it was carefully trimmed. Seemed to perk up its collective ear as if it were aware of the preternatural significance of the events about to enfold upon it. At the concession stand, a man said to me, large, medium or small? And though he was talking about cups of beer, he seemed to be summing up what the evening was to be all about.

SIEGEL: You just got these gestures down pat, the standing away from the microphone for a moment, the looking upwards. You've been to a few readings in your time.

Mr. SHEARER: I've been to a few readings and I've done a few readings. The odd thing about what I do is, very often, I will make fun of something first, and then find that I'm doing it later and think to myself, I know better than this. Why am I in the middle of this? It has something in common with what I think, going back to news anchors, is the unacknowledged problem of a lot of people in public life. They're bad actors. The guys on television news, they're not telling you what they know, they're trying to craft a performance of it and they're not good at that. So much of our life is now suffused with people doing bad acting, including actors.

SIEGEL: Including bad actors, but also television journalists and politicians.

Mr. SHEARER: And politicians. I think it's arguable that, that certainly contributed to the debacle of the Al Gore campaign in 2000, as people just didn't --

SIEGEL: He just didn't play Al Gore well enough.

Mr. SHEARER: He didn't play Al Gore well, yeah. We need an Al Gore type. You know that old joke? A guy went into audition for the role of himself in a bio-pic about a friend of his, who died, and the casting director said, yeah, we're going to go another way.

SIEGEL: Harry Shearer, thank you very much for talking with us once again.

Mr. SHEARER: My pleasure, Robert. Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Harry Shearer. His video work is collected on the new DVD NOW YOU SEE IT. There are links to Harry Shearer and his work at our web site, NPR.org.

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