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Harry Shearer discusses his comedy inspirations and why he doesn’t really go to movies anymore

Harry Shearer discusses his comedy inspirations and why he doesn’t really go to movies anymore (photo)

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Harry Shearer shouldn’t need any introduction for a well-traveled fan of comedy. Between The Simpsons, Christopher Guest films, the Le Show radio series, his “Saturday Night Live” work and, really, a vast number of other, varied projects, he’s definitely an entertainer who’s been around and seen a lot.

Shearer recently took a sidestep away from comedy to bring together a series of projects looking at post-Katrina New Orleans, most recently with his feature-length documentary “The Big Uneasy.” You don’t ever just stop “being funny” though, and the funnyman continues to ply his craft with laughter often following his every step.

We sat down to chat with Shearer recently about his work and his influences, what he finds funny and what his take is on the current state of comedy. You can check out what he had to say right here.

Let’s start with a really easy question: what is funny to you?

Anything that makes me laugh.

That is a great answer. [we laugh] How did you get into the craft? What drew you to comedy in the first place?

I was a child actor, I worked for Jack Benny for eight years. My parents were comedy fans, we listened to radio and watched television, all sorts of stuff, but the comedy sort of stuck with me. I was a huge fan of this remarkable comedy team named Bob & Ray who were just sort of my companions through childhood.

Then when I was in college, I edited the humor magazine. It wasn’t something I thought I was going to go into professionally. I thought I was going to have some sort of serious career as a grown-up, but there was always all this comedy lurking in the background and when I found that my dabbling in other fields was proving that I really wasn’t that interested in them I came scuttling back to comedy, and particularly satire.

I got involved with this radio show in Los Angeles that was making fun of the news everyday, and that was what sucked me back in. That’s how it happened.

You’ve obviously done a pretty wide range of work over the years. I’m curious– when you’re approached on the street by fans, what are they referencing more?

You never know. What I like about my career most is that I can never predict what they’re going to come up with. I mean, I was at this screening of my film last night and a guy came up to me and said, ‘I’m a visual artist and I just have to say, I saw your show’ — I do these video art shows from time to time — and he says, ‘I saw your show at the Eldridge Museum and I just wanted to [tell you how much I enjoyed it].’

Other people will talk about The Simpsons or Spinal Tap or the other Christopher Guest movies or my radio show or the fact that I wrote this very long piece about the Jerry Lewis Telethon one time or it’s known that I’ve seen [the lost, unreleased Jerry Lewis movie] The Day the Clown Cried. I mean, people come up to me with the most amazing range of things to say to me.

I find that sort of validating, because I think if you have a varied career and don’t keep coming to the audience with the same thing, you’ll get a varied audience which doesn’t keep coming to you with the same thing. It’s reciprocal. If you just hammer them over and over again with your standard thing, I think you’ll get tired of them coming to you with the same thing back.

I was always mindful of wanting to have a relationship with the audience that didn’t make me tired of them.

That’s a great attitude for an entertainer to have!

Well yeah! You hear these people who get into show business because they want to be famous, and then, ‘Oh, get those people away from me! They’re bothering me with the same thing!’ Well yeah, because you’re bothering them with the same thing over and over.

In that same vein of keeping your career varied, you’ve obviously worked with a pretty wide range of different styles. I mean The Simpsons obviously, the voice acting, you’ve been a writer, you’re on the radio, you do a lot of satire, Guest is improv… is there a particular style that you take to the most? Do you have a favorite?

No, I don’t think so. In terms of comedy, no. There’s stuff that is sort of on my least-favorite list. It’s stuff that I don’t do. I try not to do stuff that’s sort of… proudly dumb comedy. And I try not to be in anything violent. But those are my only [hesitations].
There is so much that makes me laugh, my taste in comedy runs all the way from Laurel & Hardy to Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore to Jack Benny to Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara and French & Saunders. A very wide range of people make me laugh, so there’s a very wide range of comedy that I sit and look at and say, ‘Gee, I’d like to do that.’

I notice that most of the names you listed aren’t really in the mix anymore today. I’ve got to ask the next obvious question here: what’s your take on comedy as it stands today? I would even get more specific than that and say ‘pop comedy,’ so your Apatow stuff–

I’ve never seen a Judd Apatow movie, so it’s not popular with me. I’m not saying that for any reason except, I see very few movies and the movies I do tend to see– I mean, I got tired of walking out. Not of Judd’s movies, of movies in general. And so I thought, why not skip the middleman and just stay home?

My wife is in the British Film Academy, so we get their equivalent of the Oscar DVD [screeners]. So there’s a buffet of movies we watch every holiday season which is basically those movies. So whatever that run of movies is [account for] about 90 percent of the movies that I see.

Every once in a great while I’ll go to a movie theater and usually regret that I did. But it’s no surprise that very few comedies make the awards list in Britain, just as it’s true in the United States. So it turns out that, as a result, that that list of movies we have every Christmas time, there are very few comedies on that list.

You mentioned before that you tend not to be a fan of movies that are ‘proudly dumb.’ Can you give me some examples? I know you don’t want to denigrate anyone’s work, but–

I really don’t. But everybody knows what I mean. Basically, all I can say is I would certainly not want to denigrate them because what I know about them is what I read and hear about them, which makes me not want to see them in the first place.
So I can’t speak from the authority of having sat through them. It just doesn’t sound like anything that I’d particularly like.

Well let’s flip that then. Are there any comedies, any stand-up comedians, young ones that you’ve seen and really enjoyed?

Well stand-up has never been my favorite form of comedy, which is why I don’t do it. Basically, as I said before, I’d see something and thing, ‘Boy, I’d like to do that.’ And that’s what would make me end up doing that.

The stand-up that’s working today — but he’s been working for 20 or more years now — that every time I see him I think, ‘God, he’s still a funny motherfucker,’ is a guy who mainly works in Vegas these days, he used to be on TV a lot, named George Wallace. He’s done something very interesting.

I don’t know if it’s still a trend in Vegas, but five years ago I heard it was a trend in Vegas, which was that the hotels… would book big shows, but if they were individual performers [the hotels] wouldn’t book them, they’d rent out the room to them. Something called ‘four-walling.’ So the performer would rent the room, do all the advertising, keep all the money.
George Wallace has been doing that at a hotel in Vegas for years, I guess it’s the last five years or so, and he’s doing very well at it, which is why we never see him anywhere outside of Vegas anymore. But I hear that his act in Vegas is even edgier than it was when it was on TV. Which doesn’t surprise me, since TV is sort of careful. Especially with that kind of comedy.

I tend to be more attentive to people who are playing characters, the people that I named [mostly] play characters, that’s who make me laugh. I won’t sit down and watch an evening of stand-up. That would be disturbing to me.

What is your favorite Harry Shearer project? Let us know in the comments section below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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