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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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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.

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Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.

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Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!

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Inter-not

Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.

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Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.

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If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.