"That's extremely different from a movie, which is intensely collaborative. Just because there's no studio involved doesn't mean there aren't plenty of opinions to be considered at every step of the way, ya know? And writing is solitary and depressing, as writing always is. And then acting is kind of a lark, and the biggest lark is getting onstage with Spinal Tap."
If Shearer has been Derek Smalls since 1984, he's been nearly the entire population of Matt Groening's Springfield for 12 seasons; indeed, he and the cast are the only remaining originals left since The Simpsonsdebuted in December 1989. And while there are those among us who believe the show needs to be put out of its misery--the nonstop barrage of reruns now serves only to remind us of how sharp the decline has been in recent years--Shearer will say that he finds doing the show now as rewarding as he did a decade ago, but only on occasion.
Derek Smalls, writ large: Harry Shearer is everywhere, back in harness.
"It depends on the script," he says, sounding at first like a man trying his best to be diplomatic. "There are writers' names that, when I see them on a script, I get very happy and look forward to the week, because I know there's gonna be a pretty sound script that is satirical but smart and not just sort of pointlessly parodic, if I may. And there are other writers' names that make my heart sink. It's sort of unavoidable this far along that that's going to be the way it is."
Though he never comes out and says it--It's time to killThe Simpsons--Shearer does say there have been many times when he and the other cast members have had to castigate writers for being too careless with the characters. He mentions one episode in particular: "The Principal and the Pauper," which aired in September 1997. Writer Ken Keeler handed over a script in which Principal Skinner (voiced by Shearer) is revealed to be, in fact, a former "no-good street punk" named Armin Tamzarian--a little plot point that negates seven years' worth of back story. When Shearer saw the story, he was quite unhappy. And unable to do a damned thing about it.
"I said, "That's sowrong. You're taking something that an audience has built eight years or nine years of investment in and just tossed it in the trash can for no good reason, for a story we've done before with other characters. It's so arbitrary and gratuitous, and it's disrespectful to the audience,'" he recalls. "Then it was, "OK, action.'" He laughs. "Really."
Somewhere along the way, Shearer also found the time to write and direct a film called Teddy Bear's Picnic, which is only now beginning to hop on the film-festival circuit. (It premieres at the USA Film Festival in Dallas, having only just been transferred from digital to film.) Starring his old friend Michael McKean, George Wendt (Cheers' Norm), Fred Willard and Alan Thicke, the film offers a sneak behind the velvet curtains of an exclusive Northern California retreat where, Shearer explains, "some of the richest white men in America cavort like frat boys." (Essentially, they drink till they drop and dress up as women.)
Shearer has directed a few shorts in recent years, but he hasn't helmed a full-length feature in 13 years, since Martin Mull's Portrait of a White Marriage. And, quite simply, the reason he returned to filmmaking was because he missed the rush. But unlike his pal Christopher Guest's films, Teddy Bear's Picnicis not at all improvised, partially because Shearer could ill afford to spend the time or money sifting through dirt to find gold. Such things are impossible when you're paying for the movie out of your own pockets, no matter how deep other people might think they are. Shearer mentions something about what little effect This is Spinal Tapseems to have had--on the culture and his influence. There is a hint of bitterness in his humor, which is why it's so effective: He delivers anger with a grin.
"I was saying something to my wife the other day about how people in this town love to quote H.L. Mencken: "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public,'" he says. "But it's wrong. People dogo broke doing that all the time. Talk to the guys who lost $50 million on a movie called Super Mario Bros. And yet they get to keep doing it. Nobody ever says, "Ah ha, you made a mistake by underestimating the public. You can't do this anymore.' But you have low grosses with something smart or subtle, and they use it as an object lesson: "See, the dogs don't eat that food!' And you never get to do it again. So the deck is totally stacked.
"But it's stacked by the industry. I don't think it's the audience. The audience doesn't impose the rule of mediocrity and blatancy. It's the industry. So, yeah, in that sense, you really have to fight to get a different style across. But I've felt that for a long time and in a lot of places, which is sort of why I try to make my own little spaces within this industry."