This Is Harry Shearer: The Former ‘SNL’ Cast Member’s Remarkable Nose for (the Voices of the) News

After 30 years, the introduction to the 10th season of Saturday Night Live still manages to mystify. Though there’s the familiar blast of Don Pardo and the sax, the visuals stray from the usual playbook: There’s no nightlife snatched from a streaking car or crowded crosswalk. Instead, a continuous tracking shot follows the Godzilla-size cast members trampling over Midtown monuments and reducing Yankee Stadium to a bathtub. Jim Belushi mangles a train line before tossing up a break-dance arm-wave to no one in particular. Mary Gross downs a helicopter with roach spray. Hot dogs from a street vendor take to the skies.

As strange as this was to witness during the season premiere in 1984, the head-scratching only intensified in the new year, when ill-fated cast member Harry Shearer continued haunting the main title despite having already departed the show for his second and final time, a week shy of catching Billy Ocean perform “Caribbean Queen.” A writers’ strike would cut the season short, with Shearer punching the clock in only 10 of 17 total episodes. Yet for weeks after his departure, there he was in the opening montage, tagging the same passing subway car with a burst of spray paint. His mark on the show would prove just as stubborn to remove.

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The 10th season of SNL veered from the established format, with the airing of more pretaped segments than ever before. It was a subtle shift that played to Shearer’s strengths. In 1975 he’d contributed to Albert Brooks’s short films for the show’s inaugural season (and was later a cowriter on Brooks’s whip-smart debut feature, Real Life) and preferred the relative orderliness of filmmaking to the dysfunction he’d later experience as a cast member on live television. Why, he’d wonder, was material performed live on a Saturday not written until Wednesday or Thursday? Was that why cue cards became a crutch? Why character studies never felt truly refined? Either way, Shearer’s signature performances on SNL were nested within prerecorded segments — as Mike Wallace in a mock 60 Minutes exposé (a piece that features a pitch-perfect interview with Martin Short’s ultra-defensive attorney Nathan Thurm) and as a men’s synchronized swimming enthusiast, also alongside Short.

Saturday Night Live - Season 5

When I caught up with Shearer by phone from London, where he’s starring in the play Daytona on the West End, I asked about the origins of his iconic spoof of Olympic excess. “I was living in Los Angeles at the time of the ’84 Olympics — the men’s marathon went right by my house — and I attended a lot of events,” Shearer says. “Watching synchronized swimming on television, I was appalled by the fact that these people with makeup and hair gel were getting the same gold medals as the guys throwing the javelin. A few weeks later I was back in New York, venting with Christopher Guest and Martin Short about it. Chris and Marty and I wrote the script and planned to go to a university pool in Long Island [to film it]. There’s no better thing to say when you’re cooped up in Rockefeller Plaza than, ‘We have to go to the pool to rehearse.’ Anytime we were able to go out and do film pieces, we were free to be who we were.

“When we pitched the idea to Dick Ebersol [producer of SNL from 1981 to 1985 and future head of NBC Sports] he said, ‘By the time we go on the air, nobody’s gonna remember the Olympics.’ It was a memorable phrase from someone who later made his bones televising the Olympics, but there you go. And for the rest of the season, I never stopped hearing from Ebersol about how much money we spent on that piece. My only reaction was, ‘I didn’t produce it.’ And of course they’ve run that piece into the ground ever since, so I think they’ve amortized the cost by now.”

Shearer’s frustration with the mechanics of SNL was nothing new. In his first run as a writer and performer on the show’s fifth season (1979–80), he routinely clashed with producer Lorne Michaels. “Lorne set things up as a zero-sum game,” Shearer says. “If someone gets air time, that’s an incursion on somebody else’s chance at air time. As opposed to fostering a cooperative and collaborative atmosphere, a competitive atmosphere is fostered. So I don’t think anybody worried too much about what was happening to the new guy. That’s not a comment on [the cast members], that’s a comment on the system.”

Though he’d been recruited in 1979, in part, to fill the crater left after Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi decamped for the movies, Shearer noticed his airtime being squeezed out by writer Al Franken, Mr. Bill, and Andy Kaufman, who, according to Shearer, “got scads of airtime to do wrestling bits.” The reason for his exclusion became clear when Shearer attended a Knicks game with Bill Murray several weeks into the SNL season and confessed that he felt lost in the wilderness at 30 Rock. Murray conceded that the cast members felt it was “not really appropriate” for a new writer to shoehorn himself into so many of his own sketches. It appeared Michaels had introduced Shearer to the cast only as a writer, not a writer-performer. Shearer never regained his footing after such a fraught entrance, and he did little to overturn the misperception. He swore off the show after one season, capping a brief and unremarkable tenure that he’s repeatedly characterized as a “living hell.”

When  Shearer emerged as the pipe-smoking, walrus-mustached bassist Derek Smalls — the “lukewarm water” of fire-and-ice hair metal — in the celebrated mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, released in March 1984, the victory lap included a musical guest slot on SNL. Shearer found the experience pleasant enough that he entertained Ebersol’s invitation to return as a cast member, preferably if joined by his friend and fellow Tap-mate, Christopher Guest. While Guest stuck it out, Shearer made an early exit. Almost immediately, he’d alienated himself and others, as recounted by a chorus of SNL employees in Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s oral history Live From New York. “He had the office next to mine,” said staff writer Andrew Kurtzman, “and sometimes he would be in there alone playing bass late at night. It was a real dorm-room kind of thing. You’d hear these depressed bass lines thudding through the wall next door.”1

It was in that same office that Shearer spent hours poring over the raw satellite feeds that flooded the airwaves at NBC. “In those days, every office at 30 Rock had what looked like an old-fashioned cable box,” Shearer says. “Instead of punching up all the cable channels being delivered to you, you could punch up everything that was coming into NBC — and the other networks, too. You were hooked into what’s called the master grid.”

For 30 years, Shearer has been gathering satellite feeds, particularly stolen moments that precede live broadcasts, when news anchors and pundits slap on their television personalities before rolling. Shearer says his collection has grown “stupidly large.” When asked to put a number on the quantity of videotapes and DVDs of footage he maintains, all of which he’s properly catalogued and stored in a temperature-controlled basement in Los Angeles, he claims the figure is somewhere in the low thousands.

“Every once in a while I’ll do a so-called video art piece using that material,” he says. “I find it kind of mesmerizing. Television, for good and sufficient reasons, has stopped being, in most cases, a visual medium. It’s just radio with pictures. You just see people yakking at you all the time. So to see these same people not yakking and sitting and blinking and even drinking a coffee is hypnotically interesting to watch.”2

The collection of “found objects,” some of which have occasionally gone viral, is only one representation of Shearer’s voracious media metabolism. During his recent stint in London,3 he’s continued broadcasting his long-running public radio program “Le Show” without interruption. “The production side is all in a laptop these days, so the show can go anywhere I go,” he says.4 Since 1983, Shearer has taken to the airwaves to skewer the week’s news — from war crimes to environmental calamities to obnoxious linguistic tics — and write and perform skits that lean on his vast array of character voices. It’s a deep bench. This is, after all, the voice that launched a million Mr. Burns impressions.

Beyond caricaturing folksy news anchors and their often aimless editorials as the voice of Kent Brockman on The Simpsons, Shearer has carved out a role as one of counterculture’s most outspoken ombudsmen. As a performer he’s lampooned the coverage of every conceivable media circus, from the outlandish (Geraldo confronting the abyss at Al Capone’s vault5) to the momentous (a reimagining of Nixon’s televised resignation). He’s appeared in a trio of films that caution against the encroachment of reality television (The Truman Show, Edtv, and the aforementioned Real Life). Even a searing episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents he appeared in as a child depicts how a life can be destroyed by a media hoax — a far cry from his lighter fare as a zippity kid in Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953) and the pilot for Leave It to Beaver (1957).

Fearing he’d become saddled with childhood fame as a regular cast member on a series, Shearer’s parents steered him away from acting in his early teens. Instead of rehearsals for the Beav, he attended UCLA and Harvard as a political science major, minoring in Russian. While at UCLA he joined the staff of the student newspaper, the Daily Bruin. “My first year, there was the excitement of being in a real newsroom with a real, functioning AP teletype,” he says. “My second year I became the editorial page editor. I would grate against the tendency to put stories about the sophomore dance on the front page. I’d look at the Michigan Daily,6 for example, which covered a lot of national and international news, and thought that’s what we should be doing.” While at the Los Angeles bureau of Newsweek in his early twenties, Shearer covered the Watts riots. In 1979, just as he’d been recruited to join SNL, he was approached by NPR to host the news program that became “Morning Edition.”

Saturday Night Live

In his formative days as a journalist, Shearer never quite warmed to conducting interviews, particularly with celebrities. “I had trouble cozying up to people for the sake of getting them to give me insights into why I didn’t like their work,” he says. “I therefore decided I would be a satirist instead of a journalist. It was my calling.” This speaks, in part, to Shearer’s ability to channel the inherent solipsism of his characters during mock interviews in his collaborations with Guest, whether as a charmingly dim musician in This Is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind, or a never-was thrust into the infotainment netherworld in For Your Consideration.

During his time at the Daily Bruin, Shearer claims he worked in every department of the newspaper, except sports. When I asked for his take on the current state of sportswriting, he seemed a bit perplexed. “People seem to know a lot more about the details of collective bargaining agreements than I recall sportswriters knowing in the past,” he says. “I’ve been a professional basketball fan for quite a while, and I still don’t know what the fuck the midlevel exemption is.” What he deems “overly poetic” sports coverage, however, has always struck him as humorous. In the 1980s he created the character Robert Bloom, a baseball writer for The Atlantic trapped in such an elegiac haze that he files 60,000 words from a rainout in Baltimore, during a strike year.

Shearer reserves a certain soft spot for broadcasters, particularly for the voice of the Dodgers. “You can’t grow up in Los Angeles in the last 50 years without having Vin Scully’s voice echoing through your head,” he says. “As a kid, I went to some fairly iconic Dodger games, including the ‘farewell to Campanella’ game at the Coliseum, which I believe is still the largest baseball crowd ever, at 93,000. Much later on I went to a World Series game. The networks had just stopped the practice of having broadcasters from the local teams participating in the national broadcasts. I took advantage of that, and the fact that people always loved listening to Scully at ballgames. I made a recording of him on a little cassette machine, and during the pregame period, I started playing it aloud as if I was listening to Scully live. It really did fuck with the minds of the dozens of people sitting around me. ‘Where are you getting that?’”7

Shearer, now 70, continues to spike broadcasts and subvert audience expectations. As a part-time resident of New Orleans whose advocacy for his adopted city occasionally runs overtime, he’s reserved his most scathing criticism for the Army Corps of Engineers, whom he blames for the man-made disaster that followed Hurricane Katrina, as detailed in his 2010 documentary film, The Big Uneasy. “The major news media resolutely ignored that story before the film came out and after the film came out,” he says. “The fact that the true story of what happened in New Orleans did not achieve traction contributed to the ongoing culture of impunity that surrounds the Army Corps of Engineers. Nobody in the Corps lost so much as a parking space in the killing of 1,800 people.”

The state of Louisiana loses a football field of wetlands an hour, Shearer stresses, and it’s continuing to this day. It’s another in an ever-expanding list of dire warnings he hammers home no matter what medium he’s working in, and no matter where home might be that week, that day, that minute. Whether holed up in a basement packed with satellite detritus, a hotel room an ocean away, or quarantined in a Manhattan skyscraper, Shearer’s voice will always be barging through the walls next door.

James Hughes is a Chicago-based writer and editor who has contributed to Slate, The Atlantic, Wax Poetics, and the Village Voice. For a decade, he was an editor and publisher of Stop Smiling magazine and its book imprint.

Photo illustration by Linsey Fields.

Filed Under: 'Saturday Night Live' at 40, Harry Shearer, SNL, SNL Week, Saturday Night Live, SNL Profiles, Lorne Michaels, Spinal Tap, Dick Ebersol