Last Sunday, Elaine and I went to see Harry Shearer speak at the Byrd Theater. He was there to raise funds for WRIR, Richmond’sÂ independent radio station, and to give a short talk before introducing the movie, This is Spinal Tap, in which he plays mutton-chopped, cucumber-endowed bassist Derek Smalls.
Shearer took to the stage decked out in a purple velour suit accompanied by his silver Macbook from which he read, often awkwardly, his observations on Big Media,Â the Entertainment Industry, Copyright Laws, and Hollywood. I am a fan of his long-running, weekly radio show, Le Show, so his sarcastic criticisms of news and media were familiar to me, but might have been a bit of a downer for audience members expecting more comedy than commentary. However,Â I was a bit disappointed that his talk often seemed stilted and unrehearsed. A minor criticism, I guess, but I hate to think he was just phoning it in.
For me, the most interesting parts of his talk were when he stepped away from his laptop to tell a personal story or riff on some aspect of his very long and very interesting career.Â I was familiar with his recent film roles (For Your Consideration, A Mighty Wind) and that he is the voice behind so many memorable Simpson’s characters, such as Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner, and Montgomery Burns. I also knew that he spent two unhappy seasonsÂ as a writer and performer on Saturday Night Live. What I was surprised to find out is that Shearer has been in “showbiz” for most of his life. Born in L.A., Shearer worked with Jack Benny as a child and was the original Eddie Haskell (only named Frankie) in the first few episodes ofÂ Leave It to Beaver. He also covered the Watts riots as a young journalist for Newsweek. He has his own record label and has exhibited several video art installations, most recently at Atlanta Contemporary Arts Center.
It was great to watch Spinal Tap again, which I haven’t seen in several years. Here’s one last sad fact provided by Shearer that added a bit of poignancy to my experience of rewatching this innovative film that took such creative risks (being almost completely improvised): according to the movie industry accountants, Spinal Tap still has not “officially” made a profit.