We caught up with comedy mastermind Harry Shearer and critically acclaimed singer-songwriter Judith Owen to talk reality television, Donald Trump and The Simpsons.
Shearer and Owen are coming to Brisbane to headline the Queensland Cabaret Festival with a special performance of the show they’ve created together, This Infernal Racket.
The real-life couple aren’t traditional cabaret performers, but they certainly both know their way around a stage.
Shearer is, quite frankly, an indelible part of the fabric of American pop culture. He’s best known, of course, for playing Mr Burns, Principal Skinner, Kent Brockman, Ned Flanders, Waylon Smithers, Reverend Lovejoy, Rainier Wolfcastle and several other characters on The Simpsons since its debut in 1989.
He’s also hosted a weekly radio show, Le Show, since 1983; and his absurdly long list of film and TV credits (including two stints on Saturday Night Live) dates all the way back to The Jack Benny Show in 1953.
But he’s also an accomplished musician. Most famously, he plays Derek Smalls, the mustachioed bassist in This Is Spinal Tap. That’s really him playing those epic bass lines on Big Bottom, Stonehenge, Rock and Roll Creation and other Tap classics. The ‘fictional’ band has also played plenty of live shows, including a date at Wembley Arena and a slot at Glastonbury.
“The thing about Glastonbury is that people are there for the day, but there are other stages,” Shearer says. “So you’re not trying to keep them from booing or throwing things at you like you might be in, say, Texas, but you are trying to keep them from leaving to go to other stages, and we pretty much held them. That was just mind-blowing.”
Owen, meanwhile, needs no introduction to serious music lovers. The Welsh singer-songwriter – whose work has been lauded by Rolling Stone, The Independent, the Wall Street Journal and a number of the BBC’s most prominent presenters — just released her eleventh album, Somebody’s Child, an eclectic collection of confessional and observational vignettes that sees her usual band joining forces with some of LA’s most legendary session musicians (as well as Shearer himself on upright bass).
The show Shearer and Owen have created together, This Infernal Racket, sees the pair essentially trading songs they’ve each written about similar subject matter.
“Judith and I have these soundtracks in our heads,” Shearer explains. “Judith’s is internally generated by her emotional life, and mine is generated by the noise of the outside world and public life. And yet we both translate our responses to that racket into song. So the idea was to contrast these songs we’ve written about roughly similar themes, and see how they work with each other and against each other.
“Also, we love working together. It’s one of the things we do best together. We do real life together, too, but we love working together. We make each other laugh and we piss each other off. Those are two great things, you know.”
Owen agrees, noting that the show draws its strength from the couple’s similarities — and their differences.
“The thing Harry and I have in common is that we’re both observational writers,” Owen says. “We talk about how we see the world. The funny thing about it is that we’re so similar in that way, but we’re so absolutely opposite in the way that we process it. He’s incredibly satirical. He goes to a cerebral, satirical place, and I go to an emotional place. I think that balances out quite beautifully for this show… it’s like the entire human experience comes out through Harry and I interpreting these same issues.”
Fame, celebrity, politics, religion and relationships are all grist for Shearer and Owen’s mill in This Infernal Racket.
“We’re the most voyeuristic we’ve ever been; the most narcissistic we’ve ever been,” Owen says. “I saw a women take a selfie of herself at the opera at Covent Garden the other day during the performance. It was shocking. I think we’ve lost our ability to understand that we’re not always looking at a screen. This is a live situation and you have to act accordingly.
“The narcissism has gone through the roof. The selfie… and you know, I’m guilty, too. I take them all the time. I’m a ham! But, you know, if you’re taking selfies in the morning of you eating breakfast cereal, or of your broken nail… there’s this sense, and it’s been aided by reality television, that everybody is famous and everything you do is important. Reality television has changed the landscape. It absolutely has.”
None of this comes as news to Shearer, of course. In 1979, he co-wrote Real Life, one of the earliest mockumentary films, which parodied the concept of reality TV long before reality TV really took off.
The central conceit of Real Life was that you can’t film a family without fundamentally changing that family, an idea that seems eerily prophetic in the Kardashian era.
“We thought we were just writing a funny movie,” Shearer says. “There had been a show on American television [An American Family] that had purported to document a real family’s life, so we were taking that as our jumping off point. We were not imagining something, we were basically just taking the idea of something that had already been done and pushing it a little bit further forward.
“I guess the thing that animated Albert [Brooks] and Monica [Johnson] and myself, the three writers on the project, was the sense that there’s a fallacy to saying that if you have a camera there, it doesn’t affect the way people behave. I think that became a commonplace observation later on, for example, when the OJ Simpson trial was televised. Everybody was saying, ‘Oh, the lawyers are just doing this for the cameras’.
“And then so-called reality television shows, or docu-soaps, as a person I know in that business calls them, have proven that people really do start acting up for the cameras. They’re encouraged to by the producers. The rednecks are asked to be as redneck as possible, the goofballs are asked to be as goofball as possible, that’s all hyped up. So that was really the core of what we were getting at, this idea that you can’t film something like that without changing the thing that you’re trying to depict.”
As bad as some reality television is now, Owen thinks there’s room for it to get worse.
“My idea for the low point of reality television, and I think this will happen one day, is Celebrity Gynecologist,” she says. “A celebrity will be strapped in, and you’ll have ordinary members of the public that come in and look beneath the sheets at the celebrity genitalia, and they’ll have ten guesses to figure out who they think it might be.
“Now I told you this here first, so if someone else makes it, there’s going to be a lawsuit like you won’t believe!”
Owen sees narcissism everywhere — Donald Trump, she says, is “just the political equivalent of Kim Kardashian’s bum”.
“Harry is like a pig in mud, as you can imagine, because we’re living in the time of Trump. It’s a wonderful thing for him as a political satirist. The greatest show of narcissism any of us have ever seen, historically, is happening right now. So his fangs are out for that.”
The Simpsons first joked about the idea of President Trump in 2000, in an episode writer Dan Greaney called “consistent with the vision of America going insane”. Now he’s only one step away from The White House in real life, and Shearer thinks there’s a chance he’ll get there.
“I’m not a huge fan of polls, but if you look at the polling, the general electorate is repelled by him only a little bit more than they’re repelled by Hilary Clinton,” he says.
“This will be a race, if Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, between two of the most unpopular people to be up for the Presidency in modern American history. And two people who might both be forced to testify under oath during the election campaign! So this is a really remarkable moment.
“Oddly enough, Trump and Bernie Sanders are working the same ground – the failure of the American economy to produce good middle class jobs for a large part of the population, and the failure of the political class to deal with that problem in an honest way — but they approach it from diametrically different directions, for diametrically different audiences.”
In a time when reality television is scraping the bottom of the barrel and Donald Trump is running for President, it seems fair to wonder if there’s still a place for satire. If we’re earnestly being offered Honey Boo Boo and Trump Steaks, where can comedians go from there? How do you parody a society that couldn’t possibly be more ridiculous than it already is?
For Shearer, the answer is simple. If reality is on 10, comedians need to turn it up to 11.
“You just work a little harder than Trump does,” he says. “There are still parts of the envelope he hasn’t pushed, so you probe those.
“It’s a great gift. This preening narcissist with all sorts of attitude problems – his attitude towards women being one of those problems – is just a present from the comedy gods. You can always push the envelope just a little harder than he does, or find another envelope to push that he hasn’t found yet.
“But it’s a gift in another way. At a time, I think, when comedy tends to be very careful in response to certain social pressures, the ability to ape Donald Trump, to make fun of Donald Trump, gives you that little frisson of being able to go where you’re not supposed to go, which is what comedians are always supposed to do.”
As difficult as it is to believe that The Simpsons accurately predicted Trump’s presidential ambitions 15 years ago, it’s even harder to believe the show is still going. It just completed its 27th season, which grabbed headlines when Mr Smithers finally came out to Mr Burns.
It was a particularly Shearer-heavy episode, considering he plays both characters, and he approved of the move.
“I thought, after 26 years, it was about time to make the obvious explicit,” he laughs.
Even if Smithers hadn’t come out, however, Shearer believes these characters – which were created in the late ‘80s – would still be relevant to today’s audiences.
“Listen, there are plenty of gay people in my business, and other businesses, who are still in the closet,” he says. “And in politics! We had one in the presidential race! I’m not going to name names, because he’s in the closet.
“So it’s not a thing of the past. I don’t think it’s been totally outdated by the rush of events. But it’s certainly more and more common for people to say, ‘Okay, enough of that, I’ve got my life to live’.
“But a character like Mr Burns, you know… I don’t think there’s any end to extremely rich people being profoundly evil. I think there’s still a market for that.”
In fact, Mr Burns is still Shearer’s favourite character.
“As a performer, I enjoy Mr Burns the most, because the evil ones are the funniest ones,” he says. “But I get a great kick out of Ned Flanders, too. When we started, we were roundly criticised by conservative Christians because of things like Bart being a bad role model, as if you should look to comedy for a role model. But by season 16 or 17, I was doing interviews for cover stories in Christian magazines, because they realised, ‘This is the only show on American television with two characters that are out-and-out religious, and very faithfully so’.
“So I like playing Ned for that reason. Generally, we’re pretty good at depicting him fairly. There are a couple of times when I feel we’ve crossed the line and I’ve blown the whistle on it because I feel protective of the characters I play, in terms of keeping them true to who they are. Ned’s a closed-minded but warm-hearted person, and that’s a nice combination.”
Between his many roles on The Simpsons and his work in This Is Spinal Tap, Shearer would have to be one of the most quoted actors of all time. But if you happen to run into him while he’s in Brisbane, you might want to keep those quotes to yourself.
“I find myself always being surprised when people spring quotes on me and I have no idea what they’re talking about,” he laughs.
“About the only quote that gets said to me that I understand what people are referring to is when somebody very rarely, once-in-a-while, comes up to me and says ‘Ea’ A’ ‘Oe’s’. That’s from A Mighty Wind. It’s the joke at the end of a song by the folk band I’m in called The Folksmen, and sometimes people will come up to me and say ‘Ea’ A’ ‘Oe’s’, and I recognise that.
“But I’m always being puzzled by lines that people will say to me, and ashamed to realise it’s stuff I’ve said!”
Harry Shearer and Judith Owen’s This Infernal Racket comes to Brisbane Powerhouse on Sunday 12 June as part of the Queensland Cabaret Festival. Tickets are on sale now at brisbanepowerhouse.org.