Harry Shearer is a busy man. At 71, the prolific comedian, and star of The Simpsons and This is Spinal Tap, shows no sign of slowing down and is ready to tour Australia with his wife, singer/songwriter Judith Owen.
Billed as a night of “music and mirth”, Shearer and Owen are bringing This Infernal Racket to the Adelaide Cabaret Festival in June. Owen is a heartfelt and honest songwriter while Shearer will bring his dark comedic nous to the stage. The performance is set to be a juxtaposition of the artists’ worldviews, with Owen espousing empathy and understanding as Shearer eviscerates the world’s serious issues through comedy. “It’s my automatic response to laugh at tragedy,” Shearer says. “I inject comedy into it to make it bearable, I suppose.” Shearer mentions he’ll be singing songs that make light of topics as dark as investigations into the clergy’s abuse of children. In a true cabaret tradition, Shearer will not be holding back. “Comedy, if it’s good, is honest.” This shouldn’t come as a surprise to regular followers of Shearer’s work. While he is best known for his voicing of a couple-dozen characters in The Simpsons, he is a prolific writer, and unafraid to broach serious topics. Indeed, he does so regularly in his popular radio show and podcast Le Show, where world headlines are dissected, ridiculed and turned into sketches for laughs. Shearer cuts straight to the point. “I’ve only got an hour each week, so I leave the trivia to the other guys,” says the voice of Mr Burns, Waylon Smithers, Ned Flanders and Principal Skinner. When it comes to comedy drawn from the news, there might be no more productive source than politics. Shearer is keenly aware of this, evident in his cartoon political impressions, his Twitter account and his 2013 series Nixon’s the One! where Shearer imitated Richard Nixon in the Oval Office using Nixon’s own tapes as a script. “With Nixon we had such an inspirational source in those tapes,” he says. “We didn’t need to write anything.” The program focussed on the inherently dark and comedic aspects of Nixon himself taken verbatim from the tapes. Lines such as, “What about the rich Jews, Bob? There’s plenty of rich Jews in Internal Revenue!” are at once inexplicable and frightening (especially when one takes into account who said them). On the US’ present political situation, Shearer is equally cynical, but still manages to find the comedy in it all. “Just look at it. Right now you have the spectacle of the two generally most unpopular people in the United States of America running for President!” He goes on to laconically lament that “each candidate might have to give testimony” at trial during the campaign. Evidently, truth can be stranger than fiction and the current crop are ripe for lampooning. “It’s never impossible,” says Shearer of whether people like Donald Trump are difficult to satirise. “On the comedy side of these guys you have to pick one aspect of them. You just pick one characteristic and highlight that, you know.”
We need a President who can speak as the people do on the important issues of the day. Like “the look”.. pic.twitter.com/SFV55rKm7S
— Harry Shearer (@theharryshearer) May 9, 2016
Shearer is aware that he will be in Australia in the midst of our own federal election campaign, and isn’t fazed at watching an ex-union leader compete with an ex-merchant banker on lines of class and wealth. “At least they’re not trying to hide the ball,” he says. “The class conversation isn’t a bad one to have. In America the political parties push so called ‘social issues’ as important, but really they’re working on a more, shall we say, ‘economic agenda’ out of view.” He is after all, no stranger to Australia, as Shearer says he’s “good friends with the Working Dog guys,” having appeared in Frontline and episodes of The Panel. Shearer also admits to being “a big fan” of Russell Coight’s All Aussie Adventures, the mockumentary series that skewered Australia’s affectionate image of the uber-masculine bush-expert like Steve Irwin. A defining aspect of Shearer’s career has been his versatility, which he says is his goal as an artist. Having worked in the realms of writing, acting, music, radio, cartoon and comedy, Shearer says he is recognised on the street “just enough” and he’s “never annoyed by it, because I do so many different things”. “I loathe boredom,” he says. “If you give the audience something different, they’ll give you something different.” This Infernal Racket will give Shearer ample opportunity to showcase his own musical talents alongside his wife. Owen has just released her new record, Somebody’s Child, which Shearer plays on and contains songs that will feature in their cabaret festival performance. While she is more of a songstress than comedian, she doesn’t lack in the laughs department. “Judith is a very funny person,” Shearer says, which he says sometimes surprises acquaintances. He says that at a recent dinner party, none other than Arianna Huffington queried where her humour came from. His voice seamlessly transforms into an impression of Huffington, “Judith, have you always been this funny, or did it just come to you when you met Harry?” This Infernal Racket Adelaide Cabaret Festival 16, 17 June, Dunstan Playhouse adelaidecabaretfestival.com.au