Saturday Night’s Children: Harry Shearer (1979-1980; 1984-1985)
Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 38 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member every other week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
While he’s most widely known for his 25 years (and counting) of voice work on The Simpsons or starring with Christopher Guest and Michael McKean in the breakout 1984 mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, Harry Shearer also spent two brief stints as an SNL cast member — one late in the show’s original ’70s run and another during its mid-’80s overhaul. Say what you will about Shearer’s undeniable talent; he’s on record as one of the show’s most vocally frustrated performers, second perhaps only to Janeane Garofalo. The creative friction between Shearer and Lorne Michaels is well documented in Live from New York: “I was pretty fucking miserable,” Shearer notes, “for virtually the entire season.” While his second try didn’t bear different results, Shearer managed to appear in several standout sketches during some of the series’ most otherwise dismal eras.
The Los Angeles-born Shearer got an early start as a performer after his piano teacher switched career paths and became a children’s agent. Not long after asking Shearer’s parents to take him on auditions, she helped land him a radio role on The Jack Benny Program at only seven years old (he later appeared on the television version), and his debut film role came with a small part in 1953’s Abbott and Costello Go to Mars. While Shearer continued to work in film and television throughout his youth, his parents made efforts to preserve some semblance of a normal childhood for him by turning down bigger or recurring parts, as was the case after his one-time appearance as the precursor to Eddie Haskell on the Leave It to Beaver pilot in 1957.
Shearer left show business and attended UCLA in the early ’60s to study political science but still found a creative outlet through the school paper. After graduation he hopped around with, as he described in an IGN interview, “a very serious agenda going on, and it was ‘Stay Out of the Draft;'” he attended graduate school at Harvard, worked in the state legislature, and taught English and Social Studies in Compton. While Shearer left his teaching job over disagreements with the school district’s preferred teaching approaches, he wound up landing a radio gig on Pasadena’s KRLA with satirical news show/team The Credibility Gap, led by Lew Irwin, John Gilliland, Thom Beck, and later Shearer, Richard Beebe, Michael McKean, and David Lander. While the latter incarnation went on to make records and tour college campuses, they broke up in 1976 when McKean and Lander went on to star in Laverne and Shirley.
By the time Shearer was hired as a writer and performer for SNL’s fifth season in 1979, he had already written for another television show (America 2-Night), worked on an ABC pilot with Rob Reiner (starring Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, and Michael McKean), and co-wrote the film Real Life with Albert Brooks, who had already produced several shorts for SNL in 1975. Shearer was recommended to Lorne Michaels by writer Al Franken, who sums up the whole experience in Live from New York: “I had sort of recommended Harry, so Lorne held that against me. And Harry did too. That’s the wonderful part about Harry. Harry actually held it against me that I had recommended him for the show.” Shearer wasn’t credited as a cast member for the first few episodes, which reportedly led to much tension with the cast in the beginning of the season, since they initially thought he had been hired only as a writer despite writing himself into many of his sketches. After Lorne Michaels left along with nearly the entire cast and crew at the end of the season, Shearer tried to get new producer Jean Doumanian to keep him on and hire his friend Christopher Guest for the following season, but she declined, opting to instead seek out a cast of mostly unknown performers.
In between leaving SNL in 1980 and returning again for Dick Ebersol’s run as producer, Shearer hit the comedy jackpot with Guest and McKean in their hit 1984 mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, playing the mutton-chopped band’s bassist Derek Smalls. It was during a promotional SNL performance the same year that all three were offered cast member spots on the show, which Shearer and Guest both accepted (McKean turned down the offer but hosted an episode the same year, then became a cast member later in 1993). But Shearer’s second turn at SNL was as frustrating as his first, and he quit after the January 12, 1985 episode, responding to Ebersol’s official “creative differences” press release with “Yeah, I was creative and they were different.”
Despite his constant clashing with the rest of the cast and writers, Shearer never let his fellow cast members’ flop sweat get to him, delivering his dependable radio voice talents to a wide range of impersonations from political figures (Ronald Reagan, Franklin Roosevelt) to news anchors (Tom Brokaw, Frank Reynolds) to television personalities (Tom Snyder, Mike Wallace, Alan Thicke, Robin Leach, Rod Serling). Along with Guest and McKean he appeared as the bearded bass singer and player of The Folksmen trio, and with Martin Short he starred in the bizarrely hilarious 1984 sketch “Synchronized Swimming” about a male two-man synchronized swimming team. He also created two recurring characters with the recalled/knockoff product hawker Tom Clay and Weekend Update sports correspondent “Big” Vic Ricker, and he appeared in Larry David’s only SNL sketch to ever air “Elevator Stool,” about an architect (Ed Begley Jr.) and building owner (Shearer) getting into a fight over whether or not their new building’s elevator needs a built-in stool. Despite Shearer’s dependable talent as an impersonator and strong presence as a voice actor, his work never fully meshed with the rest of the show or his fellow cast members save for McKean and Guest, and was let go by Ebersol before the end of the season.
Since then, Shearer’s career has spanned across countless roles on film, television, radio, music, and writing; his long-running radio show Le Show — which he launched in 1983 on Santa Monica’s KCRW — led to his hiring on The Simpsons in 1989, on which he plays Mr. Burns, Seymour Skinner, Smithers, Flanders, and many others. He’s also appeared in a long list of projects for both the big and small screen, from more Christopher Guest films (A Mighty Wind, For Your Consideration) to bit TV parts (Murphy Brown, Ellen, Friends, Just Shoot Me!, Jack & Jill). Behind-the-scenes he wrote and directed the 2002 comedy Teddy Bears’ Picnic, co-wrote the 2003 production J. Edgar! The Musical, and directed the “depressing” 2010 post-Hurricane Katrina documentary The Big Uneasy. He’s also written three books (Man Bites Town, It’s the Stupidity, Stupid, and Not Enough Indians), an article on his Truman Show bit part experience for Details that got him banned from the premiere, and released several comedy albums (It Must Have Been Something I Said, Dropping Anchors, Songs Pointed and Pointless, Songs of the Bushmen, and Greed and Fear).
So whatever his former SNL collaborators might call him in print — such as “out of control,” “depressed,” and “impossible to get along with” — Shearer’s career is rock-solid, and both his adaptable musical talents and mastery of the radio-friendly voice will always be in demand. Maybe the secret is to use him by remote control, or as Martin Short put it, “‘Harry, here’s eight minutes of show, do whatever you want, and the rest of the show will be what it is.'” The opposite is to bring him into the combined high-pressure hothouse environment of SNL, but like others before and after him, Shearer’s frustrated stints on the show were merely blips on the radar of an otherwise steady and successful comedy career.