Harry Shearer on Political Satire

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Comedian Harry Shearer poses for a portrait in Los Angeles, California.

Harry Shearer, the comedian, writer, actor (This Is Spinal Tap) and ubiquitous voice on The Simpsons, ventures into political satire in his new album, Songs of the Bushmen (Courgette Records). The CD takes musical potshots at Administration figures ranging from Condi Rice to Karl Rove, but what has got at least some people upset is its cover: the President with a bone through his nose, an image that prompted radio and billboard powerhouse Clear Channel to ban billboard ads for the album. Shearer talked with TIME's Richard Zoglin about the controversy, the state of political satire and the chances of a Spinal Tap reunion.

TIME: Did the reaction by Clear Channel to your new CD surprise you, given all the satire we've had of the Bush Administration?

Shearer: You know, that's one reason why I'm in this business — because I'm capable of perpetual, irrational surprise. [I thought] that even the normal risk-averse corporation would say, "Well, gee, Bush is at a 21% approval rating. I guess it's safe to do this now." I call Clear Channel "dead-enders," because it shows they are going to be the last guys standing: "No, no, no, he's great, he's great." We know that free speech isn't free, but now I'm learning that even paid speech isn't free.

Do you think there has ever been a President that was easier to satirize than Bush?

I think Ronald Reagan, and Nixon, and Johnson, for goodness' sake. I think more often than not we happen to elect guys that are good for my business. Bush has been great because, to get pretentious for a moment, Freud says you laugh about what you fear. On that basis, Bush has provided many more laughs, because the fear level has gone up so drastically.

People are starting to say that if Obama gets elected, he is really going to be tough to satirize.

Oh, no way, no way. The people who founded this country knew a great and sour truth: power turns everybody to crap. I'm relying on the wisdom of the founders to guide us.

Did you have an opinion on the New Yorker cartoon?

I saw it Sunday afternoon, and my first instinct was to laugh at it. But I don't really make public comments about other people who are doing the same work in the same field I do. I think second-guessing satire, as we have seen this week, is ugly and unrewarding work. So is defending it. Basically, satire should be like a bad traffic accident — hit and run.

But I gather you thought there was nothing wrong with it.

I think if you're rooting for Obama there's plenty wrong with it. If you're rooting for the New Yorker ... I think there's a cleaner way to do the joke. Cleaner in the sense that it might communicate to a larger audience — which is the thing that's driven me nuts about the urban myths about Obama. They hate him because they don't like his Christian preacher, and because he's a Muslim. Put those two together.

Are we in a heyday for political satire?

Well, you know, years six and seven of a two-term Administration, people always say that, because the curdling gets so bad you can smell it from a mile away. And that draws even the comedians who normally just talk about TV commercials and airlines into the fray. I mean, it was true at this point with the Reagan Administration. It was true at this point with the Clinton Administration. It just seems to be a pattern. We get tired of them even in the best Administrations long before the second term is over. Something bad starts to happen, and we just go, "We know these people too well. We're tired of hearing their voices; we're tired of the wives; we're tired of the whole deal."

Do you think some of the things that we call political satire are not really that sharp?

Yeah. You know, the late George Carlin said that satirists — or I think his word was cynics but I think really the word he intended is satirists — are basically disappointed idealists. So you're making people laugh, but you're kind of writing from anger: "It shouldn't be this way! Damn it, why is it like this? Wake up, people!" But as the curdling effect gets more profound, comedy kibitzers kind of do what I would call topical comedy as opposed to satire. And you can see the mechanism of that starting up: the guys are getting their trusty catalogs of "he's so old" jokes that we're used to for Bob Dole, and crossing out Dole and writing McCain. That's not satire. There's nothing wrong with it, but it's a different thing.

What do you think of the phenomenon of the candidates themselves, the newsmakers themselves, joining in the joke?

Oh, I hate that so much — "Look what a great sense of humor I have." I mean, I think that satire is like gossip — it is best practiced behind the back of the person. And when you do it with the person there, it's either going to be horribly cruel if you're really unrestrained, or it's going to be toothless because you're being co-opted into their public-relations exercise.

Are you still enjoying The Simpsons?

As a viewer or as a participant?

As a participant.

I'm going to say no comment.

Oh. Well, it has been a long time.

I have an interesting Simpsons fact. I do believe it's accurate to say that Jim Carrey gets more for one movie than a Simpsons cast member has gotten for the life of the series.

Are you going to have a Spinal Tap reunion?

I don't know yet. We just did a photo shoot for a magazine layout that's gonna come out in November that would be the 25th anniversary of the movie. We've been talking about some kind of concert tour. We really love to get together. We make each other laugh still. And we love playing music, so why wouldn't we do that? The Spinal Tap business has been a — what do they say on the business shows? — a declining asset for some time in terms of us. Somebody's making money off of Spinal Tap, but not us. So we thought the 25th anniversary would be a good time to turn that around.