Being ‘The Simpsons’ Harry Shearer mines his rich radio, TV comedy for CD, DVD


Harry Shearer is Mr. Burns, Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner and more on “The Simpsons.” He’s also, at will, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Mike Wallace.

Whoever he plays, he’s relentlessly funny. The evidence, for those not yet wild about Harry, is neatly packaged in the actor-satirist’s new CD, “Dropping Anchors,” a send-up of TV news anchors, and the DVD “Now You See It,” a showcase for his work on “Saturday Night Live” and HBO.

After a fallow period in which Shearer’s albums were sadly lacking, and following a frustrating experience for his wife, singer-songwriter Judith Owen, with a record company, the pair took the initiative and formed their own label.

“You sit around as an artist and think, “I can do this better than these guys,’ whatever the record company isn’t doing at the moment,” Shearer said. “So somebody called our bluff and said, ‘OK, you’re the record company.”‘

With Warner Bros. handling distribution, Shearer is hoping that his CD and DVD releases – and two new albums from Owen, including “Lost and Found” – will find their way into the hands and hearts of consumers.

He helpfully explains that the label’s name, Courgette Records, is “British usage for zucchini. It’s a tip of the cap to Derek Smalls’ favorite vegetable.”

That’s the fictional rock musician Shearer played in “This Is Spinal Tap.” He also shined in “A Mighty Wind” and is part of an upcoming Hollywood spoof, “For Your Consideration,” all as a member in good standing of filmmaker Christopher Guest’s merry band of performers.

The movie is scheduled for fall, as is Shearer’s first novel, “Not Enough Indians,” a comic take on Native American casinos.

For now, fans of the man with a thousand voices, more or less, will have to content themselves with his work on “The Simpsons,” in its 17th season (a long-awaited big-screen version is set for 2007), and the Courgette releases featuring Shearer’s delicious humor.

“Now You See It” includes “Astounding Innovations” with Shearer playing Richard Nixon as an infomercial co-host, and the choice “Mike Wallace Investigates Minkman Novelties,” a “60 Minutes” expose of knockoffs of novelty toys by Hong Kong manufacturer Ping E. Lee (say the name fast and get the vaudeville pun).

Shearer is joined by stellar talent, including Guest and Billy Crystal as the embattled Minkman brothers, and a memorable Martin Short as a man trying to banish synchronized-swimming gender bias with his brother (Shearer).

The humor is more cutting on “Anchors Away” but Shearer considers it a “nervy” project for other reasons.

“I realize I’m going against the grain, doing a fully produced CD of comedy sketches and music at a time when the only comedy recordings are basically standup,” Shearer said. “But it’s the kind of comedy records I grew up on and … (have) always been kind of my favorite.”

Among his fondest memories are the works of Bob and Ray (Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding), Firesign Theatre and “Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America,” which Shearer called “a full-on musical, for God’s sake, on a record.”

“Anchors Away” is billed as “An almost heartfelt farewell to the TV news icons of the last two decades.” Anchors who have retired or shifted gears are fodder, as is the general state of network news.

Only Peter Jennings escapes mockery; Shearer says it’s because he never mastered his Canadian lilt. (The CD includes a brief and gentle acknowledgment of the late newsman.)

He nails the other voices, including Wallace’s booming tones and Brokaw’s rolling Midwestern cadence. Don’t imagine that incoming CBS anchor Katie Couric will be safe from Shearer: He once garnered a compliment from NPR’s Susan Stamberg for his impression of her.

Most of the routines originated on Shearer’s 22-year-old “Le Show,” which is heard nationally and abroad on diverse outlets including National Public Radio and Armed Forces Radio. The comedy largely remains as fresh as the day it first emerged from its acid bath.

Among the bits: “LateNightline,” which imagines what have happened if ABC’s one-time scheme of replacing Ted Koppel’s program with David Letterman instead had resulted in a hybrid.

“Welcome to this new incarnation of ‘Nightline,’ says Shearer’s Koppel. “This program started out as ‘America held hostage.’ It’s ending up as ‘Ted Koppel held hostage.’ No, I kid the good people at ABC … We’re going to have a very good time getting to the bottom of today’s news.”

That’s followed by banter with deposed CNN anchor Aaron Brown and “Stupid Professor Tricks,” in which former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski is dumped into a vat of oatmeal as he attempts to discuss world events.

Brokaw is zinged in “If JFK Had Lived” (“A major investidrama by NBC News and the editors of US Weekly”) and “Songs in the Key of L.” The latter lampoons the ex-anchor’s strangled pronunciation of the letter, with Shearer/Brokaw singing “Layla” and “Lay Lady Lay.”

So why do news anchors provide such a mother lode of humor?

“I think it’s the distance between what we’re supposed to think their job entails and what their job really entails,” Shearer said. The assumption is anchors distill the major events of the day and present them with their special imprimatur.

“Basically, what they are are glorified teleprompter readers who spend half their day doing promos for local stations,” he said.

And providing glorious material for Shearer.