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Fame? What's the Problem?

His fans may love him as a cult hero, but Harry Shearer wants to be a Hollywood star. (And, no, he's not kidding.)

June 07, 1998|Sean Mitchell | Sean Mitchell is a frequent contributor to Calendar

There are fans of Los Angeles radio satirist Harry Shearer who may find it odd to discover their iconoclastic hero up on the big screen in, of all things, "Godzilla," but anyone so inflexible as to question this apparent incongruity risks a response from Harry along the lines of, "So, you're new to town, are you?"

Listeners to Shearer's Sunday-morning program, "Le Show," now in its 15th year on KCRW-FM (89.9), are accustomed to hearing the clever and astringent host firebomb the totems of American media and politics, employing his merciless mimicry in great comic disservice to the Clintons, Newt Gingrich, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, O.J. Simpson, Casey Casem and, yes, on occasion the beloved Vin Scully. (How many people have dared make fun of Vin Scully?)

Even Manhattan's axman in the morning, Don Imus, gets sentimental now and then, allowing an earnest plaint for a seriously ill athlete or celebrity to interrupt, briefly, his steady stream of invective. Not Harry. Over these 15 years, his antipathy to the power, posturing and sanctimony of the status quo has seemed so absolute as to approach a kind of purity.

Yet, as he will tell us, this is a bit of a misconception. And for proof, there's, well, his role in "Godzilla." It's not a large part. He plays a venal New York City TV anchor trying to put the moves on a female assistant while the monster terrorizes Manhattan.

"I think people who listen to the show are surprised that I do anything of an income-producing nature," says Shearer, a little defensively but with a characteristic archness. "You might think that I have utter disdain for the entire mechanism of show business, and I don't. I have utter disdain for a lot of what it produces."

Shearer had not yet seen "Godzilla" as he said this, seated near a window at a beach cafe in Santa Monica, roller-bladers on the bike path whizzing past. Nor had he seen the entirely more respectable "The Truman Show," which opened Friday and in which he has another small but better role as an obsequious in-house interviewer, tossing softballs to the pompous director (Ed Harris) of television's first 24-hour-a-day documentary. He will play a talk show host in Ron Howard's upcoming "Ed TV."

These are paying jobs, of course, in contrast to what he gets for the more ambitious one-hour-a-week public radio gig, which, in the spirit of public radio, is zero. Nothing. Is there possibly a place in the Southern California Book of World Records for such a person who has for 15 years, give or take a few months, continued to produce by himself a daunting hour of high-wire satirical radio every week for free while living within the circulation area of Daily Variety? And not just living here but pulling down quite a bit more than rent money as a member of the cast of "The Simpsons" since it went on the air in 1989?

People come up to him and say, "I love that radio show of yours. Are you still doing it?" Which is not really what he wants to hear after spending another Saturday night in his home studio crafting scenes for "Clintonsomething," devouring newspapers online for sketch material and ironic commentary, then bouncing out of bed on Sunday morning and making his way to KCRW by 9:30 to get ready to perform his many-headed one-man show from 10 to 11--for the love of it. Or something.

"He's like a sculptor working in that studio," says Tom Leopold, a writer who provides the occasional additional voice for "Le Show" and co-authored with Shearer "J. Edgar," a musical comedy about the former FBI director. "He needs to do that. It's an art to him." "I feel like a survivor," says Shearer, "and I'm very grateful to the people who give [pledge] money because that's the only reason we're still on the air, as far as the station is concerned. As far as I'm concerned, I have no idea why I'm still doing it. No, I do know why exactly I'm doing it: because I'm not doing it on TV. I started doing the show with the thought in the back of my mind that not being able to do the kind of material I wanted to do on television, I would do it on radio and [a TV network executive] would get the idea. And I'm still trying to do that. So, for my money it's been spectacularly unsuccessful."

He's being arch again. Or is he? In fact, for more than a year he's been developing an adaptation of "Le Show" for HBO, and should such venture ever progress to liftoff, it would likely mean bye-bye to his radio following here and in the 70-odd cities that also carry it. The end of an era? Yes, but someone else will have to say it besides Harry.

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