My worst moment: ‘The Simpsons’ star Harry Shearer and the confused (and hostile!) Spinal Tap audience

Tribune Content Agency

When Harry Shearer is not busy working on “The Simpsons,” where he is the voice of characters including Mr. Burns, Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner and Waylon Smithers, he’s often making music for his radio show, “Le Show.”

“The writing part came out of necessity and habit,” Shearer said. “I pay attention to the news because that’s what I make fun of, and because Donald Trump is a person who demands constant attention, I pay him that attention. And sometimes if a phrase or behavior makes me think, that becomes a song. At the beginning of the year I noticed I had written a lot of songs in the voice of, and about, Donald Trump. And I thought it would be cool to do them up right, go into the studio and record them, and it struck me that the appropriate way to put them out was one a week (on his YouTube channel) leading up to the election.”

“The Simpsons” is back for its 32nd season. Has Shearer ever dreamed in the voice of any of his characters? “I never remember my dreams,” he said. What about distinctive voices, has he hit his limit? “No, because I’m always listening … I was listening to the postmaster general this morning and thinking he is halfway to Elmer Fudd, and I was thinking about how I would do his voice.”

A performer since childhood (starting at the age of 7 when he worked on “The Jack Benny Program,” first on the radio and later on TV) his career is also defined by his on camera performances, notably in 1984’s “This Is Spinal Tap” and 2003’s “A Mighty Wind.”

When asked about a worst moment in his career, he shared a story involving his characters from both comedy films.

My worst moment …

“At the turn of this century, my collaborators Christopher Guest and Michael McKean and I did a Spinal Tap tour. It wasn’t as extensive at the one we had done seven years earlier, but it was a nice tour. We played the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, the Hard Rock in Vegas and Carnegie Hall in New York.

“This was before ‘A Mighty Wind’ came out and we thought it would be funny if this other band that we did, which was called the Folksmen, opened for Spinal Tap — because the worst opening act you could imagine for a heavy metal hard rock band is this superannuated folk trio. That idea amused us; it amused us less when we had to go through wardrobe and hair and makeup changes, but it was still amusing.

“The tour went so well that our promoter booked us for a return to New York and this last show was at the Beacon Theatre. But unlike the other dates, (the marketing for the show) didn’t say, ‘Plus opening act,’ or ‘Plus the Folksmen.’ It didn’t say anything like that.

“So we come out as the Folksmen and the audience is obviously expecting Spinal Tap. And they start going, ‘Tap! Tap! Tap! Tap!’ And we can’t break character and say, ‘No, no, no — we’re the guys you like! Come on!’

“So we’re stuck actually not doing the joke of being the wrong act; we’re actually doing the thing of being the wrong opening act itself. Nobody knew we were them, because in our costumes we didn’t look anything like our Spinal Tap characters. I mean, we were serious about this stuff. But the audience was more serious that night.

“We played all the songs we planned to play, we didn’t quit. It was like seven or eight songs. We just persevered and got very sweaty armpits as a result.

“We’d given up trying to project much out to the audience and were just concentrating on playing music with each other. That connection is hard enough to maintain, that sense of musical empathy and coordination and the technical stuff that goes with it. So (the audience’s displeasure) closed us down even more into each other and we were trying to save that, at least.

“So it became: We’ll do this for ourselves.”

What was that experience like?

“It was like every opening act who’s been improperly booked has ever gone through. I went through it once when I was doing a solo thing opening for Manhattan Transfer, and Pittsburgh didn’t like me — or didn’t know who I was or what I was doing. So I’ve had the real experience of going through being an opening act and having to trudge past an unwelcoming audience.

“But this was just so irritatingly silly because we couldn’t say, ‘We’re the people you paid to see! You just don’t know it!’

“And then of course, after going through this really unpleasant experience, we had to go backstage, get changed and come back and entertain these (freaking) people, which was the last thing we wanted at that point. We just wanted to spray them with some kind of flammable liquid.

“It was ‘why are we doing this?’ moment. You could say it was our fault — we came out as people who weren’t the characters that they wanted to see, and the problem was, this was before ‘A Mighty Wind’ came out. Because after the movie came out we did a tour (as the band) and they loved us.”

Did it feel like there was a light at the end of the tunnel, knowing they would eventually come back out as Spinal Tap?

“No, it was too late then. The damage had been done: You’ve ruined my evening, I hope I’ve ruined yours.

“But when we came back out, they loved us: We were who they paid to see. And it’s always fun to play those (Spinal Tap) songs. That music is a wonderful outlet for hostility because it’s loud, you know? I may have turned it up a little more than usual to increase the pain level. But if I’d had to go out and pay a Chopin sonata, I would have set fire to the piano. So this was perfect music to play.

“In retrospect, I don’t blame the audience; they weren’t told there was going to be an opening act. They had timed their drugs to hit, so you can understand their frustration. It’s the promoter who didn’t warn them that bears my unending enmity.”

The takeaway …

“Make sure the audience knows what they’re getting.

“That was the last date on the tour, since it had been added on, so that wasn’t a great way to end things. If it had just been part of the tour and we went to another city and did another show, it would have been easier to laugh it off and move along instead of going home and just left licking your wounds.”


©2020 Chicago Tribune

Visit the Chicago Tribune at

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.