It’s impossible to deny that Harry Shearer is one of the most iconic comedians of the last 50 years. Between his work as a prolific voice actor on The Simpsons and being a member of the beloved satirical rock outfit Spinal Tap, he’s long been able to inextricably link the worlds of comedy and music.
However, it would be fair to say that when it was revealed this year that Shearer would be releasing a new album that satirises US President Donald Trump, many fans of his work would have been surprised. Titled The Many Moods of Donald Trump, the record has its origins on Shearer’s long-running radio program, Le Show, where he features a somewhat self-explanatory segment called “The Appresidentice”.
With enough material to last him for years, Shearer soon found himself setting some of his parodies of Trump to music, and sharing a series of surreal motion capture videos online. With lyrics written from Trump’s point of view, across a wide variety of musical styles, tracks such as “Son In Law” see a the controversial politician singing his praises of Jared Kushner, while cuts such as “Very Stable Genius”, “COVID 180”, and “I Can’t Believe I’m Me” provide a comedic insight into the mind of the US President.
Arriving just days out from the US election, and at a time when – more than ever – the world is in need of a laugh, Shearer’s record is undoubtedly one of the most unexpected, but most welcome additions to this year.
To celebrate the release of the record, Harry Shearer spoke to Rolling Stone to discuss its creation and just how those deeply unsettling music videos have come to be.
Obviously this is a very interesting release, and obviously not one that people expected to see arrive, but it does prove something I’ve long believed, and that is the fact that Trump has been a godsend for comedy, and little else. Is that how you feel about his presidency as well?
Well he’s been a great gift to comedy, political comedy. He’s a guy who, for reasons of his own tangled psyche demands public attention; much and each of every day. Which leads to my theory about what’s going on now And so I complied with demands and paid attention to him virtually every single day. And I have a radio show every week where I make fun of the news and so paying attention to Trump wasn’t doing the psychic damage to me that it’s been doing to a lot of other people. Because I have an outlet for my feelings about the whole thing and the album is one of the results of that.
When Trump first “won” the election in 2016, were you thinking from the start that you would one day end up satirising him, or were you were somewhat hoping things might blow over to a degree?
Well the presidency never blows over and my job as a satirist is to make, my primary job as I understand it, is to make fun of the guy who has the greatest collection of weaponry in the United States at any one time. So from day one, really from the escalator ride down, that’s where “I Can’t Believe I’m Me” came from. It’s not just because he was seeking and ultimately gaining the presidency, it’s because he was such a blatantly surreal comical character from way, way back when he was the first and maybe only person in the history of the world to go bankrupt running casinos. That sort of put a marker in the map of just his particular style of greatness.
And I was paying attention to New York media and their really incestuous dance of death with him for the early ’90s when he was… I found out later he was calling up the tabloids in New York, pretending to be his own publicist, giving himself another name and dropping scoops like Marla, who was then his second wife, “Marla says it’s the best sex ever”. And people at that tabloids knew it was him and they printed it anyway, and then he denounced the tabloids and we’ve been watching that dance between him and the media ever since. So no, the minute he came on the big stage I’ve been on it.
You mentioned that these began as sketches on Le Show, but what exactly was the writing process like? Given the last few years, it almost feels like you might have had too much material to work with at times. Or were there aspects you couldn’t quite work into the end result?
I did, and I’m still doing, a series of comedy sketches about life in the White House called “The Appresidentice”, where he’s literally treating it like a reality show. And so that’s all spoken where I play all the characters. And then every once in a while something would happen or he’d say something that would just ring a bell in my head and I go, “That’s a song”.
So when I heard him repeat the phrase in describing himself “very stable genius” for about the third or fourth time… You get one of those as a freebie, any more than that and it’s going to end up as a song in my book, or a book in my song. No, it just seems to obviously a singable phrase and a ludicrous one.
Listening to some of the lyrics as well, they felt quite impressive, especially rhyming “subpoenas” with “genius”. However, did you ever find yourself wondering about the sort of music that Trump would actually listen to?
Oh, I very much thought about that, because as you’d know, each of the songs is in a different musical style. And so my thought was [that] we don’t know and we’ve had four plus years to define this, if he has any such thing as a favourite kind of music. He’s I think going to go down in history as the only US president who didn’t like either music or dogs, and you really could stop right there. So I thought what kind of music had he at least been exposed to at different periods of his life. You know, he may not have liked it but he was present while it was being played.
So that excluded things like hip-hop and stuff like that. But different styles like the up part of “COVID-180” I wrote, you know, it’s an upbeat kind of, “Yeah, everything’s fine”. And I wrote it in the style of what he must have heard when he was hanging out at Studio 54 in the late ’70s. So I did try to give some thought to what may have been in his ambient circumstances, if not going through his head.
There have been many stories of how he’s a fan of artists like Neil Young, though he hardly embodies the message that Neil Young would stand for, so it’s anyone’s guess really.
Yeah, it really is just that he was present when it was being played, you know, in the elevator or something.
One of the things that has become popular with these songs you’ve been releasing has been the accompanying videos. Is it true there is an Australian link to all of these?
Yes, my wife, Judith Owen, was touring Australia in March and we had just gotten to Sydney and she had a gig coming up in Melbourne. The place was closing down and just before, I asked a friend of ours, “Do you happen to know anybody who has a visual effects studio down here?” He said, “Let me check,” and the day we flew out he said, “Do you have time for a meeting with this guy?” And it was a guy named Matt Hermans, who ran Electric Lens in Sydney.
I said, “Look, the thing is, all these songs I’m singing in the voice of Donald Trump and if I’m going to have a video, it’s got to look like Donald Trump. And I’m not going to wear 48 pounds of makeup. So can you do something?” He said, “Yeah, I think we can something”.
So I went back to LA and recorded my performance there. And we were connected to Sydney in real time and they’re seeing it in real time, and I’m seeing it coming back through as a really early version of this CGI character. And then for the next couple of months, COVID-style we were on Skype with each other, watching the piece and making notes and suggestions, and adding jokes and taking things out, changing camera shots.
We’d done that twice and two videos; same process both times. The first was really a learning experience and the second one I think we all kind of eased into a more comfortable kind of flow with it. But it involves at least three or four different technologies being married and getting machines to play nicely with each other is almost as hard as getting people to.
But it was a really interesting process and because of the nature of it, even though the performance is now a recorded thing, we could change camera angles, we could change lighting, we could change a lot of aspects of how it looks after the fact. So that’s kind of thrilling and fun.
When you see a lot of impressions of Trump, a lot of them tend to go quite over the top. Now, you’ve obviously done impressions of lots of presidents over the years, and this particular take is quite nuanced. It’s based on mannerisms, his speech, and the content of his speech. So was it difficult to work out the right balance in which to portray him?
No, it’s sort of my thing. I mean, this has never been my main source of income or notoriety, it’s just something I do because I’m political and I’m in comedy. I’m interested in politics, let’s put it that way, I’m not a political person. It’s always been my way of doing… When Richard Nixon was around, which is really when I kind of broke in. There were people who were doing over the top impressions of Richard Nixon and [imitates Nixon] “I am not a crook”. That stuff. Very popular, [by] names not known now. I never though, “God, I should be doing it more that way”. I have my own way of doing these things.
I tend, in the writing about them, to be much more interested in kind of figuring out who they are as characters. You know, the politics is known and okay, we know that George W Bush wasn’t really smart and Bill Clinton was this, and Ronald Reagan was that. But getting to something that’s more interesting to write about… So for example with this guy, if you read about him you know that he had this horrible dad, probably second only to Michael Jackson and Brian Wilson in the horrible dad department. And his dad was always telling him that he was you know, not worth crap and not worth nothing – not worth a hill of beans, as they say in the South.
And Trump, his dad got wealthy, got rich at building middle class, I guess the right word would be “shit boxes” for people in Queens, this borough on the other side of the river in New York. And Trump decided he was going to show his dad who’s a big shot and he goes to Manhattan, across the river and builds these kind of golden penises in the sky. “These aren’t your little shit boxes dad, look at these.”
And so phrases like “very stable genius” to me, fit into this narrative of where he’s still, after all these years, trying to win this argument with his dad that “I’m not a little pisher”. I mean, it’s interesting to note in this context, he comes to Manhattan, he wants to join the Manhattan real estate big shots. They regard him as this tasteless [guy] from Queens, you know, which is a suburb. And he keeps trying to you know, insinuate himself more into the Manhattan thing.
Four years ago, right about now there was this thing that was on TV, on CNN, a big charity dinner run by the Catholic Church over here. White tie, all the big shots in Manhattan: real estate, finance, all of these people. And the two presidential candidates by tradition come and deliver kind of self-deprecating remarks. And Trump gets up to deliver his remarks to these people and they boo him.
And this is my window into why a self over-described billionaire makes some kind of contact with lower middle class white people – especially white guys. Because he has this burning resentment against the guys who run New York; the masters of the universe. As do they, because they got fucked over in the recession and then you know, they lost their jobs and their house and the banks got bailed out.
And so I think trying to understand him helps understand the phenomenon a little bit, too. But it also just makes it more interesting to write. And you know, these songs are written from the point of view of him writing about himself, as opposed to me writing about him. I learned a little of that from Randy Newman, who wrote inside the character of these people he was making fun of. It’s far more interesting and, if you do it right, it’s far funnier than, “He’s an asshole, he’s a jerk,” you know, that stuff.
When an artist or a comedian creates something, they obviously hope their work will last forever. This is a much more topical topical release, and although you have done this sort of thing before with the O.J. On Trial albums, was there any apprehension in creating something such as this, especially given the fact that Trump could very well be voted out mere days after the album arrives?
Yeah, I think that will add to its fun, frankly, in the moment. I’ve been part of two things that are going to be around for a long time. The Simpsons and Spinal Tap. It’s already set in stone that those will be the two things mentioned you know, when I pass. So I don’t worry that much about how long anything else is going to be around. I did this because, as I say, I had written these for a radio show, and then I thought, “I kind of like some of these”. The radio versions were sort of demos, I play everything, and I thought, “I’ll go into the studio with my producer CJ [Vanston] and really whip up a nice bunch of really well played songs”.
With the album being released this close to the election, do you have hope that its arrival may have some impact on things, however slight it may be?
I think any satirist that thinks they have an impact on current and public events, is living a dream. I think people have better, stronger, worse, stronger reasons to do something than [because] I or anybody, made fun of a person that they may or may not like. I mean, I’m in it for the laugh.
One thing I skipped over during our discussion of the songs is the fact that some attention needs to be given to the band you worked with as well. Were these folks that you had worked with before, or did you discover them during the creative process?
Well my aforementioned producer CJ Vanston and I have been working together for quite a while. We worked on the last Spinal Tap record, we worked together on the Derek Smalls solo record that came out a year or two ago. I’ve learned to trust implicitly his recommendations for musicians and singers. He’s just wickedly right every time.
So the guitarist, who is all over this record and the drummer who is on a lot of it – Marc Bonilla and Toss Panos were part of Derek Small’s band on his solo project. Wonderful guys to work with, great players. There were other players that CJ brought in on a COVID style you know, one-on-one in the studio with him. And I just would hear the tracks later and go, “Yeah!”.
And then there was one track on the record, “Son in Law”, which we recorded down here in New Orleans, because it’s really a half tip to an old New Orleans R&B song called “Mother in Law”. And I had my friend George Porter Jr., who was the bass player of The Meters for goodness sake, on there. And David Torkanowsky, one of the great piano players in New Orleans; also a friend. And Raymond Weber who played on a couple of tracks on earlier records of mine.
So yeah, we also had the Snarky Puppy horns on this record as well, and they were on the Derek project and I’m kind of friends with those guys. Michael League of Snarky Puppy is also on the Derek record, and we’ve played around a bunch. So you try to get people that you know and like, and also that are really great musicians. There’s nothing funny about bad or mediocre music.
At the end of the day, the listener would be able to tell if you’re phoning it in or not, won’t they?
Yeah, I mean, the music is the vehicle for the comedy in this particular case and if the vehicle is a rattle trap, it’s going to get out long before you reach your destination.
Harry Shearer’s The Many Moods of Donald Trump is out now via Twanky Records.