There are a lot of words, and comedian Harry Shearer wants to use them all
Every Friday, national arts reporter Geoff Edgers hosts The Washington Post's first Instagram Live show from his barn in Concord, Mass. He has interviewed, among others, actress Jamie Lee Curtis, immunologist Anthony Fauci, actress Tracee Ellis Ross and comedian Tiffany Haddish.
Recently, Edgers chatted with comedian Harry Shearer. Here are excerpts from their conversation.
Q: So you don't do Instagram Live or even Instagram, and you're using your wife's phone. Are you a believer in the idea that we are being tracked?
A: To call me a believer makes it sound like it's something I got from my friends at QAnon. No, there's a lot of research there. I've read at least two books on the subject and interviewed both authors on my radio show. The most recent book is Shoshana Zuboff, who wrote a book called ...
Q: "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism."
A: Yes. It starts with the cliche. If you don't pay for the product, you are the product and all the ramifications of that. And we live awash in free services now thanks to this thing. And we are the product. If somebody wanted to organize a movement, the movement would be, "You're using my information, pay me for it." And the answer would be, "Well, we're giving you this thing and then you have to have a conversation." "But you didn't tell me what the price of the thing was, that you call free." There actually is a price. They are selling personal information to all comers. And there's this huge marketplace -- a huge economic layer of middlemen who are trading, selling, sharing and marketing that data.
Q: What made you decide to make an entire album of Trump songs?
A: I do a weekly radio show and I make fun of the news. I found out through sources that we have a president who has an insatiable demand for attention from the public. And so I decided to comply with his wishes. So every week I have been writing either a comedy sketch or I play him -- the concept of which is they're running the White House like a reality show. So beginning this year, I looked back and realized, "Gosh, I've got a bunch of songs, some of which I actually like." The radio versions are like demos. So I took the ones that I like and made a proper record of them, because it's an election year and he's still in office and all of that.
The song we released about two, three weeks ago was a song called "Executive Time," which is based on the news site Axios, which had at one point gotten the official real daily schedule of the White House, not the one that's kind of released to the press on a daily basis but the real one. And it had a breakfast with somebody and a lunch with somebody and then maybe an evening appointment. But in between were these big gobs of time -- two, three hours at a time. And they were only labeled executive time. So this song explains the not widely asked question, "What the hell is he doing during that?"
Q: I ask a lot of comedians about how to deal with Trump, because he strikes me as a hard guy to do good comedy about. Because whether you like him or hate him, it's hard to make him more absurd or exaggerate the way he behaves.
A: Well, it's hard to do that kind of comedy. And I don't tend to try to do that. I think he's exaggerating himself plenty. So did Nixon. If you listen to the Nixon tapes, he in private is what Trump is in public. Almost exactly. So my technique is a little different. I just observe them really carefully. Catch what they're saying. Catch the stuff that's out there. And then edit out the boring parts.
Q: You have this incredible gift for language. I remember asking Randy Newman about his line in his song about Putin -- where he played with Kurds and whey -- and he immediately said he took it from you. Where does that gift come from?
A: I was listening to a lot of comedy as a kid, and there were people like Stan Freberg, who wrote great musical parody. And he was great with words as well. And then Tom Lehrer, who was a wonderful original songwriter of comedy songs, satirical songs and a professor of mathematics at some Massachusetts university.
Q: He was at M.I.T., wasn't he?
A: I think so. And he was a great word master as well. And then I listened to a lot of British comedy. The wordplay there is rampant. So I guess that influenced me as well. But they give us thousands and thousands and thousands of words. And then, you know, a guy like Donald Trump uses 800 of them. So I figure it's up to me to use the rest.