March 28, 2002
Los Angeles' preeminent satirist spoofs male-bonding retreats in "The Teddy Bears' Picnic."
On the sunny porch of his Santa Monica cottage, a scruffy-looking Harry Shearer, Los Angeles' preeminent satirist, is describing his fascination with an all-male power retreat called the Bohemian Grove. It began about nine years ago when the caustic, 58-year-old humorist started interviewing Grove guests -- and hookers -- about the super-exclusive Northern California resort. The interviews eradicated every conspiracy theory he'd had about the place: "These guys aren't micromanaging the world," says Shearer, best known for voicing myriad "Simpsons" characters and for his National Public Radio program, "Le Show."
Instead, the big shots -- who've included Henry Kissinger and Robert F. Kennedy -- liked to cavort naked through the woods, visit prostitutes, pee on redwoods and dress in drag. "What I found peculiar is that if you call a group of the richest and most powerful men in America and say, 'Here's a week apart from the cares of the world,' what they choose to do is to regress to the status of college sophomores," he says with a laugh. "I think that's funny. I find it a bit 'twee,' a British word meaning sort of silly and a bit below one."
So Shearer did what humorists are wont to do: He wrote a spoof of the Grove and turned it into his feature film directorial debut, "The Teddy Bears' Picnic," which opens April 5 in Los Angeles. In the sharp but slowly paced comedy, chaos ensues when outsiders crash a fictional retreat called Zambesi Glen. Shearer says he picked the name, "Zambesi," "because the idea of these white guys choosing something African had a sort of class obliviousness that I liked."
To fact check, he finagled an invitation to the Grove; while he didn't see any nude frolicking, he did note bacchanalian feasting and the imbibing of a "house drink" named after the narcotic drug Nembutal. The high point of his visit: finding a major corporate executive face down on the golf course, sleeping off his Nembutals. The low point: performing some of his irreverent humor -- "a bad idea as evidenced by the lack of laughter and applause," he says.
Not that arch, wry Shearer is afraid of a little rejection. After all, he's the guy whose politically incorrect fare has included a "debate" between Jesse Jackson and Jerry Falwell over whether a movie should be colorized.
After the Sept. 11 tragedy, he was perhaps the first satirist to officially skewer President Bush, doing one of his "Le Show" conversations between "43" and "41," as he refers to Bush junior and senior, the 43rd and 41st presidents of the United States. "I found my mission," 43 tells 41. "I haven't been this focused and determined since the fourth time I quit drinking."
Even the Chabad Telethon -- which Shearer actually likes -- isn't safe from his barbed wit. With a mischievous smile, he admits he hosts an annual Chabad telethon party where he "gets up and dances every time they show the tote board. I love watching Rabbi Cunin's progression as a tummler each year. I remember times when he would literally engage in grabbing contests for the microphone with [telethon supporter and mega-producer] Jerry Weintraub; we'd just slow-mo the tape for the body language."
Shearer's large hazel eyes turn serious when he describes how his Austrian father and Polish mother separately fled Nazi-occupied Europe in the late 1930s (they met in Havana). "The rest of my relatives were supposed to follow, but time just ran out," he says. "When my parents talked about losing their families, there was a lot of emotion so obviously it was painful."
The Shearers were also political and radio junkies who listened to everything from the satirists Bob and Ray to the Jewish Theological Seminary's weekly show. By the age of 3, young Harry could not only name all his favorite radio programs, but what city they originated in and the times they were on. By age 7, he was a child actor on "The Jack Benny Show." The year after his father died of a brain abscess in the mid-1950s, he became bar mitzvah at Hollywood Temple Beth El.
After a brief political career, he turned up in the radio comedy group, "The Credibility Gap," on "Saturday Night Live" and as the horny bass player Derek Smalls in Rob Reiner's 1984 rock mockumentary "This Is Spinal Tap," which he also co-wrote. Around the same time, he launched "Le Show," which he still does for free every week so no one can tell him what to do.
Shearer can afford it. He reportedly makes at least $50,000 per "Simpsons" episode, though he says he's chagrined that many Hollywood executives still view him as "one of their refined tastes they're not willing to share with the masses." He's been accepting roles in blockbusters such as "Godzilla" to prove he can be, well, commercial: "Fame is a tool in this town," he says. "I need to become more famous to do the projects I want to do."
But he's not averse to working in the margins, if necessary. When studios eschewed "Picnic," Shearer used the new digital production technology to make the movie independently, on the cheap. Like all his work, "Picnic" skewers political and pop culture establishments on the left and the right. "It's like we used to say in The Credibility Gap," he says. "In my stuff, everybody's an as-----."