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DVD Review: Harry Shearer: Now You See It

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To say Harry Shearer is a legend of comedy wouldn't be insulting to the man.  Since 1990, Shearer has been a big part of The Simpsons.  Without him, Ned Flanders and Mr. Smithers wouldn't be who they are.  He's seen as an important part of Saturday Night Live despite having been there for two non-consecutive (and mediocre – though not his fault) seasons.  His voice is instantly recognizable, and even Shearer's radio program Le Show has been around since forever.

Lately, Shearer has put out a compilation of television "classics" and "rarities" called Now You See It.  Does this compilation pass muster?  Can Shearer convincingly pat his own ass without annoying viewers?  Is this a vanity project for the man?  The answers to all these questions, at least to me, are 'yes.'

No, there are no clips from This Is Spinal Tap on Now You See It.  Now that this idiotic question is out of the way, on with the review.

Men's Synchronized Swimming (SNL: October 6, 1984)
Writers: Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest, Martin Short

This is one of the most well-known sketches in Saturday Night Live history, a highlight of the show's 1984-85 season.  The sketch is fairly clever – Short and Shearer are in training to become champion pairs synchronized swimmers, despite their vocation not really existing.  It's very similar in style to most of Shearer's documentary-styled sketches, and Shearer really isn't the star of "Men's Synchronized Swimming".  The sketch is amiable enough, but considering this has been shown so often, it's become too familiar.  Martin Short in swimcap and lifejacket doing bad interpretive dance can only go so far.

Shearer didn't stay on SNL for the entire 1984-85 season (famously citing "creative differences" – he was creative, SNL was different), but a less well-known sketch could have been shown in "Men's Synchronized Swimming"'s place considering the target audience for Now You See It.  Of course, the compilation wouldn't be as marketable if "Men's Synchronized Swimming" wasn't on the compilation, so having it on here is an acceptable trade-off.

Note: Christopher Guest plays an effeminate choreographer.

The Magic of Live (HBO Comedy Hour: 1988)
Writer: Harry Shearer
Notable Guests: Meredith MacRae, Martin Short

Plaid: Not a good way to start off the special.  It's an accurate parody of both Michael Jackson's "Bad" and his penchant for plastic surgery, but it's too obvious and isn't that different than Weird Al Yankovic's "Fat."  Shearer's eye for detail is commendable, but the sketch is just dated and not really that funny. 

Hollywood Boulevard Memorial Day Weekend Parade 1: Here comes Shearer's Alan Thicke impersonation, one of Shearer's trademark characters and a spot-on impersonation of Thicke's on-air personality.  Shearer does these taped bits with Meredith MacRae throughout the show, and the running gag is that the parade the two are covering doesn't exist.  These sketches don't really serve much purpose beyond providing entertainment until the next stage sketch, but they're decent enough.

If The Legends Had Lived: Here's where The Magic of Live starts to become funny.  Not only does it take the piss out of HBO specials in general, there's something about Jim Morrison talking about fatherhood – as if he never died, mind – that's genuinely creepy.  "If The Legends Had Lived" is a one-note sketch, but most writers strain like hell to hit a note like this.  Even the Judy Garland impersonation is funny, even if it's a cheap shot at her drug abuse.

David Copperfield's Strange and Scary Wonderful World of Magic: Shearer's impersonation of David Copperfield is incredibly accurate – there's the pretentious gravitas of Copperfield's expository dialogue, big shiny props and Copperfield's omnipresent blowing shirt.  There even seems to be a steal from Star Trek where Copperfield and Doug Henning battle each over with shovels, and it doesn't look out of place at all here.  The references are dated (Copperfield here is trying to reseal Al Capone's vault with his mind), but "David Copperfield's Strange and Scary Wonderful World of Magic" is the centerpiece of The Magic of Live.  There's some great writing here…I think.
Hollywood Boulevard Memorial Day Weekend Parade 2: More of the same Thicke-MacRae banter.  Shearer doesn't look much like Alan Thicke, but the banter is appropriately insipid and Shearer gets Thicke's mannerisms down.  I gather Shearer doesn't like Alan Thicke all that much.

Hellcats of the White House: Harry Shearer's Ronald Reagan impersonation is, once again, accurate – half-remembered anecdotes about "Bill Lundigan," calling Nancy Reagan "Mommy," and his frequent bouts of senility are in full display here.  The references about Oliver North and Admiral John Poindexter, once again, are dated – sketch comedy tends to be when it focuses on politics – but it's the Reagan impersonation that really sells this sketch.  From "the Holmes Tuttle collection," "Hellcats of the White House" is set in the style of an imperial-era Hollywood film, and is still as biting as when it first aired eighteen years ago.

I'm continually astounded that The Magic of Live has aged as well as it has.  Comparable Saturday Night Live episodes from 1988 – and make no mistake, SNL was very good at this point – don't have this sort of consistency.

Live From the Center!: Robert Bloom reads some of his baseball pieces from the Atlantic Monthly.  The sketch is done in the style of a public access program – the cameraman doing a poor job focusing on the stage at times is a nice touch.  The baseball pieces are humourously pithy, with fallacies more pathetic than the rainouts Bloom describes in his new book, Not Since Noah.  The topics Shearer likes to make fun of are rather esoteric, but this sketch acquits itself rather well.  "Live From the Center!" isn't the best sketch of the night, but it's decent enough.

Hollywood Boulevard Memorial Day Weekend Parade 3: There is no parade, and a bus stops behind Thicke and MacRae as stagehands come to dismantle the set.  In other words, it's high time for a bathroom break.

The Great Silence: This wasn't funny.  It's just a video wall of Democratic presidential candidates circa 1988 not saying anything!  The audience is laughing throughout the sketch, though it's hard to see why.  "The Magic of Live" seems to have the actual presidential candidates (or likenesses thereof) appear in cameos, but "The Great Silence" has aged poorly.  It's not even a sketch, just Jesse Jackson, Gary Hart and others wasting a minute of time on a one-joke premise.  If that was Al Gore watching a mini-television, I'll admit that was a nice touch.

Monologue/Audience Bit: Harry Shearer actually does a bit of stand-up about television anchors (a well Shearer likes to dip into often).  It's acceptable, but not the selling point of the routine.  What really saves this monologue is Tom Leopold poorly connecting Iran-Contra to the Kennedy assassination.  Leopold steals the routine, although John J. O'Connor didn't like this sketch when he reviewed "The Magic of Live" in the June 8, 1988 New York Times.  Maybe he just didn't like Leopold, who is an acquired taste at best.

We Write the Stuff: Shearer ends "The Magic of Live" with a song about the Writers Guild of America striking.  It's a well-realized song, but the funniest thing about the sketch was the flying newspaper (a March 1988 Variety – the WGA strike delayed the start of the 1988-89 television season for some programs, if you must know) sporting the headline "VIDEO EXEX ON AFM: AGE OF SCHLOCK OVER."  The newspaper wasn't fake, but the current age of schlock is very much alive these days.  Way to end your special on a bum note, Shearer.

No, that wasn't a pun.  "We Write the Stuff" just isn't funny, even if Harry Shearer is referencing ALF.

Megapad (This Week Indoors [Cinemax]: 1986)
Writer/Director: Harry Shearer

At first, I didn't find this sketch convincing enough.  I know Laurie Anderson was the popular avant musician of the moment, but "Megapad" could have been some bad throwaway joke or vanity piece for Shearer.  After seeing this a few times, it's a rather spot-on parody of Laurie Anderson's oeuvre.  Shearer looks suitably convincing as Laurie Anderson (well, to a point – Laurie Anderson didn't look exactly like Harry Shearer back then, now), and every facet of Anderson's art is covered.  The video motifs, the inane expository dialogue masquerading as song, and the oblique symbolism all make for a very measured redux of Laurie Anderson's work.  Shearer's not trying to insult Anderson, but he knows how to write satire as Anderson would normally never endorse something like a maxipad.  Remember, Forever and a Day is a megapad…a megapad…and the man said, "Hi, Mom!"

Mike Wallace Investigates Minkman Novelties
(SNL: November 17, 1984)
Writers: Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest, Martin Short, Billy Crystal

Another classic sketch from SNL's 1984-85 season, and one almost as well-known as "Men's Synchronized Swimming."  "Mike Wallace Investigates Minkman Novelties" is much better – probably the best spoof of 60 Minutes SNL has done (although, to be fair, anything would be better than Norm Macdonald doing a horrible Andy Rooney impression).  Martin Short is suitably effective as a Coke-glassed attorney trying to evade Mike Wallace's questions with defensiveness.  Billy Crystal and Christopher Guest are decent as the Minkman brothers, dedicated to making quality novelty jokes.  Minkman's R&D division is suitably ludicrous, and the sight gag of what can euphemistically be termed a "stunt butt" is great.  If only the overall quality of SNL's 1984-85 season was as good as this sketch.

Astounding Innovations (Sunday Best [NBC]: February 1991)
Writer: Harry Shearer
Notable Guests: David L. Lander (as Lyle Vinton), Michael McKean

Sunday Best!  For those not familiar with this piece of television history, NBC cobbled together new sketches and clips from SNL and other NBC programming to compete against 60 Minutes during the 1990-91 season.  As a testament to Sunday Best's quality, the show lasted all of three weeks.  On the DVD, "Astounding Innovations" looks like it was sourced from a VHS copy!

"Astounding Innovations" is actually pretty good, though, with Richard Nixon and Lyle Vinton hawking Primi 2000.  Primi 2000 restores a painted-on suit, fixes damaged car paint and makes Nixon's teeth whiter through the miracle of oxidizing and emulsifying!  Michael McKean, Lander and Shearer do a decent job of filling time here, which begs the question of why Sunday Best couldn't be an hour of straight sketch comedy.  No, there had to be a dancing chorus line of Jane Pauley lookalikes.  That'll put the fear into Meredith Vieira and Steve Kroft.

It's Just TV (Cinemax Comedy Experiment: 1985)
Writer: Harry Shearer
Notable Guests: Tom Leopold, Paul Shaffer, Billy Vera, Archie Hahn
This half-hour (well, twenty-five minute) Cinemax presentation isn't as good as The Magic of Live, and is actually quite uneven.  Considering the show's behind-the-scenes mockumentary style, breaking it down into segments like for The Magic of Live would make little sense.  The highlights of It's Just TV include Curt Gowdy's "This Week in Rock 'n Roll" (a good spoof of This Week in Baseball), David L. Lander trying to pitch 'entermation program' "Mobile Home Life," "At Home with Charles Kuralt" ("You wouldn't even have to get in the tub.  The sound itself could cleanse the soul") and "Dick Clark's Blooper News".  Being an HBO comedy program, of course, the good has to be balanced out with Alan Thicke impersonations, Tom Leopold and "Slant Drillin' U.S.A." (a mediocre Beach Boys parody – what is it with slant drilling and Harry Shearer?)  The program ends abruptly, but it's better than the softcore porn Cinemax is most famous for.

The Making of You Wouldn't Believe Our World (Late Night With David Letterman: 1982)
Writer/Director: Harry Shearer
Notable Guests: Michael McKean, Marcia Strassman, Christopher Guest

More proto-Spinal Tap fun with McKean, Guest and Shearer.  A company reincorporating itself does not lend itself to great comedy material, and this early Late Night With David Letterman piece is definitely not as good as most of the sketches on Now You See It.  Still, "The Making of You Wouldn't Believe Our World" has its moments, especially when McKean sings about Bosc farm implements and Marcia Strassman's teary ode to missile makers.  There's also a good background joke featuring a cameraman and his eternal struggle with a watercooler.  When the weaker sketches on a compilation are still rather good, that says something about Harry Shearer's talent.

Note: Christopher Guest plays an effeminate director.  It's a note he often hits.

Pledge-A-Bration! (SNL: November 3, 1984)
Writers: Harry Shearer, Michael McKean
Notable Guest: Michael McKean hosted this episode of SNL.

McKean imitates Vincent Price.  This really has nothing to do with Harry Shearer (who plays a PBS pledge host in his usual 'dull' voice), and I didn't find "Pledge-A-Bration!" very funny.  Shearer considers this sketch worthier of inclusion on his DVD than the first appearance by The Folksmen?  He's deluding himself.

By the way, Shearer's second tenure on Saturday Night Live lasted a few months, yet one third of the sketches on the compilation come from the 1984-85 season of SNL.  I'm not trying to make a salient point here, I just find this weird.

Walter Keane Retrospective (SNL: May 24, 1980)
Writer/Director: Harry Shearer
Notable Guest: Richard Belzer
This is from the final episode of Saturday Night Live's fifth season, and the final episode featuring members of the original cast.

Harry Shearer appeared on SNL for a full season in 1979-80.  The 1979-80 season of Saturday Night Live wasn't very good overall, but this piece from the season finale beats the Belushi out of "Lord and Lady Douchebag."  There's something about comedy that works when the highbrow meets the lowbrow, and Shearer demonstrates this with "Walter Keane Retrospective".

Walter Keane is responsible for the infamous bug-eyed pictures of little kids, which establishes the broad humour of this Weekend Update piece.  Why "Walter Keane Retrospective" works so well is due to Shearer satirizing the art world at large as well as Keane's paintings, noting Keane's "early primitivist" and "late traditionalist" periods and setting up the most obvious sight gag ever – Richard Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy sporting big eyes.  Not to spoil a 26-year-old sketch, but Richard Nixon as seen "through that special prism of the Keane genius" is the greatest highlight of Now You See It.  You need to see the painting to truly appreciate it.

Overall, this is a worthy purchase for Harry Shearer fans as well as people who generally appreciate good comedy.  While there are no clips from Shearer's more famous works on this compilation, that's hardly a bad thing.  If you're buying a Harry Shearer DVD to see Nigel Tufnel's "trouser armadillo" for the fiftieth time, you're probably buying it for the wrong reasons anyway.  You freaks scare me.

Relevant Info
Harry Shearer: Now You See It
Courgette Records, 2006
116 minutes; no commentary or special features, just the way Shearer likes it

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About Cameron Archer

  • I’m aware of who plays Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest does appear in one-third of the sketches on Now You See It.)

    Point is, Shearer’s work is so voluminous that he can get away with showing (and should show) his lesser-known works. I was just making a bad joke about the familiarity of This Is Spinal Tap.

  • “If you’re buying a Harry Shearer DVD to see Nigel Tufnel’s “trouser armadillo” for the fiftieth time, you’re probably buying it for the wrong reasons anyway.”

    Especially because Nigel didn’t do that. Harry played Derek Smalls. I’ve only seen the film twice.