From child bit-player in 1950s Hollywood movies to political blogger, Harry Shearer has had a sneakily influential multimedia career. Shearer is perhaps best known as one of the geniuses behind This Is Spinal Tap (he played profoundly mustachioed bassist Derek Smalls) and as the voice of some 20 characters on The Simpsons, including Montgomery Burns and Ned Flanders. He's been a Saturday Night Live writer and cast member; written and directed a feature film (2004's Teddy Bears' Picnic); and for 21 years hosted his nationally distributed satirical radio program Le Show (heard locally at midnight Sundays on WDUQ 90.5 FM). In May 2005, Shearer founded the Eat the Press section of The Huffington Post Web site; some credit his blogs with highlighting the man-made nature of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans (where he's a part-time resident).
Now Shearer, 62, has published his first novel. Not Enough Indians (Justin, Charles & Co.) satirically tells of an upstate New York town trying to solve its financial woes by getting certified as an Indian reservation -- despite a seemingly crippling lack of actual Native Americans -- and building a casino. The funny, fast-paced book lampoons the pompous, the greedy, the deluded -- everyone from Washington movers and Vegas shakers to town-council gadflies and, um, diaper fetishists.
Shearer spoke with City Paper from San Francisco, in the midst of his book tour.
What inspired Not Enough Indians?
The real instigator was probably a piece that was in The New York Times when the Foxwoods casino opened, a huge Native America casino in Connecticut. The Times ran a piece that included a startling little factoid that, at the time of the opening, the number of fullblooded Mashantucket Pequot living on the reservation was exactly one. And I just thought, "Well, one minus one gets you zero."
Yet the book is less about Indians or even gambling than about people trading dignity for cash.
A few weeks back we really reached a certain new level when President Bush, talking about the Geneva Conventions regarding torture -- [in a Bush twang] "Geneva Convention, uh uh, abolishes assaults upon human dignity. What does that mean? What is 'an assault upon human dignity'?"
The easy shot is, well, "George Bush doesn't know what an assault upon human dignity is." But the sadder story is more telling about our culture: That 15, 20 years of people eating maggots on TV just for the sake of getting on TV -- yeah, we don't know what an assault on human dignity is at this point in time.
What was most challenging about writing a novel?
The solitude, the goddamn solitude. The endless, unrelenting solitude. And it just requires a level of discipline that's just so far above the level of any other form. But especially since I didn't have a deal. There was no publisher saying, "Hey, where is it?"
How long did it take to write?
On and off, six years.
On your Web site, you say, "Comedy is good, reality is better."
For my money, the funniest stuff around is what people actually say and do. Sometimes the contrast between what they say and what they do. I'm really personally uninterested in: "What if the police chief was an alien and his deputy was a dog?" That kind of comedy pays plenty of bills in Hollywood, but I just find [it] monumentally uninteresting. What I think we're here to do is to be observers of the way people actually are and kind of reflect it back and tell people, "This is what's funny about this world we live in." I kinda think that's the job.
Harry Shearer reads from and signs Not Enough Indians 7 p.m. Thu., Dec. 14. Borders Books & Music, Northway Mall, 8000 McKnight Road. Free (ticketed event, with tickets available at 9 a.m. Thu., Dec. 14). 412-635-7661
Harry Shearer, novelist