Harry Shearer On What's Funny About Nixon And What's Not In New Orleans

At Manhattan’s Slipper Room on Wednesday night, Harry Shearer spent two hours on a stage discussing the role he considers his defining one.

Not the megalomaniacal Mr. Burns, who he voices on “The Simpsons,” nor Spinal Tap’s affably insecure bassist, Derek Smalls. The character Shearer has lived with longest is Richard Nixon. His latest take on the 37th president, “Nixon’s the One,” can be seen in weekly episodes through Nov. 25 on YouTube.

With the Nixon historian Stanley Kutler, Shearer combed through thousands of hours of the tapes Nixon secretly recorded in the Oval Office, then staged re-enactments of key moments as if captured by hidden cameras, remaining “faithful to the words, the rhythms, and even the pauses,” he said. Even so, he said, “it’s not a history show, but a character comedy series.” My interview with Shearer about all that ran recently in The Wall Street Journal.

After that Slipper Room performance, Shearer, who lives in New Orleans, and I spent some time discussing an issue that just now seems defining for anyone who understands and adores New Orleans indigenous culture. And is distinctly unfunny.

A day earlier, Shearer had sat in a public conversation presented as part of this year’s Future of Music Coalition’s annual Policy Summit in Washington, D.C., discussing many things, beginning with the present moment of crisis surrounding New Orleans culture.

“It was widely predicted after the flood that if New Orleans survived, it would be Disneyfied.” Shearer said. “What’s real and authentic would be displaced. That hasn’t happened. The city has come back in remarkable fashion. The problems it faces are not problems of failure but problems of success.”

Shearer, who has about as keen an ear for irony as anyone, sees plenty of that as well as a world of danger in the forces now threatening to crowd out or confine the culture he loves. I spelled out the specific issues at hand in an August post, a week before the anniversary of the flood caused by the failure of federal levees following Hurricane Katrina, which I characterized the moment this way:

The ninth anniversary of the flood that couldn’t wash away New Orleans culture might best be honored by removing the obstacles that some fear will whittle that culture away or twist it into something lesser in the name of development.

Shearer and I missed each other at FMC in Washington. I was there on Monday, moderating a panel that I named, “The Fight for New Orleans Jazz Culture, and What It Means” (thus appropriating the subtitle of my book-in-progress).

Its was frank and open conversation about the tensions between the city of New Orleans and its celebrated indigenous music culture, the current activism surrounding new cultural policy, and the implications for other American cities, with: David Freedman, general manager of WWOZ-FM and Ashlye Keaton, a New Orleans-based entertainment attorney and educator, and Bernie Cook, Director of Film and Media Studies, Georgetown University.

Freedman and Keaton, along with Shearer and others, are developing a new organization, The Crescent City Cultural Continuity Conservancy, a think tank and advocacy group still in its nascent state (no website yet). The name is a mouthful, yes. And the task—of reconciling the interests of powers-that-be in New Orleans with the needs of the cultural community—is one at which many well-meaning groups before it have failed. Yet in D.C., we got a chance to present the need and goals of such an effort before an interested crowd, including representatives of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Jazz Forward Coalition.

During that conversation, Keaton said: The city has come down hard on culture in ways that foster inequity and injustice. So we’ve decided that it’s time to rise up and demand equity ourselves.”

Freedman worried aloud that the pursuit of expanded tourism and development might likely kill “the goose that laid the golden egg” which he called “unfettered, free-range spontaneous expression.”

He’s right.

When Shearer plays Nixon—who he considers “one of the great comic figures of the 20th century,” he’s doing it for laughs. And yet he’s calling up one powerful cause for disgust and distrust when it comes to politicians. When he’s joining in the efforts afoot to protect, preserve and promote New Orleans culture, Shearer—like the rest of us—is hoping to cut through all that bad faith and ill will in order to work toward policy solutions. In a city like New Orleans, where the divides of both race and class and stark, and where the reality of political dysfunction outdoes even as smooth a parodist as Shearer, that’s no easy task.

It’s the serious business I’ve been tracking for nearly a decade now, with newly raised stakes. More to come soon…

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