Comedian and actor Harry Shearer is about to release what he considers one of his crowning achievements: a six-part original Youtube series called “Nixon’s The One,” in which Shearer plays President Richard Nixon in episodes based on Nixon’s voluminous archive of White House tape recordings.
Shearer, star of Christopher Guest comedies including “This Is Spinal Tap” and host of his own Los Angeles-based satirical radio program, “Le Show,” spoke to The Daily Caller after premiering scenes from his work on stage Monday night at Los Angeles’ Chaplin Theatre. Shearer will next bring his stage show to Philadelphia on Oct. 27 and New York’s Slipper Room on Oct. 29. The series, which he filmed in England, premieres on YouTube Oct. 21 and airs a new episode each week for six weeks.
“Nixon basically was a figure in my life when I grew up in California,” Shearer said. “When I got into comedy he was president and I was doing topical comedy. As time went on, I became more aware of the deeply darkly comic nature of his character.”
“I started thinking of him as the version of him you’d see in movies and television. But it never depicted him as the strangely funny guy.”
Shearer wrote the script with historian Stanley Kutler, who filed the lawsuit against the National Archives that won the public release of Nixon’s tape recordings in the 1990’s. Their script focuses on the odder, more obscure moments in the recordings. For Shearer, the show is about character.
“The Kissinger relationship was so fascinating,” Shearer said. “Kissinger was two things Nixon didn’t like, Jewish and a Harvard professor. It’s a very fraught and comical relationship. Kissinger deals with it by becoming the world’s greatest kissass, constantly walking in saying ‘This was the best speech!’ And Nixon never called him on it. He was always asking, ‘Well, could this have gone better?’ He was always asking for more approbation.”
“He didn’t have an expansive social circle,” Shearer said of Nixon. “He would be sitting with Kissinger angry that during the Kennedy administration he was never invited to any social events. No one thinks to say ‘Mr. President you won and Kennedy’s been in the ground for the last 9 years.’ He could not let go and realize the fact that he won. That’s what propelled him through this profession that he wasn’t all that cut out for.”
“It was the class thing, also the regional thing. I identify with this because I grew up in Southern California too. You look at people in the New York-Boston axis and you think they’re wired in a way I never will be. You listen to him on the tape and there’s a lot of kinds of people he doesn’t like. It generalizes into this sense that it’s him against a lot of other folks. His drives come from this sense of not wanting to submit to this inadequacy he feels he has.”
Shearer noticed a class-consciousness in Nixon’s mannerisms that seemed to contradict the very working-class image that Nixon had of himself. The actor chased that point of view on Nixon in ways that he said differentiates his performance from those of past Nixons Anthony Hopkins, Frank Langella or Phillip Baker Hall.
“He always stressed the manly virtues and not being soft. ‘I’m hard,’ he would say. Then you see these gestures that one can only describe as delicate. When he was leaving the presidency on the bridge to the helicopter and gave a farewell salute, his hand almost flutters away like a butterfly. I noticed this in a lot of his hand gestures.”
“In one scene, he’s clearly had a few to drink and he’s talking to Kissinger on the couch. He was looking for a way to physicalize that, like an actor. ‘What does the relaxed Nixon look like?’ And I realized that Nixon was borrowing a bit of the posture of Bob Hope and Jack Benny.”
“He’s in danger of becoming this kind of standard movie villain. But to me, I’d always seen him as this unwittingly strangely funny character,” he said. “If Shakespeare was alive today, he would be doing a play about Nixon. Hopefully a comedy.”