Oct 17, 2014 11:47 AM
Nixon comes alive in a new show from Harry Shearer
The Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) Harry Shearer is hardly the first person to mine comedy from the rich vein where Richard Nixon shines.
But no one has done it more faithfully than Shearer, who, in his new series, mimics Nixon unimpeachably while re-enacting real-life scenes as the man known to detractors as Tricky Dick all to hilarious effect.
The creatively peripatetic Shearer's credits include "This is Spinal Tap," ''The Simpsons" and the 30-year-old humor-and-politics "Le Show" on public radio. Now, with "Nixon's the One," Shearer dramatizes, verbatim, bizarre but actual interludes lifted from the White House recordings Nixon secretly made those very tapes whose revelations would wreck his presidency.
A backhanded homage to the 37th president, "Nixon's the One" finds Shearer transformed into the figure of Nixon and ensconced in the Oval Office as he delivers a profane slurry of tortured small talk, bitter outbursts against minorities and other supposed enemies, rants self-pitying and paranoid, and random moralizing, all in the company of top aides Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman and other enabling yes men.
Hear him, from April 7, 1971, railing how "I'm sick of the bunch of them: my cabinet, the leaders in Congress. What a bunch of assholes!"
And on May 13, 1971, he cites ancient history in warning against gays taking over the nation: "You know what happened to the Greeks. Homosexuality destroyed 'em."
While Sky TV has already aired the series in Britain to much acclaim, no U.S. outlet was willing to step up. But viewers on U.S. shores need wait no longer. The pilot episode premieres Tuesday on MyDamnChannel on YouTube, to be followed in subsequent weeks by five more half-hours set to handy themes ("Secrets," ''Religion," ''Elites," etc.).
Now 70, Shearer has been fascinated with Nixon all his life.
As far back as Nixon's presidency, he had worked an impersonation into his improv act, and since 1974, when Nixon resigned beneath the weight of the Watergate scandal, Shearer has feasted on the White House tapes as more and more of them became public.
But crafting "Nixon's the One" meant full-scale monitoring of those hundreds of hours.
One episode is devoted to conversations between Nixon and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger.
"We knew there were, to be delicate, a pants-load of scenes where Kissinger was being incredibly sycophantic to the president," says Shearer. "But we wanted to find the best ones, the funniest ones."
Shearer found a gold mine.
"I thought that China was beautifully handled, and you were very wise," Kissinger (played by lookalike actor Henry Goodman) tells Shearer-as-Nixon in one scene lifted from an exchange on April 16, 1971, following a press conference. "I was tremendously impressed with the delicacy with which you handled those foreign policy questions."
In reanimating Nixon, Shearer says he studied the tapes "not just for the words, but for the rhythm and the pauses every hem and every haw. We were absolutely faithful to the audio." (You are invited to hear for yourself by comparing the show's excerpts with the original tapes, readily available online.)
"Where we had artistic license was in the visual end," he says. "Physicality was in the hands of our director in staging each scene," each unfolding in the Oval Office and captured by cameras placed at odd vantage points as if hidden for Nixonian surveillance.
The series was produced in Britain two years ago. After four weeks of rehearsals, each episode took a full week to shoot, with all the dialogue memorized by the actors. These are not comic sketches, and they are not just funny. Even after all this time (and the tapes' wide exposure), some viewers may be shocked by what went on.
Why did Shearer take such pains bringing "Nixon's the One" to life?
"I'm a comedy actor and, in terms of American public life, Nixon was the great comic character of the 20th Century," he says. "All those wacky behaviors: suppressing his emotional responses, then blurting them out without notice; the weird little smiles at odd moments; the fluttering of his hands and eyelashes. He was the sort of fascinating, twisted character any actor loves to do."
And he preserved himself for the ages in a state more naked than any public figure is ever likely to be heard.
"The tapes are such a unique gift we've been given, and I wanted to do them right," Shearer says. But whatever the degree of its verisimilitude, "this isn't a history or educational show," he insists. "It's just a very odd comedy series. I want people to look at it, shake their heads, and laugh."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at email@example.com and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore