As an actor and comic who voices myriad characters on “The Simpsons,” Harry Shearer has owned one of the steadiest gigs in show business since that canonical cartoon’s 1990 premiere. But there’s another post the 79-year-old has held down even longer than the 35 seasons he has portrayed Mr. Burns, Ned Flanders and other Springfieldian denizens.
Shearer this week celebrated the 40-year anniversary of “Le Show,” the weekly satirical news broadcast he has brought to the public radio airwaves since December 1983. Reflecting on his decades-long commitment to “Le Show” — amid a career that has also included stints on “Saturday Night Live,” a starring role in the cult classic film “This Is Spinal Tap,” a slew of comedy albums and various onstage endeavors — Shearer described the dynamic of sitting at a mic week after week to deliver his idiosyncratic blend of irreverent news readings, biting political commentary and scripted sketches.
“Well, it’s four decades of thinking every week, ‘I’ve got to just stop doing this,’” Shearer deadpanned during a recent phone interview from his home in New Orleans. “Which clearly was ineffective.”
Although Shearer said he hasn’t spent much time pondering “Le Show’s” longevity over the years, this week’s anniversary isn’t the only occasion for such retrospection. On Thursday morning, the American Archive of Public Broadcasting — a collaboration between the Library of Congress and Boston public media producer GBH — announced the launch of Le Show Collection, a publicly accessible digital archive of more than 2,000 hours of broadcasts.
“There’s no time to think about [an episode] after doing it because the next one is coming right up,” Shearer said. “The radio comes and disappears into the ether almost immediately. To have that situation totally reversed and having it be available over time is remarkable.”
Shearer’s program was originally titled “The Voice of America” and “The Hour of Power” before switching in 1985 to “Le Show,” playing on a corporate trend at the time to Frenchify brands. Originally broadcast via KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif., “Le Show” has been hosted by WWNO in New Orleans since 2014 while appearing on public radio stations across the globe.
Rosa A. Eberly, an associate professor of rhetoric at Penn State, was the driving force behind the effort to archive “Le Show.” A student at the University of Chicago in the mid-1980s when she discovered “Le Show,” Eberly spent years religiously listening to the program — eventually working it into her curriculum as a teacher — before she started a correspondence with Shearer about a decade ago. The academic was already interested in digitizing the show’s archive when she visited Shearer’s Santa Monica residence and saw that the only comprehensive collection of “Le Show” episodes existed as cassette tapes, digital audiotapes and CDs in his basement — precariously close, she quickly realized, to the Pacific Ocean.
“One of the things I study is ancient rhetoric, so I’m pretty well familiar with what texts survive and how they survive and what gets lost,” Eberly said. “And I just really didn’t want this to get lost.”
So Eberly sparked the movement to archive “Le Show” and curated the accompanying exhibit Harry Shearer’s Le Show: Sonic Portal to News, Satire, Memory, History, an online overview that includes four Shearer-penned essays. The collection itself — a searchable online database now available to the public — provides access to decades of full episodes and highlighted segments.
The sketches, written and voiced entirely by Shearer, include spoofs of each administration he covered — starting with the Reagan-centric “Hellcats of the White House” before moving on to “Clintonsomething,” “Dick Cheney: Confidential,” “Father Knows Best” and the Trump era satire “The Appresidentice.” The archive also spotlights Shearer’s penchant for dry wit and wordplay as he rolls through headlines in such recurring segments as “News From Outside the Bubble,” “Reading the Trades” and “Apologies of the Week.”
“Obviously there’s amazing satire there,” Eberly said. “But what really captivated me about listening to ‘Le Show’ is Harry’s extemporaneous rhetorical flourishes. It’s the very stark contrast between the seriousness of a lot of what he informs us about and the folly in his delivery.”
While Shearer emphasized that he isn’t one to listen to old episodes, he recalled how the tone of the show changed in the early 2000s, when he felt many media outlets fueled misperceptions around Hurricane Katrina and the buildup to the Iraq War. Shearer subsequently laced “Le Show” with more commentary on the media, and the program’s balance between news and comedy skewed toward the former.
“I thought, ‘Well, I have a microphone. I have an audience. I can share this stuff with them and feel better about the situation,’” Shearer said. “So the show evolved into much more information alongside the entertainment.”
As Shearer enters his 80s later this month, continues to lend his many voices to “The Simpsons” and prepares to shoot a “Spinal Tap” sequel next year, he shows no desire to exit “Le Show” — a program, he pointed out, for which he has never been paid. So what keeps him going?
“The reward of untrammeled self-expression, I guess,” Shearer responded. “Anything you do at a sort of larger scale in show business is going to involve some people who may entertain certain fears and may have some position of influence over you. So the calculation I made early on is to be really free, you have to be free — meaning you have to get nothing in return for it.”