Ken Paulson: Welcome to "Speaking Freely," a weekly conversation about free speech in America. I’m Ken Paulson. We're glad to be joined today by the talented Tom Leopold and Harry Shearer. And the two of you got together to create what I understand is a very respectful treatment of the life of J. Edgar Hoover.
Tom Leopold: You understand incorrectly, sir.
Paulson: It's called J. Edgar!
Harry Shearer: J. Edgar, exclamation point.
Leopold: Harry actually came up with the exclamation point.
Paulson: That's great.
Shearer: That's how a collaboration works. I do the punctuation. He does the words.
Paulson: And it's a musical comedy.
Leopold: Yes, it is.
Paulson: How is that possible? Where did this come from?
Shearer: We both loved musical comedy
Shearer: and we were talking about how, especially in the early and mid-'90s, musical comedy had died off, and musical melodrama was the thing, so we thought, "Well, what's a subject that we could be funny about?" And I think the first thing I thought of was this character who'd been in the back of my mind, Harry Anslinger, a very obscure guy, who was the first head of the Federal Narcotics Bureau and was the guy who lobbied to get marijuana made illegal.
Leopold: We found out Rogers and Hammerstein had already done a musical about that. So then Tom said, "Well, that's a little obscure. What about J. Edgar Hoover?" And I believe I said, "Bingo."
Leopold: Well, it just instantly says, you know, wonderful love, he and Clyde Tolson, his lifetime assistant. It said cross-dressing, which, of course, you want to look for in a hit musical. You know, especially with those, you know, matinees. And
Shearer: And it says a guy who was a real significant force in the history of the country.
Leopold: Real history yeah, it's a real story of the early part of that century.
Paulson: So how do you decide to make a commitment to that? I mean, you can make a significant amount of money as a, as a writer, producer. You do a lot of work in a variety of fields.
Leopold: Can I tell you how much I make? Or is that a lot of people don't like to talk about it, but I enjoy it.
Shearer: You never told me how much
Leopold: No, I’ll tell you later. It's I think we probably just thought, "Jesus, there's so, there's so many funny " I mean, it instantly said a lot of scenes, a lot of really funny scenes. It just seems so funny, the idea of doing it.
Shearer: And they and when you talk about commitment, I mean, this is not this was not, in the beginning, a major time commitment. We were in New York, I believe, and we were working in Tom's ratty little apartment.
Leopold: Well, it's
Shearer: No, I’m kidding. And I believe we wrote almost all of the script and the lyrics for the songs in about two weeks. It's this thing that we, that we found
Leopold: It came really easy.
Leopold: Much like J. Edgar himself.
Shearer: We hit this vein, and, I, you know, talk to songwriters or other creative people, and sometimes, the thing just comes out of you, and you look back and go, "Did we do that?"
Leopold: It feels like we more than wrote it. It escaped from us.
Leopold: But also, we had this place to do it. We had the, the L.A. Theatre Works wanted to do it
Shearer: That’s right.
Leopold: so that was a really good engine to get us off our butts and do it.
Shearer: Yeah, we had a, we had a place that was actually going to produce it for the radio.
Leopold: For the radio, yes, and so it was, "Oh, OK."
Paulson: On the face of it, it's one of those "we have nothing to lose" kinds of projects.
Paulson: The guys who created "Urinetown," they were like, "I know, let's, let’s create
Paulson: a musical comedy about a, you know, a play, a city a government built around pay bathrooms." It's an outrageous idea, but they had nothing to lose.
Leopold: Right, right.
Paulson: They weren't directing "Seinfeld," and they didn't have appreciable other careers. And, and yet you found the time of focus on it. So then you decide it's going to work. Is the next step, beyond finding somebody to produce it, to find some money? Is that part of the process?
Shearer: Money has never entered into this.
Leopold: We haven't found any money.
Shearer: We were looking for some right now. We heard public television is awash in money, so we thought we might ask your viewers. No, we the next thing we did is, Tom, because he had been involved with "Cheers," asked Kelsey Grammer if he would play J. Edgar.
Leopold: And I knew Kelsey was a really good singer as well, and he was so great. He's loved the project ever since.
Shearer: And I’m part-time from New Orleans, so I knew John Goodman, who's a resident of New Orleans, and I said, "John, would you do Clyde Tolson, J. Edgar's lifetime assistant?" So once we had those two guys in the cast, we had a show
Shearer: and we could build the radio production around them. And then
Leopold: And Peter Matz, Peter Matz
Shearer: Oh, that’s right.
Leopold: who's our wonderful composer who just recently passed away, Peter is, you know, was Noel Coward's pianist, and he orchestrated all the Barbra Streisand early records and just really a genius.
Shearer: Musical director for the Judy Garland
Leopold: I forget how he came in. Yeah.
Shearer: Oh, the producer of the radio series: we had the show; we had the lyrics, and we had the book. And we didn't know who to turn to, to write the music, and she said, "I know the guy." And Susan Lowenberg was her name, the producer, and she put us in touch with Peter Matz. And we sat down with Peter in his office one day, and we just said, "Look, we figure this is like Frank Lesser's last show, and he ran out of conventional love stories," and I I've never been as thrilled I mean, there've been a lot of thrills with this show, but there's nothing been as thrilling as when we first sat in Peter's office and heard him play the songs to us, one right after another, and just go, "Oh, my God."
Leopold: When we write the lyrics to a love story between two men and the lyrics are "Once upon a face," and then you hear a beautiful tune under it, it lifts it out of just a funny, really funny, jokey kind of thing, and it gives it a real depth that I was going to say "real bottom," but I don't want to use that word in reference to the show.
Shearer: But it was; it was just thrilling to sit there and listen to Peter, who had, you know, heard this one direction from us and, and drew upon his whole history in the musical theater to he knew exactly what we were doing. We were calling up this tradition, this pre-rock, pre-Andrew Lloyd Webber tradition of the musical theater, and Peter knew exactly all of that history
Shearer: to call on.
Leopold: He really gave it an elegance to this funniness.
Paulson: Has any American icon fallen as far as J. Edgar Hoover? I mean, for a man to be as powerful as he was just 30 years ago and to be the subject of this kind of treatment, and everyone gets it.
Paulson: I mean, it's really an extraordinary fall.
Leopold: You see how far he falls after it goes to Broadway.
Shearer: Yeah, he's gonna fall farther. I mean, there his mother, in our show, J. Edgar's mother tells him that his name is one day going to be up on a building. I feel pretty confident his name is going to be off that building pretty soon, so you can't fall farther than that.
Paulson: So how much research did you do?
Leopold: Did a good amount
Leopold: and the story is basically true. All these things are, you know, you know, he persecuted homosexuals, how he was a homosexual. How he kind of took, he took bribes from organized crime and kept saying, "Well, that there is no organized crime, organized crime," and that's why he disavowed any organized crime. All of it was pretty much true.
Shearer: How he used his information on the private lives of the presidents to intimidate them into backing off from trying to ease him away from the job, how he kept in power for nearly 50 years, which is pretty remarkable.
Leopold: Blackmailing the presidents. How he wore a size 8 dress. That's absolutely documented.
Shearer: Absolutely true.
Paulson: Where's that documentation?
Leopold: Well, in the room, I’ve got it up in the room.
Shearer: Your box archives.
Paulson: Has anyone done anything like this before? I mean, I’m trying to think of political satire done as a musical comedy.
Shearer: We actually envisioned the writers of this show as other characters, so we wrote from their perspective. So we weren't writing from our perspective. We were writing from the perspective of two gay guys who were writing a gay love story, and they just happened to pick this guy who was
Shearer: the most famous figure that they could think of. So it it's, it's got, it's got this very convoluted quality to it. I don't think anybody's ever done this before.
Leopold: But it's a real classic old musical in the sense that it's a love story. There's an act you know, Clyde Tolson walks out on J. Edgar, his lifetime assistant, the act break. And he gets him back in the second act. And it's very, very classic in that old '50s form of the musical.
Paulson: Well, you're clearly committed to the material, and you're not in it just to make a buck, but sooner or later, you hope to draw an audience and have a hit show.
Paulson: This is America, post-Sept. 11. It's a country with great reverence for national figures. Not a lot of tolerance for political dissent right now.
Shearer: Well, it's not dissent.
Leopold: This isn't no, I think
Paulson: You think that J. Edgar Hoover's fallen so far off the
Leopold: Well, I mean, George M. Cohan did a comedy musical about FDR in the '40s. I mean, it's, it's a very there's a good-natured quality to it. I mean, I don't think it's harsh or angry or mean. I think it's, it's sort of faux beloved. You know, it's just
Shearer: It's sly. It's very sly.
Leopold: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Shearer: And I think that, you know, it, it has interesting resonances today that I don't think it had when we wrote it, so you know, I can't ever second-guess. I don't think either of us can.
Leopold: Who knew "The Producers" would be Nazis storm troopin' around the stage, you know, it's, like, you sort of just it's it kind of finds its own makes its own gravy, you know? What am I talkin' about?
Shearer: I don’t know.
Leopold: I just did an interview for the Food Channel. That's why I’m still back
Paulson: So the next step is to find
Shearer: We leave here.
Paulson: Yeah, OK.
Shearer: We leave this show, and you do the wrap-up.
Paulson: Somewhere money's going to have to come in.
Shearer: Oh, I see.
Paulson: Somewhere you’re going to have to get backers because I’ve seen this on too many
Paulson: you know, Broadway shows, where you can't put on a show without backers.
Leopold: Well, that’s I guess this is sort of a grand backers’ audition, this whole Aspen thing. But, yeah, there's a lot of interest in it. So that's our, that's our hope and our plan, yeah.
Paulson: So what kind of options do you have? You mentioned possibly England?
Shearer: Yeah, I kind of my love ideal version would be that we open on stage in England and then come back to New York with, you know, the, the buzz of a hit show in England about America
Leopold: Done by Americans, about America, really. That'd be sort of fun. Or any other country that might have us.
Paulson: Yeah, I’m sure
Shearer: Luxembourg would be good.
Leopold: Luxembourg, a very funny country.
Paulson: Yeah, and Hoover was big
Paulson: in Luxembourg, I think.
Shearer: He was no, he was a size 8 in Luxembourg, too.
Paulson: You've I know, Harry, you've done occasional movies in which there's been a political theme. You were in "Dick," playing G. Gordon Liddy?
Shearer: I was in the movie called "Dick." Yes, that's correct.
Paulson: Yes, that, too. How successful do you think that movie was?
Shearer: I don't know. I don't know. You know, when you're an actor, you just do 'em and kind of hope that, that you didn't humiliate yourself and/or that the director didn't pick the takes in which you look awful and, and
Leopold: You could not look awful, my friend.
Shearer: We'll be right back. No, but I don't know. I think it did OK, but I don't know.
Paulson: But it's tough to do. It's tough to do mass-appeal movies, musicals with a political message, isn't it?
Shearer: I don't know. It you know, I guess that's the conventional wisdom. And you're as Tom says, there are examples like George M. Cohan from way back when. You just do what you think is funny, you know.
Leopold: We never thought of it as political, really.
Leopold: We just thought this is really funny. This is could be really touching. It can be yeah, it ends up being political, I suppose. But that sort of falls in the cracks.
Shearer: The politics is sort of it's there, but it's in the background of this love story. I don't think this show is going out with, with politics written on its jaw. I think it it's going out with us saying, "This is what makes us laugh. This is what we think is funny. These are two of the best characters we've ever seen in the musical theater. Come on and love it."
Paulson: While you were out promoting that, you talked about political comedy being harder than political satire. Do you recall that?
Shearer: Well, I, I to me, satire very often tends to say, "I'm talking to the people who agree with me. Here are the good guys. Here are the bad guys. We're the good guys. We hate the bad guys. Yay. Boo." Political comedy comes from another place which says, "You know," what I was saying in the film very much was, "You know, these guys are if we were in their shoes, we'd make the same choices they make." It's not about them being evil. It's about them having different life circumstances. And these are the choices that they make from the vantage point of their life circumstances. And so it's, it's not from that distance of, "Look, they're evil." It's from, "Look, this is what some of us do when we're in this situation. This is how human beings act when they're rich and powerful and have these choices to make." So I think that's the difference, and I think, growing up, the first guy I worked for, for any length of time when I was a child actor, was Jack Benny, and I think he without ever teaching me anything ostensibly, I think I sucked took away from that experience the sense of comedy, and the universality of comedy is something you want to bring to any project you do.
Paulson: And I guess Jack Benny, in his way, was, was an unconventional comedian. I mean, he broke barriers. His approach was not traditional joketelling in a lot of ways.
Leopold: But you have to he was so loved. And I think that you have to sort of love these characters, good or bad, and it has to be funny on its own. And I mean, he was
Shearer: That's the kind of magic trick, you know?
Shearer: Television today is ruled by people who think that to make characters likable, they have to have a list of likable characteristics. And the magic trick that the great people like Benny understood that we're trying to emulate in "J. Edgar!" is, you like them because they're funny and despite the fact that they may have loathsome characteristics. You like them in spite of yourself. You don't, you know, you don't like them because they're generous and nice and friendly to their neighbors. You like 'em because, you know Jack Benny was a miser. He was vain.
Leopold: Not in real life, but
Shearer: No, no, but, I mean, the character Jack Benny played was a fairly loathsome character, and yet he was beloved. That's the trick. That's the magic trick.
Paulson: This whole business about writing for television and writing the kind of content you think the people producing the show want and I’ve looked at your bio, and your name's really affiliated with high quality shows
Leopold: I’ve been lucky, yeah. Yeah.
Paulson: "Seinfeld" and "Cheers" among them.
Shearer: He made up a lot of stuff in his bio.
Paulson: I was going to say, I think he's leaving the stinkers off the bio.
Leopold: Yeah, definitely.
Paulson: Can you talk a little bit about people who want work in television what's the difference between writing for yourself in a way that works for you and you feel good about what you've done and delivering what you think they want?
Leopold: Well, any venue of writing of any area of show business, you're always working for somebody, and you have to try to hold on to your voice, what you think is funny, what touches you, what makes you interested so that if it's a hit, you know how to do it for another 200 episodes. And it's very hard to hold, hold onto that with, you know, notes and constantly rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. I just think that I never look at I write novels as well, and I’m doing a one-man show, actually, and I always feel like it's: "Well, now I’m writing sit-coms; therefore, I will not be fully engaged emotionally or comically or try to be as funny as I can." I mean, every form has its limitations. Limitations can be great. Limitations are helpful in a lot of ways. But I don't think, "Well, now I’m this kind of writer. Now I’ll do the good writing. Now I won't do the good writing." I think, for people starting out, I always feel like, well, find out what makes you laugh, what's really funny to you, and even though whatever the form, you should give yourself fully to it. I mean, there's you're I love writing on sit-coms, because it can be as good as you are, and it's a struggle, but everything is a struggle. And I think it's the same thing. You want to lend yourself to writing your novel or to write your it's just trying to tap into yourself and what really interests you, you think is funny, and then work within the form.
Paulson: Interesting thing about your career, Harry, is that it's you're always employed. I mean, at least the impression is that you go in all these different ways. I mean, there are actors who don't get parts for a while. There are writers who don't get assignments for a while. But then you do voices. I mean, you write, you produce, you act, and, and then something like "The Simpsons," which I have to believe you couldn't have seen coming.
Shearer: No, I sure didn't. No, that was I don't think anybody saw that coming. First, first of all, you have to remember way back then, nobody thought the FOX network was going to be around for, you know, two years. Their opening slate included such soon-to-be-forgotten classics as "The New Adventures of Beans Baxter." We didn't think that was going to be a building, building block for a great network, not that FOX is a great network, but I’ve been extremely lucky, and I think one of the things that, that bothers me about people in show business sometimes who are successful is that they tend to forget, at least in their public pronouncements, about the role of luck. If you have a career of any length in show business, you have to thank whatever forces you think are responsible for luck, because luck plays such a
Leopold: Yeah, it’s true.
Shearer: major role in whatever goes on, you know. If, if I hadn't met Tom in the laundromat that oh, we didn't meet in the laundromat. You know, our meeting was a chance, a long time ago, through other friends.
Leopold: Who are in this show.
Shearer: Who are in this show. We've had a wonderful series of adventures writing stuff together, but it, it happened because of luck, and because of luck, we've been able to pursue our writing together.
Leopold: Yeah, yeah.
Shearer: And, you know, I get ticked off sometimes when I see people on television shows who were successful in show business sort of buy their own myth that, "Yeah, I deserve all the greatness of it."
Leopold: "I dreamed this. I knew this would happen."
Shearer: Yeah, excuse me.
Leopold: A lot of people who never got anywhere also dreamed it and knew it would happen.
Shearer: Exactly, and have been equally as talented. You just have to people come up to me and, and say, "What do you recommend starting in show business?" And I say, "Talent is good. Luck is better. And nothing beats sheer brute persistence."
Leopold: Yeah, that’s for and also having a lot of other interests. You know, "We do this. I write this. I also have this thing goin'."
Shearer: Be a moving target.
Leopold: Yeah, yeah, have a lot of interests in working in a lot of different areas.
Paulson: Although you probably have to give yourself some credit. For example, "The Simpsons" was not just another animated series. It's now the longest-running animated series in the country's history. It's smart. It's cutting. It's everything animated series never were.
Paulson: You do 12 voices or more, I guess, in the show. Do you ever participate in the writing process?
Shearer: No, I don't. No. You know, what Tom was describing before is, is sort of the, the even at its best, the television writing experience is one that I have great respect for Tom being able to deal with. I’m not as able to deal with being in a room with 16 guys.
Leopold: Well, not in the writing sense.
Shearer: Not in the writing sense. It sounds like fun until they remove the pillows and bring in the cold pizza. But, I’m I love to work with collaborators that I’ve chosen, like Tom, like Michael McKean, like Christopher Guest, where we have chosen to be in a room with each other. In television, you don't have that luxury. You know, somebody else has chosen your collaborators for you. And as great as the writing staff of "The Simpsons" has always been, it just seems like you get overwhelmed, your voice gets overwhelmed, so I’m very pleased to have them do the writing, and I get to come in and just do the voices.
Paulson: Tom, is there anything you can't do on television, if you're writing a conventional series?
Leopold: Oh, sure, yeah.
Paulson: What won't they buy?
Leopold: Oh, what Harry was saying about characters that don't fit the normal, fit the, fit the
Shearer: The likeability.
Leopold: the likeability quotient, then you have to sort of fight for that, and, and it's always a struggle to not let that get watered down. And, you know, and also, it's always, well, this thing worked last year, so there's 111 of those kinds of shows, and so you, you pitch something that won't go this year, because they've already got, you know, they want to do the thing that sort of, you know, the classic, the cliché things you always sort of hear about, which are sort of true, which are true in films or maybe not in theater, but no money in the theater.
Shearer: The great thing about television is that all the clichés about it are true.
Leopold: Right, right.
Paulson: I, I love the pro bono work you do with "Le Show" for 20 years.
Shearer: Oh, it's not for bono. It's for me.
Shearer: Bono has nothing to do with it.
Leopold: It’s Bono, you mean.
Shearer: Oh, yeah.
Paulson: For 20 years
Paulson: you've done a weekly radio show
Paulson: free of charge.
Shearer: Well, you know, there
Paulson: Given to 50 stations across the country or more.
Shearer: It's, like, 100 stations, but, you know, the fact of the matter I don't know this shouldn't come as a shock to you working in the vineyards of public television, there's not a lot of money in public radio either, so it's not a big deal to do it for free, because it's the difference between doing it for $5 and doing it for free is not worth the, the struggle, you know.
Leopold: It's also, it's also, like, I’ll think of things that yeah, I make most of my living in sit-coms, but I write these other things. ‘Cause, well, I have an idea for this, but I can't do it on the sit-com. I can't do it, I can do it with you on the radio, maybe, or I can do write it in a book, or I can do it sketch. So it's, it's a great
Shearer: It's a great forum for
Leopold: forum for you to have.
Shearer: Yeah, Tom has been several characters on my radio show over the years. He's been the acting coach for Lyle and Erik Menendez, the two brothers.
Shearer: He most recently was the guy who bought the truck from Scott Peterson
Shearer: very recently after his wife disappeared. And a long-running character that he's done several times is this character Yvonne Della Femina, a very sad character who's been a serial sex changer. Every time we talk to him, he or she is
Leopold: First time we, we did Yvonne Della Femina, I was they let all the women and children go in Kuwait. Was it Kuwait?
Shearer: Yeah, all the women and children hostages
Leopold: But I was a transsexual, and they and then I lost my depilatory, so they wouldn't let me out.
Paulson: One advantage of working free is, you can be pretty free with your material.
Shearer: That’s correct.
Leopold: Yeah, yeah, do what you want. They don't pay ya.
Paulson: Harry, I’m a little surprised to learn that you brought in someone else to write the music for "J. Edgar!," given the fact that you are a bass player in a semi-legendary rock band called Spinal Tap.
Shearer: Yeah, I co-wrote the music in Spinal Tap with Michael McKean and Christopher Guest and Rob Reiner, but Tom and I just both felt that we needed the voice of somebody really authoritative in the musical theater, and that was Peter. That wasn't me. I dabble in writing other kinds of music, but this, we really needed somebody who was just as thoroughly steeped in the musical theater as we could possibly get. So it was, it was a no-brainer to turn to Peter.
Paulson: So when did you pick up the bass guitar?
Shearer: I started playing the bass in the, in the mid-'70s. I I’d, as a child, taken piano lessons, and it was always a struggle for me, because I’m an ear player, and I took serious piano lessons for the classical piano, and so my teacher was always wanting me to read. So she forbade my parents from buying records of the pieces that I was learning, 'cause she knew that if I just heard 'em, I’d learn 'em immediately. So I’m sittin' there pickin' away at this reading thing. So I picked up the bass as an instrument that I could play exactly the way I wanted to, by ear. And then when Chris and Michael and Rob and I started working on Spinal Tap, I just fell into the role of the bass player.
Paulson: And did the other members of Spinal Tap also happen to play instruments?
Shearer: Yeah, everybody plays.
Leopold: They'd been playing since childhood.
Shearer: Tom knows Chris and Michael from the early days in New York. They were in bands together.
Paulson: So, everybody played the instrument they grew up with.
Paulson: Which is why, when you took Spinal Tap on the road, it was, it was not such a stretch.
Shearer: Well, you know, the strange thing is, people ask us all the time: "Did you guys play when you were on the road?" And it struck us as the looniest question in the world to be asked, because if you took the movie at face value, what it was saying was everything about the rock and roll life is crap except being on stage. Being on the road stinks except for those two hours when you're on stage and able to play. So the idea of enduring all that crap and then not having the fun of playing seems ludicrous to me. Then, now, you flash forward to the present era, and the last time we toured, we were probably the only band on the circuit that was actually playing live. All the real bands are lip synching, and
Leopold: Oh, really?
Shearer: Yeah, they're all playing to a pre-recorded track. We're dumb enough that we were still playing live.
Paulson: It's, I mean, it's an amazing story that this, that this satire of rockumentaries has had the staying power it's had. You recently put out a DVD.
Paulson: And you've done the commentary in character.
Paulson: Were you pleased with the way that's turned out?
Shearer: You know, we won an award for DVD commentary. Thank you so much. And I didn't know they gave awards for DVD commentary, but, no, it's just, we went into a room, and, and we thought, "What's the fastest way to get out of this room?" Let's be these characters looking at the movie and, and do it from that perspective. So that was it was always fun to do that.
Paulson: Well, it's been great to talk to you about comedy in America today and especially about this particular project, "J. Edgar!" Do you envision this someday performed in high schools all over America?
Leopold: I hope so.
Shearer: Yeah, from your mouth to the principals’ ears.
Leopold: There you go.
Paulson: There you go. It's been a great visit with you.
Leopold: A pleasure.
Shearer: Thank you.
Paulson: Tom Leopold, Harry Shearer.