From the Simpsons to New Orleans flood, Harry Shearer gets serious

From the Simpsons to New Orleans flood, Harry Shearer gets serious
February 14, 2011
Brian Mciver

By any definition, Harry Shearer is one of the funniest men in the world.

He has been making people laugh for 30 years, bringing us the thickest bass player in rock and the most evil capitalist in nuclear history.

So when the man better known as The Simpsons' power plant boss Mr Burns, or Spinal Tap's Derek Smalls, starts to get serious, it must be for a good reason.

Harry, who helped invent the mockumentary genre of comedy with This Is Spinal Tap, is coming to Scotland to unveil his first ever serious film - a hardhitting documentary about the human errors that led to the devastating Hurricane Katrina floods in New Orleans.

The acclaimed comedian was so enraged by the cover-up surrounding the collapse of the flood barrier levees, which caused the widespread destruction and deaths across his adopted hometown, that he put all his TV and movie experience to good use to make The Big Uneasy.

Harry, 67, is flying into Scotland this week to introduce the film to audiences at the Glasgow Film Festival.

He hopes to spread the truth about why the disaster in August 2005 was not natural and hopes that fans of his comedy can enjoy his serious work just as much.

He said: "I've been to Scotland to perform several times before and I've always enjoyed it but this will be a very different event for me in that it's not anything to do with comedy.

"It's a big change for me because normally I am free to say anything that pops into my head in the interest of making people laugh. But this time I have to be very focused on the story in the film, a story I think is important.

"I made this film out of a sense of outrage that the true story behind one of the major news events of the 21st century has never been properly told to a wide audience. It's a story that continues to have profound implications for the survival of a city that I love."

He added: "After the flood, with the findings and conclusions coming out of New Orleans, there was this growing gap between what people around the world thought they knew and what we in New Orleans had come to know.

"So when President Obama came to New Orleans in October 2009 and called the event a natural disaster, that was the signal that this gap was impossibly wide and somebody had to do something.

"That was the reason I made the movie."

The movie may be a labour of love for Harry, who has also drafted in fellow New Orleanians Brad Pitt and John Goodman to help, but it's also a real departure for the comic star.

Harry made his name as a co-writer and star of This is Spinal Tap, and has been a regular comedy actor in movies and on TV ever since.

He signed up to The Simpsons in 1989 when long-time friend and Simpsons producer James L. Brooks persuaded him to become C. Montgomery Burns, with his creepy "Eeexcellent!" catchphrase.

Harry is also the voice of many of the most beloved Springfield characters, including Smithers and Ned Flanders.

But even Mr Burns would be shocked at what went on in New Orleans in the aftermatch of the hurricane.

There were allegations of reports being quashed or ignored and academics hounded for not toeing the party line when it came to the official version of events.

When Hurricane Katrina struck the coastal area six years ago, the levees - the flood barrier system which surrounds New Orleans to protect it from lake and river waters flowing alongside it to the Louisiana coastline - collapsed in several places.

It caused catastrophic flooding which killed 1800 people and left most of the city under high water levels.

The party line from the US government holds that the event was a "natural disaster", with flooding simply an effect of the high winds and storm.

But in his gripping film, Harry has spoken to various experts, including one whistleblower who worked directly for the agency responsible for the levee - The US Army Corps of Engineers - who insist that the poorly constructed and maintained levees were to blame.

And they say it could happen again in the next bad storm.

Harry, who splits his time between Los Angeles and New Orleans, said: "Most people who see the film say their reaction is of anger and shock.

"I think the most shocking thing came from the Army Corps whistleblower who told me she is in regular contact with her people back in New Orleans and that it just doesn't bother them that people died. It'shocking that you can screw up that badly, and for it not to wreck your day."

The film has played to rave reviews at festivals across the US for its mix of top-quality investigative journalism and storytelling.

Harry said he is now enjoying getting the message out to international audiences.

He added: "As a way of spending my day, it was a wonderful experience meeting these people who cared more about telling the truth than the consequences. It was a very satisfying piece of work.

"I was also doing my parts of The Simpsons while making it, so I would just pop into a studio in New Orleans to record my parts and then get back to work. That was great actually, to bounce back and forth between the two things - it was a relief to get to be irresponsible again."

For now, it's back to the laughs for Harry with The Simpsons.

In addition to Mr Burns, he also voices Smithers, Ned Flanders, Kent Brockman, Rainer Wolfcastle, Principal Skinner, Dr Hibbert, Rev Lovejoy, Otto and Scratchy.

And after 23 years of bringing a fair percentage of Springfield to life, it's easy for Harry to pick his favourite.

"It's got to be C. Montgomery Burns - because he is pure evil," he said.

Harry Shearer appears at the Glasgow Film Theatre to introduce The Big Uneasy on Sunday at 6.30pm. For tickets and information, visit
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