Harry Shearer may be America’s most versatile political satirist. A resourceful and prolific cultural worker, Shearer’s show business bona fides include a recurring role on The Jack Benny Program, a stint with the 1960s satirical group The Credibility Gap, co-star and co-writing credits for This is Spinal Tap, voice work on The Simpsons, and hosting the long-running public radio program, Le Show. Shearer’s unrivaled talent for multi-tasking and cross-platform production is, perhaps, most evident in his work for My Damn Channel.
Shearer’s “channel” features a variety of projects, from the sublime to the ridiculous. For instance, Shearer’s video dispatches from New Orleans, "Crescent City Stories," document so-called ordinary people rebuilding their lives in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans. These video vignettes, an artful blend of celebrity and citizens’ journalism, offer a refreshing break from mawkish TV news reports on reconstruction efforts in The Big Easy.
“Found Objects,” on the other hand, poaches satellite feeds featuring celebrity journalists and pundits in candid and sometimes less than flattering moments. This technique -- popularized by Kevin Rafferty and James Ridgeway in Feed, their unflinching documentary on the 1992 New Hampshire Primary -- reveals the banality of mediated public discourse. With “Found Objects,” Shearer appropriates and re-purposes the interstices of live television news for satirical purposes.
This feature is not what Jeffrey Jones refers to as “ha-ha” funny. But as Jones points out, satire need not be laugh out loud funny. Mining the “hurry up and wait” moments of live television production, “Found Objects” requires (and rewards) patience on the part of the viewer. In this respect, it is akin to what filmmaker Leo McCarey referred to as “the slow burn.” Whether it’s “The Many Moods of Ann Coulter” or Dan Rather spending the afternoon on a Seattle rooftop slipping in and out of his reporter’s trench coat, “Found Objects” deconstructs the structures, routines, and practices of network television news.
Another feature, “Silent Debates,” builds on this premise and adds a new wrinkle. Like “Found Objects,” Shearer pinches TV news feeds of presidential candidates in the moments before a television interview or debate is scheduled to begin. As candidates catch a breath, practice that winning smiling, or otherwise wait their turn to speak, Shearer “moderates” a debate between uncharacteristically reticent presidential hopefuls. The “Silent Debate” reaches new heights of absurdity when John Edwards faces off with Mike Huckabee, while Tim Russert moderates in silence.
This clip is one of a number of music video parodies available on Shearer’s channel. The video poaches C-SPAN coverage of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner testifying before House Finance Service Committee members on the bank bailout scheme. Shearer re-imagines Geithner’s testimony as a gospel music number -- complete with an African-American choir.
Apart from an obvious riff on Barack Obama’s campaign slogan of “hope,” the video mocks the notion that congressional hearings are an effective mechanism for holding policy makers accountable to the American people. Likening Geithner’s testimony to a revival meeting, Shearer’s parody suggests that gullible committee members are taken in by Geithner's evangelistic “song and dance.”
Shearer’s work raises important questions about contemporary cultural politics. Is humor an appropriate vehicle to address such complex issues? Put differently, by making light of Congress’ oversight role, does this clip contribute to public cynicism toward Washington and Wall Street? What’s more, is the clip’s use of the African-American choir too subtle? That is, does the spectacle of Geithner’s singing before House committee members and C-SPAN cameras obscure the fact that communities of color are typically the first to feel the effects of “economic downturns” -- and usually the last to recover from them?
Finally, is Shearer on to something with his viral marketing slash satire strategy? “Glimmers of Hope” will be included on his forthcoming album “Greed and Fear”: a collection of songs about the credit crunch. As it happens, “Greed and Fear” was the title of Shearer’s Black Friday commentary on public television’s The Nightly Business Report.