Richard Nixon Comedy Show too Subtle for U.S., Says Creator Harry Shearer
"Spinal Tap” star makes one-off satire for BSkyB’s Sky Arts channel in the U.K.
LONDON -- A satirical comedy drama about Richard Nixon’s presidency has been made in the U.K. because its creator, Spinal Tap star Harry Shearer, thinks it is too nuanced for U.S. broadcasters.
Shearer stars as the former U.S. president in Nixon’s the One, a one-off, 30-minute show set to screen in the U.K. April 26 on satcaster BSkyB’s Sky Arts channel.
“Nixon is still a highly political character in the U.S. and this is not a political show,” Shearer told attendees at a Broadcasting Press Guild lunch in London Tuesday (April 17).
The actor, who calls himself an anglophile and doesn't eat lunch because he wants to save the calories for his favorite meal (dinner), considers the American political scene too shrill for his more subtle creation.
“The show lacks the surface controversy that would’ve made it a sell in the U.S.,” Shearer said.
The program is billed as having a documentary feel and uses camerawork that looks like “high quality surveillance video, “ said Shearer.
Nixon’s the One was made by British indie label Hat Trick Productions and is based on 198 hours of recordings made by the ex-president between February 1971 and throughout the Watergate scandal up to 1973.
Shearer, perhaps best known on the comedy scene as the voice of Mr. Burns in The Simpsons, plays Nixon, a role he has perfected over the years by playing the president on TV and the stage.
“I’m obsessed with Nixon,” he said. “I grew up in a liberal Democratic household in California, and he was always a dominant figure in my early life and was much reviled. And there was much to revile.”
Shearer has worked for years on the tapes (which were released in 2008 by the Nixon Presidential Library) with renowned Nixon scholar and University of Wisconsin professor Stanley Kutler.
Kutler's friendship with John Dean, White House counsel during the Nixon presidency and the Watergate affair, also led them to hire Dean's Nixon tapes transcriber, the "whimsically named" Charity Bacon to help.
"Charity churned out the transcripts and I knit them together into the various scenes," said Shearer.
Nixon’s the One also stars Henry Goodman (Assassins) as Henry Kissinger, and all the actors lines and intonations are taken verbatim from the tapes.
Shearer is now trying to sell the finished show into America.
The actor, radio show host and musician says he decided not to take the project to HBO because he has a “checkered relationship" with the network and it would “meddle too much.”
Said Shearer: “The style of it, the way it’s shot and the acting style, they all would have been arguments. My goal was to do the show, not to have arguments.”
Hat Trick and Shearer also pitched the BBC and Channel 4 in the U.K. before opting to strike the broadcast deal with Sky Arts. “The BBC made an offer, but not at the same level as Sky. Channel 4 was more lukewarm,” he said. “The BBC were not slow (to bid), but they were low. And coincidentally, the idea of taking more of Rupert Murdoch’s money did appeal to me.”