Forty years ago last fall, I moved into a house so high up in the Altadena hills that it was on the last street before the Angeles National Forest. Among the other things I liked about the place, essentially a cabin, perfect for a young person just starting out in the world, was that, back when one actually listened to the radio on a radio, as opposed to streaming through one’s phone, the house was high enough that the remote signal from KCRW in faraway Santa Monica reached me in a straight line, coming in loud and clear on the Harmon-Kardon receiver of my stereo, whereas in Pasadena and the rest of the San Gabriel Valley down below, the sound was crackly, when you could get it at all.
That very year, in December 1983, the station launched a weekly radio show of political satire by the great Harry Shearer, briefly “The Voice of America,” renamed “The Hour of Power” until evangelist Robert Schuller objected, since that was the name of his own, religious, radio show, and thenceforth “Le Show” — dubbed, somehow, after the tiny, forgettable French automobile Le Car.
Every Sunday morning at 10, I tuned in, and I have been entranced ever since at that hour. As it happens, I had grown up in Altadena listening to Harry Shearer’s political satire on the radio when he was part of the comic Credibility Gap, first on AM’s KRLA, then on FM’s KPPC. They parodied then-Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty in a regular segment called “Just Plain Sam.” Just, as a child, I confused Los Angeles City Hall with the headquarters for The Daily Planet newspaper on the original television version of “Superman,” because the building’s image was used on the show as the paper’s HQ, so I confused the parodic version of the mayor with the real man, who, as a 13-year-old, of course I knew little about.
Now, down the decades, it sometimes seems that Shearer’s brilliant parodies of (almost) every president since on “Le Show,” from Ronald Reagan through Donald Trump, are more real in my memory than the actual presidents.
For Reagan, it was “Hellcats of the White House,” prominently featuring a regular segment in which First Lady Nancy for some reason had her elbows buffed with a sander belt. Then there was “41 Calls 43” (George H.W. Bush), “Clintonsomething,” a perfect parody of the hit TV show “Thirtysomething,” “43 Calls 41” (George W. Bush), “Father Knows Best” (the Obamas) and “The Appresidentice” (Trump as a character from his TV show “The Apprentice,” assigning weekly duties to underlings, fired for failing to live up to expectations.)
Shearer would often go back in time for his favorite character, Tricky Dick, even after he had died, with the ongoing-for-years segment, “Nixon in Heaven,” where the former president is attended to in the clouds by his lackey, H.R. Haldeman, still meddling with earthly politics from the clouds above us.
As I wrote 10 years ago at the 30th of “Le Show,” “The funniest moments in political satire today are when Shearer inhabits the former vice president in episodes of ‘Dick Cheney Confidential.’ In every single one, an unsuspecting chump, often a fellow Republican, is lured into the once and always veep’s underground bunker from which he still rules the world. And when the chump, even if it’s Mitt Romney, wants to compromise rather than go all-in on some conservative core issue, Cheney literally chokes him within an inch of his life until he cries ‘uncle.’”
Harry has chosen not to create a satirical world each week involving Joe Biden — though he’ll still occasionally give us a little Mar-a-Lago Trump. Seek out “Le Show” on your digital device of choice. It’s politics worth listening to.
Larry Wilson is on the Southern California News Group editorial board. [email protected]