The Simpsons’ Harry Shearer & Judith Owen on their ‘dark’ Christmas gigs

We talk about adding a little 'menace' to Christmas

The Simpsons and Spinal Tap legend Harry Shearer along with wife and jazz musician Judith Owen are set to play a run of special Christmas gigs for charity. Check out our Q&A with Shearer and Owen discussing the ‘dark’ humour of the shows below.

Shearer, who voices the likes of Mr Burns, Mr Smithers, Principal Skinner, Ned Flanders and more (as well as co-writing and starring in ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ as Derek Smalls), and wife and acclaimed jazz star Judith Owen will be performing in London, Illinois, Los Angeles and New Orleans with ‘Christmas Without Tears’ – a charity show that grew from gatherings they used to have in their own home.

The shows kick off in London tonight, and will see Shearer and Owen joined by Stephen Merchant, Elizabeth McGovern, Lizzie Ball and Classic Kicks, Kipper Eldridge, Jacqui Dankworth, Charlie Wood, Chris Difford, Nell Bryden, Tina C, Doña Oxford and more all perform a mixture of seasonal comedy and music.

See the full run of ‘Christmas Without Tears’ tour dates below.

Thursday December 8 – Kings Place Hall 1 London UK
Sunday December 11 – S.P.A.C.E Evanston, IL USA
Saturday December 17- Largo at the Coronet in Los Angeles, CA USA
Thursay – Friday December 22 – 23 – Le Petit Theatre in New Orleans, LA USA

So you guys are in town to play ‘Christmas without Tears’, how would you describe the spirit of this show and how is it different to other Christmas events?

H: “Well it’s not like panto, because there’s less clapping.”

J: “And no one screams ‘it’s behind you” and things like that.”

H:..If they do then it’s ironic. This grew out of a party that we used to have when we were living in Southern California. The Welsh-DNA’d Londoners came out there and were appalled that it was sunny and warm at Christmas time, so Judith conceived a party where some of our musical and comedy friends would drop by our little beach cottage and gather around a piano and everybody would have a little song or two- or whatever they did, hopefully relevant to the season and we’d supply them with lots of food and liquor and Judith would make everyone sing Christmas carols.

“This became a bit of a thing and suddenly one year we were asked by the Walt Disney concert hall if we would want to move it to a public venue and it happened to be the year that New Orleans flooded, so we thought we could do it as a charity thing to help musicians from New Orleans and that was what let to us moving it to the larger expanse of the Walt Disney concert hall, we brought or living room furniture and our dog with us, to heighten the suggestion that this was just a little party at our place, with 2,200 people invited and that’s been the spirit of it every since; the talent is heavily full of people that we know.”

J: “And it’s always people from the city that we’re in, we’ve toured America, we haven’t done London for a while, but it’s always people that live there, people who we would invite to our party, it’s literally never changed, that remains the basis of it. It always remains the feeling of ‘we’re gathering around a piano’, it’s very old school; you’re entertaining each other and yourselves. There are no TVs, there are no cellphones and there’s no need for anything else for that matter, it is a throwback to another time. The audience are as much a part of the party as anybody else- everybody is invited to this.

“It’s the antidote to Christmas, that’s how I describe it to everyone, I’m not the only person here that gets really stressed out by Christmas time and becomes overwhelmed, I think it’s a time for incredible anxiety and stress, it’s a time when many are lonely and missed those that can’t be around. In this year especially, because we are raising money for Shelter, there are many people who, more and more every year, are living on the streets and Christmas is a sparkly thing, but people are still there on the streets, so for me, this is a chance for people to join together – without sounding too corny – and have a great time, but actually do something good, it’s not cheesy; it’s reverent and it’s absolutely irreverent at the same time.”

H: “It’s not smug.”

J: “That’s a good way of putting it, it’s not smug. Most things at Christmas time are smug, even adverts are turning my stomach they’re that bad, they’re making me feel sick, because, again, they’re putting out this false message of “this is going to be great!” and I have a different sense of Christmas; I like the light sand the sparkle in the shopwindow – of course I do, but I also lost my Mum just before Christmas when I was a kid, so it has that bittersweetness to it. I’m not alone, I know how many people struggle with this time of year, so I really think this show is set apart from others, it just doesn’t buy into that holiday hallmark- it just doesn’t. It’d equally as joyful, because everyone comes together and we end up having what is a real party and, in my estimation, that’s really what it’s meant to be.”

So what else do you guys have planed to give it that darker edge?

J: “Well Harry’s song for starters, go with it Harry.”

H: “I write a Christmas song every year that’s topical and this year is called ‘Christmas a la Trump’. Also we have the fabulous (and the unbelievably tall) Stephen Merchant, who definitely brings a sideways approach to the holiday, as does Barry from Watford, as does the fabulous Tina C, a creation of Christopher Green who we first saw at Edinburgh and who’s been on a series that we’re on on Radio Four for a while.”

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J: “I think Christopher is also doing a sideways song which is also fun, in times past we’ve had Donald Fagen singing ‘Fuck Christmas’, I’m sure you can’t actually print that.”

H: “That was the Eric Idle Christmas classic.”

J: “That’s right, Eric Idle wrote it and Donald Fagen sang it. But ultimately it’s about taking about this [?? 7:21] and not pretending that it’s this perfect day, because it’s not!:

H: Also Judith and I’m sure Charlie Wood, Jackie Dankworth and Elizabeth Mcgovern are doing songs that reflect the other side of the holiday, so both sides get a full shrift.

J: And then we cut to the singalong section, where people are ready to sing, because I try not to go for the carols, I go for the songs that are part of our DNA; ‘Deck The Halls’, ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’, ‘Let It Snow’. I do do a very tense ‘We Three Kings’ and ‘Silent Night’ goes straight to a gospel church I have to say and everyone has to sing in deep harmony. Then we hit ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, which I despise with every bone in my body, which is way I decided to get myself through it by dividing the audience into twelve sections and have each section mime out each day whilst we’re singing and I really encourage people to be really disgusting and debauched and the winners win truly shit prizes, just rubbish that you can’t even fathom, but I think that’s part of the joy as well.”

What’s the shittest prize you’ve given away?

J: “Things like Santa Claus toilet roll, a pooping reindeer (which are chocolate buttons), things of bad taste, a happy birthday Jesus colouring book- things of really bad taste that you’d really like.. Not in in any world that we know. Basically it’s moving and it’s raucously funny at the same time, which is the point of it, which I think Christmas day is.”

So will it be staying Christmas themed? Or can we expect to see some Simpsons or Spinal Tap tracks thrown in?

J: “Well no Simpsons, but we always used to do – we’ll see how much time we’ve got, we have so many guests- but there is always the possibility of doing the classic ‘Christmas Without The Devil’.”

H: “It’s ‘Christmas WITH The Devil’.”

J: “‘Christmas With The Devil’, yes, sorry.”

H: “You went all good on me.”

J: “Yes I did, that’s not like me at all is it. It’s a highlight isn’t it. We’ve had a competition for people to tell us why their dog is the best Christmas dog, which we will bring on stage in full Christmas gear. It really is just an opportunity for controlled mayhem and real joy.”

What do you both want for Christmas?

H: “The day after Christmas”

J: “I want to not have a breakdown”