I’m a nerd. I’m perfectly happy to admit it. In my mind, there is nothing in the slightest wrong with knowing every line to Star Wars: A New Hope. I consider it a matter of personal pride that I know the backstory of every major ruler of Westeros, and that I open my mail with a replica of Jon Snow’s Longclaw Valyrian steel sword. And in my mind it isn’t enough to just be a fan of a band, you have to know the explicit and intimate details of line-ups, chronology, discography and the specific type of guitar that Jimmy Page played during the solo on Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’ (1959 Fender Telecaster, if you must know) that nestles snugly up inside your grey matter and taking up important room that could be used for…you know, something that actually makes a difference in life.
There’s nothing wrong with being a nerd. But it’s only truly fun if you have company. See, normal people aren’t interested in a two hour dialogue about whether series one or two of Arrested Development are the funniest. So when you find someone who will not only indulge you in your inner geekdom, but actually take it up another level entirely, you really feel that you have found a friend. And sometimes, those friends become absolutely central to your everyday life and the very foundations of how you interact with the world.
I first met Dan Lucas through both our mutual roles as writers for Drowned in Sound, but we truly bonded over our shared nerdship and love of television. First of all, Breaking Bad. As someone new to the show, we would message and text incessantly while I was watching the episodes, with Dan (a seasoned fan) always quick to point out subtle motifs and clues in the corners of the frames. It struck me what a sharp and observational mind he had and so many times these exchanges would ultimately end up with us calling each other at 2am with shouts of “OH MY GOD, DID THAT REALLY JUST HAPPEN?”; excited fan-boy chatter buzzing electrically back and forth. The culmination of this marvellous television series back in September 2013 was seen out by me, Dan and his wonderful partner Liz Evans having a watching party at my flat, surrounded by Heisenberg-themed cakes, sweets and drinks, with a reception desk bell (if you’ve seen it, you’ll know the significance) and all dressed up for Walter White’s final showdown. To many this might have seemed absurd but to me, this was tremendous fun– a joyous way to share your love of something with fellow human beings who happen to connect with such things through a similar wavelength.
But though Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones were the contemporary subjects we’d chat about in the here and now, what really tied us together and cemented our kinship was The Simpsons. Like me, Dan was an utter devotee to the classic years of the offbeat, groundbreaking animated US television series. But while I thought I was some sort of guru on the adventures of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, Maggie and the supporting cast, I had to bow down in reverence when it came to Dan Lucas.
Simply put, the man was an absolute colossus on the subject.
There was genuinely nothing he didn’t know. You wanted details on every single Krusty-Brand product – bam! You wanted a comprehensive breakdown of Homer’s various jobs between Season 4 and 10 – reeled off without a pause. And if you wanted to sit and debate the finer details of whether ‘You Only Move Twice’ (his personal favourite) or ‘Last Exit to Springfield’ (mine) was the best episode, we could be sat there for hours. One of the things I will never forget about Dan occurred at Green Man 2013, when (in between telepathically predicting covers of Neil Young songs and getting his ribs broken rugby-tacking fellow DiS writers…it was a memorable weekend) we got chatting to a man who commented on Dan’s Simpsons t-shirt and then said “I bet I know more about The Simpsons than you”. Big mistake. Without a second’s hesitation, Dan launched into a word-perfect rendition of “See My Vest” that not only blew the guy away in a manner not seen since Bob Dylan utterly wiped the floor with Donovan in ‘Don’t Look Back’ but also got the biggest round of applause from the rest of the people around us. It was genuinely a magical moment.
Which brings me to the man who originally sang that very song – Harry Shearer. He of Mr Burns, Ned Flanders, Kent Brockman, Waylon Smithers and so many other voices that defined both his and my youthful years. It seems incredulous to think that it was only three months ago that Dan sat down with Harry Shearer to talk about theatre, politics and his charity work. And of course, The Simpsons. What makes the interview so captivating however, is that Dan was always so sharp, insightful and knowledgeable to the point where his interviewees feel as if they are talking to a genuine fan who already knows the basic standard questions, so then proceeds to take the interview into a fresh and exciting direction with genuine revelations and a deeper exploration of the character. I’d highly recommend his interviews with Mark Everett of Eels and his recent interview with Neil Hannon and Thomas Walsh from The Duckworth Lewis Method as examples of this. Dan never asked boring questions. He got to the heart of the matter and the soul of the interviewee, simply because he was too clever, too prepared and too interested to ask bland questions.
But in everything Dan did, there was always an element of his own personality and humour embedded within. And what I love so much about this piece is not only does Dan manage to astonish Harry that he the amount of times he has seen Last Exit to Springfield is “probably in three figures” but the point where he actually manages to out-geek a core member of The Simpsons cast. Yep, Dan actually interjects to politely point out that “El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer” was in Season 8, not Season 9.
Lucas 1 – Burns 0.
This might at first sound cheeky, but it’s actually a wonderful microcosm of what made Dan such a magnificent writer. He never shied away from saying anything, or from expressing an opinion. He believed in doing things the right way – being careful, correct and thorough. He was highly intelligent, beyond almost anyone I’ve known. And he wasn’t overawed by anyone he interviewed. He was a fan first and foremost, but a fan with a wonderful skill for turning his passion and enthusiasm into something that everyone could share and delight in.
As I look now, with tearful and barely believing eyes, at Dan’s Facebook page – never to be filled again with wit, acerbic satire or sheer joy and enthusiasm for the things he loved – his profile picture stares back up at me. And that picture is of Dan stood next to Harry Shearer, wearing his Rainier Wolfcastle/Joy Division mashup t-shirt and smiling alongside one of his heroes. And as I sit here today, utterly crushed and perplexed with the sheer enormity of what has happened, I can at least take some joy in the fact that had these experiences and these moments of joy. He celebrated being who he was and the things he loved but beyond that, he actually managed to make it his career and his livelihood – that is an incredible thing to be able to say. He was a fiercely passionate and individual music writer – intelligent, erudite and never shy of an opinion. He was an astonishing mind when it came to sport – I have never known anyone who knew so much, but was able to frame it in a way that never came across as smarmy, but warm and welcoming. I will miss all of this so much. But more than anything, I will miss the close friend who – maybe more than anyone I have ever met – allowed me to be myself and to spend so many wonderful hours in the company of a genuinely special and wonderful human being. The world of music and sport has lost a tremendous writer. And I have lost a truly great and special friend.
Rest easy Dan. I am desperately going to miss you x
“What number of times have you seen that episode?” In isolation, it’s an innocent question, but my stomach drops nonetheless. It is bad enough that I’m wearing a t-shirt with Radioactive Man on the front, with the words ‘Ze goggles do nothing’ printed across it, while sat next to Harry Shearer, the man who delivered that very line 21 years ago. It is worse that I am going to have to reveal to one of my biggest heroes – Mr. Burns, Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner, Rainier Wolfcastle and more – just how big a nerd I am when it comes to The Simpsons, the regular cast of which he has been a part since it began in 1989.
“You genuinely don’t want to know.”
The number of times I have seen “Last Exit to Springfield” is probably in three figures.
“Oh my god.”
Suddenly I am relieved that we are not having lunch to talk about The Simpsons. Harry and Judith Owen, the acclaimed singer-songwriter to whom he has been married since 1993, are in London to perform their charity show, Christmas Without Tears, at King’s Place on Thursday 8 December. We meet on Portobello Road for them to tell DiS exactly why it’s not your typical benefit gig.
“It’s up to us to maintain a couple of things,” explains Harry. “One is [the performers are] not just hired talent; in most cases, if not all cases, these are people that we know, so that helps a lot. Then the rambunctiousness of the second act, where Judith forces the audience to sing carols and whips them into miming “The 12 Days of Christmas” also separates it from the standard sort of staid charity concert.”
This is not a concert but nor is it pantomime, although audience participation is a large part of what the couple describe as a sing-along show. “I go to great lengths, as the producer of this thing, and we go to great lengths as the hosts, to still have it looking like our living room,” says Judith. “We’d dress the stage as if it’s a room with couches and chairs and throws and rugs, and there’s a huge tree in the background and presents everywhere. It should feel like the audience has been invited to someone’s living room and they’re all round the piano, that’s the point of it.”
The reason for this is that the show began as nothing of the sort. Its formative years were spent as parties with friends and colleagues at Harry and Judith’s home in LA to help her cope with low-grade depression and an anxiety order that meant she struggled at this time of year especially, as Harry begins to explain.
“Judith, being a woman of Welsh descent living in London, comes over to southern California and seems appalled by the fact that Christmas is warm and sunny out there. She needed to return to her roots, to get people to gather around a piano as if huddling against the grave darkness.
“So we called a few of our friends, who are musicians and comedy people, to come over and do a few little pieces, a song or a bit of material. And eat a lot of food.”
Judith continues: “It became a really wonderful thing, because it was a throwback to entertaining yourself by the piano. The actual act of entertaining each other is really quite special, a really amazing thing to do. So that’s really where it all came from and by the third or fourth year that we’d done this we had people calling us up to say “please can we come to your party?”“.
In 2005, just three or four years after its living-room beginnings, the show moved from the couple’s living room to the stage. A booker at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA had got wind of the parties and, though the couple were reluctant to follow the booker’s prompt at first, they were moved by the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina to use the shows to raise money for New Orleans musicians (and yes, Harry is welcome back there despite Oh, Streetcar! – “worse things have happened in New Orleans, he reminds me).
Since then, it has become a global, annual event featuring an array of talent. Previous years have seen the likes of Christopher Guest and Michael McKean join in and Jane Lynch, Catherine O’Hara, John Michael Higgins, and Fred Willard are all either in or have been in the LA shows. The roll call for London this year includes Kipper Eldridge, Jacqui Dankworth, Charlie Wood, Nell Bryden, Doña Oxford, percussionist Pedro Segundo, cellist Gabriella Swallow, and Squeeze singer Chris Difford, as well as the comedian and writer Stephen Merchant.
“It’s down to people we love,” explains Judith when I ask how they decide whom to invite to perform. “People who are friends; it’s people you would invite to your home as a party guest.”
The idea of a Christmas without tears sounds quite comforting given the year we have had, and Harry and Judith agree that it seems especially important in 2016. Judith says: “It’s a horrible year on many levels: for Britain, for America, for everyone, for the world; the world’s a mess. The loss of so many great people. Wars...”
“A crappy Olympics,” adds Harry, who, incidentally, rejects the idea that Monty Burns has taken the White House. “Mr Burns is richer, Mr Burns actually has the money. Mr Burns is a lot less vain, there’s a lot less attention paid to his appearance. Burns did run for office in season two but he started at a sane level when he ran for governor of the state. But Trump just went right for the top.”
This year the London show is raising money for Copenhagen Youth Project Camden and Shelter. “[At Christmas] you’ve got people who are alone, lonely, ill,” says Judith. “People missing, people who aren’t around. And people living on the streets; if you’re in a hard place in life and struggling Christmas just makes it all the worse. It really does. So this is the antidote to it, but it’s reverent and it’s entirely irreverent. It’s always felt to me like [the show] should feel like the Christmas you wanted to have.
“You’re meant to leave with a smile on your face and like you’re in a shared experience. It’s a community thing.”
People with nowhere to go are very much a cause close to Judith’s heart; indeed it was an incident involving one such case that informed her most recent album, Somebody’s Child.
“It’s something the whole album is centred around,” she continues, “because all the songs are about seeing things that are important, that really do matter.
“A few Christmases ago I was in Manhattan shopping going towards Saks and when I turned on to Fifth Avenue there was this extremely beautiful girl, maybe 16, 17 years old. She had a Laura Mvula look to her with her shaved head, beatific smile, stunning. But she had no clothes and no shoes. There was snow on the ground, it was shocking weather, and she was wearing two black bin bags. And in between was the most beautiful yet shocking giant pregnant stomach. She was about to give birth and she was high on drugs, singing and screaming and dancing and twirling to the music in her head.
“It’s such a shocking thing to see because none of us want to be reminded of our fragility. And at some point it occurred to me that that was somebody’s child. I’m looking at somebody’s baby. We all start the same and anybody could end up that way. With the wrong start, the wrong home, with bad brain chemistry or depression. It’s luck; with any of those things that could have been me.
“So that’s why this year I felt like we should be raising money for homeless charities and we should be supporting, because I see in London it’s worse every year. It’s worse every year.”
Of course Harry is, to many fans, known as a musician himself: Derek Smalls, the bass player in Spinal Tap. I’ve always thought that musical comedy is the hardest to write, having to master two disciplines.
“I think whenever comedy involves another element, if you’re making fun of serious acting for example, doing a piss-take of a Shakespearean performance, you have to learn a different craft,” he explains. It’s the same thing with music, nothing is really funny about just crappy music. With something like Spinal Tap we’re still working hard to play it right, to make it sound credible that this band would have a career.
“A lot of people don’t necessarily think that way. [They think] ‘This’ll be funny’ and that’s the end of the conversation. They don’t think ‘How would this band have ever have got off the ground if they play that badly?’ So it depends on how much you want to examine those things and follow the logic of it. All of us really cared that it should be very believable that this band actually existed. Our desire was to fool the casual viewer, such as, let’s say Liam Gallagher [the Oasis frontman notoriously thought Tap were a real band].”
Audiences can look forward to a likely rendition of Spinal Tap’s “Christmas With the Devil” but don’t expect him to rely on his back catalogue. He says: “This is what separates this show from what we normally do. It’s not “these are my songs”. Everybody comes out and does something that’s either original or something that they love. But it’s done in a spirit of sharing, not [a greatest hits].”
“No one does their usual material, no one,” Judith adds.
I’ll freely admit to feeling a twinge of sadness when I realise this means Harry will not be singing “See My Vest”, one of The Simpsons” musical highlights and perhaps Burns” finest hour. “I couldn’t sing it if I tried. I mean, I can sing the first three words of it but after that no,” he reveals.
Later, perhaps after realising just how pathetic a devotee he is sat with (“Neeerrrrrrrddddd” the voice in my head keeps shouting out the car window), he says: “I’ve seen each episode a maximum of once. The lines go away pretty fast when you do 600 shows. I have favourite episodes but no [favourite jokes].”
I’ve been well and truly sidetracked but when am I going to get this opportunity again? Which episodes? “The three-eyed fish in season two [“Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish”] and season nine, when Homer takes the psychedelic pepper and encounters a coyote played by Johnny Cash [“El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer”].”
Things are about to get much, much worse for me: I struggle internally like I never have before, but cannot let this go. “That was season eight.”
“Hmmmm. Is it really?”
Judith has sussed me out: “He”ll know.”
“I’m really sorry, this is mortifying.”
“I’ve said season nine a million times in public and nobody’s corrected me before.”
Had lunch with one of my heroes today, The Simpsons' Harry Shearer pic.twitter.com/oMyg3zvtim— Dan Lucas (@DanLucas86) December 6, 2016
At least, I tell myself, Harry must get this a lot. People are always polite, he says, but often attempt hide their requests for him to do the voices behind their kids. It must be hard enough for him to keep them even recognisable over the course of nearly three decades.
“The big change was from season one to season two. We hadn’t seen the show as it hadn’t aired yet when we went into season two so we didn’t have the references. Dan [Castellaneta, Homer Simpson] came back after six months and the voices and the sound of the characters had changed. I was on the radio yesterday and they played a clip, and I could tell straight away it was from season one. I don’t think – and you would know! – with episodes from season three and season 17 you could tell much difference in the way the characters sound.”
You know he’s right. I might be the biggest Simpsons nerd he’s met yet, he confirms, (yes!!!) but the show is one of the biggest pop culture phenomena ever: it perhaps rivals even the Beatles and Elvis for popularity, is the longest-running scripted TV show ever and the writing of its golden era is held aloft by critics as rivalling even the greatest literary works. For my generation it has been a near-constant presence on the small, and indeed big, screens; even if the show’s quality has declined it will be a stranger world when they stop making it.
“I can tell you to set your alarm clock not to wake up two years from now,” Harry reveals. “I think they’re going to stop it at season 30. It’s a great round number. That’s what I think, I don’t know anything.”
I really hope that feeling I just had was indigestion. But, to make an awkward segue, the sense of comfort and happiness The Simpsons brings me is similar to what Judith hopes this show can do for those disaffected and disenfranchised at Christmas.
“The Christmas show began at a time when I was definitely struggling,” she says. “It’s a very very necessary tool to get through this time of year, mostly because my mother died when I was a kid right before Christmas. To me Christmas is everything I love and everything that hurts me at the same time. So every year, no matter how long ago that was, I struggle and I think a lot of us do. With those memories or with people not being around, it’s tough for a lot people.
“Christmas isn’t a wonderful, jolly time for everyone. It’s both things: it’s thrilling and exciting and wonderful, and it’s incredibly painful and difficult too. So this show was the tool to get me through the season. This has taken the place of Christmas for me; this feels like real Christmas.
“I’m gratified to know people in the audience feel the same way. Most people don’t have a straightforward, easy time at Christmas. How can you? There’s too much pressure! It’s a bittersweet time of the year and this is the greatest antidote I’ve come across.”