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tv   Overheard With Evan Smith  PBS  June 28, 2011 11:00pm-11:30pm PDT

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in part by hillco partners, consultancy and its global business unit, hillco health. and by the mattson mchail foundation in support of public television. and also by mfi foundation, improving the quality of life within our community. and also by the alice clayburg reynolds foundation and viewers like you. thank you. >> i'm evan smith. he's an emmy and grammy award-nominated actor and writer and radio host whose credits include spinal tap, saturday night live, a mighty wind, le show and the simpsons where you know him as voice of mr. burns, ned flanders, waylon smithers and many other characters. the big uneasy, his documentary about new -- what really happened to new orleans is out now.
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he's harry shearer. this is overheard. ♪ >> harry shearer, welcome. >> thank you. >> very nice to have you here. >> pleasure to be here. >> nice to be here. >> now this film is not a film about hurricane katrina, the natural disaster. that over. >> that is correct. >> that overcame new orleans. >> well, hurricane katrina was a natural disaster that overcame the, the mississippi gulf coast. >> right. >> what happened in new orleans was, in the words of dr. bob bea of the center for emergency response in berkeley, uc berkeley, a manmade disaster.
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manmade. >> right. >> .the greatest manmade engineering catastrophe since chernobyl. chernobyl used to be a big deal until fukushima but still. >> right, reference point. >> .it's kind of a big deal. >> the reference points always get updated. >> that's right. >> but you've been adamant in the discussion of this film online and as you've presented it around the country. >> yeah. >> and saying do not talk about this as a film about the aftereffects of katrina. do not talk about this as a film about the natural disaster. this was something that had proper planning put in place, had more work been done in advance, could have been prevented. >> had proper engineering been done. >> yeah. >> .on a hurricane protection system that congress mandated in 1965. bob bea's partner, ray seed at uc berkeley said the worst that would have happened to new orleans in 2005 is, quote 'wet ankles'. >> wet ankles as you say at the beginning of the film. >> yeah. >> why, why do we all think we understand this when we don't? is it the media that's been repeat. >> yeah. >> .repeating this over and over? >> yeah i did a talk at the national press club of all places a couple months ago. and, and tried to understand this and share my understanding. i think, you know, i was in
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media as a kid. i worked for newsweek. i tend to say, not to say i was in journalism because that's, you know, muddying the waters when you say newsweek and journalism in the same sentence. but. >> zing! >> hey. but you know, i first ran into this phenomenon when i was there. and i just thought it was sort of amusing and then it, it sort of replicates itself in the new orleans story, which is that editors and producers in new york get an early sense of a story from what i like to call the first dusting of the facts. >> yeah. >> and that becomes hardened into their narrative. that's the story now. and people on the ground, reporters or investigators in this case from major universities are valuable as quote machines to plug into that narrative. but if they conflict with that narrative, bye, bye baby. >> right. >> and that's i think what happened here. they, editors and producers in new york, saw the big spiral shape in the gulf,
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they saw hurricane damage in mississippi. they saw new orleans flood. they connected the dots, wrongfully as it turned out and then they went away. >> right. and it took, took you personally some time to discover this yourself. >> well, i mean living in new orleans as i do most of the time. >> right. >> .i was treated to the local media's reporting day by day, week by week of the interim findings of these two investigations. >> appreciably different from what the rest of us have heard in most cases. >> absolutely, diametrically different. >> yeah, yeah. and so the story is you were making a film in los angeles. >> yes. >> .at the time that, that the hurricane hit. >> yes. i was making for your consideration on dvd now. [ laughter ] >> right, do a little plug, that's good. and then, and then, and then you decided when the film wrapped you took the first plane to new orleans to see for yourself what had happened. >> well, to go home. >> right, to go home. >> you know i had called my friends, you know, said the obligatory greeting that every new orleanian shared with each other for the next year, how'd you make out. and then i went to see for myself and went to see how things were going. and i had
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the first meal served in the french quarter on non-paper plates. >> right because the power got on. >> they just got hot water. >> and hot water, right, yeah, yeah. and so you got back and when you got there, how much different initially was it from what you had heard? was it worse? >> i mean, i think a lot of us who watched the coverage and didn't actually experience it firsthand, we had to decide were they exaggerating how bad it was, maybe they were actually protecting us from how bad it really was. do we get a full picture of it? >> i think that, that what you didn't realize until you went there and, and it was true of every congressperson who was invited down there, they always said i had no idea of the geographical scope of this. >> yeah. >> it was basically the entirety of two metropolitan counties. >> well, if you watch the film you have some remarkable -- i guess it's technically aerial shots. but they're just these wide shots of the damaged area. and you kind of can't. >> yeah. >> .the brain doesn't understand the size and scope of it. >> yeah, normally with a news event, you know, your reaction, what you're talking about is correct. normally within three blocks of a news event everything is okay. >> right.
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>> in this case the news came to a particular spot which is, i think because of their logistical bias, it was within five minutes of an off ramp of interstate 10 so they could get to it easily. >> right. >> which is where the african-american victims were housed. they didn't get to any of the other parts of town, partly because new orleans has a very confusing grid, parallel streets intersect. ooh! [ laughter ] spooky! >> voodoo. >> voodoo. yeah voodoo engineering. and so, you know, they were in the, the center of a very wide swath of damage as a result. >> right. so at what point did you, after returning home and seeing this for yourself, decide, wait a minute, my sense of outrage has been sufficiently elevated. i need to do something about this. >> well, i put the, the investigators, the leaders of these two investigations, one out of uc berkeley and one out of lsu on my radio show. i interviewed john barry, the author of rising tide. he was a, an authority on. >> you blogged quite about this? >> blogged on huffington
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post. >> .huffington post a lot, yeah. >> and then there was a moment, it was october of 2009, president obama came to new orleans, had a town hall meeting, told a roomful of people who loved him and who had voted for him that the flooding was a natural disaster, which they all knew was not true. >> knew it was not true. >> and i, my head, i had to scrape it off the ceiling. >> yeah. >> i was just aghast and realized that radio and blogging were not, not up to the task of, of remediating the media's malfeasance on this job. and i thought okay, what, what else is possible? >> right. >> how about a documentary film that really just lays this all out? >> take this into my own hands. >> yeah. >> you had not made a documentary yourself previously. >> no. >> were you.been an architect. >> made mockumentaries. >> mock-mockumentaries. rockumentaries, if you will. >> yeah. >> but not, but not something like this before. >> no. >> so to whom did you turn? i know that you allude on the website of the film to having the benefit of working for the murdoch empire. >> yes. >> so possibly some of the resources that went into
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this film were. >> well, i. >> .hopefully provided mr. murdoch? >> no, i mean he doesn't know that. i'm just a funnel for his money. >> right you're an employee. >> i'm an employee, yes. >> you redirected some of your own. >> that's correct. >> right. >> but the producer of the film was the producer of spinal tap and all the christopher guest movies. she had started as a sound person on documentaries. and the cinematographer did mighty wind, but she'd also done some legit documentaries. so i went to those people and i went to an editor who had done documentary editing before. and then the rest of the crew was all new orleans crew. very dedicated and hardworking and excellent crew. >> fairly low budget as such a film needs to be. >> i should, i should hope so. >> you should hope so. >> yeah. >> but also. >> my, my account hopes so. >> yeah, right, but, but it also is not a documentary with a plan for its release like many others do. there's no, you're taking it around basically yourself, right? from place to place to place to screen it. >> plan a was and we made, we made this target. plan a was a one night only
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showing in theaters around the country on the 5th anniversary of, of the flood. >> right. >> the idea of that was to attract national media attention, naively i assumed that they would be open to new information on the subject as opposed to just wanting to rerun their old footage of anderson cooper waving a finger in mary landrieu's face. >> right. >> hey, we spoke with poirt. the power. so we did the 5th anniversary showing then brought it back and did a few updates. and now we did festivals in the interim. >> yep. >> and now we're rolling back out across the country in theaters. some for one night only, some for as long as they have it. >> but as you said you are a draw. >> i'm the bait. >> even if the film is not the draw. >> yeah. >> ...we'd like to think the film substantively would be the draw. >> yeah. >> .people come to see you. >> yeah, yeah. >> it's the burden of celebrity, right, that's what it is. >> and, and, well, but it, it's what celebrities should be used for, you know. >> for good, not evil. >> yeah. >> in this case. >> that's correct. >> 'ish, right? >> 'ish. >> 'ish. >> yeah. [ laughter ] >> and hopefully by the time this is all done, you told me, and people have seen it and there's a lot of talk about it, about the time
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it's made this run of screenings around, maybe one of the cable channels will pick it up and distribute it across television or something else. >> we hope so although hbo has said preliminarily, oh, we did new orleans. >> i want to ask you about that. spike lee, in the middle of all this, there's the spike lee. >> yeah. >> .film. so did you see that? >> i saw the first one. >> liked it? >> yeah it was fine. i, i, you know, i, it, it was done clearly by an outsider. and. >> well intentioned but an outsider. >> yeah. and so he gives oxygen to this urban myth that the levees were deliberately destroyed without giving the context for that story, which is that it's well known in new orleans that in 1927 when the mississippi river flooded, an entirely different event, that the new orleans city fathers went to the parish leaders in st. bernard and plackerman's parish, which are south of new orleans. and prevailed upon them to let the levees along their parish lines at the river be dynamited to take the
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pressure off the river to save new orleans. so that's well known in, in new orleans history. that's why people think when they hear levees breaking, oh, maybe, maybe something happened. maybe something deliberate. but without that kind of context it just seems peculiar to put that in a, in a film. >> right. >> and you know it would've been nice also for him to point it out with these two scientific investigations they uncovered not a shred of evidence that. >> that that was the case. >> .that was the case. >> who, who do you blame? i know that we, we very quickly rush to blame but let me give you the opportunity if you want to say who, who is, who is responsible for his if not the man upstairs? >> you, you may remember that at the time the bush administration was saying well, this is not the time for finger pointing. >> right. >> and, meaning don't ever.and they were followed by president obama who said we don't look backward, we look forward. so you shouldn't be surprised that there's an era of non-accountability floating around this country. i don't blame anybody because i don't know anything. i'm a guy from the comedy world. but the two investigationswed t,
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both point the finger primarily at the united states army corps of engineers for a disastrous series of mistakes, misjudgments, mismiscalculations, errors of of going back to when congress said build a system to protect new orleans from the maximum probable hurricane, the corps defined that down by excluding from its model all of the then most recent extreme storms as outliers. >> why would we plan for that? right, yeah. >> and the, the mistakes are pretty mindboggling in both quantity and quality. and the corps, the corps leader in one moment in time actually did a mea culpa, took responsibility and within two months he was out of the corps, retired and, and they don't talk about that anymore. >> right. so no one is looking back. >> no one's looking back. >> no one's looking back. >> there has not been a single member of the corps
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of engineers even docked a month's salary. no negative career consequences for them for almost obliterating a majo metropolitan area, although the leaders of the two investigations and a whistleblower from within the corps, who we profile in the film, have all had negative life and career consequences as a result of standing up and telling the truth. >> and telling the truth. >> so there's a lesson for the kids. >> yeah, sure, very upbeat. >> yeah. >> .very upbeat message. >> yeah. >> well, congratulations and, and, and let's hope that it's seen by as many people as possible. >> i hope so. >> and now let's talk about spinal tap. >> okay. [ laughter ] >> now that we have the unimportant stuff out of the way. >> yeah, right. >> .let, let's go to the less important but still pretty interesting stuff. i am stunned to say, to hear the words come out of my mouth that spinal tap is 27 years ago. >> mm-hmm. >> how is it possible that it's that long ago? >> rotation of the earth. >> is that it? you're going to talk to me, okay. >> yeah. [ laughter ] >> but i'm, i'm just, i'm baffled. i'm baffled by this. and, and as i said to you as we were walking up here it holds up. >> yeah. >> like very few things from back then do hold up. it holds up without question.
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>> yeah, well i, i told you off camera that i'd had an epiphany about that, that a couple years ago i realized that our, our very low budget probably made the movie more timeless than it would otherwise have been. because if we'd had all the money you would like to make a movie like that, we'd have filled the screen with telephones and cars and televisions, you know, just paraphernalia to make the world look real. >> right. >> and those are the things that date faster than anything else. so it puts it in this timeless world a little bit. >> yeah. >> but you know we would have never intended that, you know. >> did, did you know what you were letting loose on the world at the time or did this just seem like a goof? >> no it seemed like a.look -- our, the four of us shared one passion, which was, we're very different personalities and very different sensibilities, but we all wanted to do a movie that got rock-n-roll. got rock-n-roll right. >> because it had not been done right previously. >> it had been done so wrong, so egregiously wrong. you know, every rock-n-roll
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movie you'd see up to that point know, not, not counting hard day's night, people would be playing and what they were playing wasn't what their fingers were doing, you know. and just think, you know, 40 million people have taken guitar lessons, why don't you respect that at least? [ laughter ] so it was that that was really the, the basic impulse. we knew because we were funny people and we'd hire funny people to be in it. >> yeah. >> .that it would be something funny going on. but we really were kind of passionate about that. and all while we were making the movie we were, you know, fly specking the art direction and everything to make sure that, you know, we had one chance to get it right, let's do it. >> yeah, incredible. and, and did it also seem to you at the time that maybe this was going to be the first in a series of films that would follow, constructed in a roughly similar way and outline but no script, a lot of adlibbing? >> no, not at all. >> similar company because in fact all the christopher guest directed films that have come since, seem like they can breadcrumb back to spinal tap, right? >> yeah, but that was not a plan at the time.
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the plan.we were doing it in that style, not because we wanted to blaze a trail or start a new genre or anything, but we'd started anything but we'd started writing the script for the movie and then realized this is not the way to do it. >> yeah. >> if we want it to look like a documentary we have to make it.improvise. >> real life. >> yeah. >> yeah. >> so it was, it was a, a style that was serving the story. >> right. and you and michael mckean and you and christopher guest go back -- guest. we alluded to, i think, the credibility gap at one point. this was a group that radio comedy that you all did. >> and then we toured for a little, little while, yeah. >> and you were all in that group together? >> yes. christopher was in the national lampoon. >> oh you knew christopher from another but similar era. >> yeah. >> .yeah, deal. and, and so you've worked with these guys on and off now for. >> decades. >> .decades. >> yes. >> you know, it's just sort of amazing to find people who are very different personalities and, and yet you, you resonate to these same comedy frequencies. >> yeah. >> you know, and, and you can not see each other for six months and you'll get in a room together and make
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each other laugh and giggle like eight year olds all over again. >> right. >> and that's, you know, pretty rare. so you, if at all possible, one tends to hold on to those relationships. >> right, those films done now? or there going to be another one? you working on something else? >> chris is dropping more and more frequent hints of another one to come. i think he, he needed a while to get over the experience of for your consideration, which i thought was a wonderful film. >> it was a very funny movie. >> yeah, but it's also a sad movie, too. and i think the studio kind if mishandled the distribution of it or the timing of it at least. >> right. >> so, you know, those things hurt. you need a while to get over those. but i think he's getting ready to do another one, i hope. >> well, the group is an amazing group. >> it's a wonderful group. >> and it's so nice to see jane lynch get the recognition she deserves. >> yeah it sure is. >> .after all those films. >> it sure is. >> yeah. very funny. >> you know jennifer coolidge is such a wonderful actress and, and, and improviser and fred willard is of course from the moon. [ laughter ] john michael higgins is not only a wonderful comedy
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person but he's a brilliant musician. so i mean, it -- >> right. >> .i think the most fun to ever come out of that whole thing is when we did a tour of all the bands from a mighty wind. and you got to see all these people perform and you only had to work 30 minutes a night. >> pretty good. >> yeah it was great. >> pretty great. let me ask you about the simpsons. >> yes. >> .in the remaining time we have left. so you've had an interesting relationship with this program. the, the history is, the, the history is that maybe at the beginning you weren't sure that this would be the thing for you. is that right? >> well, i just was sort of, i needed my arm twisted to get involved with it. >> right. >> .because i didn't want to do a cartoon. >> it just seems though like how could it not have been great. maybe it's easier from the outside to assume. >> well, sure, retrospect. >> right. >> that's what they said to michelangelo, gee, the ceiling looks great now. [ laughter ] >> but, but i have to say though. >> not to compare though, you know. >> of course. no, no, no. yeah, yeah, yeah. [ laughter ] he was a slacker. this was actually work. >> yeah. >> right yeah. >> he wasn't a worldwide success. >> it just, it just seems, it just seems like that show from the very beginning must
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have been, if you get over your initial reservations, a blast to do. >> yeah, yeah. but i mean, the initial reservations were before i knew anything about it. >> right. >> it was just conceptual at that point. >> right. >> no, it's been -- you know, you get into show business to be part hopefully if you're very lucky, in something moderately. moderately successful. >> yeah. >> and then you have this great, good fortune to be part of something spectacularly successful that kind of retains its, its essence over now more than two decades. that's, that's remarkable. >> is that the thing that you're known for, strangely enough, now more than anything else? >> tap and my radio show and different things. >> i mean, i think what's interesting about my experience is that i can never quite predict when somebody comes up to me from the public. >> what they're going to say. >> .what they're going to say and what they're going to be interested in. so that makes it interesting. >> the voices you've done over the years on the simpsons, there seem to be interesting stories about each one. i, i read that mr. burns is based on a combination of
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ronald reagan and lionel barrymore. is that true? >> that's in somebody else's mind. >> not in yours? [ laughter ] >> no. >> no? this, this, this was in a profile of you and i thought well, that's interesting. i can't necessarily hear that but. >> no, that's in a writer's you know, desperate. >> somebody is projecting that on you? >> desperate search for metaphor. >> so then tell us where, where did mr. burns, the, the.? >> just, just made it up. >> yeah no basis for it? >> no, no. the, there were only two voices in, in the two characters in the whole panopoly that i do that have any basis in anything remotely resembling reality. i was running out of ideas for voices and so when reverend lovejoy came along i'd done this characterization of this televangelist named ernest angley. >> oh yeah of course. >> heal! he used to do. and people would be slain in the spirit. and i sort of just took his voice down a little bit an octave range and slowed him down a bit. [ laughter ] and then for principal skinner i'd been doing
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charles kuralt, the guy who used to. >> oh yeah, cbs. >> on the road for cbs. we were on the road and nobody knew that i was on the road because i had a mistress in montana. [ laughter ] and, so i.true story. and so i just again took his voice down, kind of genericized it a little bit. and that became principal skinner. >> yeah. >> but the others were just totally, you know, imaginary. >> is it still fun to do after all these years? >> yeah, i mean, you know, i resisted doing series television because i just couldn't bear the idea of doing one character every week all the time. and so the simpsons allows me to do 17 or 18, which is exactly what i wanted. >> right. >> and in fact, sometimes -- is it true you do mr. burns and smithers together essentially talking to yourself. >> oh yeah. >> .in one take? >> oh yeah. >> it's just the way we do it and, you know, you sort of get that skill to talk to yourself, if you hadn't had it before. >> you get it in that moment. you mentioned le show. i shouldn't let moments pass saying a word about that.
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that's actually if, if spinal tap seems like it's been going for a long time, '84, le show actually goes back to '83. >> mm-hmm. >> you've been doing that in one form or fashion or another for all those years. >> yeah. >> always with kcrw out of santa monica. >> yes, yes. >> it airs on public radio stations, not every place but in a lot of places and it's now available where i listen to it primarily is on podcast. >> mm-hmm. >> so it's available online. what is your thinking about that show now versus when you started it? how has it evolved? >> well, i mean it's always had the same function, which is i don't do standup so it's a way of being in front of the public doing comedy, writing, new material, thinking up new characters. the show has changed in that my view of the media landscape has changed. when i started i was basically an entertainer. in the run-up to the the iraq war it became apparent that if you read the international media or listened to them you're exposed to different information than you were by the american media. and i at that point, realized i've got a microphone. i could bridge this gulf. so it's become willy-nilly more informative over the
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years and less purely entertaining, but i always do a sketch or two every week. >> what you just said as your philosophy of the program is similar to goes back to the documentary, which is, you know, there's the truth out there and then there's the other truth out there. no one is telling the other truth. >> yeah. >> there's the truth that we're told. >> yeah. >> and so i can be the guy who tells that other truth. >> well, you know, or, or shares information. i mean i don't, i don't dress it up like that but just, there's information here. you're entitled to it. >> how long will you continue to do that? >> until they make me stop. >> i mean that's not something you're thinking, well, i'm going to hit a window and it's going to close and then i'm going to be done. >> every week i think that. >> yeah, you do? >> yeah. >> yeah. >> it's because i do it mainly myself and it's like oh god this again. but, you know, i keep doing it. >> somehow you get the energy up to do it again. what else are you working on besides that? >> i have a tv project for british television, which i hope if it goes it will sell back to the. >> talk, talk about that. what is it? >> it's a, a project that takes a different view of the nixon tapes.
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that imagines that he not only planted microphones but cameras in the white house and ignores watergate and vietnam because that's history and just focuses on the hours and hours of amazing stuff of, of character revelation, of what a, a crazy guy this really was. you know, smart and crazy and all those combinations. but really a remarkable, remarkably funny character, not intentionally. [ laughter ] but we're going to do a pilot of that in june. >> for british television? >> for british television. i have a deal and a really great production company. they're, they're so sensible over there. you know, we had these phone conversations and they -- the guy.and i'll retract these words i'm sure at a future date, but right now here's how it appears, the guy who's head of the production company when a problem occurs he sees his job is to reduce the drama. [ laughter ] imagine that. >> doesn't he understand he's in television? >> yeah i know as opposed to america where. >> right.
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>> .everybody's a drama queen. >> but the theory is if this succeeds over there perhaps it can. >> we'll sell it back to america. >> it'll have to cross over to television here. >> that's correct. >> right. >> then i have a couple other projects. i have a -- which also will be done in england first, we may have a little stage production finally of one, a musical comedy about the life of j. edgar hoover called j. edgar exclamation mark. >> and what you would. >> i co-wrote. >> and star perhaps? >> i'm in, i play walter winchell. >> oh fun. >> we don't know who will play j. edgar yet. >> yeah, but that would again be over there and then. >> start over there and come over here, yeah. >> yeah, it's always something. >> it's always something. >> yeah, well, it's great. well, i hope the documentary is a big success. >> thank you. >> and that people many people see it in whatever form it ends up taking whether it's just one-offs or it does go to a deal. it's important. >> thank you. >> so harry shearer, thank you so much. >> thanks. >> great to see you. [ applause ]
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>> funding for overheard with evan smith is provided in part by hillco partners, texas government affairs consultancy and its global health care consulting business unit, hillco health. and by the mattson mchail foundation in support of public television. and also by mfi foundation, improving the quality of life within our community. and also by the alice clayburg reynolds foundation and viewers like you. thank you. clear clea
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