Study Guide

This Is Spinal Tap Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer)

Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer)

Smalls But Not Forgotten

The "big three" of Spinal Tap are clearly David, Nigel and Derek. That said, Derek tends to get the, um, small end of the stick.

Nigel and Derek are the guitarists. They're the vocalists. They've known each other since they were practically in the womb. It's those two the public comes to see. Well, what's left of the public that comes to see them, anyway. Derek, while he may be standing front and center, doesn't get nearly as much attention, no matter how much junk he stuffs down the front of his pants.

As best we can figure, there are a few reasons for this:

  • He hasn't been around as long. Well, sure. Nigel and David have had an entire lifetime to build a fan base, while Derek just joined up with them…who knows how recently? The New Kids on the Block were popular. The "new kid on the block"? Not so much.
  • He has a less commanding presence. Nigel and David are larger than life. Derek is decidedly smaller than life. He's soft-spoken, content to hang out in the background while his friends and bandmates step grandly into the spotlight, acquiring the bulk of the accolades and praise. This could simply be because Derek is more modest, or because he's too frequently getting stuck inside set pieces.
  • He isn't as talented. He's probably all right on his one instrument, but we haven't seen him play anything else, and he doesn't sing much. He also probably isn't involved with the writing side of things. At least, we would hope he isn't, based on the smattering of things we've heard him say. It isn't easy to be the dumbest one in that trio.

Derek loves everything about being a rock star—the women, the shrieking audiences, the tight pants. He seems to accept his role in the band:

DEREK: David and Nigel are like poets, you know, like Shelley or Byron, or people like that. The two totally distinct types of visionaries, it's like fire and ice, and I feel my role in the band is to be kind of the middle of that, kind of like lukewarm water.

But while Derek may play third fiddle (all right, so it's a bass guitar), we still remember him. Partly for his facial hair, partly for that confused look in his eye. All we know is that Spinal Tap wouldn't be the same without him. It would be awfully similar, but not exactly the same.

Shear Genius

You've probably seen dozens of old movies (it makes us cry that This is Spinal Tap now fits into that category) in which you see some obscure actor you've never seen in anything else, and you figure, "Ah, well. Poor guy must have been one-and-done."

If you think that about Harry Shearer, the man behind Derek Smalls, you would be dead wrong. Prior to Spinal Tap, he was an improv comic, comedy writer, and SNL cast member. He continued working with Guest and McKean in A Mighty Wind, a folk music mockumentary. Even if his face doesn't look familiar to you, you've almost certainly grown up hearing his voice.

Shearer's lent his vocal talents to roughly a bazillion characters on the longest-running scripted show on television. Yup, that's him as Ned Flanders, Mr. Burns, Smithers, Mr. Skinner, Dr. Hibbert, Lenny, Otto, Scratchy and dozens more. He even did the voice of Derek Smalls himself when Spinal Tap made an appearance on the show. A fictional character in a fictional band making an appearance on a fictional television program? That's pretty meta.