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Intermission of long-outdated content: An interview with Bill Oakley

August 22, 2012

Well my disc-drive is being an insufferable bitch. For the past few days it has refused to read Futurama Season 2 Disc 1. It reads other discs fine. And said disc works fine on my DVD players. So who knows what it’s doing.

Anyway, to make up for this shameful failure, here’s something which proves my laziness knows no bounds. This is an interview I (and Brian McClure from NoHomers) conducted with Bill Oakley, the co-showrunner of seasons 7 and 8 of The Simpsons and former Futurama consultant among many other jobs. This was conducted for the purposes of filling in the gaps for Bill’s Wikipedia page, hence some of the more asinine questions like ‘when were you born?’ and ‘what are your children’s names?’ Probably the most interesting things Bill revealed… are not going to be published here, because I don’t want to get him into trouble. But there’s still some good stuff here. Why does this show my laziness? Well this interview took place on IRC almost two years ago… and I’m only finally getting around to publishing the full thing now.* I got it run – in very, very shortened form – in my student paper last year, but this is the full (censored) thing. As I can’t use this blog for its intended purpose at this point, I’ll at least post something mildly interesting. Enjoy.

*This is why there is nothing here about Portlandia, The Cleveland Show or any of his more recent work.

  • Gran2: This is a terrible opening question, but, as birthdates are the most annoying thing to reliably source, were you born February 27, 1966?
  • Oakley: Yes
  • Gran2: Can you tell us about your early life, where were you born, and what were some of your early influences?
  • Oakley: I was born in Westminster, Maryland and grew up in Union Bridge MD. I moved to DC when I was 10. My biggest early influence was MAD magazine. My brother went to college and left about 100 issues in the attic.  I read them all over and over. Later, my influences were National Lampoon, SNL and especially SCTV, in high school. [And Monty Python], but it was hard to find back then, only on PBS late at night. I did see Holy Grail when I was little and I thought it was really scary! I did have every single MP record album though.
  • Gran2: You’ve been writing comedy since high school, is that correct? With The Alban Antic?
  • Oakley: Yes, I was primarily a cartoonist in those days, but I started the Antic and Josh was co-founder. We were brought together in the ninth grade by a shared love of comedy in what was a pretty stiff environment.
  • Gran2: Ah yes, I remembering reading something about the principal there and his view of comedy, could you tell us about that?
  • Oakley: We were not on the same wavelength. The original name of the magazine was “Happy Hour” but he did not approve of the drinking connotation so we chose the (in my mind) inferior name the Alban Antic. I have to say he was actually fairly supportive of the magazine but he wasn’t a comedy lover in general. It was a very proper school with little room for dissent.
  • Gran2: You, like many people who later wrote for The Simpsons, went to Harvard and wrote for the Harvard Lampoon. What was that like and how do you think it helped shape The Simpsons?
  • Oakley: As I’m sure you know, no Lampoon people actually “created” the Simpsons. But in assembling the original staff Sam Simon did end up hiring several and I think it just built upon itself, in that Lampoon people from similar eras tend to have fairly similar comedic tastes. So that during Seasons 5-8, there was usually a very large percentage of Lampoon people (10 of 12 in our years, I think). The Harvard Lampoon magazine is very rarely good or funny but it provides the members/editors a forum for non-stop practice and improvement of their comedy-writing skills so that by the time they graduate from college, it’s as if they have the experience and skills of someone who has been a pro for four years. My classmates on the Lampoon that year included Paul Simms, David X Cohen, Steve Tompkins and also on the staff during the time I was there were Conan O’Brien, Rich Appel, Dan McGrath, Lauren MacMullen, Dan Greaney and Steve Young. I was Vice President, David Cohen was President that year, I was VP, and Paul Simms was second VP. I’m now a Trustee of the Lampoon.
  • Gran2: What did you study at Harvard?
  • Oakley: US History, but although I graduated Cum Laude, academics were not my focus. I spent almost every waking hour in the Lampoon building, working on the magazine, our pranks, etc. You may have heard that Jeff Zucker (just-fired chairman of NBC) had Conan arrested in college and also tried to have me and Dan Greaney kicked out of college after we printed his dorm phone number in a fake “Phone Sex” ad.
  • Gran2: After Harvard, how did you get into writing, it seems like a fast progression for a lot of people, was that the case for you?
  • Oakley: It only seems fast because I usually leave out the unemployment parts! First I went home to DC and I got a job writing promos at “America’s Most Wanted” which was the only non-news network TV show in DC. Anyway, it was actually almost four years of small jobs on failed projects and a lot of unemployment until we finally got that big break where Mike & Al assigned us “Marge Gets a Job”.
  • Gran2: And after that you ended up joining the staff full time, after turning down an offer from Diane English to work on a show with her?
  • Oakley: Yes, on her show “Love & War”. It was a great offer and she was a great person but we were just more “Simpsons” types than romantic comedy types.
  • Gran2: What was it like arriving on The Simpsons as big fans of the show beforehand?
  • Oakley: It was incredible. And very intimidating. We were so ignorant of the whole process that we thought as “Story Editors” we would actually be editing stories written by the others. We were thrown into a room with 8 of the best comedy writers who ever lived and for those first few weeks I wrote down everything I said that actually got used. It was a very short list.We were there every day with the original staff from May 1992 until most of them departed in October 1992. Then it was Conan, us, and Dan McGrath — alone, running the show for about six weeks until Mirkin showed up.
  • Gran2: You and Josh wrote some of the best episodes in the shows history [LIST], could you talk us through the production of the episodes you wrote, from your perspective?
  • Oakley: Sure. I am referring to seasons 4-8 here. Twice a year we would have a story retreat, one day in hotel, where everybody would present their story ideas. Josh and I usually had three or so ideas. Everybody including Matt and Jim would chime in and add their thoughts, then the showrunner would pick which ones we were going to do in what order. We would spend a day with the whole staff “pitching out” the story: going through the story, working out the plot points, everybody adding thoughts and jokes, then we would go off for two weeks and write an outline, usually about 30 pages single-spaced, and turn it in. The showrunner would give notes and revisions and then you would have two weeks to write a script, then the staff would go over it and cut and rewrite and so forth, in the room, led by the showrunner. Sometimes there were massive painful rewrites that would last more than a week, sometimes if it was a great first draft it would take two hours and the script would go to the Table read virtually unchanged then there was another usually pretty small rewrite and it would go to the stage for the actors to record on Monday morning.
  • Gran2: Out of interest, you wrote $pringfield, did you pitch it as well? You posted the original draft on Twitter.
  • Oakley: Yes, we pitched $pringfield at our first retreat, the very last retreat ever lead by Sam Simon.
  • Gran2: The first draft of $pringfield, it’s amazing to see both: classic stuff that isn’t there and also the classic stuff that is, right from the first draft.
  • Oakley: Yes, our first drafts were usually 62 pages long, that was the max allowed before you would get in trouble, but for the table reading they always had to be cut down to about 47.
  • Gran2: I was going to say, it seemed a lot longer than the actual episode, especially the first act with the extra story elements about the economic crisis.
  • Oakley: Plus that inane “Planet Hollywood” thing we were forced to cram in
  • Gran2: Let’s talk about probably your most famous episode, Who Shot Mr Burns? I read you originally wanted Barney as the shooter.
  • Oakley: Yes, here is the story of how that happened: Matt came into our office a week or so before the story retreat and was just musing and he said we should do some stunt like “Who Shot Mr Burns” or something and Josh and I thought was a great idea. We pitched it with just the broadest strokes we hoped it would be an actual mystery and one character would actually be the shooter and be sent to prison. We wanted Barney as it seemed like his drunk jokes were running dry, plus he’s a desperate sort. At the story retreat James L. Brooks pitched that it be Maggie as a joke. We were not crazy about this but the retreat ended and we all left. A few weeks later it came time to pitch the story with the writers in the room prior to writing the outline, we were still not happy about having it be a “joke” shooter, but David Mirkin suggested that perhaps Maggie could “dart her eyes” at the end, thus suggesting that it was all intentional. We thought that was a good compromise and wrote it that way
  • Gran2: You and Josh took over running the show in Seasons 7 and 8. They contain some of the show’s most memorable episodes (“Two Bad Neighbors”, “Homer’s Enemy etc.). A lot of the episodes were what you have termed experiments and expanded the characters backstories etc. Was this something you were especially interested in or did you even think the show would end soon, so wanted to flesh out the mythology as it were?
  • Oakley: We were NOT doing that because we thought the show would end soon although I don’t think anybody at the time thought it would continue past another season or so. We came to the showrunning job with a specific plan: To do “classic”-style family episodes, plus one Itchy& Scratchy and one Sideshow Bob per year, plus at least one “format-bending” episode a la “22 Short Films About Springfield”. I think we did those backstory episodes because we were genuinely interested in what made those characters tick and wanted to flesh them out a bit, plus we did not want to repeat ourselves so we had to start looking outside the family for some of the episodes.
  • Gran2: “The Principal and the Pauper” [where it is revealed Principal Skinner is an imposter] proved to be probably the only negatively received episode of your era. Having listened to [writer] Ken Keeler’s explanation on the DVD, I understand the episode’s premise as an experiment in TV, and I never hated it anyway.
  • Oakley: Good, I think the commentary is pretty much the end-all be-all on that topic.
  • Gran2: With, hindsight, do you think you would have changed the episode in anyway to make it clearer? Perhaps a “Springfield Files” like narration?
  • Oakley: I certainly never thought anybody would hate it. Again, it was drawn from a real-life story that Ken found and “Return of Martin Guerre”. I’m not sure clarity was the problem.  I think it was pretty clear what happened. I think people reacted much more violently to the tampering-with-backstory thing than anyone expected they would.
  • Gran2: Out of interest, who gets the Emmy when you win for Outstanding Animated program? Do they make one for everybody?
  • Oakley: Everyone who is listed as “Producer” or above on the credits as well as writer and director (in general). But it’s not an exact science. Lots of people who had nothing to do with it get one, and people who were instrumental to it get nothing sometimes.
  • Gran2: You and Josh left the show to create Mission Hill, was there anything you learnt from the Simpsons that aided that (or left you unprepared?)
  • Oakley: We were aided by the fact that we really knew how to write and produce and execute an animated show and bring it in on time and hire the right people to act in and animate it. What we were NOT prepared for — and what few people who leave the world of the Simpsons are prepared for — are the harsh realities of working with a studio and network and having to deal with dozens and dozens of executive of every stripe second-guessing you. Although the creative execs at the now-defunct WB were mostly great and nothing short of encouraging, I think the network never really committed to promoting the show and, really, why should they?  It was clearly on the wrong network on at the wrong time. I think the WB just hoped that the sheer fact that an animated series by us was on, that it would draw 10 million viewers to a night they had never programmed in a doomed time slot — and no show could deliver that. It was destined for Adult Swim from the moment it was invented, a much better home for it anyway.
  • Gran2: The Simpsons is a largely collaborative show, and an episode credited to you might actually contain little material pitched by you. Are there any jokes you wrote or pitched that have been well-received by fans?
  • Oakley: The most well-received thing I have ever written entirely by myself was “Skinner & the Superintendent” from 22 Short Films. I was just looking through the first draft and aside from some trims, what went on the air was what I turned in. Also in the broader sense, the 3D Halloween segment was my notion although David Cohen wrote it and it was my idea for Homer to have an enemy who was a stiff although it went through a lot of work by other before becoming Frank Grimes.
  • Gran2: I will say that the Skinner and Chalmers scene from 22 Short Films is my single favourite scene in the show’s history.
  • Oakley: That’s pretty sweet to hear.
  • McClure: Did you pitch any jokes that you’re particularly proud of?
  • Oakley: I don’t know if they’re anyone’s favorites (aside from “Skinner & the Superintendent”) but I loved to make up Troy McClure moves and I pitched “The Boat-Jacking of SuperShip ’79″ and “They Came to Burgle Carnegie Hall”, I feel like I have a lot of jokes in the George Bush show and the 300 lb Homer show but I cannot remember the specifics, I am more of a character comedy person than a gag man.
  • Gran2: Do you think Phil Hartman would have succeeded in making a live-action Troy movie had he not died?
  • Oakley: It would’ve been tough as it would have been, by necessity, a parody of crummy movies and since most of the movie-going audience is rather thick, intentional parodies of that nature have not done well historically. Thus, getting some studio to finance that sort of thing would’ve been tough but I bet it would have been the funniest script of all time.
  • McClure: I was actually surprised to learn that there was a pilot written for a live-action Krusty the Clown TV show, did you have any knowledge of that? Do you think it could have worked?
  • Oakley: It was being written and developed right when we started in late Season Three. It was supposed to star Dan Castellaneta as Krusty and I think that Krusty had moved to LA, maybe? It was written by Michael Weithorn and we talked about it briefly when (for a very short period) we worked together on Sit Down, Shut Up. I imagine it was one of those intentionally-crummy things like Police Squad that tend to get cult followings but sail right over the heads of most people but I never read the script so I don’t really know.
  • McClure: Do you know if any other spin-offs made it into script form?
  • Oakley: Not to my knowledge, but Josh and I did have several meetings with Matt about creating and launching a “Springfield Stories” spinoff, but it hit a dead end with Jim Brooks.
  • Gran2: After Mission Hill, you and Josh worked on Futurama?
  • Oakley: We worked on Season Three of Futurama.  Its air schedule was varied but we worked there during most of the year 2000. We “consulted” on the show, helping with rewrites and story pitches. The episode we were most involved in was “Roswell That Ends Well”, which won an Emmy but because we were “Consulting Producers” and that was below the Emmy cutoff, we did not receive one that year.
  • Gran2: Just to clarify that you are married to Rachel Pulido and you have three (not two) children: James, Mary and Elizabeth?
  • Oakley: Correct
  • Gran2: And, finally, what future projects are you working? Is there any chance we will get to see them?
  • Oakley: Here’s the deal, for every movie that gets to the theaters, there are thousands that never get made. TV is similar. Josh and I have made a lot of terrific television over the past few years which nobody saw except execs in screening rooms, but I can’t complain, it’s fun and a good living. Working separately now, I still do that. I have four projects in various stages at various places, but no idea which, if any, may make it to air. The project I am most excited about and the one that seems to have the most potential is “Robot Lab”. I am working with the team behind “Yo Gabba Gabba” who I think are today’s Jim Henson’s and we are creating a live-action show where all the main characters are actual, working (or semi-working) robots ala Star Wars robots.  Except this show takes place today in the real world, and it’s a comedy. The writing is in the same vein as the Simpsons in that it’ll be sophisticated, satirical, and adult — but kids will also love it as well just by the show’s nature. [We pitched it the networks] and I am thinking this is more of a cable show.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. August 25, 2012 8:23 am

    Sorry about your disc troubles, but this interview post was awesome!

  2. September 25, 2012 7:20 am

    …is Portlandia worth watching?…

    • September 25, 2012 9:32 am

      I think it’s supposed to be pretty good. Not that I’ve seen any of it.

  3. Buck Henderson, Union Buster permalink
    April 20, 2013 3:39 pm

    Did he talk about the infamous Groening v. Simon bouts, or Meyer/Greaney?

    • April 20, 2013 4:12 pm

      Not to my recollection; I didn’t want to rake over stuff Ortved covered.

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