Episode 402: Bill Oakley, Laraine Newman, Hanif Abdurraqib

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Heard On BETA
Bill Oakley as a character on "The Simpsons"
Courtesy Bill Oakley

Bill Oakley on his double life as a social media fast food critic and an animation kingpin from his days at “The Simpsons.” Also, “SNL”’s Laraine Newman looks back on her career. And writer Hanif Abdurraqib joins us to talk about the history of black performance in America.

Featured in this Show

  • Bill Oakley's Double Life: Comedy Writer And Fast Food Reviewer

    When Bill Oakley isn’t writing scripts that make people laugh, chances are pretty good that he’s delivering fast food reviews that make people’s mouths water.

    Oakley is a former showrunner and head writer of a long-running animated sitcom that you’ve probably heard of. Does “The Simpsons” ring a bell? He’s also written and produced “Futurama,” “Disenchantment,” and “Portlandia”. And Oakley currently serves as the head writer and executive producer of the HBO Max series, “Close Enough.”

    Oakley, and his longtime writing partner Josh Weinstein, wrote a spec script for “Seinfeld” in the late 1980s when the show was still known as “The Seinfeld Chronicles.” As Oakley told WPR’s “BETA,” “The coin of the realm in TV writing is writing a spec script, which means writing a sample episode of a show that you like for free and showing it around to show that you can write.”

    Oakley and Weinstein thought Seinfeld’s show was hysterical so they decided to write a spec script for it. That script got them several meetings with executives for shows like “Cheers”, “Murphy Brown,” and “The Simpsons.”

    Mike Reiss and Al Jean were running “The Simpsons” at that time. They thought the spec script was funny and asked Oakley and Weinstein to write an episode. That was the beginning of their TV writing careers.

    In 1995, Oakley and Weinstein were promoted to executive producers and showrunners for the seventh and eighth seasons of “The Simpsons.”

    In terms of their goals as showrunners, Oakley says that he and Weinstein just wanted to copy season three because that season was run by Mike Reiss and Al Jean, who had hired them. Oakley describes them as geniuses.

    “And I believe that season three of ‘The Simpsons’ is the best season of any TV show of all time,” Oakley said. “And by the way, we didn’t work on that. So it’s not like blowing my own horn.”

    So, they reverse engineered season three in terms of the kinds of episodes that it featured and tried to replicate those kinds of episodes.

    Season eight debuted in 1996. “We decided to be a little more experimental because at that point, we were pretty sure the show was going to be over by season nine or 10 because sitcoms don’t go that long,” Oakley recalled.

    One of the highlights of season eight was an episode called “Homer’s Enemy”. Oakley came up with the idea to create a nemesis for Homer Simpson.

    “So I was like, ‘Let’s come up with a story about a guy who is the polar opposite of Homer and what happens,’” Oakley explained. “And then we took it to the writers room. And we all kind of mutually came up with this thing about Frank Grimes. And the thing about the Frank Grimes story is Frank is a humorless fellow and he pays the ultimate price. You can’t tamper with the Simpsons’ universe and you can’t question it.”

    Oakley is also responsible for the “steamed hams” sketch that originally aired in 1996 in an anthology episode called “Twenty-Two Short Films about Springfield.” Twenty years later, steamed hams became a meme.

    “So when we did ‘Twenty-two Short Films,’ everybody got to write a sketch for their favorite character,” Oakley explained. “And I called (Superintendent) Chalmers and (Principal) Skinner. And Skinner had burned his roast. It goes back to the days of radio or vaudeville, a sketch where the boss is coming to dinner and something goes wrong. And Skinner’s trying to pass off his burned hamburgers from a fast-food restaurant as his own cooking.”

    Oakley pays homage to steamed hams with his side hustle as a fast food critic. The annual awards are called “The Steamies.” Oakley posts videos of his reviews on Instagram and Twitter. The entertainment news and business website, The Wrap, has dubbed Oakley the “Gordon Ramsay of Fast Food.”

    Does this mean that Gordon Ramsay is the “Bill Oakley of Good Comedy Served Quickly”?

    “The thing that Gordon Ramsay is known for is obviously being brutally frank and sometimes kind of humorous in his derision. And I think that’s where I become a Gordon Ramsay,” Oakley replied.

    Oakley has tried a lot of food from the Canadian province of Manitoba. What does he think of Manitoba cuisine?

    “I’d say it’s probably mainly about the potato chips. Canadian potato chips are really something else,” Oakley said. “And there are so many varieties, so many regional varieties all across Canada that we never get here in the U.S. And that’s why even in the Steamies this year, I had a special category just for Canadian potato chips.”

    Oakley says that Manitoba-made Greetalia Honey Dill Sauce “is possibly the best condiment I’ve ever had.

    “I just can’t believe everybody’s not eating it all the time and it’s not become a standard condiment that you get at McDonald’s for your chicken nuggets because it’s sweet. It has kind of a thick honey texture to it. But the dill gives it a certain unusual spiciness that really makes it noteworthy. And every time I make chicken nuggets, that’s all I want is just to dip every one of them in Manitoba honey dill sauce.”

    Oakley is now working as the head writer and executive producer on season three of an HBO Max animated series called “Close Enough.”

    “It’s about a young family. And also their divorced best friends who happen to live with them to save money on rent,” Oakley explained. “And the show deals with a lot of relatable problems of being a young parent, but always kind of spirals into surrealism in a really funny way.”

    And if that’s not enough, Oakley is also starting to manufacture vinyl toys.

    “It sounds like I’m real busy, but in fact, most of these projects have been in gestation for three straight years and they all just happen to be coming together this month,” he mused.

  • 'SNL' Alumnus Laraine Newman, You Know, Like, Reflects On Her Comedy Career In New Memoir

    Laraine Newman is best known as one of the original “Saturday Night Live” cast members. She’s also a founding member of the legendary improvisation and sketch comedy group, The Groundlings. More recently, she’s pivoted to a successful career as a voice actor, having voiced several animated characters during her career.

    Newman revisits her life and career in her new audio memoir, “May You Live in Interesting Times.”

    In her memoir, Newman says her need for attention was bottomless, and a lot of that had to do with the fact she was one of four kids and her parents were not very involved.

    “So I really had to work my a– off to get any kind of attention at all,” she told WPR’s “BETA.” “And I think it’s a pretty common story. People kind of go out in the world and try to make up for that in some way.”

    When Newman was 19 she was accepted into the California Institute of the Arts School of Theater program, but she left in 1971 a short time later to join an improvisation workshop in Los Angeles with her older sister, Tracy. This improv workshop evolved into The Groundlings.

    Newman said it was exciting to develop the group into a legitimate company and school, although it was still relatively new by the time she left to join “Saturday Night Live” in 1975.

    “We were the only game in town in terms of an improv company,” Newman recalled. “And we started to get a following and (were) reviewed by the LA Times and other legitimate newspapers. So that was very exciting, and it was exciting to go from being just a workshop to a real company.”

    As a member of The Groundlings, Newman learned she was not the best improviser and that she was better off writing monologues.

    “I contribute to the idea of moving forward, but I’m not necessarily funny,” Newman said. “That’s why I chose to do characters, because I had a chance to think about what I was doing to write and craft my pieces so that I could try to be funny in a different way.

    Newman created a character monologue for a Valley girl named Sherrie. The idea was a result of her observations of a certain kind of speech pattern she’d noticed among her Southern California classmates. She first noticed it during the 1960s while she was still in high school.

    “And I’ve always been fascinated with dialects anyway,” she said. “And it was just an amalgam of a friend that I went to school with and there was a sweetness to the character kind of born of their lack of awareness, shall we say.”

    After seeing Newman perform twice with The Groundlings, “SNL” creator Lorne Michaels met with her at Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood. He told her about a new show that he was developing.

    “He said (‘SNL’) was a replacement for (‘The Tonight Show Starring Johnny’) Carson reruns on Saturday nights, and it was only going to be 13 weeks with a five-year option,” Newman recalled. “And I remember thinking, ‘Like that’ll ever happen.‘”

    So, Newman moved to New York City to join “SNL” as a cast member. She was on the show for the first five seasons, from 1975 to 1980.

    Newman found the first season of “SNL” to be very challenging. She was robbed and, as a result, lost her Groundlings monologues and had to recreate them from memory.

    “Gilda (Radner) was my first friend and really kind of squired me around and introduced me to all her friends, which was so nice of her,” Newman said. “But it was an adjustment trying to figure out how to get airtime, to get writers to get your characters and maybe write for them. It was different than what it was at The Groundlings because I wrote with my sister, and so I had an automatic writing partner who really knew what I could do. And I was without that.”

    The first time Newman performed her Sherrie character was in a sketch called “Godfather Group Therapy” with that week’s host, actor Elliott Gould. Newman said the writers just kind of plugged her Groundlings monologue into the sketch, but they wrote one of the sketch’s most well-known lines: “Vito, you’re blocking.”

    Newman returned to “SNL” for the show’s 40th anniversary special on Feb. 15, 2015. Newman remembered watching the recurring sketch, “The Californians,” over the years and thinking she would have loved to have appeared in it.

    “I called Lorne and I said, ‘I don’t know if you guys are going to be doing sketches, but I think it would be really fun to have Sherrie as the matriarch because a lot of soap operas have the matriarch.’ And I didn’t think anything would come of that, but then Fred Armisen called me and said, ‘Let’s write something.’ So in my kitchen for several days we laughed our a–es off. And of course, nothing that we wrote ended up in the sketch, but we did have a lot of fun.”

    Newman has pivoted to a very successful second act with a career as a voice actor for animated films and TV shows. You can hear her voice in such movies as Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax” and “Wreck-It Ralph.” She also provided the voice for Plankton’s grandmother in “SpongeBob SquarePants.”

    Newman says the big difference between voice acting and physical acting is you only have one instrument to use in voice acting.

    The most important thing she learned about herself while working on her memoir is that she can change and overcome things.

    “Preconceived notions I have about myself aren’t set in stone,” she said. “I always wanted to write this book for various reasons, which changed over the course of having written it. But I just never imagined that I could write a book. So that, I think, is really a major thing that I learned about myself is that I could.”

  • Author Explores Josephine Baker, Merry Clayton And The Black Funeral

    In his latest book, “A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance,” author Hanif Abdurraqib explores the ways in which Black performances are an essential part of the history of American culture.

    Through a series of essays, Abdurraqib shares incisive and intelligent thoughts about the impact from a diverse roster of performances, including how they affected him personally. Examples of the kind of artists and performances Abdurraqib thought deeply about include the life of entertainer and civil rights activist Josephine Baker; the significant role singer Merry Clayton’s powerful and soulful voice played in the success of the Rolling Stones’ iconic song, “Gimme Shelter”; and the distinctive qualities that make the Black funeral a different kind of experience.

    The book’s title comes from a speech Baker gave at the March of Washington in 1963.

    “I love the speech for how it’s funny, it’s defiant, it’s somber, but also celebratory,” Abdurraqib told WPR’s “BETA.” “And there’s a part of it where she kind of looks upon the younger audience and tells them to go and ask their grandparents about her, and their grandparents will tell them that she was a devil in other countries and a little devil in America, too.”

    Baker was born in 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri. She became the first Black woman to star in a major movie — the silent film, “Siren of the Tropics,” released in 1927. Baker renounced her United States citizenship and became a French national after she married the French industrialist Jean Lion in 1937. During World War II, Baker joined the French Resistance to the Nazi occupation.

    “She was a spy, someone who passed the information along and traveled with information because she could use her fame and notoriety,” Abdurraqib explained. “But also, just her charm and her ability to manipulate the desires of men in particular to shuttle information back and forth. And that to me is another fascinating and underreported part of her life.”

    Abdurraqib said he considers this aspect of Baker’s life to be underreported because he thinks it’s more complicated to consider the “fullness” of Baker’s life.

    “And it is a lot easier for people to kind of confront her, the image of her, on stage in, say, a banana suit and the bikini of bananas,” Abdurraqib said. “Or the picture where she’s kind of making playful faces of a tiger, these kind of things.”

    He said Baker’s career off stage is every bit as vital.

    “But in her mid- to late life and career, there’s still a lot of robust brilliance that is perhaps harder to confront because she was operating in ways that are perhaps less glamorous to talk about,” Abdurraqib said.

    Baker returned to her hometown of St. Louis to perform at the Kiel Auditorium on Feb. 3, 1952. This was one of the few times she had been back home. She had never performed in her hometown before because she wouldn’t perform in front of segregated audiences.

    But this concert was for a cause she believed in: a local committee raising money to protest school segregation.

    This historic performance is a source of inspiration for Abdurraqib. He said he’s fascinated by the idea of having a complicated relationship with home, but still finding yourself feeling compelled to return to it.

    “I’m someone who loves where I live and was raised … and have complications with it, but still love it,” he said. “And there’s an interesting push and pull that comes with, I think, being Black and loving any place in America. But I especially love Josephine Baker’s relationship with St. Louis and her return to America that were not without their complications and not without her comfortably voicing those complications.”

    Essay Reflects On Overlooked Singer Clayton

    Abdurraqib’s book reflects on other performers who were overlooked despite their talents or achievements.

    The book contains an essay called “I Would Like to Give Merry Clayton Her Roses,” in which Abdurraqib explores the important contributions Clayton made to the Rolling Stones’ song, “Gimme Shelter,” released in 1969. Clayton is a singer who’s probably best known for the powerful, soulful and haunting vocals she performed on the track.

    The Stones were working on developing the song late into the night. Lead singer Mick Jagger said he suddenly realized the band needed a woman to sing the lyrics he’d written on a piece of paper. One particular line: “rape/ murder/ it’s just a shot away.”

    “He needed someone to sing the word ‘murder’ like they were trying to squeeze something previous through barbed wire,” Abdurraqib wrote.

    Producer Jack Nitzsche called Clayton that night, waking her up and convinced her to come to the studio to lay down some vocals.

    “Some would consider that she sings backup vocals, but I really think about ‘Gimme Shelter’ as a Merry Clayton song,” Abdurraqib said.

    “And during, I think, the second or third rotation of singing that on the second syllable of ‘murder,’ her voice kind of reaches a really high point and then kind of cracks a bit. And you can hear Jagger giving kind of a shout of awe in the studio, which is on the final record,” he said.

    What thoughts go through Abdurraqib’s mind when he listens to “Gimme Shelter”?

    “I have a hard time returning to it because for me, whether intentional or not, the exertion in Merry Clayton’s voice is jarring for me and hard to confront. I will say that her version, the version that is just her singing, is actually my preferred version. It feels like she has more autonomy over the movements of the song, and she’s not being pushed to heights that suggest discomfort.”

    Clayton recently released her first new album in more than 25 years. It’s called “Beautiful Scars.” The title stems from a car accident in 2014. A car crashed into Clayton’s vehicle, breaking her legs. This led to the partial amputation of both her legs.

    Passage Examines Traditions Of Black Funeral

    Another one of Abdurraqib’s essay, “On Going Home as Performance,” looks at the uniqueness of the Black funeral.

    When he was 21, Abdurraqib attended a funeral at a church in southern Alabama.

    “I think that was maybe the first time I saw dance and song kind of collide in a way that felt celebratory in the sense of grief,” Abdurraqib recalled. “And not only dance and song, but like fashion, too. People wearing things that the deceased loved or wearing things the deceased passed down to them.”

    How has his thinking and writing about Black funerals shaped the way Abdurraqib thinks about death?

    “It gives me a renewed sense of understanding that when someone is gone, there are still ways to keep them close to us and there are still ways to fight to keep them alive in whatever ways we can. I realize that it is immensely important to not only look at grief and death and loss with sadness, but also to look at it with great gratitude for the fact that someone we love had a life that intersected with our own.”

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Bill Oakley Guest
  • Laraine Newman Guest

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