He’s an executive producer of Netflix’s Disenchantment, a former Simpsons showrunner, and the writer of the suddenly world-famous “Steamed Hams” bit. (Watch THIS now if you’re unfamiliar.) When he’s not making television, BILL OAKLEY is making a name for himself on INSTAGRAM as the nation’s foremost authority on fast food. Here, he reveals the bizarre evolution of his second career.
INTERVIEW BY MATT TUTHILL
RI MAGAZINE: The first two fast-food reviews you posted on Instagram were a bit mean-spirited, which was wonderful. You reviewed the new McDonald’s Quarter Pounder, and your only remarks were, “It’s a slight improvement.” You said of KFC’s Crispy Colonel, “It’s really standard.” They were very blunt, so what was surprising was when they turned sincere and enthusiastic, and I kept watching. Can you explain the shift in tone and how your fans embraced it?
BILL OAKLEY: I would debate you on that and say there probably wasn’t a shift in tone so much as it was just consistent honesty across the board. In those first two, I literally didn’t know what I was doing in terms of editing. I could barely paste together three shots. So it might have been just a low production value that made it seem more homegrown and mean. But I think since Day 1, I have been brutally frank, and I’m surprised that people respect my opinion regarding these things. I do strive to keep it honest, and people don’t like it so much when I sacrifice honesty for the joke. Which is sometimes necessary, but I don’t usually do it.
I thought maybe in the case of McDonald’s, you had sacrificed for the joke, because I think they’ve really upped their game over the past 15 years—probably with Super Size Me as the catalyst.
I think they’ve brought their A game only in the past 18 months. The thing is, I honestly do believe those Quarter Pounders are only a slight improvement. But I think a lot of their food offerings this year are improved, like when I did the review of their honey-sweet barbecue chicken tenders or whatever they’re called. That was the best thing I had at McDonald’s that I can remember.
Did you see The Founder?
Yes, I saw it twice. I really liked it.
That scene where Michael Keaton’s Ray Kroc goes in, and he’s eating at that original McDonald’s location, all I could think was, “Wow, I bet that burger kicked serious ass.”
Yeah. I was reading online something about it. It was one of these question and answer things on Quora asking people who’d eaten at McDonald’s in the ’50s whether it was different. I gather it was much better. I guess it was more like In-N-Out. But eating fast food in the ’50s was different. The food tasted different than it does today.
Today people think they want a Shake Shack on every corner, but does McDonald’s prove that food is not infinitely scalable? If you had a Shake Shack on every corner it would probably suck.
I think that’s what’s happening to Shake Shack now. You know, I feel they expanded too fast, and the past three or four times I’ve been to Shake Shack, it has been mediocre. And I think their locations vary widely in terms of their consistency.
What prompted you to do that first video? A realization that you had some cache in this area because of “Steamed Hams”? [“Steamed Hams” is a famous Simpsons segment from Season 7 that Oakley wrote.]
It was motivated entirely by my desire to review the fresh beef Quarter Pounder. Since I had had a well-known McDonald’s rant about two years earlier on Twitter, I wanted to follow up by trying their new, highly hyped attempt to improve the offerings. When I arrived at the restaurant, I decided that a prose tweet simply wasn’t going to be adequate. So I filmed myself trying it. Then the video was so well received that I continued doing it.
You said you got to eat fast food only on special occasions as a kid. Were your parents very strict about keeping you away from it?
It was because we lived out in the boondocks in Maryland, and people don’t remember this, but in the ’70s, there weren’t McDonald’s restaurants everywhere. Fast food was not everywhere. There was a Gino’s, which is a regional thing, but it was 20 miles away from our house. The nearest McDonald’s was in Baltimore, which is 60 miles away. So I never got any fast food. I also was never able to play any video games. So both fast food and video games I’m definitely overindulging in as a grown-up. Probably secretly compensating for my deprivation as a youth.
You use a lot of hashtags like #influencer and #foodie, which I take as sarcastic.
Yes. I’m trying to, as is the case with many things that I write, I’m trying to have it both ways—doing it, but also making fun of it at the same time. Which is the kind of thing we would often do on The Simpsons, simultaneously embrace and satirize something.
Like The Simpsons clip show. If you’re gonna make a clip show, you make fun of the fact that you’re gonna do a clip show.
Exactly. I would say many of my reviews are 100% sincere. But other times, I feel like I’m making fun of the genre.
When you are not eating fast food on a video, what is your diet like? Because from the outside we see you eating only burgers and fried food. It’s kind of like a Guy Fieri situation, where we say, “Hey, this dude is terrific. I sure hope nothing bad happens to him.”
I appreciate that. I should mention I do go to the gym every day. I do eat a lot of frozen pizzas and things like that, but I also cook, like, three times a week. I’m the only one in this family who cooks. So I wouldn’t say they tend to be particularly healthy things, but I cook things like pot roasts, and I’m trying to master all the things that I like. I’m trying to master cooking the perfect burger at home. I’ve been trying to master fried chicken for years, and it’s superhard. Pulled pork, stuff like that. I don’t eat a lot of superhealthy food under any circumstances.
If you’re making it at home, studies show you’re eating a lot fewer calories.
Yeah. Well, I’ve literally been working for years to perfect a burger that is kind of like In-N-Out quality or a Shake Shack quality at home, and I think I’m virtually there. [See sidebar at the bottom of this page.]
You’ve mentioned that you lost a ton of weight after leaving The Simpsons, like 65 pounds, and that people ate horribly on the job. Was it just a lot of stress eating?
Yes. And you eat for entertainment. You have to remember this is before the days of cellphones. So now people constantly look at their cellphones in the writer’s room, which I disapprove of, to be honest. I don’t think you should be able to bring your cellphone in, because it wastes half a day. People’s brains are not on the script;
they’re on Twitter. But back in the pre-cellphone era, when we were at The Simpsons, there’s literally nothing to do except sit there and work or think about the script and eat. So the eating takes on this outsize, fantastical aspect to it, where you’re fantasizing about what you’re going to have for lunch. And if you have to stay for dinner, you’re fantasizing about that. So you overeat. You order more lunch than you need because you want a lengthy experience. You want an appetizer with your lunch and a side dish and maybe even a dessert. If you were thinking clearly, you would order a salad with chicken. But then you would have less lunch to enjoy, and it would be over quickly.
You were not just a writer on Simpsons but the showrunner, which most people would think is the greatest job in the world. What prompted you to leave?
We were certain it was going to be over. [Laughs] At the time, almost no TV show had gone on, besides Bonanza or Gunsmoke, past Season 9 or 10. I can’t even remember a comedy. Lucy didn’t go that long. Cheers went to Season 10. M.A.S.H. went to 10. That was it. We were like, “This thing is going to be over soon,” and also because we felt like we were running out of stories. Even Josh [Weinstein] and I had a lot of trouble coming up with enough good stories for Season 8, and it was traditional for people to run the show for only two years at that point. So, No. 1, we had already run the show for two years. No. 2, we didn’t want to be the guys to break it. We said, “Let’s just do our two years and get out while the getting is good. The show couldn’t possibly go beyond another year or two. Then we’ll be on to something else.” Of course, we were wrong. [Laughs] That was the wrongest thing of all time.
And for anyone not in that business, show running means you pick which scripts are developed, and you’re pitching in with every aspect of writing, etc.
Yeah, it’s basically like being the writer, producer, and director of a movie all at once. You’re in charge of everything. You have a team of writers and a team of animators, and the composers and the actors, but you’re in charge of all those teams. So you make all the decisions about what stories are going to be done and who’s going to write them and who’s going to direct them. The job is incredibly difficult, and that’s also why nobody had done it for more than two years at the time. Josh and I, we split the work between us, and we were still working 80 hours a week or whatever, and it’s not a job that we thought we could continue to do well for more than another couple of years at that point.
People now know that you wrote the “Steamed Hams” segment that has become a viral meme. What gave it new life now? It’s more than 20 years old.
I believe it all started with the Australian grocery store thing about three years ago. People in Australia were calling this chain of grocery stores and asking if they had steamed hams. And I guess they got thousands of phone calls asking for steamed hams. So the grocery store put up a sign in the grocery store that said, like, “We don’t have steamed hams for sale, but if you’re looking for ground beef, start right here.” And they made a funny video in response to it. I think that’s what jump-started this thing. I thought, “Oh, how amazing. That’s delightful.” And then I think the excitement that came from that kind of translated to a worldwide, I would say, renaissance. It started slowly, but it began with people remixing it on YouTube. Then it kind of took on a life of its own.
Do you have a favorite meme remaster? I thought Blade Runner 2049 was great.
Man, there must be so many hundreds of them. I like the simpler ones from the early days. Like when it was translated to Chinese and then back again, that was really good. But I guess my favorite one is that really sad one, where it turns out Skinner has died in the fire, and then Chalmers is sitting out in the forest, camping
and watching the aurora borealis and thinking about Seymour up in the sky. That is my favorite one. I think it may be called “Steamed Hams, but It’s a Tragedy” or “Steamed Hams, but Seymour Dies.” You can find it. [“Steamed Hams but it’s actually a very sad story”] It’s very moving.
Congratulations on Disenchantment being renewed. In general terms, can you tell fans what to expect in Season 2?
We already finished the second season. We thought the seasons were going to be 20 episodes a year. But they decided to break it into two seasons of 10 episodes per year. It’s completely written and almost completely animated as well. In terms of what will happen, I can’t say too much, but you will definitely see a very interesting and exciting resolution to the cliffhanger that I wrote, which was the season finale, which is kind of a two- or three-part beginning of the second season. You will also see each character getting a little bit more time for us to get to know them in depth, including the king. And some more emotional episodes. I can’t say anything more than that.
BEST OF THE BEST: BILL OAKLEY’S DEFINITIVE FAST-FOOD RANKINGS
“HI-HO BURGER in Santa Monica was my fourth review. It’s made with Wagyu beef. I haven’t had a better
burger than that.”
“I still think MCDONALD’S has the best fries. Freddy’s—where they make them skinnier—are a close second.”
BEST FRIED CHICKEN
“POPEYE’S. Without a doubt.”
“In Portland we have a place called PIZZA JERK, which is my favorite. From a chain I’d have to say PAPA JOHN’S.
And frozen, it’s WILD MIKE’S.”
“There are a dozen small places in L.A. whose names escape me, but TACO BELL is still definitely the best Mexican chain. The taco supreme from Jack in the Box is also great.”
BEST NATIONWIDE CHAIN OVERALL
“WENDY’S. The new S’Awesome burger is probably the best nationwide item I’ve had this year.”
BILL OAKLEY’S GUIDE TO STEAMED HAMS
Follow Bill’s easy tips and it’s like having your very own Shake Shack—localized entirely within your kitchen.
• Use 80/20 or 70/30 ground beef.
“If you go any leaner than 80%, it’s not going to have the same flavor, and it’s not going to be as juicy.”
• Get the pan superhot.
“It should be a cast-iron skillet, and it should be smoking a little bit before you put the meat on.”
• Season the raw meat with salt and pepper. Keep the patty relatively small.
“When it hits the pan, smash it down. That’s how you get that char and crust that Shake Shack has pioneered on a national level. When you’re completely done, it shouldn’t be any bigger than a Shake Shack burger.”
• Dress appropriately.
“I prefer the way they dress it at Five Guys—ketchup, mustard, mayo, and then toppings: lettuce, tomato, pickles. It’s a really simple recipe. I’ve taken to brushing mine with mustard. If you’re really ambitious, you can put on some caramelized onions, which is an In-N-Out Animal Style thing. Martin’s Potato Rolls are preferred. If you went through all the trouble to do this, you would have the perfect burger. It would easily rival any of those fast-food burgers.”
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