Portlander Bill Oakley may be most famous for the joke he wrote about hamburgers in his time writing for the Simpsons. So perhaps it makes sense that he has spent the last year focusing on hamburgers in a different way. He’s been reviewing fast food on Instagram. We listen back to a conversation with Oakley from 2019.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. Bill Oakley has worked on some of the most beloved animated shows of all time, including the Simpsons and Futurama. He was also a producer on Portlandia. For basically all of his career, Oakley has been a behind-the-scenes guy. But for the last four years, he has been the on screen star of his own project. He reviews fast food on Instagram, and he has a pretty expansive beat. It’s not just burgers and fries and burritos, but also flavored mayonnaise, frozen supermarket pot stickers, and edible slime. I talked to Bill Oakley back in 2019, when he had just finished his first year of this new chapter of his career. We started by listening to one of his reviews.
Bill Oakley [in review]: Hey, so today is the day that McDonald’s is introducing the new fresh rather than frozen beef patties for their quarter pound burgers, and I’m here to try it out.
Alright, quarter pounder with cheese made with fresh beef, cooked when you order.
*opening package sounds*
It does look a little different than your usual quarter pounder patty. Let’s see how it tastes.
It’s a slight improvement.
Miller: That’s it.
Oakley: That’s a throwback to yesteryear, when reviews were so much simpler.
Miller: Before they got more baroque.
Oakley: Yeah, exactly.
Miller: What was the idea from the beginning?
Oakley: Well, first of all, let me say I’m aware of how dumb it is to be an Instagram fast food reviewer. Obviously it’s not improving the world in any way. It’s purely for entertainment. And usually, half the time the joke is more important than the actual review, but I try to convey at least one or two pieces of useful information.
The reason I do this is because I have a lot of opinions about fast food and snack food and frozen food, and my family got tired of hearing them. So I wanted to broadcast them out there into the public. And basically for years, I would probably have put a one sentence remark on Twitter, “Burger King’s new angry whopper stinks” or something of that nature. And then a year ago, when this happened, I went to McDonalds to try - this was a landmark event for people who were McDonald’s fans, the introduction of these burgers -
Miller: Which is, just to be clear, the landmark event was that instead of having frozen patties, that they would microwave or sort of pseudo grill, they were getting shipped fresh ground beef.
Oakley: Yeah, that’s a huge deal in fast food circles, especially for a place as big as McDonald’s. And so I was going to tweet it, but then I got there and I was like, “I’ll just take a video on my phone.” And at that point, I didn’t even know how to take a video on the phone. I spent the whole afternoon trying to piece together three different shots with no music or whatever, and -
Miller: You’ve been in tv for 20 something years.
Oakley: Well, yeah, but I was on the writing side.
Miller: What was your hope for the reception to that very first video?
Oakley: That I would get attention, I guess actually. And I did receive attention from McDonald’s themselves, which was extremely exciting.
Miller: For the very first one?
Oakley: Yeah, it’s still there on Instagram. Their post was like, “congratulations on beginning your second career as a fast food blogger.” And I was like, all right! You know, you get recognition from the Death Star, and it’s exciting. So I just kept on doing them, basically.
Miller: Why fast food? Why has this been an abiding interest of yours?
Oakley: Well, it’s not just fast food, it’s also kind of like frozen food. It’s kind of the food that I enjoy. In fact, I actually have a huge article that came out this morning. If you follow me on Twitter or Instagram, you’ll see a link to it, about the air fryer. Me and a friend, Chris Onstad, cooked 30 different types of food in an air fryer, snack foods like pizza rolls and bagel bites, in an air fryer, and ranked them all.
I realize it’s unhealthy and, and there’s a number of problems inherent in both fast and convenience food. But it’s something that I enjoy, and a number of other people enjoy, and I think it’s kind of fun to, as one source said, I simultaneously lampoon and oddly glorify America’s interests and fast food, and I think that’s true.
Miller: Did you have access to this kind of food growing up, or was it forbidden?
Oakley: No. That’s exactly why I also like video games. We didn’t have any video games and we didn’t have any fast food. I lived out in the country, and the nearest McDonald’s was about 60 miles away in Baltimore. So it was incredibly exciting to get to go to McDonald’s for your birthday or something like that. And so, once again, with both fast food and video games, I’m probably overcompensating as an adult for the deprivations I suffered as a child.
Miller: Have you thought about that as a parent yourself, of what you will keep away from kids, and how that might shape their desires in the future?
Oakley: You know, they don’t really like it that much -
Miller: Because it’s available to them.
Oakley: Yeah, almost never do any of my kids say, “can you take us to a fast food place?” I’d certainly be happy to do it, but they don’t care. And in fact, they’re actually, partially due to the Portland public school system, they really like vegetables. And they love it when I cook broccoli and brussels sprouts in my air fryer, which I normally use for pizza rolls and bagel bites. So I’m really happy with the way that they turned out. They’re healthy eaters, and I’m kind of the black sheep of the family.
Miller: Let’s have a listen to another review. This is from part of your review of a place called HiHo Cheeseburger in Santa Monica, California.
Oakley [in review]: Hey, I’m here in Santa Monica, California, at HiHo cheeseburger. This is a new cheeseburger place that has a menu similar to In-N-Out, but uses 100% grass fed wagyu beef.
Okay, so that burger was terrific. It was one of the best burgers I’ve ever had. It really had an intense, rich, meaty flavor, kind of like Shake Shack, but better in a number of ways. However, while I was filming myself chewing, two cops came in and sat down right next to me, and I became too embarrassed to continue. I also bit into the toothpick.
Miller: What kinds of reactions have you gotten? You have now done this in a lot of different kinds of places. Obviously in restaurants, but casinos, airports, supermarkets. What do people say when they see you?
Oakley: That’s part of what I think is entertaining about these videos is when something unexpected happens, like when those cops came in and sat down next to me. And I’m always in the market for something unexpected to happen, because it provides a humorous end to the video. But in general, it’s extremely embarrassing to film yourself in public. Because people can’t, in general, when you’re using a phone, can’t tell whether you’re filming yourself or them. So it attracts a lot of undue, unwanted attention. And that’s always the most nerve-wracking part of my videos is the part when I’m out in public filming myself, and there’s people around. That’s why I often retreat to the safety of my car to film the rest of the video.
Miller: I was wondering, do you think that this food’s natural environment is a car anyway? Does it taste better if you’re in a car, alone, slightly sad?
Oakley: It doesn’t taste better. You’re free from distractions and you’re free from potential interruptions. And actually, I think if you look on YouTube, there’s many fast food reviewers on YouTube with hundreds of thousands of followers. I’m not even in that league. But they’re often eating in their car too. And I think it’s just a convenient place to reflect on the fast food without a lot of intrusions.
Miller: You put out, it varies, but often a few reviews a week. Would you be eating as much of this food if you weren’t reviewing it?
Oakley: Yes. Actually, the thing about this is I’m actually probably eating slightly healthier than I normally would eat, because I’m trying a lot of new kind of vegetarian options because of all these ersatz fake burgers, like the Impossible and Beyond burger, which I normally would not try, but there’s so much interest in them that I do it for my Instagram. In general, I probably would be eating about that much fast food. I just wouldn’t be driving to these remote locations like Del Taco in Hillsboro to do it.
Miller: What is your take on the Portland area as a fast food destination?
Oakley: It’s interesting. Our best fast food is the homemade restaurant version. You know those maps that they have, the “favorite food of every state” or something like that. There’s one that came out last year that had the most hated food in every state, and in Oregon, it was fast food. And because I think that Oregon, deservedly so, has a reputation for great organic natural food and a lot of food that’s grown locally. So people aren’t really fans of fast food chains so much here.
What’s happened is a number of our local restaurants have started making kind of fast food equivalents that are dynamite. Like at Canard, there’s a White Castle-esque burger that they make that is 20 times better than the best White Castle burger you’ve ever had. And for example, at SuperDeluxe, which only has one location here now in Portland, also makes a burger that I think rivals Shake Shack. Obviously, this is a culinary destination for all sorts of people. I wouldn’t say it’s the fast food capital of America, but if you’re looking for great simulated fast food, we have that.
Miller: Have you gotten pushback from Portland’s for your half tongue in cheek, half serious celebration of this food? I mean, these are places, fast food restaurants in general, the national chains, they’re poster children for factory farms, for food that is cheap because all kinds of externalities about public health or environmental factors are not included in the price. Have you gotten pushback Portlanders for doing this?
Oakley: I wouldn’t say push back. I would say a polite like, “hey, would you mind sending a letter to this place” or “would you mind not going to this place because it’s having labor issues.” In general, I do that. I respect that. I realize all the shortcomings that fast food has that you just discussed. And in general, I don’t publicize it, but I stay away from places that are having labor problems. I generally try to stay away from places that are grossly unhealthy or grossly unfair to their workers and things like that. And people do mention it to me, and I generally try, within reason, to bend to that.
Miller: Let’s have a listen to one more review. This is from a trip that you took to Popeye’s in November.
Oakley [in review]: Hey, I’m here at Popeye’s to check out the profanity sauce.
So, as part of their new boneless wing promotion, Popeye’s has released a new sauce that doesn’t have a name, only these characters that generally indicate profanity in comic strips. It also begs the question, what word is this substituting for? Is it *censored* is it *censored* is it *censored*? Let’s give the sauce a try, maybe we’ll find out.
So, the sauce itself is kind of a creamy buffalo. Extremely hot. I don’t know if it’s a *censored* level hot. The verdict: Popeyes’ boneless wings are great and the *censored* is *cartoon sound effects* actually pretty good too.
Miller: How do you decide what to review?
Oakley: Generally, I try to review something that’s new, that’s come out that there’s a lot of interest in. There’s a number of people who take this really seriously and use me as their source to know whether they should rush out and buy the new Carl’s Jr Double whatever it is. And so if something new is coming out that there’s a lot of interest in, I try to do that. Otherwise, it’s just something that strikes my fancy, or something that people tell me about. Like Bill, you’ve got to try the boneless wings at Popeyes. Also, I try to mix it up. I don’t want to go to Mcdonald’s eight times in a row. I want to have a variety of different cuisines.
Miller: Have you gotten feedback on your eating sounds? We just heard there. We both have headphones on, so it’s particularly noticeable, but there’s a lot of slurping, a lot of chewing, sort of general mouth moistness.
Oakley: You’re embarrassing me Dave, with this line of questioning.
Miller: It’s just one question, not a whole line.
Oakley: I think it’s that video in general, and it’s also the way that I mixed the sound sometimes, but a number of people said that it has an ASMR quality to it.
Miller: The pleasure people get from whispery sounds.
Miller: That surprises me. It was going to be one question, not a line, but since you mentioned that, I don’t associate that with a pleasing sound. I think it’s funny.
Oakley: I don’t like chewing or whatever, so I usually turn that part down.
Miller: Okay, let’s take a step back. This is not the beginning of your career, this is a mid career-
Oakley: This is the end of my career.
Miller: It’s a mid-career choice. But you and your friend, Josh Weinstein, became a comedy writing duo back when you were in high school, right? What was your hope at that point?
Oakley: I think it was our hope to write for National Lampoon, honestly. I mean that was the gold standard in terms of like the kind of humor that was really in vogue then. It was also appearing on SNL, movies like Animal House and Caddyshack. And I mean, we did kind of go along that path. I worked on the Harvard Lampoon, and then we both did work at National Lampoon for a while right before its collapse.
Miller: And then the Simpsons, which was a kind of a continuation of that irreverent world.
Oakley: Yeah, definitely. So I think we succeeded to some extent in achieving that goal. I mean, I think we really wanted to write for Letterman, but they don’t usually hire teams at Letterman because you got to pay two salaries, so we didn’t get hired there.
Miller: What did it mean to you to be a member of a team?
Oakley: It’s so much more fun, but you have to split the salary. You’re writing with your best friend, and you’ve got somebody else making up half the jokes at least, and it’s infinitely more fun, unless you’re a really solitary type. But in tv, and in movies, you have to split the salary, which gradually becomes untenable once you start having families and stuff like that, unless you’re making an absolute fortune, splitting a salary is a big bummer.
Miller: What are you going to be reviewing next for your Instagram empire?
Oakley: I’m doing another Impossible item. I’m not going to tell you exactly what it is so I don’t spoil the surprise, but it will be out within the next 48 hours.
Miller: Do you know what you’re going to be saying when you do these reviews?
Oakley: Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t. That’s the thing about these reviews, is that some of them are extremely scripted, and other ones are improvised. I don’t like going out into the field and not knowing what the ending is going to be, but often that’s the case, because I don’t know whether I’m going to like the item or not, that has a huge bearing on it. In many cases, I want to have a joke in my mind at least when I’m sitting there doing this. Sometimes I can, and sometimes they’re very mild, sometimes it’s just a slightly witty remark, like we saw in that McDonald’s one. Then I wasn’t really trying to be that funny. But other times, it’s an elaborate scripted piece with music and all these edits and crazy stuff. So I mix it up.
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