It seems like a sweet life. You spend your days at Harvard ensconced in a castle. You occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine. You wear a funky little hat. And when you graduate, you get a posh job as a comedy writer. Welcome to the life of a 'Poonster.
Uh, but you might hit glitches along the way. Four years of unemployment, say, or having to cultivate your comedy skills to writing for "America's Most Wanted." Welcome to the life of former Lampoon vice president William L. Oakley Jr. '88.
Oakley, whose work as executive producer of "The Simpsons" garnered three Emmy awards, is only one of the hugely successful members of his Lampoon class. He, and his fellow Lampoon alums, make it in the end--and make it funny in the end--but the road there isn't always smooth. Think a Very Special Episode of "Seventh Heaven" but with a "King of the Hill" feel.
"I was on unemployment for 26 weeks before it ran out, and I lived
off my wife," Oakley says.
His years at the Lampoon, which began under the reign of president Conan C. O'Brien '85, allowed him to contribute to the notorious 1986 USA Today parody and gave Oakley a taste of comedy writing.
Oakley concentrated in American History ("a marketable skill, huh?" he quips), but directed his talent toward comedy writing instead of analyzing Melville.
He formed a writing team with a high-school friend, Joshua Weinstein, and they landed a handful of weeklong jobs for cable shows and sitcom pilots.
The Lampoon connection did little good in late '80s Hollywood, though.
"At that time there were only five or six Lampoon people in Hollywood that people had heard of," he says.
The down-and-out Harvard grad was getting a little desperate. Solace came soon, though, in the form of a pubescent four-fingered underachiever.
The pair penned an episode for "The Simpsons," which was then headed by Michael L. Reiss '81 and Alfred E. Jean III '81, both former Lampoon writers.
Four years after graduation, Oakley and Weinstein got their first real job.
"I suspect that [the Harvard connection] helped, but I like to think the quality of our work allowed us to get through the door," Oakley says.
After writing 12 episodes, including the classic "Who Shot Mr. Burns?" cliffhanger, the two were promoted to executive producers.
In 1998, they left to work on their current project, "Mission Hill," an
animated series premiering this Tuesday on the WB, which focuses on the lives of
teenagers in a city.
Like many of the WB's fall shows, "Mission Hill" is aimed at 'mature audience' teens. Cartoon characters in lingerie, anyone?
When 'Poonsters Attack
In true Lampoon style, "Mission Hill" boasts about five Lampoon graduates, which is about average for the animated comedy market.
There's David S. (but he's changed it to "X." for a futuristic feel) Cohen '88, an executive producer of "Futurama." Steven R. Tompkins '88 is a big shot on the Eddie Murphy vehicle "The PJs." Paul Simms '88 created "NewsRadio." And those are just 'Poonsters from Oakley's year (consider that his class had about 15 members).
Although Oakley says the heavy Harvard representation is only marginally related to Lampoon ties, having Harvard alumni on staff can be a bonus for someone looking to be a comedy writer.
"Some people want nothing more than to sit with their college buddies," Oakley says. "So [in job interviews], you can talk about how things have changed at Adams House."
In the cutthroat world of television, though, the best that aspiring writers can hope for is that alums will take a look at their script submissions.
The Harvard name can even work against aspiring comedy writers because of bitterness toward the hefty Harvard network.
"In Hollywood, there is resentment against Harvard people," Oakley says. "Sometimes people have to go through extra hoops because people think they have coasted by on their Harvard friends."
Still, judging from the 100 or so Lampoon comedy writers, 'Poonsters appear to have managed these obstacles with panache.
They're so busy, in fact, that they can't find the time to attend reunions in Cambridge. They're reuniting on the West Coast instead.
It should be an animated gathering. Tee-hee.