I was driving the boys to a wishing well Sunday morning when good fortune came my way: NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me was airing Not My Job. Talented people were supposed to do something without drawing on their talent.
The talent in this case was Bill Oakley, who turned a Foreign Service exam cop out into the sweetest job on the planet—writer for The Simpsons.
SAGAL: So the story I just told is true, that you were pretty much out of work and…
OAKLEY: Yes, in fact, I was just – I had applied for and received the Foreign Service exam for the State Department. And I just looked at it and I was, like, no, no way. I’m going to have to write a comedy spec script because I’m not going to be able pass this exam.
SAGAL: So you’re not so much an incredibly successful comedy writer and TV producer as a failed Foreign Service Officer…
OAKLEY: Foreign Service Officer, yes.
SAGAL: Yeah. I’m sorry about that.
So pennies deposited, I drove the boys back home imagining what it would be like to talk to Bill Oakley about these two very similar careers.
Mumbled courtesies… Then:
ME: Are you familiar with the State Department style of writing?
BILL: You mean like, cables and stuff? I’ve skimmed Wikileaks.
ME: Wikileaks? Never seen it.
BILL: Well, there are the Clinton emails.
ME: Yeah. Some of that may be relevant.
BILL: And of course there are all the annual reports. Human rights. Religious freedom. Yada yada yada.
ME: Ok, then you’re familiar with how we write.
BILL: I’m afraid so, yes.
ME: Let’s go back 20 years. You take the exam, you pass, you’re an FSO. What effect does the so-called ‘State Department style’ have on your writing?
BILL: Do I have to answer that?
ME: I think you just did. And very diplomatically. You should’ve taken the test!
BILL: But then the world wouldn’t have Bart and Homer. We wouldn’t have Chief Wiggum and Mr. Burns. No Ned Flanders or Moe or Reverend Lovejoy or…
ME: You could go on.
BILL: I could.
ME: So speaking of the cast. Which Simpsons character do you think would make the best Foreign Service Officer?
BILL: You probably know better than I do that it would take all the quirks of all the citizens of Springfield to represent the talents and strangeness and diversity of the Foreign Service.
ME: Another diplomatic answer?
BILL: Not sure. But since you want more, let me put it this way. In the ideal, it would be Lisa Simpson. Wouldn’t someone with that intellect be great at negotiating treaties with thick-headed adversaries? But from what I understand, the truth is she’d never set one foot into the treaty room, except maybe as a note-taker. Instead, she’d spend her days nailing down the details of shopping trips for congressional spouses.
ME: So, not Lisa. Surely not Bart. Not Homer.
BILL: Heavens no. But—and I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, because I do respect the service, by and large. I think we’d have to combine several characters to make up your stereotypical diplomat.
ME: Let’s have it.
BILL: Take a bit of the stuffy know-it-all Kent Brockman, add a dash of the Hollywood washout in Troy McClure. A bit of Milhouse—in some cases a whole lot of Milhouse. Then wrap it all up in the evil, power-hungry ambassadorial Montgomery Burns.
ME: Mr. Burns as Ambassador!?
BILL: Or any of your really, really bad principal officers, obviously.
ME: I don’t know any. I don’t know any of those.
BILL: He says diplomatically. Release the hounds!
ME: One final question?
ME: Can you turn us on to an episode that deals with the State Department.
BILL: You should watch “American Flush”, season six. Bart’s accused of fraud in Australia while conducting research on what I like to call “toilet swirl”. Let’s just say the piece is more about America’s stubborn cultural inwardness than anything else.
ME: Thanks, Bill. Anything else you’d like to add?
BILL: A question. What did your boys wish for?
ME: They wouldn’t tell me. But I bet they wished their father was as funny as a Simpsons writer.