Laugh Track: An Interview with William T. Oree

William T. Oree is serving twelve years to life at Attica Correctional Facility. He is the founder, writer, and editor of The Prisoner’s Lampoon, a self-published prison comedy magazine; his work has also been published in The Harvard Lampoon. He and his comedy writing partner are shopping a pilot script called PEN * PALS to production companies in Los Angeles. He is the inventor of “jailhouse comedy,” a blend of edgy, often raw humor with a little Shakespeare thrown in for good measure.

The Hedgehog Review: Obviously, your current situation informs much of your work. What do you use about prison in your comedy or theater performances?
William Oree: In the comedy genre I created, jailhouse, I have to be authentic. I have to tell the truth about the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of incarceration. I write and perform material that is raw, zany, and politically incorrect. This truth would speak volumes in any forum, but especially so in prison.

Tell us about some of the topics that you want to address in your comedy.
I have had great success cloaking highly charged political, social, racial, and sexual issues in comedy. I have addressed everything from the Black Lives Matter movement to prison rape. I don’t mock the seriousness of these issues. Instead, I expose the racial divide that is at the center of so much of what I treat comically.

For example, I wrote a sketch for the “Disturbed Recesses of My Mind” issue of The Harvard Lampoon (May 2016) in which I relate the travails of a man who was arrested for sucking out the fillings of all the fruit pies in his neighborhood supermarket. He was arrested and prosecuted but neither the judge nor the district attorney recognized that he had a sugar addiction. They saw his actions solely as a crime for which incarceration was the only recourse. Thus, the idea of addiction became neither a medical nor a health issue but a social problem for which the only solution was going to prison. To me, it is comically obvious that what this guy needs is treatment not a jail cell.

In that same issue of the Harvard Lampoon, I had a piece, “Save America: One Crackhead at a Time,” in which I challenged society to address substance abuse through a skit about a family who invites a crackhead into their home and he gradually begins to relieve them of all their creature comforts. The point is dressed in humor, but I wanted to shock the audience into recognizing that they can address society’s ills by being proactive, no matter how silly it might seem.

Are there any subjects that you just won’t touch? Why not?
My sister was murdered under conditions inaccurately described as “domestic violence.” I find no humor in violence against women and children. When it comes to interfering in other people’s relationships, my instinct tells me to get involved—I’ve had heated arguments with many other prisoners who disagree. Many simply turn a blind eye to domestic violence. Sad. At the same time, I have to add that many of my fellow inmates have said that they would interfere to help a woman or child being attacked by a “stranger.”

What was your life like growing up?
I’m not sure if I ever grew up. My childhood was marred by two suicide attempts, the murder of my teenage sister, living with alcoholic parents, being in the foster care system, and the lack of hot running water. Because of my family’s situation, I became a sort of family “hero,” developing certain survival skills and protecting my siblings from starvation, molestation, exploitation, physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse, and the shame associated with being the children of alcoholics. I became an unashamed liar and a thief, stealing to put food on the table. I essentially sacrificed my childhood for the well-being of my family.

How did you end up in Attica?
Two reasons: I escaped from a New York City jail where I was being held for trial. Also, I received a twelve-years-to-life sentence for being a habitual offender—in New York, three or more felony convictions qualifies you for a life sentence.

Did you do theater or stand-up on the outside? If so, in what sorts of circumstances?
My theatrical training started in my youth. As a child of alcoholic parents, I developed the ability to adopt different personas in order to protect my family. For example, when confronted with bill collectors and landlords I’d do all the talking for my parents. From an early age, I seemed to be able to make people trust me and I became a skilled liar. I discovered that adults will usually listen to a child’s pleas when they won’t listen to those of a grown-up. I recall practicing how to sound like a responsible, middle-class, educated adult.

By the time I got to high school, I was active in drama club. If I didn’t get a speaking part in the school play, I worked as a stagehand. I learned how to be a stage manager and lighting designer. After high school, I started a break-dancing troupe, the Max Factors. We later moved to the Boston/Cambridge area to perform. Break-dancing was new, and we made a name for ourselves performing at the many colleges and universities in that area. But break-dancing didn’t last too long and, lucky for me, I knew how to network. Through my connections, I found odd jobs at local college drama departments and I worked as a lighting assistant and stage manager assistant. I eventually received a stage management internship at American Repertory Theater, but I walked off the job after insisting their techniques were inferior. Still, I made friends with a movie actor there who worked as an understudy for the role of stand-up comic. He invited me for drinks at open-mic night at a local comedy club. A few drinks later, I was onstage telling the story of my life and making people laugh. Unfortunately, when I returned to the club the next week, I was unprepared and failed to get even a giggle.

Who were your role models? How were you influenced by these people?
One was a police officer who taught me how to act my age—I was twelve—when I was trying to act like a thirty-something. Also, there was the founder of the Fortune Society who taught me to create an opportunity where there were none. [Since 1967, The Fortune Society has worked to assist ex-offenders as they return to society.] And there was the neighborhood crackhead who taught me that my life should not be defined by how many times I’d be knocked down, but by how many times I get up. Last but not least, a stand-up comedian who taught me to write, rewrite, and rewrite again.

You have said “to be an effective comedian, I have to meet the audience where they are.” Can you say a little more about this?
To be effective in comedy, you must know your audience. My audience is literally a tough crowd. Murderers, drug lords, thugs, and lost souls. Because my audience is in a state of psychological, sociological, and physical captivity, I have to craft my sets accordingly. I can’t simply tell jokes.

You can never be sure of what will work with a jailhouse audience. If the day before, the correctional staff assaulted a well-loved and respected inmate, the mood of the population could be restless and belligerent. Part of my craft is knowing how to elucidate the sordidness of daily prison life with humor. Truly, a tough task! I have to mix it up—a sketch here, a narrative there, followed by some Shakespeare, or something polemical. Because my audience is fluid, I have to move like water!

When you specialize in jailhouse comedy, there’s an abundance of material all around. I often say, jokingly, that I perform under duress—you can’t afford to bomb before an Attica audience. These guys have killed for less! But seriously.… In my comedy, I can address many distasteful prison conditions: strip-frisking, cavity searches—I’ve gotten a lot of laughs on that one, believe it or not! The jailhouse brand of humor emerged from just this kind of raw and edgy material.

As a performer, how do you keep people interested in what you are doing?
I have discovered that the average time a prisoner will engage with my routine is between five and fifteen minutes. That’s why I never lead with my best stuff. I often employ a strategy that works up the audience by sprinkling my sets with diatribes about current social or political topics. Polemics are alive and well in prison. This is often the means by which prisoners relieve their aggression in a safe and healthy manner. If all else fails, I pull out a few monologues by Shakespeare—you’d be amazed how much prisoners appreciate iambic pentameter. Plus, peel back the layers on just about any Shakespeare character and you’ll discover a polemical impetus.

In your work in Attica, you depend on collaboration, with fellow inmates and colleagues on the outside. What sort of collaborations have you had with people on the outside?
I collaborate with anyone willing to match my commitment to performance. At present, I am working with another prisoner who has started a performing artist program in another facility. He is awesome! I’m also working with a volunteer community college professor and the artistic director of the Glimmerglass Festival [an opera festival in Cooperstown, New York] to make Attica’s theater arts program a success. The Glimmerglass opera company has performed twice for the prisoners in Attica and I think this led to the prison administration’s approval of our performing arts project. My writing partner, Sierra Katow, is a Harvard graduate who appeared on the NBC reality television show Last Comic Standing in 2015. I wrote to her out of the blue and she wrote back, requesting samples of my work. Today, we write sitcom pilots together.

Tell us about your theater arts program at Attica. What was the origin of the program and its goals?
The Glimmerglass opera performances at Attica helped the prison administration recognize the value of a theatrical arts program. But I also campaigned for three years to get the program approved. During that time, I performed Shakespeare at as many inmate events as I could. Finally, I became recognized and acknowledged for my dramatic abilities. I think it helped to be able to show the administration that I had the promise of assistance from a fellow inmate and a drama professor and Glimmerglass’s artistic director, Francesca Zambello.

We recently received approval from Attica administrators to move ahead with the program. I have many goals for the program, but my primary objective is to establish an empathetic and caring community through theater arts. In a healthier environment, therapeutic ideas, such as conflict resolution, just work better. I have seen countless instances of how drama can be successful in helping people explore personal issues.

Recently, you performed Shakespeare at an Attica event. What was that like?
That performance took place at the Attica Lifers Organization picnic. I performed Mark Antony’s speech over the body of Julius Caesar, beginning with “But yesterday the word of Caesar might / Have stood against the world. Now lies he there, / And none so poor to do him reverence…. ” and going on to “Oh, now you weep, and, I perceive, you feel / The dint of pity. These are gracious drops.” I became so caught up that I actually had tears in my eyes. But it was wonderful—the prisoners loved it, the outside guest loved it. Even the corrections officers applauded—that was a first. I was just happy to be able to get through the scene without having the white bedsheets fall from my shoulders!

You are working with a partner on the outside to develop a cable show. Are there any developments on that project that you would like to share?
My comedy writing partner has decided to shop our PEN*PALS sitcom pilot script to a few production companies in Los Angeles. While I do a lot of writing, Sierra does all the heavy lifting. I am honored and blessed to have a professional partnership with her. She also edits my self-published magazine called The Prisoner’s Lampoon which specializes in jailhouse comedy. Before we send out any edition of The Prisoner’s Lampoon, we send out samples to introduce its rather unorthodox content. We do this because my work has been labeled “objurgating”—to which I respond that an objurgating title obfuscates the obstreperous nature of jailhouse comedy.

How have you found that performing changes the discussion when it comes to certain issues? Have there been times when your approach seemed to go nowhere? Why do you think that was?
Some time back, I wrote a dramatic piece about Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law. In the piece, I reversed the roles, having George Zimmerman in a hoodie walking through Trayvon Martin’s neighborhood. This went nowhere. Naturally, I knew that in a correctional facility where half the population is black and more than a third Latino a subject like this might be too delicate to address at all. But I wondered: What if I had written this piece as a comedy sketch? Would it have been more successful?

In the final analysis, we are all prisoners in one form or another. Whether in our careers, in personal relationships, or in our ties to the “good life” (home, car, education, family, financial security)—we believe we have freedom of choice, but do we really?

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