The Writer: Erica Oyama

10Erica_Oyama_Refinery-1353_R_SIZEDPhotographed by Rene & Radka.
"I am going to be Miss Saigon on Broadway," Erica Oyama recalls saying to herself as a kid. "As an Asian in Alabama, that was my best way out." But, for this 33-year-old comedy writer, the real story of her big break turned out to be quite different.
Oyama's not exactly a household name just yet, but the people who she writes for are recognized as some of the funniest characters in Hollywood today. Michael Cera, Kristen Bell, Adam Scott, and Ken Marino (who also happens to be Oyama's husband) are just a few members of she ensemble cast of Oyama's hilarious and super-successful Yahoo Screen parody of The Bachelor, aptly named Burning Love. In it, the writer recreated some of the most outlandish can't-believe-these-are-real-people characters and flawlessly skewered the hate-to-love-it, love-to-hate-it appeal of reality TV.
But, it's her next move that’s got us all aflutter. Oyama's currently in the process of adapting White Girl Problems for the big screen. Oh, and she also sold a feature film to Universal; Me Time, which she wrote with her husband. Between dealing with a cast of characters at work and being a mother of two, you'd think this writer on the rise might not have time for much else. And, you'd be correct. But, feel free to invite Oyama to karaoke. Chances are, she won't turn you down.
When was the first time you realized your writing was funny? How did you build confidence in your material?
“I think a moment that made me feel good was when I was in a sketch writing class at Improv Olympic and they let us submit to this weekly sketch show that was sort of news-based. I wrote a sketch that was about a fake commercial for a dating agency that was called 'Lady Killers.' It was Scott Peterson and O.J. Seeing that onstage with this really funny actress, Artemis Pebdani — she’s now in movies and TV shows and such — it was so exciting to see her bring this thing to life that I wrote. I was like, 'This is such a great feeling. I want to keep doing this.'”
What do you consider to be your first big break?
“My first big break was probably Children’s Hospital. I had a unique situation as a writer in that I’m married to a writer/actor. So, we worked together for a long time before that happened. And, my husband, Ken Marino, and his partner, David Wain — did a couple of big studio movies, and I got to kind of help out behind the scenes and do some punch-up work. I really got to see how that whole thing worked, with the studios and the movies and that side of the writing, which you don’t really learn about in school — you know, the practical side of it. When Children’s Hospital got picked up to TV, my husband was on the show and David was a producer, and they assigned Ken and I a script for the first season it was on TV. So, that was the first thing that was produced in a big way that started it all.”
11Erica_Oyama_Refinery-924_R_SIZEDPhotographed by Rene & Radka.
Tell us about the process of creating Burning Love. How do you create a show based on "reality?"
“Really, Burning Love was the big break where people got to know me as a writer. I had been watching The Bachelor for a long time and was obsessed with it — even really embarrassed myself by going up to Jake and Vienna at The Grove once, and crawling through the bushes where they were eating lunch, and came up and tried to take a picture of them with my kids. Jake was terrified. So, I was really on board with the show, knowing that it was ridiculous. We were going to do a short. So, I wrote after Jake’s finale, where there was the sweetest girl ever and then Vienna, who was portrayed as a monster on the show, and took that idea and did a finale of Burning Love. Then, Ken was the one who said, 'I think we should do a whole season.' So, it went from there. It was really fun because there was so much inspiration to draw from the original show."
There are a number of pretty crazy characters on there. Which archetype did you have the most fun bringing to life?
“In the first season, we really tried to shine the light of the idea of what’s so great about this guy that all these women are losing their minds and going crazy and sabotaging each other over this person. If you’re just walking down the street, nobody would care. So, Mark Orlando in the first season was so fun because he just kept saying things that just offended people — so rude, and yet everyone was just giving him a pass because this show has made him this prize. Then, in the second season, Julie Gristlewhite, played by June Raphael, was so fun because we flipped it. Because, on the real show, it’s the woman that spirals out of control a little bit if things aren’t going the way she wants. I like to play with how the woman handles that kind of pressure, as opposed to how the guy feels like he deserves it.”
We hear you’re adapting White Girl Problems for the screen. So, for starters, what's your most ridiculous white-girl problem?
"I can give you one from my life that makes me feel like a terrible person. We were about to go on this vacation with the kids, and you’ve got to have the iPad with the stuff on it for the five-hour plane ride. And, mine is from four years ago and was not cutting it. So, I was really busy, and went, 'Ugh, I just don’t have time to get a new iPad.' I heard myself say it out loud and thought, 'Ugh. I’m the worst.' But, it all worked out.”
I hear you. So, what attracted you to this project?
“I guess in Burning Love, all the characters are ridiculous but we try to really approach them as real people and have the actors play them sincerely. That’s, to me, my favorite kind of comedy. With White Girl Problems, I was sent the book by Elizabeth Banks and Max Handelman, who I knew before just as friends. So, I read it and thought it was really ridiculous. Just the character of Babewalker was so rich and so funny — rich in monetary wealth and rich in possibilities. So, I just loved the idea of an updated Clueless/Legally Blonde type character for the next generation. Babewalker is just this really funny, flawed character. And, in this age where so many people are so narcissistic with selfies, technology, Instagram, Facebook, this is the ultimate version of that. She’s got to learn to be a good person. Still working on it, so...”
Where you are in the process?
“My second draft is kind of going up the chain at the studio.”
12Erica_Oyama_Refinery-839_R_SIZEDPhotographed by Rene & Radka.
You mentioned your first big break was Children’s Hospital with your husband. What's your working relationship like with Ken? How do you manage working together as partners and also as husband and wife?
“It’s definitely challenging because there’s so much going on in work that sometimes we don’t have time to really talk to each other as people. So, we have to carve out time to really talk to each other. But, it’s been great because he is just the most supportive partner in the world. The most satisfying thing is when we’re out in public and someone recognizes him from Burning Love, and then he’ll point to me and be like, 'She wrote it!'"
Do you do anything special to nurture and recharge yourself and your relationships?
“I have to say that karaoke is very restorative for us. It’s very cathartic. We really bonded over karaoke. I used to host it when I was in college, as like a part-time job. So, I got Ken into it. I would say that our favorite thing to do to blow off steam or just to be with our friends is we go to Little Tokyo and we really just ‘roke it out."
Favorite karaoke song?
“Lately, we’ve been singing 'The Prayer,' which is this duet between Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli. It goes so theatrical.”
09Erica_Oyama_Refinery-1256_R_SIZED (1)Photographed by Rene & Radka.
Speaking of female-centered comedies, what’s your outlook right now on funny women in entertainment?
“It’s just so funny to hear, 'female comedies are so hot right now,' because, of course, they’re just comedies that have females in them. I guess it’s just encouraging that everyone’s sort of like, 'Yes, these women are hilarious, and we should be watching them as much as we’re watching these guys be ridiculous, too.' I hope it keeps going. I want to be a part of it, of writing it. Obviously, women are just as funny — it’s such a silly discussion that people are still having.”
Do you have any advice for young writers who are looking to have a career in comedy?
“My biggest advice is just be patient with yourself, and know that even if you go for a job and it doesn’t work out, it’s a long road, and you’ll be running into the same people again and again. You never know when that person’s going to come back into your life and open up another door.”
What's your own personal mantra that you live by?
“Lately, I’ve been remembering something that my great grandmother said: 'Do something even if it’s wrong.' You can be crippled by what to do next, and as a writer, sitting down and putting something down on the page can be the hardest part. I try to remember that and just be active and take that next step.”
Hair by Bethany Brill; Makeup by Riku ; Styled by Emily Holland ; Photographed by Rene & Radka.
Look 1: BCBG dress; Lacoste shoes.
Look 2: A.L.C. jumpsuit; Oscar de la Renta shoes; Alexis Bittar cuffs.

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