It’s a Tuesday night on L.A.’s Sunset Strip, and I’m sitting at the bar of the Viper Room, a notoriously seedy rock club, watching five dudes in green sweaters and rounded glasses absolutely shred on stage. In addition to the uniform, each member of this explosive metal band sports a well-groomed mustache. The frontman roars, filling the venue with a demonic jet-engine sound, but you can just make out the lyric: “PREPARE! FOR! RENEDUCATION!”
This is Ned Flanders. Not the Flanders you know from The Simpsons — the churchy do-gooder whose unfailing politeness and unending patience make him insufferable to his loutish neighbor, Homer Simpson. He’s not the Flanders who owns the Leftorium, a store that sells products designed for left-handed people, or the Flanders who enjoys a snack of plain white bread “with a glass of water on the side for dipping.” He’s also not a cartoon; he’s real, as are the four other Neds playing with him. Specifically, he is “Head Ned,” backed by Dread Ned (drums), Shred Ned (guitar), Bed Ned (bass) and Zed Ned (synth). Together, they’re the latest lineup of Okilly Dokilly, “the world’s only Nedal band,” which Head Ned has fronted since its 2015 origins in Phoenix.
Head Ned drops a cheerful, high-pitched “Thanks, neighborinos!” between each song, in a marked contrast to his scouring vocals, capably walking the line between the hellish energy of the band and the agreeability of the guy to whom they pay homage. The theme of the set, “Reneducation,” is a reference to a Simpsons Halloween episode that has Homer stumble into an alternate timeline where Flanders rules the world, using this position to make his brand of niceness compulsory for everyone. In the context of this show, such niceness meant taking care — while thrashing to those monster riffs — not to elbow your fellow concert-goers (or, well, neighborinos).
That tension between a parodic dystopia and basic manners — such are the contradictions of the so-called “nice guy,” a category Ned no doubt belongs to. Many of Okilly Dokilly’s songs point to the moments when Flanders goes against type: There’s the time he went on an accidental bender with Homer in Vegas, referenced by “White Wine Spritzer,” and they nod to when he appears as the devil in a different Halloween segment. “Flanders is this perfect, pristine character, and so it’s great to take him and put him in an environment where he does the opposite,” Head Ned, a committed student of the show, tells me. “It’s very much pure irony. There is a duality to the character, and it’s something that people love to envision: the nice guy with this boiling rage underneath. Or that everybody has a boiling rage underneath, and some people are just so good at keeping it air-tight that they never really let it go. But when it does, when that pressure-cooker is there, it does finally just explode — that’s fireworks.”
“Just a thicker [exterior] on the propane tank on those ones,” he continues. “Makes for bigger fireworks when you hit critical mass.” I say it’s funny he should mention propane, given that Hank Hill, the propane salesman and patriarch of the animated series King of the Hill, a peer show of The Simpsons, is another nice guy with a red-hot temper underneath. “Yeah!” Head Ned exclaims. “We were talking about that the other day. I think if we were a King of the Hill band, we’d be ‘Propane and Discomfort.’ We’ve got these backup plans set up. That would be not only Hank but the four friends — him and Dale and Bill and all that. I need somebody to start that band so they can tour with us.”
I’m interested, though, in the spiritual nexus that joins heavy metal, with its cheeky overtones of Satanic evil, and Ned Flanders, a man who does whatever the Bible demands, “even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff.” As such, I read Head Ned an interpretation of Flanders from Simpsons creator Matt Groening: “Just a guy who is truly nice, that Homer had no justifiable reason to loathe, but then did.”
Does he consider metal maligned in similar ways? “I think so,” he says. “As with anything, it gets stereotyped. And if people consider, What does a metalhead look like?, they won’t describe Ned Flanders, that’s for sure. Unless we’ve done our work. Then, someday, maybe, yes they will. ‘Oh, metal, yeah! Those guys wear green sweaters and pink polos and whatnot.’ So I think there’s a little bit of a bias there. A lot of people and a lot of bands recently are playing with that bias. They know there’s a bias against metal, that it’s [seen in] a certain way. We’re glad to be part of that, the ‘not that’ movement.”
Even so, Okilly Dokilly do go hard on a metal genre trope — one that helps to illuminate their kinship with Flanders: the buttoned-up formality. “A lot of that comes with metal music itself being so technical,” Head Ned tells me. “It takes an amount of discipline to be able to play the music, and you see a lot of people expressing that discipline in other ways. Especially the bands that are kind of up there, they’re very tight musically, and that flows into different aspects of life. There’s a properness to it.” Flanders can be every bit as fastidious and prescriptivist, of course: “If the Bible was guitar tabs, then that’s where we are,” the frontman summarizes.
Then, off-stage, there are other forms of discipline. “There’s a lot of business stuff that goes into the background, advancing the shows and doing all that,” says Head Ned. “A lot of successful metal musicians learn to do that, too. They’re the guys — you get an email back immediately, and they’re good at Excel spreadsheets. In modern-day music, the Excel spreadsheet is the instrument that you have to learn next. So many bands are self-managing and all that. You learn the guitar and get good at it and then, you know, if you get good at logistics and all that stuff, it helps you get pretty far.” Makes sense for a dude who connected with Flanders as a kid through his business, the Leftorium.
“Growing up, my dad bought me a book called The Natural Superiority of the Left-Hander, because I was left-handed,” he says. “And so this guy who runs the left-handed store… I was like: That’s amazing. I wanna be like that guy.” Which is to say, the cartoon character shown doing his taxes on January 1, and choosing not to deduct cash register ink as a business expense because he enjoys the scent of it.
Then you have the trademark Flanders mustache, itself an exercise in control. “You gotta keep everything around it pretty tight and trim,” Head Ned says. “I usually go at least every other day on the full shave. For the mustache, I usually keep it pretty long, you trim it maybe once a week or so. You know it’s getting too long when you’re having a sandwich and the mustache goes with it. That’s a good indicator.”
As a usually bearded man, I sympathize — it’s never fun to find yourself chewing on the mustache. “That, and tabs from cans — hairs get caught in it, and when it yanks one of those out, that’s… I mean that’s probably half the reason we play metal anyway. It’s just that feeling of having a mustache hair yanked out of your face.” And while the Flanders stache sometimes feels like his concession to a culture freer than he is, it becomes an emblem of conformity. “It’s very much this, in the 1980s and 1990s, the look of the ‘square dad,’” Head Ned offers. “There is something about Flanders being very precise — the mustache being only on the upper lip, certain parts being groomed around it.”
But whatever part of Ned you overanalyze, you always return to his gentle kindness. He is, perhaps, the consummate nice guy — and somehow even the facial hair signifies it. Just as his meticulous grooming contrasts with Homer’s permanent five-o’clock shadow, Ned is a satisfying foil to his rude neighbor, who resents his existence but takes advantage of him at every opportunity, knowing he’s too self-effacing to stand up for himself. And yet, despite the casual abuse, even Homer fundamentally likes Flanders — everybody does!
Although later seasons use him to critique American evangelicals, Ned was originally characterized as a humble Christian who wanted nothing more than to help his fellow man, even if that man was an oafish, irresponsible dimwit. Homer is Flanders’ cross to bear, but he bears him with a smile, plus a few nonsense catchphrases. One of those sayings, the affirmative expression “Okily dokily,” became “Okilly Dokilly.” Ever since, the group has enthralled audiences with what should feel like an incongruous gimmick — five dudes dressed like the pious dork from a cartoon, performing aggressive rock about his humdrum life — but in time resembles a canny critique of the very archetype Flanders represents. In Okilly Dokilly’s music, the contradictions of the so-called “nice guy” are laid bare, and you find out what an uptight man keeps bottled up inside himself. A different, unchained Flanders takes the stage.
In The Simpsons’ eighth season, we get a glimpse of that Flanders via “Hurricane Neddy,” an episode wherein he loses his home and store to a natural disaster, triggering a crisis of faith. We find out that he’s been repressing tons of rage, mostly because he has no healthy outlet for it. But Okilly Dokilly is custom-designed to provide that exact release. “You get up there, you shout for an hour and a half — you could slam your fingers in a car door the next day, and it’s like having lemonade,” Head Ned says. “It’s awesome. Being able to just go on a stage and thrash, you don’t need to yell at your friends, you don’t need to scream at your family, you’ve got your designated hour and a half. And the best part of it is that hundreds of people show up — to be screamed at. And that makes it very, very stress-relieving.”
It also, perhaps, exorcises the many tensions of touring. “Yeah, we don’t do any screaming at each other,” Head Ned says. “Except for, we’ve got some pretty good ear plugs and monitors and things, so you could be two feet from somebody and trying to get their attention, and after like five minutes of [gestures wildly], yeah, there’s some screaming that happens.”
Clearly, though, “Hurricane Neddy” — which exposes surprising richness and rage of the so-called nice guy — is a formative episode for Okilly Dokilly. It also happens to test the adage that nice guys finish last. Flanders’ life isn’t always easy, but he’s canonically depicted as having it better than Homer: his home is idealized, his family is harmonious and high-functioning, etc. So what happens when that status is arbitrarily stolen from him? He explodes.
“I don’t think nice guys always do finish last,” Head Ned says. “There’s certainly an aspect to it. But I think the message [in The Simpsons] is probably that — [Ned’s affluence] is mostly to spite Homer, it’s a bit of karma. That Homer does these [bad] things, and he’s got a neighbor who’s perfect.” When the hurricane upends that dynamic, “he kind of goes mad there. And it taps into an anger. Sometimes, when nice guys do finish last, those guys are often no longer nice guys after that.”
Niceness, then, may be understood as a fragile guise made possible by the buffer of prosperity. The loss of privilege as a prelude to shocking nastiness is what gave us the newer, ironic definition of the term “nice guy,” which on the internet designates a closet misogynist who feels entitled to sex and complains about being “friendzoned.”
Maybe that’s why it’s so important to give Flanders the upper hand in most areas. He’s also portrayed as virtually ageless, and impressively muscled under his modest clothes — not to mention absurdly well-endowed. In one of the show’s most enduring bits, Homer is tortured by the image of “Stupid Sexy Flanders” in a skin-tight skiing outfit, waggling his toned butt and innocently declaring that it feels like he’s wearing “nothing at all!” (“Nothing At All” is, of course, an Okilly Dokilly song.)
“I think that just adds more, that’s something they added to the character because he’s this embodiment of something perfect that Homer loathes,” Head Ned muses. “He’s a vessel for Homer’s envy.” And a smokin’ bod fits with that: “He couldn’t have anything else.”
Could it be that we’re only able to declare someone nice when they have what we want? Or that noticing niceness in someone is a way of pathologizing our messy mean-spiritedness?
Think about it: The last time you called somebody a “nice guy” — assuming this wasn’t a crack on a dude whose Tinder meltdown became a viral screenshot — you still didn’t mean it as a compliment. At best, you meant they were inoffensive, a filler-type dude, somewhat bland, forgettable in his basic decorum. But it could be the case that you were jealous of this uninteresting normality, which can make someone seem balanced, fulfilled and stable — the very qualities a comparatively unhappy person craves.
We likewise both covet and disdain the apparent simplicity of being nice: dumb as Homer is, he regards Ned as the bigger idiot for lacking any cynicism. That judgment, however, will never touch Flanders, who really is defined by his niceness, in a way no actual person could ever hope to be: He’s wholesome, generous and unfailingly pleasant. He’s a good egg. He’d give you the shirt off his back. In response to Homer yelling that he smells like manure, Ned takes a whiff of his armpit, decides he is a bit ripe, and shouts back, “Thanks for the nose news, neighbor!” He is, quite literally, a saint.
Yet there’s something infernal in ultimate goodness, and this is the unifying fact that Okilly Dokilly brings to bear: heavy metal trades in unholy signifiers to create an atmosphere that you’d have to call religious. Along those lines, I know this performance was ideal catharsis for both the avowed metalheads tossing in the pit and for yours truly, a weakling mid-30s writer hanging in the back of the room because his days of sweatily pushing to the front of a show are long past. I had a renewed appreciation, too, for the technical precision of metal that Head Ned had spoken about — the lightning-fast riffs and breakneck shifts in percussion or tempo. Head Ned’s screaming, as I got used to it, was less punishing than exfoliating, a sound that peeled you back, layer by layer, until you found the light.
I wondered what an established Flanders expert would make of this spectacle. So I reached out to Carolyn Omine, a writer on The Simpsons since 1998 and a producer of the show since 2005. She’s supportive, in general, of Ned turning his energies to overcharged guitars. “The Bible says, ‘I will sing to the Lord all my life,’” she tells me. “So I think Ned is fine with all music. As long as they ix-nay on the Satanism and their pants aren’t too tight in the croth-diddily-otch.”
No problem on the wardrobe front — Okilly Dokilly wears the same modest khakis Flanders does. The song “Donut Hell,” however, could pose an issue: It alludes to a Halloween episode where Ned is actually Satan.
As for whether nice guys finish last, Omine is rather agnostic. “Bad things happen to good and evil with random frequency,” she says. “The difference is how they respond to it. Ned’s religion gives him tools to stay optimistic and forgiving,” qualities which are bound to come in handy in the dysfunctional suburb of Springfield. “The super-religious can be insufferable because there’s a fair amount of delusion and condemnation involved,” she adds. “The special thing about Ned is that, while he embraces the delusion, he rarely condemns those who believe differently. No matter what comes his way, Ned is going to be ding, dang, doodily and preternaturally happy.”
It occurs to me you could say the same of the oft-misunderstood metal scene: They’re not trying to intimidate or condemn anyone — they’re just looking for a way to center themselves.
And yes, turbulent emotions may accompany this project, but that’s okay. “I love Ned’s dark side in ‘Hurricane Neddy’ — my all time favorite Harry Shearer performance,” Omine says. “‘Viva Ned Flanders’ was a fun show to pitch on — the result that fateful [metal voice] ‘WHITE WINE SPRITZER!’ We visit Ned’s dark side sparingly, to keep it impactful,” otherwise you spoil the fun. “But anyone who remains stubbornly cheerful in the face of this mean, sinful world, has got to be swallowing a volcano of rage every day — it’s going to blow occasionally. Maybe Ned should join a metal band.”
Only future seasons of The Simpsons will tell if this is in the cards for the iconic neighborino. The show did give Okilly Dokilly its blessing by featuring the band in the end credits of “I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say D’oh,” an episode that aired in April, so another cameo isn’t out of the question.
In the meantime, they’re busy living the Nedal life. Their follow-up to the explosive 2016 debut Howdilly Doodilly — titled Howdilly Twodilly — dropped at the end of March, and it’s a scorcher. To quote Ned himself: “Thanks, god!”