Does Matt Groening really need any introduction? His evolution from cantankerous Los Angeles underground cartoonist to the creator of one of the most beloved and influential comic institutions of the past century is already the stuff of legend. In 1977, Groening began writing the long-running comic strip Life In Hell, a cult favorite about the misadventures of various angst-ridden neurotic rabbits, plus Akbar and Jeff, a pint-sized duo who operate or shill for an endless succession of disreputable businesses.
Life In Hell eventually caught the eye of producer James L. Brooks, who commissioned Groening to create animated shorts to run as bumpers during Fox's The Tracey Ullman Show. Groening famously created the Simpsons in roughly 15 minutes, and Simpsons shorts ran for several seasons on Ullman's acclaimed program before getting their own half-hour spin-off in 1989.
In 1999, Groening and Simpsons veteran David X. Cohen launched the science-fiction cartoon series Futurama, which quickly attracted a rabid cult following in spite of regular preemptions and generally shoddy treatment by Fox. The network ultimately cancelled Futurama, but substantial DVD sales and impressive ratings for the Cartoon Network reruns prompted Fox to green-light four feature-length direct-to-DVD Futurama movies. Groening is also working on a long-rumored, highly anticipated Simpsons movie, in addition to publishing Bongo Comics and still writing and drawing Life In Hell. Just before a recent Simpsons episode written by Ricky Gervais aired and the 2007 release date of the Simpsons movie was announced, The A.V. Club spoke to Groening about why The Simpsons Forever is more than just the title of a book.
The A.V. Club: For my generation, Simpsons references are a language of their own. Do you often get people quoting the show to you?
Matt Groening: Oftentimes, what seems to be a street lunatic charging at me spouting gibberish turns out to be a devoted Simpsons fan quoting their favorite line.
AVC: How does that make you feel?
MG: Very jumpy at first. But they're generally not violent.
AVC: So you're frightened and flattered at the same time.
MG: Frightened first, then relieved.
AVC: What can you say about the Futurama movies?
MG: We're going to do four of them, straight to DVD. And as we speak, I'm exchanging e-mails and ideas with David X. Cohen and Ken Keeler, both of whom worked on the show from the very beginning. Right now we're trying to figure out whether to do a giant epic, or separate crazy movies, or what. But I wager that Bender will be featured prominently.
AVC: He's a fan favorite.
MG: People love Bender. He's the robotic Homer of the Futurama universe.
AVC: Why do you think people relate to him?
MG: Like Homer, Bender has no guilt whatsoever. He wants what he wants. He's one of the few robots in pop culture who isn't either an effeminate little wimp, or an unfeeling psychopath. He has a lot of emotion.
AVC: Why do you think that Fox treated Futurama the way it did?
MG: I think there were just a few executives around at the time who did not understand the show. No amount of explaining the humor of a crab monster and a crazy robot and a one-eyed sci-fi babe could change their minds.
AVC: Didn't they trust you based on your track record? You basically made Fox with The Simpsons. Didn't that buy you some currency?
MG: Well, it got us on the air and kept us on the air for four years, but they didn't get the show, and that's that. There's a long, regal history of misunderstood TV shows, and to Fox's credit, the studio looked at the ratings on the Cartoon Network and how the show does overseas, and saw that there was more money to be made. So now we get to come back and tell some of the stories that we've had lined up that we never got around to. When David Cohen and I put together the show, we spent a couple years building the universe, and we have characters and stories that we haven't even got around to that we already have voluminous notes on.
AVC: Do you feel vindicated over Futurama becoming such a hit on Adult Swim and DVD?
MG: I suppose. One of the great things about this whole process is the fans have always been unbelievably supportive and encouraging, so it's fun to be able to give them what they want, which is more Futurama.
AVC: Is there any chance that it might return to television?
MG: Certainly. That's always a possibility. Look at the example of Family Guy, which came back from the dead and is walking among us.
AVC: Speaking of Family Guy, The Simpsons has taken a few shots at it, and it's shot back. What's your take on Family Guy?
MG: The rivalry is very affectionate. Seth MacFarlane, the creator of Family Guy, is a good guy and he does great work, and I certainly have no problem with the perceived competition. If anything, we have the same kind of competition that Pugsley Addams and Eddie Munster had in the old days. They duked it out a few times, and so did Seth and I, but that's probably before your time.
AVC: Family Guy often seems like a child of The Simpsons. Do you feel like you're a godfather of a whole school of comedy?
MG: I think Family Guy and American Dad have definitely staked out their own style and territory, and now the accusations are coming that The Simpsons is taking jokes from Family Guy. And I can tell you, that ain't the case.
AVC: At this point, The Simpsons is one of the longest-running television shows of all time. How do you avoid cannibalizing and repeating yourself?
MG: We have an entire staff of writers and animators who are so young that they grew up watching the show. So they have the entire history memorized, and remind us when we're repeating ourselves. The goal is to keep coming up with things that both surprise the audience and the people who've been working on the show for the past 15 or 20 years.
AVC: You collect bootleg Simpsons merchandise. What are some of the prized items in your collection?
MG: Well, I've lost a number of my plaster Tijuana Bart Sanchez figurines to earthquakes. It's quite tragic. Artisans are working day and night to create more unauthorized stuff for me to put on my shelf. I have a lot of Simpsons Russian nesting dolls that people send me, as well as fan paintings and sculptures, weird little toys, and a crazy Russian coloring book of The Simpsons. The artist probably was shown an episode for 15 seconds and then based an entire comic book on his vague impressions.
AVC: So you're inspiring other people's creativity.
MG: Yes. [Laughs.] It looks like The Simpsons as drawn by people on drugs.
AVC: Of the thousands of authorized Simpsons items, which is your favorite, and which is your least favorite?
MG: I like the Simpsons pinball machines. Those are pretty great. I'm not very fond of the Simpsons fishing lures. They just look like little Bart toys, except they've got nasty fishhooks in them. I don't know what kind of fish would be fooled by a Simpsons lure. Probably not a fish you'd want.
AVC: Do you have any control over the merchandise? Can you say, "No, it would degrade the show's integrity if there were Bart Simpson condoms"?
MG: That's a good idea. I need to make a phone call. We do our best to make the stuff as good as we can, and sometimes the tsunami is so big that it gets out of our control.
AVC: When did you realize that The Simpsons wasn't just a hit show, but a pop-culture phenomenon?
MG: Very early in 1990. The show went on the air in December 1989 as a series, and by the spring, Simpsons mania was pretty crazy, with bootleg T-shirts, stuff being sold on every street corner in New York City and [the show] getting condemned by President Bush, and all the rest.
AVC: And then Fox placed The Simpsons against the Cosby show. How do you feel about that?
MG: It definitely hurt the show's ratings, but that was Fox's call, so we just kept on trying to do good episodes. We love Bill Cosby, and the idea that we were put up there to knock him off was certainly not our choice.
AVC: When you were doing shorts for The Tracey Ullman Show, did you worry about extending The Simpsons to episode length someday?
MG: Not at all. The characters were created with the idea that they would become a TV series. It was on The Tracey Ullman Show for three years. The very first season, I just kept the characters in the house and tried to figure out how to do quick sight gags in the 15 seconds I had for each segment. Then I gradually moved them outside in the second season; then I added more characters in the last season before it went on the air as a series. Krusty The Clown and Itchy & Scratchy were all part of the Tracey Ullman shorts. That was very much inspired by SCTV, with all the characters in Melonville interacting. And I thought that with an animated show, we could not only show our main characters, but also show the products they were consuming and the TV shows they were watching and all their various neighbors and co-workers. It turned out to have gone beyond even my expectations, to where we have 300 or so regular secondary characters.
AVC: Did you have any notion that people would embrace the whole Simpsons universe the way they have?
MG: I thought it would be successful, but I didn't realize that it would be quite as big as it turned out.
AVC: Is it true that James L. Brooks originally wanted to adapt Life In Hell for The Tracey Ullman Show, but you refused because you would have had to relinquish your rights to the characters?
MG: No, it was that I had this good gig going with my weekly comic strip, and I was actually afraid that if the animated cartoon didn't work out, there would be a taint on my weekly comic-strip job. So I created The Simpsons on the spot, thinking that if it did fail, I could just go back and draw rabbits, and no one would be the wiser.
AVC: Do you think a Life In Hell cartoon would have taken off the way The Simpsons did?
MG: I think human beings probably resonate with audiences more than bunnies, but who knows? One of these days, I'll get around to animating Life In Hell. I still draw it every week, been doing that for the last 25 years. I'm just now putting together, for the first time, Life In Hell toys. Yes, I'm finally selling out.
AVC: When you started out with Life In Hell, it seemed very directly autobiographical. Was it a way for you to work out your feelings about Los Angeles?
MG: It's a little bit about me, a lot about the things my friends were going through. Sometimes people try to read into my strip and find out what my state of mind is. And I can say if I'm in a good mood, generally the comic strip starts out in a good mood, but the punchline is very negative and sour. If I'm in a very bad mood, the comic strip starts out in a sour, negative way, and the punchline is generally a positive switch. That's the secret, if you want to know what's going on behind the script.
AVC: Aaron McGruder says the comic strip is a dying art form. Do you agree?
MG: I think in daily newspapers, the way comic strips are treated, it's as if newspaper publishers are going out of their way to kill the medium. They're printing the comics so small that most strips are just talking heads, and if you look back at the glory days of comic strips, you can see that they were showcases for some of the best pop art ever to come out of this country.
AVC: Your Wikipedia entry says that when you moved to Los Angeles, you worked as a biographer for an elderly director. Is that true, and if so, what was it like?
MG: Yes, I worked for a 93-year-old guy. Calling him a movie director is probably a little exaggerated. It's true, he directed a few B-Westerns, but he was mostly a behind-the-scenes guy in various guises. He didn't have much of a career.
AVC: So how did you become his biographer?
MG: There was an ad in the Los Angeles Times: "Wanted: Writer/Chauffeur." [Laughs.] And I'd seen Billy Wilder's movie Sunset Boulevard, so I knew what I was in for. I got the job.
AVC: Was he a Norma Desmond-like figure?
MG: Well, a little bit. I remember buying him his nightly steak at the Gourmet Chalet on the corner of Sunset and Fairfax, and paying more for the piece of meat than I made in two days.
AVC: Did you ever think about substituting a cheaper piece of meat and pocketing the difference?
MG: No, he was pretty much like Mr. Burns, which I guess makes me Smithers. [Laughs.] He would shuffle along beside the grocery cart that I pushed. Then again, this was one of those high-end grocery stores, so it was one of those mini grocery carts, which makes you feel like a fool.
AVC: Why did you move to Los Angeles in the first place?
MG: I went to college in Olympia, Washington, a fine little progressive school called Evergreen State College, state-funded, no grades, no hard courses. I highly recommend it to all self-disciplined creative weirdoes.
AVC: It sounds like a hippie utopia.
MG: Yes, and it still is. When it came time to leave, there were three possible destinations: Seattle, which is where most of my pals went; New York, which was where the rest of them went; and Los Angeles. And I just thought Los Angeles would be the warmest, so that's where I headed.
AVC: There was no ulterior motive?
MG: I had a plan to try to see if I could sneak my stuff into pop culture and subvert it from the belly of the beast, and so I did. It took a little longer than I thought it would, but I'm pretty satisfied with the way it turned out.
AVC: You wrote a music column for the L.A. Reader back in the early days.
MG: I was given a music gossip column to write, and I didn't know any music gossip, so I found it very annoying to interview rock stars. But even more annoying than rock stars were would-be rock stars—that is, people who were in struggling bands, but who were acting with arrogance befitting the stardom they so richly craved. And then I was writing about bands and music that didn't have wide appeal to my audience.
AVC: So you have fairly obscure musical tastes?
MG: Yes. [Laughs.] I would prefer to listen to a French classical composer like Olivier Messiaen than to the pop hits of the day.
AVC: What was the holdup to getting a Simpsons movie made?
MG: The TV show is something we work on year-round, so we don't have a staff of animators and writers and producers sitting around waiting for us to say "Go." We're always working on the TV show, and it didn't seem that it was worth doing a movie unless we had a great story and could do something that justified people pulling a $10 bill out of their wallet. We also wanted to wait until it cost $10 to go to the movies. [Laughs.]
AVC: You've been talking about a Simpsons movie possibly being in the works at least since 1996.
MG: We make a lot of jokes. One writer joked that the movie was gonna be about Bart losing his virginity, and that made headlines internationally. And it was a joke. It's actually gonna be about Milhouse losing his virginity.
AVC: Which Simpsons characters are your favorites?
MG: Some characters always make me laugh. I love Apu, I love Principal Skinner's mother, Ralph Wiggum of course, everyone's favorite. I like the squeaky-voiced teen, 'cause he seems to be working wherever Homer needs to order a milkshake or buy a movie ticket.
AVC: You've said that your adult career has been based on living out your childhood fantasies. Are there any that you haven't lived out yet?
MG: I look at where I am in my career and try to think, given this as my foundation, "What else can I do that's fun and will make an audience laugh?" I've got a few ideas under my belt, but now I've got some homework to do, to continue the childhood metaphor. With the Simpsons movie, Simpsons TV show, my weekly comic strip, and four Futurama DVDs, I know what I'm gonna be thinking about for the next two or three years.
I have to say that The Simpsons comes from a huge number of great writers headed by Al Jean, the show-runner, and the work that they do is really fantastic. It's a blast just to sit around with them in the writers' room and listen to all the filthy jokes that will never get on the air.
AVC: What's been the most satisfying aspect of The Simpsons' success?
MG: For a while, it used to make me really happy that the show offended people and they got outraged. It always felt to me like we were Daffy Duck and there was a world of Elmer Fudds out there. But now even the Elmer Fudds have realized that you can't mess with us, and so they pretend to like it, and I know they really don't.
AVC: From the beginning, the show has dealt with faith more openly and extensively than anything else on television. Was that by design?
MG: We had the ability to do it, and because it's a cartoon, we can show all aspects of religiosity. It's not just the family saying grace, which would be dreadful in isolation, but we also show eternal hellfire, the Devil, and even God, who is a 12-foot-high guy in a long white robe with five fingers and a big white beard. So that's fun. We haven't shown God's face, except once in a "Treehouse of Horror" episode when Kang and Kodos used an accela-ray on a boring baseball game and ended up collapsing the universe. Generally, you don't see his face, but I always thought that we should show God's head with a long, white beard, with his face blurred out because of internal illumination, but the top of his head would have Homer's two little hairs.
AVC: On Futurama, Robot Devil has appeared a number of times. Is there a Robot God to go along with him?
MG: That's one of the things we're probably going to explore in one of the Futurama movies. In one of our best episodes, we had a conversation between Bender and what apparently was God, and I think we're going to explore what was really going on in that conversation.
AVC: Is Homer ever going to seek treatment for his alcoholism?
MG: Sounds like a real laugh riot. I'll get right on that. It's possible. I mean, he chopped his thumb off in one episode, so I suppose Homer in recovery would be hilarious.
AVC: How did Ricky Gervais end up writing an episode?
MG: We asked him. We were huge fans of The Office, and he and Stephen Merchant came over here, and we asked him to do a script, and he said yes.
AVC: Other than The Office, what makes you laugh?
MG: I'm very sad that Don Knotts just died. He's the greatest comic actor on television, ever. I like a lot of British comedy. There's a British show that just finished up its second season, called Look Around You, which is a send-up of science thrillers, which I like a lot. On a regular basis, I watch The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Countdown W/ Keith Olbermann, which may be the funniest show of all. It's similar to The Daily Show, except there's no braying audience.
AVC: The most prolific Simpsons writer is John Swartzwelder. How is he able to be so prolific, and why doesn't he do audio commentaries?
MG: We begged him to do audio commentaries, we've even said "We'll bring a microphone to you," and he refuses. He's very stubborn. There's nobody like him. He's got a lot of eccentric political opinions.
AVC: He's a libertarian, isn't he?
MG: He'd probably disagree with that. [Laughs.] But yeah, that's sort of the area. Ornery, I would say, is his political area. He's one of the funniest writers ever. Let me take this opportunity to applaud his novels. You can buy his novels online, through Amazon and through his own website. One's a tough-guy detective novel, and the other's a Western.
AVC: Would it be fair to say that you view the business aspect of show business as something of a necessary evil?
MG: The behind-the-scenes shenanigans have nothing to do with doing good work. If anything, it's just a distraction. So you just have to keep in mind that the important relationship is the relationship with the audience. That's what I try to do. Everything else is secondary.
AVC: There have reportedly been ideas for spin-offs shows featuring Troy McClure or Krusty the Clown. What happened with those?
MG: I know Phil Hartman said he wanted to do something with Troy McClure, and I thought that was a great idea. And I love Dan Castellaneta. I think he's the Don Knotts of the 21st century. [Laughs.] He does the voices of Homer, Grandpa, Krusty, Mayor Quimby, the squeaky-voiced teen, and on and on, and I just thought the idea of a live-action Krusty the Clown show would be something Dan could go completely crazy with. And halfway through the pitch, Fox said, "Can it be a cartoon?" So okay, we'll make it a cartoon. And it just got bogged down in the kinds of mysterious machinations that often happen in Hollywood. Maybe someday we'll do it. I don't know.
AVC: How much is Krusty based on Jerry Lewis?
MG: All of these characters are collaborations between the writers, animators, and actors. In my original conception of the character, the idea was that he was a clown from back when I was growing up. Specifically, I was inspired by a clown in Portland, Oregon, named Rusty Nails, a clown whose personality was nothing like Krusty's. He was actually a very sweet, good-natured clown. [Laughs.] With an incredibly frightening name. And Dan took Krusty to new areas. I didn't realize the clown was Jewish until Jay Kogen and Wally Wolodarsky, two of the original Simpsons writers, pointed out that he was.
AVC: It sounds like a happy accident.
MG: Like I said, the show is a huge shared vision, and a lot of people have done a lot of great things on the show. Listen to the DVD commentaries, and you'll get a vague idea of who did what. [Laughs.] It's been so long that sometimes we don't remember.
AVC: It seems like you guys really enjoy watching the episodes again.
MG: Yeah, it's very easy to get caught up in shows that you haven't watched for a decade. I don't sit around at home and watch the shows in reruns, except occasionally, just to try to remind myself of what happens next, 'cause often, I've completely forgotten an episode, which is really fun. At the end of this season, we'll have done 385 episodes, and we're gonna reach 400 by the middle of the following season.
AVC: You've said that a major brewery wanted Akbar and Jeff to endorse their product. What did they think having them as spokesmen would accomplish?
MG: They were going to ride the beer-company party train to wherever Spring Break is held in Florida. It used to be Ft. Lauderdale. You ride the beer-company party train and the beer-company yacht, and they were going to have Akbar and Jeff tattoos. [Laughs.] I had a rule years ago that I made for myself: the Life In Hell rabbits wouldn't endorse anything, but Akbar and Jeff would endorse absolutely anything. We got a little ways into the negotiation, and then an article in Rolling Stone came out and said that Akbar and Jeff were gay midgets. That ended it, even though I tried to point out that all fraternities are gay, that's why they're fraternities.
AVC: They're also incestuous midgets, aren't they?
MG: They could be, yes. They're not midgets. They're just a little short.
AVC: Can you see yourself ending The Simpsons any time soon?
MG: I honestly don't see any end in sight. I think it's possible that the show will get too financially cumbersome, and there will be enough in the can that we'll say, "Okay, let's call it a day," but right now, the show is creatively, I think, as good or better than it's ever been. The animation is incredibly detailed and imaginative, the stories do things that we haven't done before, so creatively there's no reason to quit.
AVC: In one interview, you said you're happy with The Simpsons overall, but you're never entirely pleased with any specific episode. Do you still feel that way?
MG: We're working very fast, under tight budgets, so there are always things that any artist wants to tweak. I look at it that way, but then when I just listen to people laughing at the show, I go, "Okay, I guess it's good enough."