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Space Case
Entertainment Weekly
March 26, 1999
by Dan Snierson


He's the, um. brains behind Homer Simpson--but can Matt Groening transport his twisted genius into a sci-fi sitcom populated with acerbic aliens and delinquent robots? Only the FUTURAMA will tell.

Matt Groening has seen the future and, quite frankly, it looks ridiculous. On this early March morning, the bearded creator of The Simpsons has gathered his staff in his sleek L.A. office (noteworthy decorative touches: three Emmys on shelf, one squid mask on coatrack) to view a rough cut of his long-awaited new animated series, Futurama. A giant TV screen illuminates a brave new world: Jet-pack-powered cats and dogs buzz above the Jetsons-esque cityscape. People clad in two-tone Trekkie fashions whiz through pneumatic tubes. And the jokes are flying faster than the speed of light. "I'm anticipating an all-out tactical dogfight, followed by a light dinner," cracks macho-cheesy space soldier Capt. Zapp Brannigan, in hot pursuit of a buxom Cyclops babe. Meanwhile, a robot aiming his beeping "gay-dar" device at a talking ball of energy declares, "I think he comes from a dimension that's big on musical theater."

The room swells with laughter, and the 45-year-old Groening--sprawled out on the floor like an oversize kid--guffaws the loudest. When the crowd disperses after the screening, the Bard of Bart issues his opinion: "Oh, it'll be one of the great episodes," says Groening matter-of-factly. "We just need to do retakes, rewrite lines, rejigger things with editing, pull back on some of the acting, make some adjustments, and tighten the tracks. Obviously, the music was totally temporary, there are no sound effects yet, the show's two minutes long, so we'll have to cut. We're going to lengthen Zapp Brannigan's tunic a bit and make sure all three eyes on the alien aren't blinking at the same time...."

Jeez, who'd have thought the future would be so complicated? Then again, if you had the jaw-droppingly onerous task of following up one of the most acclaimed TV shows in history, you'd be sweating every blinking detail too.

"How do I beat The Simpsons?" he sighs. "I won't. I can't. Nothing can. I just hope every review isn't 'Futurama is no Simpsons.' It's not a horse race--well, it is, sort of."

Granted, Futurama--a coming-of-age tale about a pizza delivery dude who awakens from a cryo-nap in the year 3000--does contain the trademark brainy yuks, random zaniness (would you believe suicide booths and a Church of Robotology?), and chinless, bulgy-eyed humans ("It's the only way I know how to draw"). But Groening wants this series to be more than just 3001: Homer's Space Odyssey. "Futurama is an epic history of the future disguised as a weekly animated sitcom," he declares. "We've got a secret alien alphabet language. We've planted clues in the first episode that'll pay off later.... There's a really basic theme to the show: 'Don't do what you're programmed to do--do what you want.' It's a sweet concept, and our culture pretends to believe in it, but the reality is, 'Be afraid. Lower your expectations. Vote Republican.'"

There are Republicans in the future?

"Oh, yes--in fact, the head of Richard Nixon makes a surprising political comeback in an episode in season 2."

The head of Matthew Abram Groening began filling up with ideas for scribbles and squiggles in the first grade. "I doodled constantly--it was basically a survival technique because I hated school," recalls the Portland, Ore., native. "Once I learned to read, school had less and less use for me." High school varsity footballer by day, antiwar hippie by night, Groening went on to cartoon for the student paper at liberal Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., before moving to L.A., where he worked as a record-store clerk and an L.A. Reader music critic (once bashing the work of Danny Elfman, whom he later hired to write the Simpsons theme). Peddling photocopies of his comics in punk shops, Groening gained notoriety in the mid-'80s with the twisted Life in Hell strip, starring beleaguered bunnies Binky and Bongo.

And how's this for a disgustingly charmed sequence of events: In 1987, Groening was asked to develop animated shorts for The Tracey Ullman Show. Planning to use his Hell characters, he balked after realizing that Fox would then own his bread-and-butter creation. Pressure being the mother of invention, Groening--just minutes before his meeting with the show's producer James Brooks--sketched out a spur-of-the- moment idea for a wacky family with a bratty kid. Long story short: The Simpsons has earned Fox's parent company, News Corp., close to one billion dollars over 10 seasons, making Groening a multimillionaire in the process.

"Matt thinks and writes unconventionally, but somehow brings it into convention," marvels Fox programming exec VP Mike Darnell. "He took these yellow-skinned, big-eyed, weird-looking characters and made them feel more like a real family than the ones in most live-action sitcoms." Adds voice-over vet Billy West (Futurama's delivery guy, Fry): "He never stops refining the gag. This is a guy who never goes on autopilot."

This is also a guy mesmerized by pop culture. "He'll draw together all these random things from the dark recesses of his mind," reports Futurama exec producer David Cohen. "He has thousands of CDs in boxes and piles everywhere. One day, I pulled out the most obscure thing I could find. It was something like Jimmy Jones and the Garbage Pail Guys and he said, 'Yeah, the third song's great.'" Comic books, folk art, Internet sites, kitschy artifacts--they're all fodder for Groening's zeitgeist-zapping sense of humor. Notes former Simpsons writer-producer Conan O'Brien: "One of my favorite things about Matt is that he's a collector of bad Simpsons rip-off memorabilia. We'd be writing an episode and he'd come in and go, 'Look what we found in Chile!' and it was some horrific Maggie doll that looked like a bent fetus. Some people might've been mad, like, 'Goddamnit, they're ripping me off!,' but Matt was just really amused."

"My tastes are much more obscure than you'd think," confirms Groening, who lives in Los Angeles (he has two sons, Will, 9, and Abe, 7; wife Deborah Caplan recently filed for divorce). "The other day, this reporter asked me who my favorite Spice Girl was and I was like, 'I dunno, but ask me about percussion ensembles from Senegal.'"

That's the joy of interviewing Groening: Ask him a simple question and you're likely to hear a discourse on sub-Saharan songsters or the best place in L.A. for Shanghai dumplings. But it's exactly these quirky sensibilities that have elevated him to creative-guru status. His desk bulges with fan mail and autograph requests. At Fox parties, he's more popular than the Ally McBeal and Party of Five casts put together. And those who work with him practically do so on one knee. Gushes John DiMaggio, the voice of Futurama's edgy robot Bender: "When I read for Matt, it blew me away. 'Here I am, sitting with the Simpsons creator!' When I got the role, it was like, 'Oh, God, this could be huge!'

You got that right. After all, with Futurama, the Great Creator was looking to transform one of his childhood obsessions into his next TV miracle. "I was a huge sci-fi fan," says Groening. "I was terrified of robots--you can't reason with them. There was a serial called The Phantom Creeps with Bela Lugosi where these people would be exploring an elegant room when suddenly the wall panel would fly up and this robot would come out and strangle them. That scared the hell out of me." Pushing fear aside, he began boning up on Isaac Asimov's novels and '50s B movies before asking then-Simpsons producer and sci-fi junkie Cohen (who boasts a physics degree from Harvard and a master's in theoretical computer science from Berkeley) to help him develop a futuristic sitcom. "Basically," says Cohen, "I wasn't going to get an offer more up my alley ever in my life."

Fox felt the same way, furiously dangling a 13-episode commitment during the pair's initial pitch meeting. But a little science friction soon sparked up over the level of network involvement--as in Groening wasn't allowing any (which is how The Simpsons operates). "The only way I know how to work is without the traditional watering down," he says. "In the wake of The Simpsons' success, there have been many animated shows on the air, and a lot of execs think they know what works. I certainly had the arrogance to point to The Simpsons every time they wanted to tell me what to do."

"This isn't a guy who comes to you with 50 different ideas and pulls them out of a briefcase," says Fox's Darnell. "He's about a concept, and he's very solid on the way he envisions it. I wouldn't call him stubborn--I'd call him... umm...very confident in his belief."

Unfortunately, a healthy sense of self wasn't enough to get Groening the prized post-Simpsons time slot--d'oh! Instead, Fox will give Futurama two Sunday sneak previews before shipping it off to its new all-animated Tuesday (where it joins King of the Hill and The PJs). "I think this will go down as one of the all-time programming blunders in TV history," says Groening only half jokingly. "But we're so happy with the quality of the show that it doesn't matter where it plays. People will find it."

Groening certainly isn't sitting around biting his nails. In addition to Futurama, he's got his drawing hand full, cranking out the ongoing Hell strip, supervising his still-thriving Simpsons, and scheming a few other choice TV projects: "I want to do a show about rock & roll; I want to do Life in Hell for cable; I've got this great idea for an animated pirate miniseries, but that's going to be a hard one to pitch." And get this: There just may be a Simpsons movie in the picture. "We're just starting to talk about it after all these years," he admits. "But it's really hard to come up with an idea--you can't just string together three episodes or people'll leave the theater with blood coming out of their ears."

Despite all these lofty plans, don't expect Groening to keep on doodling till he drops. "Animation requires many hours of being in windowless rooms with fluorescent lights, and that's no way to spend all your waking hours," he says. "I want to spend more time closer to nature. I want to go scuba diving with the stingrays and the eels and the sharks. I'd love to travel up to the northern tundra and listen to Eskimo throat singing. Is that weird enough for you?" Throw in a few hot Cyclops babes and we're sold.


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