Matt Groening Interview Radio Times
Sept. 24, 1999
by Andrew Duncan
"I'm an incurable neurotic. No comedy comes out of being well adjusted"
If, as Homer Simpson would say, it takes one to know one, then his creator Matt Groening, who has a futuristic new animated series, is perfectly qualified to dissect American neuroses and peculiarities.
It took a mere 15 minutes for this self-confessed lousy artist to create, draw and name the cartoon characters who are known in 70 countries and have turned him into a mutimillionaire and made $1 billion for Rupert Murdoch, but rest assured and don't be envious: he may have invented the dysfunctional Simpsons family, but he remains himself that most easily mocked of creatures - a Californian neurotic. "I'm incurable," he tells me within seconds of meeting. "It shows in the work, doesn't it? No comedy comes out of being well adjusted. It's all to do with mal-adaptation to the world. There's hostility at the heart of a lot of humour, and underneath the hostility is hurt. We all have our wounds. I'm not cured - so there's plenty to write about."
At the same time, he claims he wants to be a hippy but is "too normal". He is burly and bearded, like a slightly dishevelled mature student, and he guffaws before adding he has jet lag and is recovering from flu. He is also a workaholic, one possible reason he is being divorced by his wife of 15 years, Deborah (they have two sons: Homer Will, nine, and Abe, seven). His surname rhymes with "complaining", although he is registered at the Balmoral hotel, where we meet in Edinburgh, under the pseudonym Mr Windsor. He is not sure why and remains bemused, in a twinkling, amiable sort of way, by much of life. "I am still staggered by the success of The Simpsons. I always thought it would be popular with the kids in America but didn't know if adults would give it a chance because it's animated. When it became a huge hit I had no idea whether it was too specifically American to translate overseas. It's a phenomenon that staggers everyone who thinks about it. But it's lasted for ten years so I've become used to the unreality. The only way I could escape was by creating another show."
Futurama, which begins on Sky this week, turns science fiction on its head in the same way as The Simpsons is "modelled" on fifties sitcoms. A pizza delivery boy, Fry, is accidentally frozen in a cryogenics lab and emerges into a world where destiny is pre-assigned - in his case as an intergalactic courier. He, with a martial-arts cyclops called Leela and a hard-drinking, cigar-smoking, porno-addict robot, Bender, are the three main characters and, although set 1,000 years hence, the series is yet another opportunity to be subversive about today's values.
Odd that among so much tepid TV, it is cartoons that lead the way in satire. "They're still an overlooked medium with the feeling that they're for children, so adults needn't take them seriously. You can get away with a lot of things that are taboo in American entertainment - like a comic drunk. We receive letters complaining, 'Homer's not wearing a seat belt,' and I write back, 'He's a bad example. Don't be like him.' Also the velocity of animation is so fast you can be outrageous and are on to the next joke, whereas if it were live action it would hang in the air and create a deathly pall." There is a further irony in that he derides the timidity of network television companies which fall over themselves to buy his wares. "Television is a mix of good and mostly bad. But there are contradictions and compromises in any kind of mass entertainment, or job for that matter. The important relationship in my work is with the audience and I've been left alone to do exactly what I want. There have been some attempts to make me knuckle under, but I refused."
He chuckles again, and pauses. I hate to niggle, but he's complained that getting Futurama on air was the worst experience of his grown-up life because Murdoch's network, Fox, thought it was too dark, particularly its coin-operated suicide booths ("stop and drop"). Lawyers stipulated that "one-eyed baby food" should not be a commercially identifiable brand. And what about the year 3000's Mass Hypnosis Hour? "We already have that - look at today's schedules," he says. "There's an atmosphere in network television that is fearful. They know they need to be innovative to get the audience's attention, but they also have the contradictory fear of the new. When I pitched the show to Fox I said if you guys want to own Sunday night in America, put Futurama between The Simpsons and The X Files." They did, and 19 million viewed it's first showing. "It's all business. They want success, and money. The network suits didn't like Futurama and didn't understand The Simpsons, but I know Rupert Murdoch's a big fan. He's been on it, playing himself as 'the evil billionaire tycoon'. We're having the Rupert Murdoch action figurine next year. Kids will love it," he jokes. Well why not? They have a genuine Simpsons asthma inhaler and all the merchandising spin-offs are a gold mine.
He was born in Portland, Oregon, the third of five children of an advertising executive who drew cartoons in his spare time. It was a happy childhood although, he says, "I felt misunderstood at school. I couldn't understand why stuff that brought me such joy could annoy so many teachers. I drew comic strips and they ripped them up. Well, it was in maths class and I suppose I should have been paying attention, but I realised that no matter what I grew up to be I'd always draw cartoons and write, even if I didn't make any money and had to be a delivery boy." Prophetic. After college he moved to Los Angeles, aged 23, and worked in record stores and pizza restaurants, touting his cartoons around punk cafes. "It was as miserable as I've ever been, spinning my wheels." Eventually he wrote a comic strip, Life in Hell, starring two beleaguered rabbits, Binky and Bongo, which he took to an alternative newspaper, the Los Angeles Reader. They hired him immediately - as a delivery boy - before beginning to publish his cartoon, which is now syndicated weekly to 250 newspapers. "I've just done my 1,000th, and still produce it at the last minute. It's horrible to be on a deadline, facing a blank sheet of paper every week, but it's the only way I'm able to work. The Simpsons and Futurama are huge collaborative efforts from over 100 brilliant writers and animators, so it's fun for me to sit down and do something that is just mine, for which I can take full credit or blame. At least, even after all this time, I have the ability to keep my hellish existence alive and kicking."
One reason for the success of both Futurama and The Simpsons is that audience's think, "I could draw that." "We get buckets of fan mail with drawings every week. When I was a kid I read a book about how to illustrate cartoons and they pointed out that if you just draw ovals with little slashes for eyes you can change the emotion completely by slightly altering the shape of the eyeballs. There's a simplicity in the design of the characters that makes their emotions very easy to read. One of my ongoing notes to the animators is, 'Simplify. Reduce the number of lines in the face.'" It is the opposite instruction with the storylines, which are crammed with jokes, historical references and visual gags. "Some episodes were so fast the jokes get lost, so we slowed down a little. Now we go at 70 miles an hour, as opposed to 110. There are still things you can't get first time."
This is wishful thinking. For Futurama he developed a new - and, he thought secret - alphabet. It was decoded by fans and published on the internet before the first episode had finished. "For the second season we've put in two alphabets which will be much harder. The pressure is to see if I can repeat the success of The Simpsons, and basically the answer is no. But I want to do something honourable and fun. One reason we set it so far in the future is at least you can't say we were wrong. By the time 1984 came round, Orwell's book seemed quite mild and everyone said, 'So?' My fantasy is to build a Futurama theme park with Simpson Island in the centre and a 600ft statue of Homer in the middle. I want people to eat in his revolving head."
The Simpsons started as a part of The Tracey Ullman Show after Groening was asked to develop animated shorts from Life in Hell. He worried Fox would then own his creation ("cartoonists aren't businessmen, but I have a great lawyer who looks after me"), so he was given 15 minutes before meeting the producer to sketch an alternative idea. "I created the characters and named them after members of my own family, with Bart an anagram of 'brat'. My mother [Marge] loves it and takes great pride. My father [Homer], who finally died of heartbreak a couple of years ago - no," he laughs, "that's a terrible thing to say, he was a little troubled when the car broke down in the middle of the desert and Homer made Marge carry the flat tyre back to town. I said, 'Dad, you never complained about Homer strangling Bart all those years.' The secret of Homer is he's a man who loves with all his heart - sweets, beer, all the stuff we cover up. He feels every emotion - positive or negative - to his core. When I created The Simpsons I thought of him as this old guy of 38, and was on Bart's side. Now, at 45, I'm more like him every day. I understand why he gets so mad. In fact I apologised for Bart to The New York Times and said now my kids were old enough to quote him I realised how annoying he is. It was a joke, but it was taken seriously.
"The show illustrates how you can live with the craziness of the contemporary family and tolerate people who drive you mad. The Simpsons are out of their minds and cause incredible grief, but love each other. You can look at them and go, 'As bad as my life is, it isn't that bad.' There's a universal trait in humans to feel misunderstood, and one of the messages in The Simpsons and Futurama is 'You are not alone.' Others are as messed up as you, so laugh at it. Another point I make over and over is that the authorities don't always have your best interest in mind. That's a good lesson for kids. I'm a crusader against injustice in my own little way. Of course I'm not advocating the religion of Simpsonism, although judging by the fanatics it is almost religious in nature. We cater to obsessive fans." He is mildly sad that he is no longer considered responsible for the downfall of western civilisation, and is nostalgic about the times the Simpsons were criticised as bad role models by former President Bush.
His success began a trend for animation on television, and spawned a number of imitators. "I'm a fan. What I like is that all these different shows are creator-driven and none looks like any other. They're not uniformly great, but they're trying. I didn't think I'd like South Park at first and found the voices hard to understand, but the movie was one of the funniest I've ever seen in my life. I wouldn't do it myself, though. It's a matter of sensibility. There's a trend in the USA for gross-out comedy. Most of it's terrible. It makes The Simpsons look tasteful, which is great. There's a joy in breaking taboos, but for me it's more interesting to look for humour in things that I lie awake worrying about: work, love and death. It makes the worry tolerable, although it never alleviates it. That's why I keep working. Nowadays, though, I wake every morning feeling things have lucked out for me incredibly. I'm having a blast."
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