The Simpsons, the show Time magazine named the century's best television series, airs its 400th episode this month -- an astonishing feat for any show, let alone an animated series about a yellow dysfunctional family. The Simpsons has outlasted Friends, Seinfeld and Cheers. Accolades for the show include 23 Emmys and lavish praise from critics. "It raised the bar for all TV sitcoms," according to the Los Angeles Times. The show's creator, Matt Groening, "will go down through the ages as one of the most influential figures in the history of television," in the estimation of National Public Radio. And this summer the long-awaited Simpsons Movie hits theaters. As Homer would say, with a Duff beer in his four-fingered hand, "Woo-hoo!"
The Simpsons has been a television trailblazer skewering social and political folly, but mostly it has been hilarious fun. Of course not everyone has approved. It has countless die-hard fans -- as obsessed as Trekkies -- but The Simpsons has succeeded in gaining the attention of prominent detractors as well, from religious leaders to the first president Bush, who publicly bemoaned the show's values. "Americans should be more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons," he said. Americans disagreed, at least if the ratings are an indication: The Waltons lasted nine years; The Simpsons is still going strong after 19.
One is hard-pressed to name a celebrity who hasn't made a cameo on The Simpsons. The list includes Elizabeth Taylor, U2, Johnny Carson, Stephen Hawking, Frank Gehry, Meryl Streep and Hugh Hefner. The Simpsons characters have become heroes and role models. Bart, of course, is the quintessential underachiever ("and proud of it"). Beehived Marge, Homer's wife, is an unlikely sex goddess. (Groening once cracked, "'Marge Simpson nude' was the number one Internet search of 2002.") And then there's Homer, an inspiration to laggardly, beer-drinking, sexist, doughnut-and-ice-cream-eating males everywhere. "It's not easy to juggle a pregnant wife and a troubled child," he said in an early episode, "but I managed to fit in eight hours of TV a day." His motto: "Never try."
In addition to The Simpsons, Groening created Futurama. The Simpsons was a hard act to follow; at the time, Groening said, "Now I know how Paul McCartney felt when he started Wings." But Futurama lasted five seasons and was a critical favorite, called "the funniest show of the 31st century" by Entertainment Weekly. It still airs in reruns, along with what seems like infinite Simpsons episodes, and new Futurama shows are currently being produced for the series' return to television in 2008.
For nearly 30 years Groening has also written a weekly comic strip, Life in Hell, which appears in 250 newspapers and magazines. Like Groening's other works, the strip has spawned merchandise and books, including the irresistible Love Is Hell and Work Is Hell.
Groening grew up in Portland, Oregon, where his father, Homer, once told him, "You can't draw." (His mother is Marge. Two of his sisters are Maggie and Lisa. Two other siblings didn't make it onto The Simpsons.) After graduating from high school he attended Evergreen State College before moving to L.A., where he began penning Life in Hell in 1977. He self-published and distributed the underground strip while working as a music critic, chauffeur and ad copywriter.
Groening conceived The Simpsons on the spur of the moment, before a pitch meeting with the producer and director James L. Brooks. In 1987 the cartoon debuted on The Tracey Ullman Show, on which it ran for three years before Fox spun it off.
From it and his other ventures, including licensing items from T-shirts to Bart dolls, Groening has made a fortune. He is divorced and has two children, Homer (called Will) and Abe. (They are the Will and Abe of the forthcoming book Will and Abe's Guide to the Universe.) He admits to being a frustrated rock-and-roll musician and, with fellow authors Dave Barry, Stephen King and Amy Tan, is part of the Rock Bottom Remainders, a band that plays for charities.
Contributing editor David Sheff, who conducted our April interview with Bill Maher, met Groening at his Los Angeles production studio.
"It quickly becomes apparent where Lisa and Marge get their heart and soul," Sheff says, "but even more where Bart and Homer get their irreverence. Hardly a moment goes by without a wisecrack. Posing for the pictures to accompany the interview, Groening deadpanned, 'Now for the unsexiest photo ever to run in Playboy.' He warned our photographer, 'Be sure to take the picture from the waist up only. I'm aroused.'
"It's no surprise that Groening is funny, but he is also thoughtful, gracious, self-deprecating and humble. Throughout the interview he made a point of sharing credit for the success of The Simpsons with his collaborators, including the show's writers and animators. He said it slightly embarrasses him to get all the attention but then added with a shrug, 'Oh well, it's part of my job. I'm the show's supermodel.'"