IT was a little over 20 years ago that Matt Groening hurriedly scrawled some pictures of a dysfunctional, four-fingered family while waiting for a meeting with a Hollywood heavyweight.
The cartoonist was to discuss the possibility of his strip Life In Hell being animated for the Tracey Ullman Show with producer/director James L Brooks.
Fearful of losing control of his beloved, offbeat and acerbic creation, he quickly penned the now famous characters based on his own family: father Homer, mother Marge and sisters Lisa and Maggie.
The final character, Bart (an anagram of Brat), was an amalgam of himself and his brother Mark. Thus the Simpsons were born.
Now, after starting life as animated filler material and then spinning off to its own TV series, which has just passed 400 episodes, not to mention winning countless awards and breaking records for TV longevity while also attracting the talents of Oscar and Grammy winners, Nobel prize laureates and even heads of state, the Simpsons are set to conquer the final frontier: the big screen.
"I look back at that first drawing and wonder how did we get to where we are from there because they are pretty ugly,'' says Groening.
The bearded and droll cartoonist is speaking exclusively to Insider from his hotel room in Germany where he has just begun promotional duties, having just finished the highly-anticipated movie at midnight two days earlier.
The movie was made on top of the already fearsome task of animating and voicing the weekly show, with Groening and his team working around the clock to meet the July 26 deadline, when The Simpsons Movie opens around the world.
Groening knows the depth of anticipation and despite the mad rush to finish it, is proud of the final product.
"It's exactly what we intended,'' he says with a laugh.
"If you looked behind the scenes, if this were a kitchen there would be a lot of cracked eggs, slippery surfaces and a lot of filthy cooks but the souffle at the end is delightful, light and easy to swallow. It will whiz right by, it's a very fast-paced movie.''
The veil of secrecy surrounding The Simpsons Movie has been astonishing.
Early on, to counter speculation, the movie team ran counter intelligence, leaking red herrings and false rumours.
Some jokes and plot lines are known but Groening is surprised and delighted his request for secrecy has largely been honoured.
"Our goal is to surprise people throughout everything we do,'' he says.
"This includes the show, the video games, the books and the movie so we just want to give the movie the chance to do its tricks and the less people know about it the better it will be.''
The Simpsons has never been shy about taking pot shots at the big targets and the political and environmental themes in the movie carry on the tradition that saw the show lambasted by conservative commentators in its infancy.
The subversiveness of the show may have lessened with the passing of years and the advent of even more radical shows such as South Park and Family Guy but Groening maintains The Simpsons still packs a punch.
Much as been made of family patriarch Homer as the archetypal loud, lovable buffoon American, ruled by impulse but whose heart is generally in the right place.
Simpsons executive producer Al Jean, a Canadian, says the rest of the world loves Homer because they see him as a typical American.
Certainly US culture, led by Hollywood excess, is ripe for satire, as is its dominant position on the world political stage.
But despite, or perhaps because of its many foibles, Groening still loves his homeland. "The show celebrates the country the way we also celebrate the family,'' he says.
"We love our families and our country even though they drive us crazy. The Simpsons in a nutshell is: 'How do you love this thing that drives you nuts?'
And ultimately the show is always a celebration, it is never a heavy-handed downer.
"We have very strong feelings about a lot of stuff on the show but there is no monolithic agreement amongst the animators and writers about whose fault everything is. It's generally tweaking whoever is in power.''
Groening realised the impact of his characters in the early '90s, when Bart-mania rivalled Beatlemania and the phrases "aye carumba'' and "don't have a cow, man'' decorated T-shirts of wildly varying quality around the world.
"It was like being in the centre of a cyclone at the beginning; it was very still with all this stuff swirling around,'' he says.
"Back at the beginning the staggering thing that we could not have imagined was the huge amount of bootleg merchandise; there were T-shirts all over the place with Bart Simpson on them that were drawn by people who could draw even worse than I did.
"And then some of the catchphrases seemed to enter the culture very quickly. It seemed like every day I would be walking down the street and someone would drop their car keys and I would hear them say: 'D'oh!'''
Many observers agree that The Simpsons is still consistently funnier than most shows on TV and there are no plans to wrap it up in the near future.
Plenty of stories remain untold and plenty of guest stars are yet to feature.
Groening names iconic actors Kirk Douglas, Bob Hope and Elizabeth Taylor and reclusive US writer Thomas Pynchon as some of his favourites thus far, but says some of the writers and the animators are completely obsessed with some big rock stars.
"They keep trying but I think that sometimes some of them - I'm not going to name any names - must think they are being stalked,'' Groening says with a hearty laugh.
``Part of the key to keeping The Simpsons fresh is employing writers and animators who are literally lifetime fans, many not much older than the show itself.
"It's really, really fun to work with some of these kids, who are in their mid-20s who grew up watching the show and are the fiercest defenders of keeping it consistent and reminding us of what we have already done,'' Groening says.
Groening himself shows no signs of slowing down.
Besides his duties on the movie and the TV show, he also has his night job - the more adult-oriented animated Futurama - which was cancelled but has just earned a reprieve thanks to loyal fans and healthy DVD sales.
The king of animation might make the leap into the real world one day but not any time soon.
"It's much easier to deal with drawings that you can do whatever you want to and force them to go in any direction you want,'' he says.
"I am fascinated by animation and I feel like we have just begun to take advantage of the medium.I will probably end up working in live action but I have a few more ideas for animated universes to explore in the next few years.''
Groening has one good reason to stick with Springfield for at least another five years.
As an avid collector of Simpsons bootleg merchandise, he has one of the few cases of the unofficial Duff beer, briefly brewed in Adelaide before being shut down for legal reasons.
"I'm waiting until the 25th anniversary of the Simpsons and it's only the 20th this year,'' he says.
"I hope it tastes better than what we think it tastes like, and whatever it tastes like on the cartoon.''
The Simpsons Movie opens on July 26.
I would've thought there would've been more hype about this movie. The show is on 6 nights a weeks including multiple episodes some nights, so clearly it rates well. One would've thought there'd be more hoo haa about it. I imagine that in a few weeks there'll be all the paraphernalia - Happy Meal toys, breakfast cereal toys, all the usual garbage that comes with some movies. I'm surprised it hasn't happened already.Posted by: Reader J of Orange NSW 9:27am July 15, 2007
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