Matt Groening may look like your average guy, but remember, he's got Homer and Bart Simpson living in his head.By Kristine McKenna
© My Generation, May-June 2001, p48-52, 54
Cover: Matt Groening: The Genius Who Controls Bart Simpson (Yeah, Right!)
Matt Groening seems oblivious to the fact that his office is a mess. When a visitor asks if he's just moving in, he glances around at the clutter with a look of dismay and says, "Well, no, I've actually been here a few years. But for some reason boxes of merchandise keep ending up here."
Surveying the cartons stacked from floor to ceiling, he pulls a "Simpsons" lunch box out of one and a Bart doll out of another, and looks at them as if the state of the office is entirely their fault. In fact, the room is an accurate reflection of Groening's charmingly disheveled personal style. Still boyish at 47, with hair flopping in his eyes and shirttails flying, he generally seems to be rushing somewhere with a lot on his mind.
"Matt's always worked in a skin-of-the-teeth kind of way, and he tends to do things at the last minute, but he does them really well at the last minute," says My Generation contributor Richard Gehr, who's been a friend of Groening's since they were children in Portland, Oregon.
Sitting down at a desk piled with unsolicited manuscripts, merchandising proposals and fan mail, Groening pokes through the top layer of stuff in search of something interesting. "I spend a lot of the day being shown things and saying, 'Yes, yes, no, no, yes,'" says Groening, who likes to vet everything that goes out into the world with the "Simpsons" stamp on it. After years of trying, he says, he finally managed to free himself from the daily demands of keeping "The Simpsons" on track. "It's certainly weird, though," he admits, "because I think of myself as a writer."
Not only is Groening not writing "The Simpsons," he also doesn't write the show he left it to launch - the sci-fi cartoon "Futurama," which has yet to emerge from the shadow of "The Simpsons," but is adequately successful in Groening's view (it was recently picked up for a fourth season).
Groening has always been drawn to science fiction, but confesses, "I've gotten less interested in fantasy as I've grown older. I'm more interested in human emotion and the ways people really behave now. 'Futurama' has so much fantasy in it that it's of little interest to me personally."
At this point, one of his producers, Claudia De La Roca, pops in with storyboards for a "Simpsons" Butterfinger commercial. He looks at the first panel and says, "This is a dream sequence, so tilt it," then suggests the second panel needs "more monsters." Glancing at the third panel he says, "No drool. Otherwise it's fine."
That done, he and some of the "Futurama" staff adjourn to a nearby office for a spotting session (where they tweak the soundtrack to underscore the jokes that need emphasis). It's Wednesday, and Groening's sons, Will, 12, and Abe, 9, get to hang out at their father's office after school. They sit in on the session, then settle down in a quiet conference room to do homework. Later, they'll go home with Groening to his new house in Malibu, eat takeout food and watch a kung-fu movie on DVD.
"To live at the beach and get to look at the Pacific Ocean when I wake up has been a dream of mine for a long time," says Groening, whose soon-to-be-ex-wife, Deborah Caplan Groening, continues to live in the house in Venice that the couple once shared. Groening has been seeing singer Lauren Francis since 1999, but he's essentially living the life of a newly minted bachelor and part-time father - an identity he's still struggling to accept.
"The demise of a family is unbelievable painful, to a degree I hadn't anticipated, and the amount of lingering grief can't be quantified," he says of the breakdown of his 13-year marriage. "I thought everything was on a track and was going to stay that way for a long time, and I didn't expect to be living alone. I suppose the one interesting thing about this turn of events in my life is that it really is an opportunity to reinvent myself."
Asked if he's having a midlife crisis, he says, "Yeah, I'm probably having one. I've become aware of the fact that I'm not a kid anymore, and that I'll probably never do anything bigger than "The Simpsons".
The most watched TV show in the world, "The Simpsons" was conceived in 1986 when James L. Brooks, who was producing "The Tracey Ullman Show," hired Groening to create short animated spots. After 48 of them aired, the Simpson family ended up with a show of its own. If that sounds like a snap, you don't know the Byzantine politics governing network television. "Matt went to literally hundreds of meetings to get 'The Simpsons' off the ground," recalls his friend, artist Gary Panter.
The show, which in its early years was written mostly by Groening and co-producer Sam Simon, was an immediate hit, in part, speculates current head-writer George Meyer, "because it's like a Trojan horse that gets past people's radar because it's superficially conservative. The show's subtext, however, is completely subversive and wild."
For Groening, the show's popularity has a lot to do with Homer, "He's completely driven by impulse," he says. "We're all momentarily driven by impulse, but we manage to put the brakes on, and it's fun to watch a character who just doesn't have any brakes. Homer's emotions turn on a dime, and Dan Castellaneta, who does the voice, is just fantastic."
"The Simpsons" has undergone a steady evolution over the last 11-and-a-half years. It's grown more visually beautiful, acquired new characters and more convoluted plots, and become increasingly bold in its subject matter. "The minute the show went on the air, it started deviating from my original vision," Groening points out, "and that was painful at first. I'm the biggest fussbudget on the show, but I've discovered that things that bug me that everybody else laughs at, I eventually come around to liking."
"Matt is a powerful grounding influence on the show, and he likes to protect the characters," says Meyer, who's been with "The Simpsons" since 1989. "He likes it when the story makes sense, and he doesn't like jokes that just rub the audience's nose in how bratty you are."
Groening's relationship with the Fox network has been notoriously rocky in the past, but he says that "for the moment, it's good." There is, of course, still the occasional skirmish. Fox declined to air last year's "Simpsons" Christmas special, for instance, because they found it excessively dark. Groening is relieved to report that he's learned to take such decisions in stride, and says he now chooses his battles carefully.
Born in Portland in 1954, Groening is the middle child in a family with five children. "Matt's father was a filmmaker who specialized in surfing movies," recalls Gehr, "and he also drew cartoons for hot-rod magazines. Matt had an extremely creative father who constantly challenged him."
Says Groening of his father, who died in 1996: "He was a hard-working, complicated guy who had a lot of conflicting impulses... He was raised as a Mennonite, which is sort of like the Amish, and he spoke German until we went to school. He and I had a contentious relationship."
Familial discord aside, Homer (yep, Homer) Groening introduced his son to lots of hip stuff, including "Rocky and Bullwinkle", Stan Freberg, Bob and Ray, the Three Stooges, Mad magazine and Jonathan Winters. His blossoming comic sensibility was tempered by meatier reading as a high school student; for instance, he was deeply impressed by Walter Kaufmann's book Critique of Religion and Philosophy, Groening's weekly strip, "Life in Hell," was loosely inspired by a chapter in Kaufmann's book titled "How to Go to Hell."
"Life in Hell" perpetually wrestles with philosophical complexities, but Gehr pints out that Groening is a humorist first and foremost. "Matt's always been extroverted, eager to please and really funny. When we were in high school, we worked in the kitchen at a convalescent home called the Kearney Care Center, and I remember Matt saying the motto for the place should be 'you can eat what you choose, but you can't chew what you eat.'"
Not surprisingly, Groening chose to go to college at a progressive school, The Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Washington. Artist and writer Lynda Barry was a fellow student. "It was a hippie school," she says, "but Matt wasn't a hippie, and he looked very straight compared to everyone else... It took me a while to get his groove and realize he was way hipper than I was."
Groening was the editor of the school paper. "When he was on deadline," Barry continues, "he'd take this piece of wire and wrap it around his head so there was an antenna sticking up, which was his signal that he didn't want to be disturbed."
Evergreen students took just one subject each semester for up to six hours a day, and Groening chose to study with the toughest teacher on campus, a philosophy professor named Mark Levensky who became a seminal figure in his life. "At my last meeting with him before I graduated, he told me, 'this is what you do tolerably well. Now you have to ask yourself: Is it worth doing?' That's haunted me ever since, and it's a question I still haven't answered."
Filled with determination, riddled with doubt, Groening moved to Los Angeles in 1977, "because that's where the action was. Once I got here, I went through a terrible period of feeling really depressed at the lack of progress I was making."
It was during that period of working in copy shops and record stores that Groening got to know Gary Panter. "We'd meet at the Astro Burger on Melrose or go to one of our places and just talk," says Panter. "Matt's place was totally trashed, and the floor was covered with change - either he just threw it there or it fell out of his pockets. He lived like that because all of his attention was focused on ideas."
That was a difficult period of Groening, but Panter recalls that "even though he was really struggling, he was still a very persuasive guy, and he never screwed things up by getting mad. Basically, Matt's just a great communicator, and I always knew that one day he'd be the new Charles Schulz. What I didn't know was that he'd be Charles Schulz and Walt Disney too."
In 1978, Groening made his first professional cartoon sale, to an avant-garde publication called Wet Magazine, and the following year, he landed a job at the alternative weekly the L.A. Reader. There he met Deborah Kaplan, whom he married in 1985.
Ann Summa, a freelance photographer at the Reader at the time, says, "Deborah is the one who turned everything around for Matt. It was her idea to syndicate "Life in Hell" to alternative papers all over the country [it currently appears in 150 newspapers]. She did all the legwork to make that happen and she began the merchandising of 'Life in Hell' on T-shirts and cups. She was an incredible businesswoman."
The increasingly ubiquitous "Life in Hell" indirectly led to "The Simpsons" (by attracting the attention of Brooks, "The Tracey Ullman" creator). The success of "The Simpsons" turned the Groenings' lives upside down.
"It bumped Matt and Deborah up into the stratosphere and out of our grimy L.A. Reader existence," says writer Jeff Spurrier, who met Groening at the Reader in 1979. "It introduced a whole new set of stresses related to maintaining the success, but even more problematic was the fact that Deborah is a very dynamic, driven woman, and to take a woman like that out of the workplace and eliminate any kind of professional challenge for her was not good."
Amazingly, the torrent of money that swept through Groening's life doesn't appear to have changed him much. He's still a baggy-shorts and T-shirts kind of guy who loves to shop at Target, decorated the foyer of his office with a stunningly awful thrift-store painting of a clown and spends a good deal of time poring over cutout bins in record stores. "He gets better haircuts now." says Meyer, "but other than that, he hasn't changed at all."
Groening still hangs out with his old friends ("the same nerds he's known for years," says Panter), still doodles compulsively and still speaks his mind in no uncertain terms. As of late, for instance, "Life in Hell" has been dominated by his searing contempt for President Bush.
Groening says he's ready to reinvent himself, but hasn't settled yet on his direction. For now, he'll continue to juggle the balls he's got in the air until the next big thing occurs to him. Although he still loves TV and has "dozens of ideas for TV shows," he says he's trying to figure out what the next challenge will be. "I think it will involve actually writing the words being said. There's talk of a 'Simpsons' spin-off and a 'Simpsons' movie, too." says Groening, who's teaching himself the history of film by watching, in chronological order, every noteworthy film ever made.
Panter says Groening's ability to handle his new life is rooted in the fact that "unlike many artists, Matt's not frightened by success, and he's allowed himself to succeed. He's always been a funny combination of overachiever and rebel. For instance, when he was a kid he took a Bible and went through it and marked all the dirty parts, yet he was student body president of his high school." According to Panter, Groening achieved elevated status as a Boy Scout (First Class) but subsequently refused to cut his hair, so all hell broke loose.
Asked about the Bible escapade, Groening says, "Yeah, that's true. Did you know the Bible has the word 'piss' in it? Plus, there's lots of stuff that's just weird. For instance, there's a parable about Jesus driving demons into a herd of pigs, and the pigs jump off a cliff. I wanted to know what the pigs did to deserve that." For his eccentric research, he used a Gideon Bible he had taken from a motel because he thought it was free. "And the scoutmaster screamed 'You stole this Bible on top of everything else?'" recalls Groening. "So I prayed to God and said, 'I know you'll forgive me for not believing in you.'" "Basically, I was a pagan," he concludes with a cheerful shrug. "I guess I still am, because when it started raining today, I thought, hooray, the plants are happy."
Transcribed by Bruce Gomes
Last updated on April 14, 2001 by Jouni Paakkinen (email@example.com)