Matt Groening

By Michael Idato

"Matt Groening's family values"
© The Age (Melbourne, Australia), July 18, 2000.

The creator of The Simpsons has just one thing to say to his Australian fans - sorry. Michael Idato reports.

If the art a man hangs on his wall is a window into his mind, then Matt Greoning is not your run-of-the-mill guy. On the wall outside his LA office hangs a Bugs Bunny portrait signed by artist Chuck Jones, grotesque pop art, posters for early Japanese cinema and a framed piece of pulp fiction.

Ask him what it all means and he bursts into a loud guffaw, a hearty laugh that regularly punctuates the interview. "You should see the stuff I took down."

Welcome to the mysterious world of Matt Groening, the artist who gave us the mother of all lazy fathers, Homer J. Simpson. Whether you love The Simpsons or hate it (and in these post-South Park times, many people who once hated it now applaud its comparatively wholesome values), it is unique in television history. Its success has transcended normal convention, to the point where repeat episodes rate as highly as first-runs (a fact that has almost religious significance to network programmers), and the engine shows no signs of slowing.

Countless honors have been bestowed on the series, but you only need to spend a minute on the Internet to get a true measurement of the show's appeal. To fans, it is the pinnacle of animated TV shows. But is it art?

"It's pop culture," Groening (pronounced "graining") smiles. "My life has been devoted to trying to not let anything culturally be beyond me. I'll go for the lowest and the sleaziest, as well as the highest. "You don't have to define cartoons in print or animation as something other than what they are. They do what they do really well; they are entertaining and they please people. If they consider them art, that's great; but if they don't, so what?"

We're sitting in a spacious but messy office. We're some distance from the heart of Hollywood and you get the impression people here like it this way. The mood is unpretentious, low key. Instead of the usual screeching assistant, a request for directions to Groening's office is met with a thumb pointed down the hall.

This is the headquarters for The Simpsons and Groening's latest project, Futurama, which now dominates his day-to-day life. The Simpsons - 13 years old and still looking taut - literally runs itself. But before we get down to business, Groening has something to get off his chest.

"I just want to apologise for the Australian episode of the show," he says. He's referring to "Bart v Australia", a cliche-ridden episode from the show's sixth season in which Bart was summoned to Australia to apologise for making prank phone calls.

It's an issue that seems to plague him, which suggests his office was inundated with hate mail from down under. Was it? He pauses. "Yeah," he eventually 'fesses up. "We thought, we know we're going to get it so wrong that they'll forgive us, because it'll be obvious we had no idea what the hell we were talking talking about," he offers.

As the only Australian in the room, I feel an obligation to point out all the gross errors of fact in the episode. But it's difficult to take umbrage for two reasons: first, for all it's cultural inaccuracies the episode was hilarious; and second, Groening is so damn likeable.

It's not difficult to believe cartoons are his life. His father, Homer, was a cartoonist who encouraged his son to follow in his footsteps. (As devotees of The Simpsons will know, Groening's sisters are named Lisa and Maggie, and his own sons are Homer and Abe, all names used for the fictional Simpson family.)

Groening's first serious engagement as a cartoonist was the weekly strip Life in Hell, which made its debut in Wet Magazine in 1978 and began its first regular appearance in The Los Angeles Reader in 1980. The comic strip appears in about 250 newspapers around the world, and Groening continues to pen it himself. "If I didn't have that, I'd feel bad," he says. "It's good to have the contact with ink and paper."

From there, it seems a short hop to the present day. The Simpsons has been on air since 1987 and Futurama commands the lion's share of his attention. In this new project, now in its second season, Phillip J. Fry, a 25-year-old pizza boy living in New York, is cryogenically frozen on New Year's Eve, 2000. Revived almost 1000 years later, he works as a courier with Leela, a one-eyed alien, and Bender, a substance-abusing robot.

"The Simpsons is taking an exaggerated medium - animation, and trying to make comments about the way life really is," Groening explains. "Futurama is a fantasy premise - it's the future with gadgets, craziness, ray guns and robots - so it doesn't originate with observational humor, although what we have learned in putting the show together is that we can still do observational humor, even with crazy gadgets."

The success of Futurama has been fuelled, in many ways, by The Simpsons. But Futurama is not alone - The Simpsons can be thanked for the revival of adult animation that moved cartoons from the intellectual wasteland of Saturday mornings into prime time.

After a string of early candidates such as Ren and Stimpy, The Critic, Stressed Eric and Beavis and Butthead, a new generation of shows has followed, including Family Guy, The PJs and the enormously popular South Park.

"There are an awful lot of animated shows, and, maybe it's because I love the medium so much, but I am surprised at how good they are," he says. "If you compare animated shows with live action shows, the percentage of successes in animated shows is much higher."

Several shows, including King of the Hill, The PJs and Family Guy, have caught his eye. "What I like about them is that they are all very strong visions of individual creators or small groups of creators, and none of their shows looks like any of the others."

Personal approval aside, Groening admits many of these shows break his cardinal rule: "I think the great, memorable characters in cartoons in the 20th century are characters you can identify in silhouette - Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Batman, Popeye. When I put together The Simpsons, I drew characters who are distinct and identifiable in silhouette. I also believe in simplicity, and it took me a few years to get the animators to take lines out. The fewer lines the better."

It isn't long before the conversation comes around to the Internet, not only because The Simpsons has inspired a fanatical online following (a search on Alta Vista yielded 104,228 web links), but because recent gains in bandwidth suggest animation, rather than live action, will make the transition from TV to the Internet first.

Groening is intrigued by the former and nonplussed by the latter. "When you work on The Simpsons and Futurama, it's not very much fun to go home and read about it," he says, "but I have done and I am astonished at how much material those shows and other shows have generated on the Internet. It's just amazing; really good stuff."

As for webcasting, Groening is waiting to be impressed. "People are at me every day to get involved in the Internet, and I think about it and if I could think of something that would be really good and worthy of that, I would do it. I want to do better animation, more ambitious things.

"At the moment, the Internet is low bandwidth and very primitive," he says, adding with a laugh: "Besides, I don't need another deadline in my life - I have two TV shows and a weekly comic strip."

Lawyers for 20th Century Fox haven't helped matters, becoming a self-appointed police force, shutting down websites guilty of "copyright infringement". Paramount, owner of the Star Trek franchise, swallowed a bitter pill when its policing of its online fans caused widespread disaffection. Where it once had three top-rating Star Trek shows on air, Paramount now has one, which is rating poorly. Fox, fearful of similar retribution, has softened its approach.

Groening opts for the innocent bystander defence. "I don't own The Simpsons or Futurama, they're owned by Fox, so it's up to Fox to choose how they protect them," he says. "It would be interesting for Fox to clarify their position on all this stuff because they are portrayed as villains, and they certainly don't think of themselves as villains. The fact that people feel so taken by a form of entertainment that they want to engage in it and write their own scripts and do their own comic strips and drawings - I think that's fantastic."

Copyright infringements aside, Groening confesses to being a closet collector of bootleg Simpsons merchandise, preferred over the endorsed and approved products that line shelves around the world. "I've even got a case of Duff beer," he boasts. (Duff beer was produced by an Adelaide (Australia - Ed.) brewery until 20th Century Fox took the matter to court and had it taken off the market. Unopened cases reportedly fetch as much as $2000.)

So, for how long does Groening see his shows continuing? In television, lifespans are set by ageing actors and stale writing. Animation forgives The Simpsons the burden of the former, and the talent of the writing staff seems to have kept the latter at bay.

"Obviously, it will end one of these days, but there doesn't seem to be any end in sight," says Groening. "I think what could eventually kill it is that it will get too expensive to be produced, but maybe we'll do movies - we've been talking about that."

Transcribed by Greg Galon

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