Matt Groening

By Ana Figueroa

"Life in Hell"
© Newsweek (via MSNBC), October 27, 2000

‘The Simpsons’ has lasted 10 years. Says creator Matt Groening, ‘It just shows that cultural critics are generally humorless prigs’

Bart, Homer, Marge and Lisa don’t look it, but they’ve aged 10 years. When “The Simpsons” debuted in January of 1990, critics said a cartoon in prime time would never work. Well, as Bart would say, “Eat my shorts!”

Newsweek’s Ana Figueroa recently chatted with series creator Matt Groening about the show’s evolution, how TV has changed over the past decade—and how he might just be responsible.

       NEWSWEEK: Did you have any idea “The Simpsons” would become an international phenomenon?
       Matt Groening: I was just watching the very first episode of “The Simpsons” yesterday for a DVD release we’re putting together. I remember back in the early days, thinking that if we could only get this thing on the air, it was going to be a hit. America was ready for an animated prime time TV show that was subversive.

       What do you think it is about the show that gives it universal appeal?
       It’s a combination of things. The writing itself is really sharp and funny. But the characters themselves are unusually likable for a television cartoon. And there’s sort of an unspoken rule that we have on the show, which is we can do humor as dark as we want to, but the show itself is a celebration of the family. Usually, when humor gets more incisive and satirical, it gets more negative and cynical. I don’t think “The Simpsons” goes in that direction at all. Also, a lot of hip comedy has a message that you’re a fool for caring about anything. “The Simpsons” completely bypasses that message and just makes sardonic jokes about our corrupt institutions.

       Do you ever feel responsible for changing the face of television? One can argue that “The Simpsons” paved the way for grittier, more irreverent and much funnier television.
       I don’t know if we’re responsible. I think it probably would have happened anyway. But we were definitely in the right place at the right time to get the credit for all this vulgar stuff that came in our wake. [Laughs.]

       “The Simpsons” has a lot of inside humor, poking fun at uniquely American foibles. Yet the show is popular on several different continents.
       I can’t decide whether people can relate to “The Simpsons” or that they feel superior to “The Simpsons.” People might think, “at least my life isn’t as bad as those boobs.”

       What’s the extent of your involvement with the show these days?
       I have this other show, “Futurama,” so I roam back and forth. I run the biggest scam in Hollywood, because I can tell the people at “Futurama” that I’m going over to “The Simpsons,” and I tell the folks at “The Simpsons” that I’m going over to “Futurama” and actually go to the beach. But, seriously, I stick my nose in here and there. I was there from the very beginning, and I have a very good memory about what we’ve done before. I remind the writers of certain themes and devices. I’ll say, “you know, we’ve already done an episode in which a toy robot saves the day.”

       So you still sit in on script conferences?
       I go to all the table reads, and then I sit with the writers. We talk about how to make the show better. “The Simpsons” is a great example of a collaborative effort that really works. Everybody who works on the show makes it a little bit better. The writing, of course, is top notch. The animators are absolutely devoted to the show, and of course, the actors kick things up to a different level with their performances.

       When the show first started, it was considered almost subversive. President Bush made that famous dig at it. Now “The Simpsons” is pretty much a part of mainstream American culture. What do you think about that transition?
       It just shows that cultural critics are generally humorless prigs. Society can survive entertainment that has a slight edge to it. As you look back at the episodes of “The Simpsons” that were so bothersome to some of the people of authority, they play very mild and sweet right now.

       Aside from “Futurama,” what other animated shows do you admire right now?
       I like the “Powerpuff Girls” a lot.

       You have two young boys, age 8 and 10. Are they “Simpsons” fans?
       Oh yeah, they give notes. They read scripts. I don’t ask them to, but they give comments anyway.

       So much of the show’s humor is directed at adults. Yet, the show has tremendous appeal with kids. Why do you think that is?
       Back in the very beginning, we tried to do a show which redefined family entertainment. Traditionally, family entertainment was designed not to offend anybody. What we tried to do was go for a show jammed with smart jokes and intelligent references, as well as the more obvious sight gags that animation does so well. It turns out that you can actually pull that off. Everybody doesn’t have to get every joke.

       Do you think the show has progressively gotten better over time? Did it have a heyday?
       I don’t know that it had a heyday. The problem with doing a show that has been on as long as “The Simpsons” is that everyone remembers their absolute favorite moments. Everyone judges the most recent efforts by the best of the last decade. The production of this show has not gotten easier over 10 years. If anything, it’s gotten more difficult, because we’re trying not to repeat ourselves. But I think the episodes that we have coming up this season are as wild and funny as anything we’ve ever done.

       Do you have a favorite episode?
       I like different episodes for different reasons. I like a lot of the very early episodes, even though the animation was kind of wobbly. The glee we felt at having this thing come together was so exciting.

       How long do you think the show will run?
       I was talking with [Executive Producer] Jim Brooks yesterday. I said, “You know, we can just sit around, and make the show run another couple of years. Or, we can actually make a 10-year plan.” Jim said, “Ten years.” So, if we can keep the show fresh, sure. But everyone agrees that if we lose our direction, we should give it up. My goal has always been to make the people who like whatever I do really like it. To be fanatically devoted to it. The way to do that is to have a strong point of view and deliver the goods. What I’m most proud of about the show is that we reward you for paying close attention. I still catch stuff I didn’t catch before.

       Next weekend, invited fans from all over the world are coming to The Simpsons Global Fan Fest in Los Angeles. Fox is turning their back lot into a Springfield carnival, complete with Mo’s Tavern and a doughnut-shaped Ferris wheel. Are you looking forward to that event?
       You know, working on an animated show is a series of very detailed steps that lead to this really fun show at the very end. But then we all go home and watch it by ourselves. To actually meet the people who love the show is a real treat. It will be very inspiring.

       Will there be feature-length “Simpsons” movies any time in the future?
       I think we want to start doing movies now, but also keep the show alive. We’ve got to figure out what we can do that would justify going into the theater. We probably could put out just about anything and some people would come. But we want to honor the fans.

       You’re still doing your “Life in Hell” comic strip. Does that keep you grounded?
       It’s interesting. “The Simpsons” and “Futurama” are these gigantic enterprises with hundreds of people. And “Life in Hell” is me by myself at the drawing board every week. There are satisfactions to both working styles. What they both have in common, however, is definite deadlines. But, you know, I wake up every morning, and say, God, I get to play again.

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Last updated on February 21, 2001 by Jouni Paakkinen (