Matt Groening

By Jamie Angell

"Explaining Groening - One on one with the sultan of fun"
© Simpsons Illustrated, Volume 1, Number 9, Summer 1993. Pages 22-30

Introductory boxed commentary

I have known Matt Groening longer than I'd care to remember. He has been making me laugh and getting me into trouble since grade school. We were kicked off our school newspaper, and elected to student government. We formed the infamous Banana Gang and its rival, the Teens for Decency, as well as the Komix Appreciation Klub, an organization devoted to publicizing and reporting elaborate conferences and raucous parties that never took place. Due to the statute of limitations I am unable to reveal more recent events, but I can tell you that he was partially responsible for my changing my name for four years.
-Jamie Angell



MG: I'm waiting.

SI: Oh! All right. I thought you were just...ummm...oh.

MG: I'm not gonna rant. Have to respond.

SI: I'd rather you rant, but.... What do you hope The Simpsons does to people who watch it?

MG: Well, you know how irritating it is when other people try to change you?

SI: Mm-hmm.

MG: But trying to change other people--that is one of the greatest delights in the world. So I try to delight myself.

SI: Can you change them?

MG: Irritate them. I mean change them.

SI: Irritate and change them.

MG: It's always fun--kids know this--to tell a joke that makes all the kids laugh but which confuses and annoys the teacher. And that's what I try to do as a grown-up--entertain part of the audience and annoy another part. I don't want to get too scientific, but you can divide people into two groups: the Daffy Ducks and the Elmer Fudds. The Daffys are the people who laugh and annoy other people, and the Elmers are the ones who don't laugh and get annoyed. And there's plenty of 'em.

SI: That's true.

MG: Which makes life very fun. 'Cause if you're a Daffy Duck, you must try to provoke the Elmer Fudds. The fact is, Elmers are annoying too, so if you can annoy them back, and also make the Daffys happy, then you not only feel entertained, you also feel...morally superior.

SI: When did you first get an inkling of this Elmer/Daffy theory?

MG: It happened in the first grade, when kids are pretty innocent little creatures. We were all standing in a circle out on the playground, and Mrs. Hoover said, "Quiet, children," and I, in my youthful exuberance, let loose with this high-pitched shriek. And Mrs. Hoover said, "All right, who blew that whistle?" Well, there was no whistle, it was just me shrieking, so I clammed up, and Mrs. Hoover went crazy searching the kids for the whistle. It was quite amusing. She couldn't believe that these little six-year-olds were denying they knew who had that whistle. But there was no whistle. That was the crafty part.

SI: So you kind of stumbled into it.

MG: And the rest of my life has been blowing invisible whistles and making people wonder.

SI: Did you find you had any allies, or were you pretty much blowing a whistle by yourself?

MG: Well you were a co-conspirator, Jamie. And The Simpsons is staffed by a bunch of people who you can tell were wisenheimers when they were kids.

SI: Was it more difficult to be a Daffy Duck when you were younger?

MG: Too many school rules are arbitrarily assigned just because grown-ups feel kids should be controlled. Most kids are creative and rambunctious enough to realize that these rules are stupid, but they instinctively humor adults There are some great, dedicated teachers out there working under appalling conditions, and they need all the support they can get. But even the outstanding teachers often get engulfed by the edicts from above, which makes their good work that much more difficult. And over the years the good teachers and the kids are gradually forced to buckle down and comply with arbitrary authority. It seems the main rule that traditional schools teach is how to sit in rows quietly, which is perfect training for grown-up work in a dull office or factory, but not so good for education. And what a few of us did is realize, Hey, that's not the life for me--so we started trying to entertain ourselves. Sometimes that entertainment took the form of pointless pranks and dimwitted wisecracking. But some of it was more creative. We did puppet shows, drew cartoons, wrote plays, made movies, drew comic books, and all the rest.

SI: If, as a kid, most everyone has a sense that things are screwy, how is it that, as adults, we perpetuate the screwiness?

MG: Well, most grown-ups forget what it was like to be a kid. I vowed that I would never forget. I also found child's play--stuff that was not considered serious, but goofy--was the stuff I liked to do, so I still do it as an adult. Living creatively is really important to maintain throughout your life. And living creatively doesn't mean only artistic creativity, although that's part of it. It means being yourself, not just complying with the wishes of other people. The dismal reality is that a lot of people have to work at crummy jobs that they don't want to do. But even if you have a crummy job, you have to save a part of yourself, maybe a secret part, and do the things you want, so that you can be yourself. I'd like to think that's one of the hidden messages of The Simpsons. It's a show about people who don't know that secret, but the making of the show is an example of that secret. Sometimes people get mad at The Simpsons' subversive story telling, but there's another message in there, which is a celebration of making wild, funny stories.

SI: Why is it that so many people think the Simpsons are bad role models?

MG: A lot of people believe that if everybody just did what they were told--obeyed--everything would be fine. But that's not what life is all about. That's not real. It's never going to happen.

SI: They why do they believe it?

MG: I'm not sure. Psychologically, you know, as infants, we think we're omnipotent. We think we've created the universe and that everything responds to our whims. Then lousy reality sets in. We find out that the world does not correspond to our vision, and some of us continue to fight back for the rest of our lives. I'm not saying that people on the other side are wrong. I just think theirs is not an attitude which brings any kind of profound happiness. In fact, if anything, it brings profound unhappiness.

SI: It seems like they're trying to live some idea of a correct life rather than living their own life.

MG: One of the things I would like to do is make up stories that I would have enjoyed when I was a kid. So, if I'm thinking about an audience, it's usually a younger version of myself. When I watch The Simpsons I think, "Man, I would've really liked this cartoon when I was a kid." If I could speak from the future to my younger self, I'd say a couple of things: Keep your spirits up, because things are going to get a lot better when you get out of high school. You're going to meet a lot more people who are interested in creative weirdness as a social activity. And: Save your work! No matter how stupid you think it is at the time. Keep a diary. Keep drawing. Save your art. Save your comic books. Especially save your comic books.

SI: Yeah. Definitely. Boy.

MG: And put the stuff in a cardboard box and keep it in your closet. And when you go away to college, or to your job at the oyster-shucking factory, don't let your mom throw it away--take it with you. And don't touch any of the stuff in the box until you've washed the oyster juice off your hands.

SI: What else do you do outside The Simpsons?

MG: I draw a weekly comic strip called Life in Hell, which is syndicated in about 250 newspapers. That's what I did before The Simpsons, and what I plan to do for the rest of my life.

SI: What do you use to draw your strip?

MG: I use Rotring rapidograph pens, which come with easy-to-change ink cartridges. The pens are color-coded--I use the blue one (.70) to draw the characters and dialog, the brown one (.50) to draw very tiny lettering, and the orange one (2.0) to draw dialog balloons and the edges of the frames. I draw it twice as large as it's printed, on two-ply Bristol paper, and shrink it down. When you shrink thing down, it reduces the wobbliness of the lines--and I need all the help I can get. I used to use a Koh-I-Noor Artpen, the one with a yellow barrel and a very flexible nub, but the company stopped making it, and didn't respond to my desperate plea to buy any extras lying around the warehouse. If anyone out there knows how I can get this pen, or least its nubs, please contact Simpsons Illustrated. A frustrated cartoonist will be very grateful.

SI: What did you draw with when you were a kid?

MG: Felt-tip pens, which are really fun to draw with, but I warn you, they fade. Eventually the ink will disappear. You've got to draw on good paper, too. Otherwise, the paper will turn yellow as the Simpsons, and eventually crumble.

SI: Did you plan to become a cartoonist?

MG: I never thought that I would, because all my friends could draw better than I could, except you. (Bemused laughter)

SI: And that's the truth. (Frivolity continues)

MG: I met Lynda Barry at The Evergreen State College--cool place, no grades--and she was drawing crazy cartoons at the time. Her cartoons were so wild, they inspired me to continue plugging away.

SI: What other inspirations do you draw on?

MG: I love checking out just about everything that's put out for entertainment and intellectual consumption: music, art, movies, TV, literature, advertising, pinball machines, bubble gum cards, cereal boxes, black velvet portraits of the Smurfs. I try not to let anything in our culture be either too high or too low for me. I have a little trouble with stuff at the very bottom at the pile, the mean, ugly stuff. And I also have real problems with 19-century French art songs.

SI: Clearly, you make a lot of references to popular culture, both high and low, in The Simpsons.

MG: That's not just me. A lot of talented writers work on the show, half of them Harvard geeks. And you know, when you study the semiotics of Through the Looking Glass or watch every episode of Star Trek, you've got to make it pay off, so you throw a lot of study references into whatever you do later in life.

SI: How do you feel about the magnitude of The Simpsons' success?

MG: It's impossible to keep in mind how many millions of people watch TV. The numbers continue to stagger me. Another staggering thing is the huge number of people who have jobs because of The Simpsons. It's spun off into merchandising, books, syndication, advertising, law suits, and this magazine. These freakish little doodles keep a lot of people gainfully employed, at least part-time.

SI: Hallelujah.

MG: The Simpsons is an especially collaborative show. Jim Brooks, a true genius, gave me my first break on The Tracey Ullman Show, and he's always fought to maintain a level of emotional realism in The Simpsons when the temptation is to just go wacky. I'm grateful to Mike Reiss and Al Jean, who are brilliantly funny workaholic writers, a rare combination. They pushed the show into more ambitious and complicated areas. And the writers, despite eating habits almost as grotesque as my own [see "Trapped! In a Room Full of Junk Food: A Conversation with the Writers of The Simpsons," Simpsons Illustrated, Vol. 1, No. 4, Winter 1992] have also been unbelievably great: Jon Vitti, George Meyer, Jeff Martin, John Swarztwelder, David Stern, Frank Mula, Conan O'Brien, Jay Kogen, and Wally Wolodarsky. We've got a mostly new gang of writer/producers for next season, and in general they have much healthier eating habits, so we'll see if the show suffers.

SI: Do you have the same appreciation for the show's animation?

MG: Because good writing in a TV cartoon is so rare, I think the animation on The Simpsons is often overlooked. But the job the directors do--under a grueling schedule--is always amazing. It's easy to get complacent about the visuals on the show, since we don't do a lot of dazzling animation effects that call attention to this goofy medium. But the acting, sense of place, and pacing are all top-notch. David Silverman and Wes Archer have been with Bart since the prehistoric days, and over the years they've been joined by Brad Bird, Rich Moore, Mark Kirkland, Jim Reardon, Jeff Lynch, and Carlos Baeza, all of whom have distinctive styles and odd quirks that make the show unpredictable. But it's not just the writers and animators. The actors do ad-lib stuff that goes into the show. When you see Harry Shearer do both Mr. Burns and Smithers in the same scene, it's frightening. And Hank Azaria, who does the voice of Apu and Moe, always cracks me up. Then there's Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Yeardley Smith, and Nancy Cartwright, who are perfect. And of course there are the behind-the-scenes people who rarely get attention: Alf Clausen, our composer, who keeps knocking out fantastic scores; Mark McJimsey, who edits the show day and night; and casting director Bonnie Pietila, who lines up all the great guests we have. I'll continue this list in my next interview.

SI: Is there anything that you're able to do with the magazine that you can't do with the show?

MG: The thing that makes me happiest about Simpsons Illustrated are all the drawings that we get from readers. I wish we could print them all. They're really imaginative. They show a lot of hard work. Steve and Cindy Vance, Peter Alexander and I look at every one of them and we can't believe it. We just want to say to everyone who has sent in a drawing: "Thank you so much! You really make us happy." And again, save your drawings. Don't throw them away.

SI: Is there something you have yet to achieve that you want very badly?

MG: I think the world is almost ready for a Simpsons amusement park. We'll call it Simpsons World, of course. The centerpiece will be Homer Mountain. You'll enter Itchy & Scratchy Land at your own risk. And you'll be able to eat heavily-salted snack treats in the head of the 600-foot-high statue of Bart Simpson.

SI: Wow. Maybe his teeth could rotate.

MG: His whole head will rotate. We'll build this in the center of Los Angeles, and at night Bart's jumbo spotlight eyes will shine into mansions in Beverly Hills. And we'll have a blimp in the shape of Marge Simpson hovering over the city, making annoyed Marge murmurs through giant loudspeakers hidden in her hairdo.

SI: What other stuff do you like?

MG: I love the work of Gary Panter, who does William & Percy for this magazine, and John Kricfalusi, who created Ren & Stimpy. I'm really looking forward to seeing what he does next. I'm always intrigued by people who have a unique vision that they express musically. I've liked Frank Zappa since I was a kid. I also like a Jamaican screwball named Lee "Scratch" Perry, Sun Ra and his Solar Myth Arkestra, Captain Beefheart, Daniel Johnston, Yma Sumac, Perez Prado, Olivier Messiaen, Holger Dzukay, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys.

SI: What books influenced you when you were a kid?

MG: As a little kid I loved Dr. Seuss. Later I got into Mark Twain, Catcher in the Rye, by J. Edgar Hoover, I mean J.D. Salinger. Catch 22, by Joseph Heller. Who else? P.G. Wodehouse, James Thurber, S.J. Perelman, Robert Benchley, Jean Shepard. One of my main influences was Cartooning the Head and Figure by Jack Hamm, which demonstrated on page 3 that you can evoke all sorts of emotions with the crudest little ink squiggles.

SI: What's coming up?

MG: Simpsons Comics & Stories was a smash, so Steve and Cindy Vance, Bill Morrison, and I are scheming to figure out how to do comic books on a regular schedule. Any interest out there for a Radioactive Man comic book? The next Life in Hell book will be Binky's Guide to Love, a sequel to Love Is Hell, and someday I'd like to animate the rabbits and Akbar & Jeff for TV. A book called Bart's Guide to Life will also be coming out next fall, and maybe someday we'll do a Simpsons movie. Any more questions?

SI: No, I think that's pretty much it.

MG: This interview is gonna be, like, especially towards the end, very, you know, rambling and discursive.

SI: That's okay. I mean--.

MG: But make it easy on yourself. You don't have to type up the stuff that you know is not going to be in there.

SI: In conclusion, what do you want on your tombstone?

MG: I don't want Bart Simpson.

SI: How about a tombstone shaped like Bart Simpson?

MG: Uh oh.

SI: Little pointy head. With spikes.

MG: Ahh. My destiny.

Submitted by Jeanette Foshee

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