Matt Groening

By Alan Paul

"Life in Hell"
© Flux Magazine, Issue #6, September 30, 1995.

Matt Groening--creator and mastermind behind The Simpsons--gives a behind-the-scenes look at the evolution of America's favorite dysfunctional TV family and expounds on the horrors of being a comic book publisher.

Once upon a time, in the not-too-distant past, Matt Groening was a fairly despondent young man. An aspiring music journalist working in a record store, Groening struggled to adapt to life in smoggy, cocaine-infested Los Angeles, where he had recently moved from the friendly confines of Portland, Oregon. To express his frustrations and fears, Groening began drawing cartoons which he sent to friends as letters. The Comic's running title -- `Life in Hell' -- pretty much summed up his situation. Groening's friends thought the cartoons, starting a scared rabbit named Binky and filled with bitter wit and pungent insight, were pretty damned funny and told him so. Thus encouraged, the amateur cartoonist printed up a zine of his strips, which he threw on the shelf alongside the punk magazines at the record store where he worked.

That was in 1977. By the following year, `Life in Hell' had been picked up by the LA Weekly, the city's alternative newspaper. Groening soon developed a rabid local following and the strip slowly spread to alternative news weeklies throughout the country. By 1986, `Life In Hell' was carried in a host of papers nationwide and had even spawned several books. That year, television producer James Brooks approached Groening about Binky, Akbar, Jeff and other `Life In Hell' characters for hort spots on Fox-TV's Tracy Ullman Show. Though Groening was very interested, he was also hesitant.

"I had never done animation before and I had a thriving career as a weekly comic strip artist with `Life In Hell'," he explains. "I was afraid that the experiment in animation might fail and I didn't want to subject my own characters to that failure, so I created new characters."

Of course, Groening's experiment in animation did not fail. By January, 1990, the Ullman show was cancelled, while the the cartoonist's new characters -- a family called the Simpsons -- had a show of their own. Today, six years later, every character on the most popular animated show in television history is a cultural icon. Bart, the only Simpson not named after a member of Groening's real family (it's simply a reworking of the word "Brat"), has become the patron saint of all juvenile delinquents, past, present and future.

Groening now rules over an empire which includes The Simpsons, which continues to air every Sunday night on FOX, while also running nightly in syndication; the still thriving--and bitingly hilarious--Life In Hell, which now runs in 250 papers in the U.S. and Canada, and two comic book imprints: Bongo, which puts out Simpsons-related titles, including the Brand new "Treehouse Of Horrors", and Zongo, an underground line which recently debuted with Gary Panter's Jimbo.

Groening recently took a break from his busy schedule to sit down with FLUX and discuss such pressing topics as Bart's relationship to Beavis & Butt-head, the state of comic books today and his endless battles "with the guys who smoke big cigars."

Flux: How involved are you in the day to day life of The Simpsons these days?

Groening: Well, I go to work every day, I stick my nose in where I feel I can improve the show. The Simpsons is a very smooth-running machine, with talented people at every level. I feel my job is to make sure we maintain the soul of the show. Sometimes you can't see the forest for the trees and I try to nudge the show so it will keep on track. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.

Flux: Do Life In Hell and The Simpsons occupy every different parts of your brain?

Groening: I definitely switch gears. The Simpsons is a collaboration by a lot of very funny, talented people: actors, writers, musicians and animators; Life In Hell is just me. Both projects help me cope with life. I like The Simpsons because it's a chance to hang around really funny people and I like going home and holing up in my studio and drawing my comic strip every week, too.

Flux: Have there been points where you felt that the characters on The Simpsons have gotten too far away from your original conception?

Groening: Yes. The completed shows are never as good as I wish they would be; I'm happy overall with the show, but I always wish they could be be better. Also, there have been occasions where business interests have gotten in the way of the creative stuff and I felt The Simpsons were exploited in creepy ways. Part of the reason for that is because people think you can do anything with a cartoon. We're asked to promote non-Simpsons things on behalf of Fox that no live actor would ever consent to.

Flux: Do you feel a real commitment to the integrity of the characters -- to treating them as if they were real actors?

Groening: Yeah. It kills me when they aren't treated with respect.

Flux: But can't you control how they're treated? Do you own the characters?

Groening: I don't own The Simpsons -- Fox does. I try to make the guys who smoke cigars realize that it's in their own interests to keep the show top-notch and not exploit it and run it into the ground. Sometimes I'm successful, sometimes I'm not.

Flux: Does that mean that if something made you so mad that you quit, The Simpsons would continue without you?

Groening: Well, that's not a possibility. There's plenty of sleazy, behind-the-scenes stuff that goes on, but I have always reminded myself that my main relationship is with my audience. Having to deal with a few obnoxious Hollywood characters comes with the territory, and I have no choice but to accept that.

Flux: Have you always had consistent conceptions of the characters? For instance, did you know that Krusty was Jewish before the famous "Jazz Singer" episode?

Groening: No. That was a sudden inspiration on the part of a couple of writers. But Krusty is one of my favorite characters. In fact, we tried to do a spin-off of Krusty once but the guys with big cigars couldn't agree on how to carve up the pie, so it didn't happen. I wasted months of my life trying to develop this thing only to have it fall apart for the usual, nefarious Hollywood reasons.

Flux: In the first season of The Simpsons, Smithers, Mr. Burns' faithful assistant, was black--but since then he's always been white. What happened there?

Groening: Animation error. All the creative work is done in Los Angeles, but the inking and painting and camera work is done in Korea. It was one of the earliest episodes, the third or fourth, and somebody made the wrong color choice off a chart. That's the only reason. We like to say that he was on vacation and came back with a tan.

Flux: Do The Simpsons have yellow skin and only four fingers because they live by a nuclear plant?

Groening: You could view that as symbolic content, sure. The real reason The Simpsons are yellow is so that they will look like nothing else on television.

Flux: What's it like to realize that you've created something which has seeped into popular culture to such a large extent?

Groening: Well, that was part of my plan. I really thought that most television punishes viewers for paying attention; it's a good thing to watch in a distracted, half-asleep way. And I thought it would be great to do a show that actually rewards you for paying attention. That's why the main titles change every week, what Bart writes on the blackboard changes, the saxophone solo changes, the couch gate changes and all that stuff. That's why we sneak so many gags in there. We try to jam as much stuff in there as possible. Sometimes we come up with really good jokes and say, "Oh, no, that's only a freeze-frame joke." That is, a joke that you're only going to get if you videotape it and go back and freeze-frame it. We always stick those into every episode.

Flux: Have you discovered any famous person who is a fan of The Simpsons that surprised you?

Groening: Well, just about every famous person who does a voice is a fan of the show. Michael Jackson, for instance, is a fan of the show.

Flux: So that was really him?

Groening: Yes. He didn't want to be credited. [laughs] Dustin Hoffman is another one who didn't want to fess up. It's funny because we've had those bigshots who were willing to do the show but were ashamed to admit it. So we have a new demand: if you're willing to do the show, you have to come clean and admit it. I just completed something which I really, really wanted to do, and that is to get all the former Beatles on. Ringo was first, then we got George Harrison, but Paul McCartney was a real hold-out. We finally came up with a script which he agreed to do. It's called "Lisa The Vegetarian" and it will be on next season.

Flux: Is it difficult for you to come up with scripts which are both funny and acceptable to the guest stars?

Groening: Sometimes more so than others. Michael Jackson presented a particular creative problem because he's such an icon: how do you put Michael Jackson in a Simpsons universe? And the solution, which I must take credit for--the idea, at least, because I didn't write the script--was to have Michael Jackson play a 300-pound white guy who thinks he's Michael Jackson. Everybody was keeping their fingers crossed that he would sort of laugh when he read the script--and he did.

Flux: Have you ever had someone agree to do the show, then read the script and call you up saying, "Are you insane?"

Groening: [laughs] Yes, it's happened several times. I really can't comment further because we're still trying to get all those people, but there are several stars who backed out, Prince being one. Prince's people actually sent us their own script, just wasn't our thing.

Flux: What do you consider your proudest achievement when it comes to The Simpsons?

Groening: Well, it thrilled me to death when George Bush said America needs to be more like the Waltons than the Simpsons. He said that on Monday and on the following Thursday we had the Simpsons watching George Bush say these words and Bart said, "Hey, man, we're just like the Waltons. Both families are praying for an end to the depression." As a result, of course, George Bush went down in defeat.

Flux: Being that those are your political leanings, have you ever woken up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat that you've helped make [Fox owner, publishing mogul and famous Republican supported] Rupert Murdoch even more rich?

Groening: [long pause] Well, I can't say that there's any magic happy studio out there where everyone's nice and wonderful. Again, I remind myself constantly that my relationship is with my audience.

Flux: What do you think is the worst thing about television?

Groening: The worst things happening around TV right now are the incredibly inane arguments taking place about sex and violence on TV, which are disguised political diatribes to appeal to bigots. The fact is, TV is violent and sleazy, but it's the nature of the medium when images are replaced by images--the ultimate message is that nothing really matters, and that's the insidious thing about television.

Flux: Do you ever feel like you had a hand in inspiring Beavis and Butt-head?

Groening: Well, I think we warmed up the audience for Beavis and Butt-head. I'm a fan, and I'm very glad it's around. It took the heat off of Bart for a while. [laughs]

I think one of the things The Simpsons did was really open the door for animation on television to take more chances. Before The Simpsons, we had 30 years of TV shows that mostly looked like they were from the Hanna-Barbera assembly line--the same kinds of characters, voices and plots over and over. The success of The Simpsons made people take more chances. Television now is full of animation that has the distinct look of animators: Ren & Stimpy, Beavis and Butt-head, all the Nickelodeon cartoons, this new show on Comedy Central, Dr. Katz, which is really funny and has very minimalist animation. The quality of these things varies, but none of them looks like the same old thing.

Flux: Speaking of animated shows, you recently had a major fight with Fox and producer James Brooks over using The Simpsons to plug The Critic, a new Fox animated series (which has since been cancelled). Do you have anything further to say?

Groening: Yes, I do. The Simpsons/Critic crossover episode was for me an issue of artistic integrity. Any creator worries about the lives of his characters and the satisfaction of the fans. I removed my name from the crossover episode because I was concerned about the implication that I had created or produced The Critic, which had been printed in a lot of newspapers, and reinforced by the crossover and the manner in which it was made.

I tried to convince everyone associated with the show not to do such a cynical thing, because I thought that fans of the show would see it as nothing but a pathetic attempt to advertise The Critic at the expense of The Simpsons. I don't know of any other way to be true to fans but to work as hard as I can to keep the quality of the show up to their expectations and to do so without violating The Simpsons universe. I'm not knocking The Critic, but I didn't want to take credit for it--and neither does Bart.

Flux: Following that riff, Brooks made some snippy comments about you in the press..

Groening: Yep.

Flux: What's your relationship with Brooks like?

Groening: Well, I don't like to be called names. [laughs] What else can I say?

Flux: How do your parents feel about having Marge and Homer named after them?

Groening: They love it for the most part. My father has only taken me to task one time. He was disturbed that when the Simpsons' car broke down in the desert, Marge carried the tire back to the gas station; he said that Homer shouldn't have allowed Marge to do that. [laughs] That's the only thing he ever objected to. It's fine for Homer to throttle Bart, but he can't allow Marge to carry a tire.

Flux: Are the characters patterned after your family beyond their names?

Groening: The only real parallel to my family and The Simpsons may be some of the sibling rivalry between Bart and Lisa I actually had with my sisters, Lisa and Maggie. My father isn't fat and bald. He's a retired cartoonist and filmmaker. My mother doesn't have blue hair, though when I was young it was quite tall.

Flux: Have any of your other family members ever taken offense to anything on the show pertaining to their characters?

Groening: My sister Lisa loves the character, but she's taken me to task over other things many times. She gets a little concerned when her kids may imitate some of the behaviour they see. [laughs] Which, by the way, has come back to haunt me. I used to be pretty snotty about parental complaints about Bart's bad behaviour. Now I have a couple of kids, six and four, who laugh long and hard at any butt jokes. [laughs]

Flux: Has that made you reconsider anything?

Groening: Well, I make sure that we have enough butt jokes in the show to keep them happy.

Flux: let's talk about your `Life In Hell' comic strip. Point blank: are Akbar and Jeff gay?

Groening: Here's my standard reply: Akbar and Jeff are either brothers or lovers--or both. Whatever offends you most, that's what they are. [pause] Yeah, of course they're gay! Big commercial mistake on my part, by the way. A big brewery approached me wanting to have Akbar and Jeff promote their beer. We were walking about an Akbar and Jeff spring break train, Akbar and Jeff tattoos, an Akbar and Jeff blimp. [laughs] We were talking about it very seriously until they read an article on me in Rolling Stone and found out that Akbar and Jeff had an alternate lifestyle.

Flux: Were you set to do it?

Groening: The deal is: Akbar and Jeff will endorse anything. The other `Life In Hell' characters--Binky, Bongo, Sheba, etc.--will never do an endorsement, but Akbar and Jeff will endorse anything.

Flux: Has the response to `Life In Hell' changed a lot with the success of The Simpsons?

Groening: Being on TV has made the comic strip safe enough for a number of newspapers to print. Because I am an endorsed commodity, some of the weirder stuff I do is acceptable. I don't think I've toned the strip down at all, other than no longer using profanity. I had to do that if I wanted to have it printed in daily papers.

Flux: Is it harder for you to focus on the strip now that you have a successful TV show and are no longer the starving artist?

Groening: It's pretty hard to fake the starving artist mentality convincingly these days, although plenty of rock stars do it. The strip has basically been an ongoing journal of the things which preoccupy me. In my bachelor days I did lots of strips about struggling with relationships, and these days I do strips about kids.

Flux: Did you grow up reading comics?

Groening: Sure. I've been looking at comics since before I could read. I had an older brother, Mark--who by the way is the actual inspiration for Bart, though I've never admitted that before--who turned me onto all the great comics of the fifties: Mad, when it was still a comic, Donald Duck, Uncle Scrooge, Little Lulu, Tales From The Crypt--all that stuff.

He and his buddies had a secret clubhouse up in this little room in a garage down the street and you had to climb a ladder and crawl across a beam in order to get in there. That was the comics reading room, so there was definitely a taste of the forbidden just getting to this secret room to read the comics. They wouldn't let in while they were there so I had to wait until they were out shooting slingshots at squirrels until I could sneak in and read all these great comics.

Flux: And that would seem to have inspired Bart's treehouse, where he and his friends always go to read their comics?

Groening: Yes, exactly. Comics are meant to be read in one of two places; either in a treehouse or under the covers late at night with a flashlight in your mouth and a little transistor radio with one of those little plastic earphones. My brother had a rocket-shaped transistor radio and the little antenna thing which came out of the nose was the antenna. It was ridiculous.

Flux: When did you get the idea to form your own comic book company?

Groening: Well, my entire grown-up career is based on the lingering fantasies I had as a kid. When I was a kid I had a little club that was devoted to the worship of monsters and it always seemed to me that the greatest job in the world would be to publish monster magazines and comics just like the big boys did. And then I lucked into having this hit show on TV which had allowed all this other cool stuff to take place.

Flux: Did you ever think of having a huge company like Marvel or DC do Simpsons comics?

Groening: Yeah, sure. We talked to the big guys, but it just seem like it would be more fun to do it ourselves.

Flux: Compared to the other comic book companies, what kind of company do you want Bongo to be?

Groening: I'm trying to bring humor into the fairly grim comic book market. I'm not a big fan of solemnity and I wanted to inject a little humor for kids into the market. There's plenty of great, very funny stuff being done for immature adults, but there's nothing smart and funny for kids out there.

Flux: What's the idea behind Zongo, your other comic book company?

Groening: Everything we published in Bongo is kid-friendly. Zongo will be more mature stuff. I don't know if it really matters, but I just want to give people the opportunity to make a choice. I can understand given the following we have with Bongo and the intensity of some of the fans that some people will buy anything with the name on it and I don't want a little kid to pick up an underground-type comic that we publish and be warped for life. Although it happen to me [laughs]...and I turned out okay. To warp and entertain, that's my motto.

Flux: What's new with Bongo?

Groening: We've got this `Treehouse Of Horror' comic book coming out which is going to be an annual just like our annual "Treehouse Of Horrors" episode on TV. We try to remain consistent with the Simpsons universe, but the stories are all original; the comic books are for people who can't get enough of the show. Mike Allred's comic is called "Little Shop Of Homers." You can guess what that is. Jeff Smith has a Moby Dick-ish tale entitled "Call Me Homer." James Robinson has "Invasion Of The Bart People," a Cat People-like story.

Flux: How was it working with Jeff Smith, James Robinson and Mike Allred?

Groening: It's amazing that they agreed to do it. These guys are busy little beavers with their own empires to build. But they're just fans of The Simpsons. It's always been my hope that we can open the doors wide and see what other crackpots we come up with.

Flux: Do the artists do their own interpretations of the Simpsons?

Groening: No, we've experimented with that, and we like the original recipe better--so everything is consistent with The Simpsons universe.

Flux: Will Lisa Comics and Krusty Comics also be ongoing?

Groening: There's a second Lisa coming soon and we're working on another Krusty. Also, our Zongo imprint has just put out its first title, `Jimbo', by the legendary Gary Panter. His first four issues are done, and we're talking with a bunch of other cartoonists. We're going to expand that line shortly.

Flux: Do you find a lot of good stuff that way?

Groening: A little good stuff. Some terrible stuff and lots of stuff that just misses. But I also come across a few gems. But some of what's going on in comics now is so exciting. Chris Ware does this really great book called `Jimmy Corrigan--The Smartest Boy On Earth' (Fantagraphics). Stupendous art. Then there's Peter Bagge's `Hate' and Daniel Clowes' `Eightball'.

Flux: One final question: Has there ever been serious consideration given to a Simpsons movie?

Groening: There has been, but I doubt it will happen. I would love it. I'm ready to do it any time but no one can agree on how to divide up the obscene profits so there won't be any profits. [laughs] I try to use the greed, stupidity, ego and avarice that I have to deal with as an inspiration in my work. I'm just amazed that people are willing to annoy cartoonists who have the ultimate revenge sitting ready to go on their drawing board. Believe me, I've got a very good memory and all this stuff will come out in some form some day.

Transcribed by Dave Hall

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