Matt Groening

By Erik H. Bergman

"Prime time is heaven for 'Life in Hell' Artist"
© TV Host, December 16, 1989

For ten years Matt Groening hunched over a drawing board in his garage, a "lonely and socially backwards" cartoonist inking his Life in Hell cartoon strip. His quirky characters have propelled him from the back pages of alternative weekly papers to center of culture by committee: prime-time TV.

He now rates an office at the Fox studio as an executive producer of The Simpsons and works alongside collaborators such as Oscar winning producer James L. Brooks.

"I didn't expect to do this at all", Groening admits of his rise to TV notoriety. He first came to Los Angeles from Oregon and "got sidetracked by my comic strip. I just did that as a little hobby." Some hobby!

Groening rhymes with "raining." And what's rained down on the thirtysomething artist in sunny L.A. is the chance to create the first animated prime-time series since The Flintstones in 1960. The Simpsons, which spins off from the minicartoons seen on The Tracey Ullman Show, launches with the holiday episode "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire," Sunday, Dec. 17 at 8:30 p.m. and Saturday, Dec. 23 at 8 p.m. on KPDX. Fox has ordered 13 episodes of the series, which is expected to gain a regular slot early next year.

Look for The Simpsons to go on beyond The Flintstones. As a boy The Flintstones didn't grab him; "The show time after time was, uh, dumb and obvious". Says Groening, "We think we're pushing the boundaries of what's expected from cartoon shows."

The Simpsons' fictional town of Springfield is far more real than Fred and Wilma's Bedrock. Springfield consists of a toxic waste dump, a federal penitentiary, a pesticide factory and a nuclear power plant, where father Homer Simpson works as a safety inspector. Some realism matters because "animation can create an entire world." Fred Flintstone might run past 35 windows in his living room. "If the Simpsons ran 20 feet they'd run into a wall."

In his art Groening seeks "clarity of design and sneaky little details. If you watch this show repeatedly you'll see little things going on in the background.

"Over the years I've developed a style that's very simple. The problem is taking that style and trying to develop a variety of individuals. The temptation is to pile on detail." For characters, simplicity works. He notes that the Peanuts characters are built mostly on "variations on hairdos."

Cartoon critic Groening turns thumbs up for George of the Jungle, Roger Rabbit, Popeye, Betty Boop and all the Warner Bros. cartoons. "The fact that there's no equivalent to Rocky and Bullwinkle is a real shame," he laments. "There's not much current animation that he watches.

The lifelong sketcher says he "cannot remember a time in school that I wasn't doodling or drawing when I should have been paying attention." At an early age he drew cartoons "obsessively." He says it was "a fluke" he used the names of his father, mother and sister in The Simpsons because "the personalities do not match my family." But The Simpsons is like growing up with the seven Groenings, he said, in that "it's about the kids being naughty."

Groening the student put down his pen and paid attention for at least one day. He attended the same school - Portland's Lincoln High - as Mel Blanc, voice of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Barney Rubble and others. He recalls how Blanc spoke in 1969 at the school's centennial. Everything from hair length to Vietnam war protests to racism made for a divided school. Blanc's assembly "was one of the most memorable, happy events in a raucous time. Virtually everybody in the school, from the hippies to the hoods to the teachers to the scowling administrators, was laughing. It was the one time the school was really united."

Cartoonist Matt Groening: A brief bio-sketch

Family lore: Father Homer Groening, a filmmaker, produced movies and TV shows. Matt's first TV job was to help on The Lucky Jim Fishing Show in the 1970s.
Marital status: Married with child. "Being a dad (to son Homer) has made me very sappy and corny. I hope that doesn't seep into the show!
First cartoon strip: A world of slimy slugs called "Slugonia."
Why cartoon characters are better than actors: "They don't get pregnant, they don't get busted for cocaine, and they're generally cooperative."
Books in print: Work is Hell, Love is Hell, Childhood is Hell, School is Hell, Akbar & Jeff's Guide to Life (Pantheon Books).
Future Simpsons storylines: Son Bart cheats on an IQ test and is placed in a gifted class. Bart tries to impress local hoodlums by sawing the head off the town founder's statue. A family camping trip goes (where else) awry, and Homer is mistaken for Bigfoot.
Groening's future plans: To continue The Simpsons and Life in Hell. "I'll never give up the comic strip. It's my foundation."

Transcribed by Bruce Gomes

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