Matt Groening

By Doug Sadownick

"Groening Against the Grain; Maverick Cartoonist Matt Groening Draws in Readers With Gay Characters Akbar and Jeff"
© Advocate, Issue 571, February 26, 1991

Sitting in his Twentieth Century Fox office, which is cluttered with Bart Simpson toys and other marketing products, Matt Groening looks more like a long-haired-ex-football jock than a 36-year-old straight guy who is angry about the plight of gays in a homophobic world. But looks can deceive. Groening is nothing like his ham-fisted, loudmouthed character Bart Simpson. He is empathetic to others and rather radical. Groening is reaping huge success as the creator of the TV show The Simpsons. His comic-strip series Life in Hell is popular too. These days he turns down most interviews. Yet he is eager to talk to gay America and muse about his beloved cartoon creations Akbar and Jeff, who are gay and madly in love with one another too.

Groening is not gay - he has a wife and a young son. No matter; he has tapped a gay nerve with the dynamic duo of Akbar and Jeff. Wearing identical fezzes, Charlie Brown T-shirts, and baggy shorts, they look, act, and think alike yet appear to one another as different as night and day.

Syndicated is hundreds of newspapers and magazines around the country, they have won the hearts of many Americans - especially gay men starved for positive portrayals of lasting gay love. Given the lack of mainstream depictions of gay couples, Akbar and Jeff have become virtual role models to some, no doubt because of their baffling loyalty. Witness their vulnerability (they get fag-bashed), joy of living (they skip whenever possible), entrepreneurial flair (you name it, they will market it), and fezzes (which flip off at the first hint of sex.) It tickles Groening to hear of the Akbar and Jeff fan clubs in San Francisco or to be told that it has become de regueur to wear Jeff and Akbar drag to certain demonstrations.

While Groening says he is not writing about the gay community, he does touch on subjects deeply specific to gays. Akbar and Jeff sit on the couch that acts as the barometer of their emotions, talking about the HIV-antibody test or hearing the news on TV about the Supreme Court's ruling that sodomy is a crime. (They answer, "Damn the law!") Or they are in a dark forest, being assaulted for who they are. In another strip, they worry if they will be accepted at a gay bar; when they arrive. everyone looks exactly like them. No trauma takes place without such seemingly gay-inspired irony.

Indeed, Groening wishes to reach people politically through laughter - except when it comes to appropriations of his images. He is angered that last summer a right-wing student publication at the University of Iowa printed a poster of Bart Simpson with the caption "Back Off, Faggot!" Twentieth Century Fox, which holds the trademark to The Simpsons, is suing the newspaper for copyright infringement. However, Groening says he is less concerned when gay groups use his images to advance their causes.

The cartoonist shares these views - as well as his thoughts on gay romance - in an exclusive interview with The ADVOCATE.

For years I did not realize Akbar and Jeff were overtly gay until they went to a gay bar. How gay are they?
I act coy when people ask whether or not they are gay. I say they are either brothers or lovers or possibly both. [Whispering] But they're gay. Actually, I say what would annoy the questioner the most. In most cases, that means saying Akbar and Jeff are gay. I mean, it's obvious, right? It's also part of the American tradition: Laurel and Hardy sleep in the same bed as do the Three Stooges. I rest my case.

Akbar and Jeff are syndicated everywhere. Do you get flak from homophiles about their relationship?
It's really great to do a comic strip that goes to small cities as well as big ones. It's in about 300 papers around the country, including about 30 daily papers. And you know that some of these newspapers' editors have an antigay bias. But they can't find anything about the strip that they can censor. So the strip runs consistently in many conservative papers.

Maybe it's the consistency of the relationship that irritates the fundamentalists.
Not for long. Akbar and Jeff are going to break up at some point soon. I can't tell you what's going to happen, but I can't imagine Akbar without Jeff for long. It'll be rocky. I have a good breakup and reconciliation strip.

Can you tell us why they break up?
[Laughing] It's obvious, isn't it? [More laughter] They can't stand each other. [Even more laughter] But they love each other. They can't live with or without each other. What I like about them is this: When they criticize each other, it's like when somebody exactly the same as you criticizes you. It's hilarious, like you don't see the mirror. It's seems like they have been together a long time, doesn't it? I'm getting to know the characters as they go along. That's why it's going to be fun to have them break up and get back together.

They'll date? What will be the adulterers look like?
I don't know. Akbar and Jeff are the only humans in my strip. Every other character in my comic strip has ears that are above the eyebrows and is a bear, dog, rabbit, or whatever. Akbar and Jeff are the only characters who wear clothes.

Are they your favorite characters?
They are the most fun to write. Working on The Simpsons, I get to do a lot of stuff about family relations. In Akbar and Jeff, that kind of sensitive, male-to-male stuff is something I don't explore elsewhere. I would love to see Akbar and Jeff animated. There's some talk about it.

Why do you draw such similar guys?
I like to write about relationships. What's great about having aharacters who are identical is that I can't be accused of taking sides. If one character were a man or a woman, I could be accused of taking a shot against men or a show against women. Or if it were two women or two men, I could side with the one who is more attractive or whatever. If people say Akbar and Jeff are a comment on gay relationships, fine. But I think that they're a comment on all relationships or that maybe it's time for straight people to be able to see themselves in gay people or learn something from gay people.

You say all the right things. That's new among people, whether gay or straight, who work in TV or film. How come?
I have gay friends. And I'm sympathetic. I internalized all the good lefty progressive politics I grew up with in the '60s, and it pisses me off that there is still so much injustice in the world. For some reason, gay people are one of the last so-called minorities society has yet to offer civil rights to. And that us a measure of how far behind as a country we are.

How much of Akbar and Jeff is in you?
A lot of it comes from my life. Dumb arguments with my wife or myself. One of the original strips that I did in the late '60s had the two sitting next to each other, and they're not even touching, and one says, "Quit shoving." That's me and my sister, sitting in the backseat of the family car. Akbar and Jeff reflect a dialectic about something I am undecided about.

I could easily do a lot of these relationship arguments with Binky or Bongo, but it would never be as funny. Why? The art us very simple. I withhold emotional information. Akbar and Jeff have blank expressions, so you must assign emotions to them. The become projections for people, which is why they're loved.

You've hit on some humane dynamic between Jeff and Akbar that inspires gay men. It's often hard to find that kind of harmony among ourselves.
The idea that anyone considers Akbar and Jeff role models make me laugh. They're complicated characters. I think that one is ultimately sympathetic to them, but they are scam artists. They'll sell anything, even liposuction. I will not have my other characters - Binky and Bongo and Sheba - endorsing anything. But Akbar and Jeff can endorse all they want.

Did you have a political stance when you first began drawing Akbar and Jeff?
I didn't start out with any political agenda. In fact, the characters were based on the very first characters that my friends and I invented when we were kids in the fifth grade. We started making up our own characters, rather than drawing monsters like Frankenstein and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. At first, we were trying to draw Charlie Brown, but it just looked like some horrible mutant version of what Charles Schulz had in mind. Eventually it mutated into this guy we called Joe, who still had Charlie Brown's T-shirt. And then much later, in high school, I added the fezzes and made them twins. Then it took me ten years to realize they were either brothers or lovers or possibly both.

Is there someone gay in your family?
No, not in my family. But good friends of mine from grade school and high school. At a certain point, they realized they were gay. Akbar and Jeff are partly in tribute to them, including one kid who had to transfer away to a different high school because he was afraid of being found out by the football players and getting beaten up.

Since then, gay friends have been part of my life. It's part of anyone's life in a big city like Los Angeles, anyone in journalism or the arts. I haven't lost many people to AIDS, although one of my best friends is dying right now. Many acquaintances. I did the {HIV-antibody] testing strip for them. If I could figure out a way to do more comic strips about AIDS, I would. I just can't figure out how to be funny. Most of my political stuff leaves me unsatisfied because it's too heavy-handed. But I will if I can.

Do you get accused if being gay because you're sympathetic?
I went to Evergreen State College in Washington, a four-year state-run school that arose out of the agitation over progressive education in the '60s. All the creative weirdos in the Pacific Northwest gravitated there. We got the opportunity to get our hands on filmmaking equipment, the school newspaper, and the art gallery. That encouraged me to live out whatever fantasy or dream that I wanted in life - we didn't worry about credentials. And that's where I met Lynda Barry, my favorite cartoonist. I studied literature, but I knew I had to be a cartoonist.

Did you always know you'd be successful?
No way. I actually wanted to be a journalist, and I moved to Los Angeles after I graduated in 1977 to work for the local alternative paper, which was, at the time, the Los Angeles Free Press. When I walked into the office and saw the receptionist crying, "Don't work for these bastards." I was disappointed. So I floundered for a couple of years. I did Life in Hell as a little photocopied comic book while I worked at Licorice Pizza [a record store] up on the Sunset Strip during the heyday of punk. I sold Life in Hell alongside Slash and Starting Fires magazines.

How encouraging for struggling artists.
I worked there for a year and sold my little comic book, and I had no idea I'd be anything other than a loser. Eventually I did a little pasteup work for the L.A. Weekly. The L.A. Reader like my stuff. They gave me a page in the back of the paper, which is where it all began, ten years ago.

I don't know what I'd be doing had I not gotten lucky breaks. I suspect I'd still be drawing Life in Hell, but I'd be doing it on the side. The fact that it took off and I got this TV show is something I never dreamed of. I hoped it would happen, but it didn't seem likely. My family loves it.

It seems you must come from a very funny family.
My background is Norwegian and German, two of the unfunniest ethnic groups in the history of the world. How I ended up working in cartoons is a mystery. My parents are funny. I named the Simpsons after them. My father's name is Homer, my mother's is Margaret. I have a sister Lisa and a sister Maggie. They're very complimented. My dad said to my mother the other day, "Maybe we Alzheimer's disease and this whole thing is a dream." That's indicative of how funny we are.

Is Homer modeled after your dad?
Not at all. My dad is a writer. I grew up in a family of Lisa types: overeducated, smart-ass types.

Do you have kids?
My son, Homer, was born along with the beginning of The Simpsons. I thought it was going to be a hit, but I didn't think it was going to be quite the cultural whirlwind it's turned into. I really don't want him to have to suffer. He's got a nice middle name.

What if he turned our to be gay? How would you react?
Whatever. It's his choice. I talk about this with friends - not just sexual orientation but how much influence you have over your kids? To me, creative self-expression is the ultimate, it's the greatest thing in my life. I love it, it makes me the happiest. What if that doesn't interest him? What if he wanted to be an accountant? Oh, no. But you've got to let him do what he wants to do. Even if he wants to be a gay accountant.

Well, there are plenty of those. Could you envision Akbar and Jeff going up to Queer Nation or an ACT UP meeting?
I don't know if it's in their character to be politically active, but you never know. But I don't think about them that way. Akbar and Jeff are not a comment on gay culture. I mean, they're gay, so they could become activists. We'll see.

Bart Simpson, the hero of The Simpsons, is a macho character. Could he ever be friends with Akbar and Jeff?
I don't think so. The Simpsons are locked in their own world. They don't realize what hits them, and they're no that open-minded. If Homer voted, he'd probably vote Republican. Luckily, he doesn't vote. There's a great line a character says in The Simpsons: "Nothing personal, I just fear the unknown." That sums up the Simpsons.

And much of America. But you did introduce a gay character in a recent episode. Homer gets a gay secretary, right?
Yeah. Harvey Fierstein was the voice behind Carl, and he was hysterical. People called up the day after the show going "What was the deal with the secretary? Was he gay?" I said, "He's whatever you want him to be." I don't think we held back. He does kiss Homer: He does give him a nice pat on the butt.

Some gay viewers were a little frustrated with the character because he didn't identify himself as gay.
I think that given the nature of TV these days, the fact that we did is beyond any other cartoon and is pretty outrageous. I'm not happy that it was outrageous, but it was for TV standards. I think we thought we were being subtle. I rarely refer to Akbar and Jeff as being gay either. That's part of their personality. Not that I don't have any criticisms of that episode. The secretary plays the part of "the good fairy." He comes into Homer's life and is absolutely a perfect person and saves Homer.

Does he get any credit?
No, he doesn't. He sort of leaves. Homer steals money from the insurance fund in order to grow hair. The character, Carl, pays the money back and says he was the one who committed this fraud and gets fired. The part we unfortunately cut out is this: Homer does pay him back. Carl's a good person, but he's not altruistic.

What do you think about people bootlegging images of Bart to further their own political agenda? Even the group Jews for Jesus has appropriated Bart. Homophobes use Bart to say, "Back Off, Faggot!" Queer Nation has Bart crying, "No More Queer Bashing! I'm Talking to You!"
Of course, anytime you create something and somebody else appropriates it to get across a message you don't agree with, it's irritating. On the other hand, the black Bart T-shirts are hilarious.

So you don't mind if Bart is appropriated, as long as it's for something you agree with?
To me there's an aspect to it that's a compliment. On the other hand, there are factories cranking out these T-shirts making lots of money. But Bart has been used to promote homophobia, and that especially bothers me. We're not fighting [the University of Iowa's The Campus Review] on First Amendment grounds - they have the right to do whatever they want. This happens to be a copyrighted character, and they cannot appropriate a protected character. T don't own The Simpsons, by the way, Twentieth Century Fox does, and they are the ones who are suing. Yes, I have less problems with Bart being used by Queer Nation. On the other hand, sexualizing Bart at all is problematic.

But it's less of a problem if you agree politically?
It's inappropriate for me to give my blessing to any copyright infringement because I don't own The Simpsons. But yes, there are things that bother me less than others. The Tijuana pinata of Bart Simpson amuses. The Bart Simpson yarmulke from Israel amuses. "Back Off, Faggot," I hate. Part of the problem with this ugly rightwing sh** - let me phrase this better - part of the problem with this ignorant stuff is that it is just designed to get your goat. They are not trying to gain converts, they are just trying to piss people off. And I don't want to give them the satisfaction.

Why are there so few gay characters in cartoons? There was the Andy character in Doonesbury, but he died of AIDS.
As Marge Simpson says, "the fear of the unknown." I think people are very unnerved by bisexuality in our culture - unless it's about teasing, unless it's about withholding sex or implying homosexuality with the underlying message being "Ha-ha, I'm not." There's virulent homophobia in our culture. Cartoonist deal with exaggerated caricatures. Comics are seen as a kiddie medium, and there is a little history of dealing with taboo in comic strips. For example, in daily strips you used to not be able to show snakes. Why? Hmmm. Let me think. Snakes: phallic. And so on. Things are loosening up a little bit. As far as I know, Akbar and Jeff are the only gay couple in comics. They may dance with a woman or two. But I don't think they are going to shape up.

Have you ever envisioned Akbar and Jeff having sex?
I've done it in an oblique way. I have them referring to sex, like in the "talk dirty to me" cartoons recently. I try not to get my comic strip censored. I don't use profanity in the strip. I don't want to give daily papers an excuse not to print it. Fezzes fly off when something good has just happened. [Laughing]. People have sent me explicit drawings of Akbar and Jeff having sex.

But they don't have any organs.
Yes, they do. [Pretending to take offense] You just don't see them. In fact, there is a comic of them getting out of bed naked. [He shows the strip of their waking up. trying to decide what to wear. Their heads are turned around away from their genitals.] I'm not that good a draftsman. What you're seeing is their butts. I know, they are big. If they turned around, you'd see their nipples and belly buttons and di**s. There is another comic book that's at the printers called Go Naked, in which Akbar and Jeff do indeed go naked. So you'll see details. As detailed as I get; my drawings are very simple. But, yes, they are full-fledged men.

Is there any role playing, any top-and-bottom thing that happens between them?
You can make them anything you want. I think the answer to that is pretty obvious. They're both.

One last thing. It's such a hard time for gay people right now. If I can bring a little help or laughter into peoples' lives, that is important to me.

Transcribed by Bruce Gomes

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