By Rob Holly
"The Simpsons' Father Speaks"
Matt Groening had an idea. He would have a cartoon of your realistically average family, one that fought, burped, vegged in front of the TV and basically acted like a true dysfunctional American family. Their name: The Simpsons.
After a successful run of shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show, The Simpsons got their own show on Fox. They've been wreaking havoc in front of a national audience for more than five years.
Groening recently talked to CI about the show, the mega-merchandising blitz, the cards, comics and other such nonsense.
How did you get started in the business?
Groening: I feel like my whole life has been organized around the idea of making all the time I wasted ultimately not a waste. I watched way too much TV. I justified it, finally, by working in television. I watched a lot of cartoons, and I read a lot of comics which I justified by growing up to do the same thing.
I really love cartoons and things associated with cartoons because they're over-looked. There are a lot of people out there who are trying to get cartoons to be taken more seriously and call it art. To me, that's not important. Cartoons are cartoons, and they work on their own, by their own standards of excellence. I don't need to justify them as being more important by some other more serious standard.
Which ones in particular did you grow up with?
Groening: All the Warner Brothers cartoons: Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Road Runner. I was also a big fan of Droopy by Tex Avery and the Fleisher Brothers' Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons. Of course, Disney features, shorts, and I think the biggest influence as far as my work in animation was Rocky and Bullwinkle.
Rocky and Bullwinkle was a cartoon that was very cheap looking, but it worked anyway. And I figured that what made this cartoon work was great writing, great voices and great music, and that the animation didn't matter as much.
How does your family feel about your success?
Groening: My parents, Homer and Marge, sign autographs from time to time, so they're pretty gratified.
So Homer and Marge are named after your parents?
How about the kids?
Groening: I have two sisters, Lisa and Maggie, but I also have another sister, Patty, and a brother, Mark, who I have not humiliated yet. Our family really isn't anything like The Simpsons. Out of all the hundred-some odd episodes we've done so far, my family has never been bothered by anything on The Simpsons, except one time my Dad called me up and said, "When the family's car broke down in the desert, Homer shouldn't have made Marge carry that flat tire back to the gas station." He was really bothered by that, and I said, "Dad, this is a show where Homer skateboards off cliffs and strangles Bart and stuff, and that's what bothers you?"
In the Bongo Comics, there are a whole lot of comic book in-jokes. How long have you been a comics fan?
Groening: I grew up with comics. I was looking at them before I could read. My older brother Mark turned me on to all the great comics in the '50s. My eyes were bulging at MAD when it was a comic book, and all the old E.C. horror and science-fiction comics, along with Little Lulu and Uncle Scrooge. I devoured everything.
There was a drugstore at the bottom of the hill where I lived where a lot of kids would sit for hours reading comics. I got through every one of them. I started with Archies, because those are the fastest. You could read Archie in about five seconds. We had nothing else to do, so we just sat there, and that's when I got into the more obscure titles.
What we do in the comic book company is reward you for paying attention. If you don't pay attention, if you're sort of drifting through and looking at whatever is in front of you, you'll still be amused, bit if you actually concentrate and squint and look closely at what we're doing, you'll find that there are extra levels, hidden jokes and sneaky details that we stick in there. We do it on the TV show with various signs and quick background gags. We do it in the comic books with lots of references to people that you'll only get if you've read a lot of comic books. That is a tribute, by the way, to the diligent work of Steve and Cindy Vance and Bill Morrison, who know the history of comics much more than I do - especially Steve and Bill, who have these incredibly arcane discussions of Flash #267, and when his costume changed, and bizarre villains that were only in two or three different issues. Amazing.
Which comics are you reading today?
Groening: I'm reading Madman Adventures, Bone, and I read a lot of the independent comics, like Peter Bagge's Hate, Daniel Clowes' Eightball, and Joe Matt's Peepshow. I'm very interested in the autobiographical trend in independent comics. I'm less interested in fantasy. One of the things we're trying to do with Bongo is bring humor back to the comic book world, because so many of the great humor titles have died or mutated into something else. Everything doesn't have to be grim and solemn and filled with lots of extra heavily-inked lines.
How much control or input do you have with Bongo Comics?
Groening: We're whipping these things out so fast. I wouldn't use the word control for what I do. I look at everything and make little suggestions for tinkering with things.
Is the same team at Bongo Comics responsible for the card sets?
Groening: No, the card sets are masterminded by Mili Smythe. She and I go way back to the mid-1980s, when we worked on horror movie posters and greeting cards together. She is a great writer and art director. We tried to make the cards fun for fans of the show, and make them work on their own as little jokes and documents of the show. We know that we've done a great job, because the writers of the Simpsons TV show are the biggest collectors of the cards. They have them all up on their walls and offices. You know that if you make a TV writer laugh, you've done your job, because they're such a sour bunch.
Why was the decision made to switch from Topps to SkyBox?
Groening: Topps did a lousy job on the cards, I thought. Our relationship with SkyBox has been terrific. That's why I'm so negative about Topps. My name was on every one of those cards, and I didn't get to see them before they came out. They did really stupid things, like put quotation marks in the dialog balloons, which you don't see except if you don't know what you're doing."
Did you collect a lot of card sets as a kid?
Groening: Mostly the various monster cards. I had a huge stack. They were stills from old movies with very silly captions.
Are you collecting any now?
Groening: I collect most of the stuff put out by Kitchen Sink, the esoteric stuff, and I bought a bunch of Wizard of Oz cards. I buy a few packs of any card series to see what they're doing.
Congratulations on your 100th episode. Is there any set time limit to how long you'll be doing the new shows?
Groening: We've been picked up for another three years, so we'll be on for another 66 episodes. Yikes! It makes me tired just to contemplate that.
So maybe we'll do a few more series of these cards. We're having a lot of fun. In the first set, I did special signed cards. I can't remember how many I did - I think 400. It seems like 40,000! They're all different. In the new set we've got Smellovision cards, which are pretty funny. In fact, I think the second series of cards is even better than the first. We have such a kick doing them. Mili masterminded the whole thing with the help of Jamie Angell. We sat up quite late several nights in a row coming up with bizarre Itchy & Scratchy cartoon titles - "Cat On a Very Hot Tin Roof," that kind of thing. It's a lot of fun. I didn't know that cards could be that much fun.
Is there a Simpsons syndication deal?
Groening: The Simpsons will be on in the fall on your local channel in the early evening. You'll be seeing The Simpsons five or six times a week.
I gotta tell you, I work on these shows, and everybody who does has the same experience. We try to put so much in every episode that they change when you see them again. One of the other aims that we have for this show is to make them hold up to repeated viewing. We live with these jokes and sight gags for months because it takes about six months to do a single episode. Obviously we work on many episodes at once, and for a joke to actually make it into the show means there's something we really love about it. The show goes by at such a fast pace that there is no way you could get every joke on one viewing. We think the shows hold up as repeats.
And of course I have this secret scheme which is, we put so many jokes in there that there's no way kids can get them unless they've been paying attention in high school or college. I want to see what happens when kids who have grown up with The Simpsons come back and watch it in 10 or 15 years and say, "Oh, my goodness, I didn't realize that there's a whole other level."
Do you collect a lot of toys?
Groening: Yes, I do. I have two sons who are five and three who love the Jurassic Park toys and Mighty Max. I have to buy extras for myself to play with. When we go to the toy store I say, OK, we have to buy three toys, one for you, one for you and one for me.
The success of The Simpsons has opened up the market for several other animated projects. How do you feel about that?
Groening: Any time there's an animated TV show that doesn't look like it came from the big cartoon factory, I love it. I like that there's now room for all these individual styles and points of view. TV, when I was growing up, was pretty dismal when it came to animation. I think right now the stuff is really entertaining. It doesn't mean it always works, but at least they're trying something different.
I think they're gearing it more toward the adult market than they used to.
Groening: If anything, I think that's one of the mistakes people in animation are doing. Animation can be for adults, but I think you can't ignore the fact that kids love the medium. It makes me really happy to know that my drawings make a 3-year-old laugh, as well as a cantankerous 53-year-old.
Actually, I have an idea for a show that's science fiction satire. Not an easy sell, but I think it would take advantage of the talents and inclinations of the kinds of people that go into animation. I notice on The Simpsons that whenever we do a scene with a motorcycle leaping over a cliff, all of a sudden the animation gets really good, because that's obviously what the animators like to draw. It would be fun to take advantage of a show that would have lots of explosions and mutants and robots that was also funny. What The Simpsons is to The Flintstones, this would be to The Jetsons.
It's a dream. What I like about animation it's a depiction of a reality that doesn't exist in any other form. Movies are, on some level, a recording of something that really happened, but the world within animation, the world that's depicted in animation does not exist. There's no world in which Bugs Bunny runs around and goes down holes. To me, animation is very dream-like, and I'm really fascinated by that idea. One of the things I'd like to do further down the line is toy with the dream-like quality of animation.
Who do you think would win a fight, Bart or Dennis the Menace?
Groening: (Laughter) You know, Bart's pretty much a wimp, actually, but yeah, Bart would win. Bart would not fight fair.
So you think he could kick MacCauly Culkin's butt?
Groening: Definitely. And probably will.
Who would play Bart in the movie version?
Groening: After The Flintstones came out, I said, 'Oh no, now I know there'll be a live-action Simpsons proposed by somebody,' but an actor to play Bart does not readily spring to mind. Although I must say, the actors who do the characters' voices, look to me like The Simpsons, I imagine Julie Kavner with a big blue hairdo, and Dan Castellaneta, if he gained about 100 pounds and had a slightly heavier beard and were more bald, he'd be Homer Simpson. They only one who doesn't really fit in is Nancy Cartwright, who is Bart. Bart is not a young woman.
Any words of advice to aspiring animators or writers?
Groening: If I had any advice to people who are trying to make it in comics or cartoons, I would say, do what makes you laugh, don't try to make other people laugh. It's something that took me a long time to learn. I didn't start making any progress in my work until I gave up the idea of trying to write jokes that would make other people laugh and just started doing work for myself, because that's when you start writing from the heart, and then people will get it, strangely enough, and they will respond to it much more strongly.
Jeepers, Creepers, Where'd Ya Get That Card?
Fans of The Simpsons will be scrambling about this August in search of The Simpsons II, the second card set based on the animated residents of Springfield. For those of you who have collected the cards but haven't picked up on Bongo Comics, now is the time to start. SkyBox and Bongo are teaming up in a joint effort to bring you exclusive cards available only in Bongo Comics. The cards are numbered B1-B6 and, starting with The Simpsons #4, will be inserted in the Bongo Comics. Look for the cards in The Simpsons, Radioactive Man, Itchy and Scratchy, and Bartman this summer.
Transcribed by Bruce Gomes
Last updated on December 6, 2000 by Jouni Paakkinen (firstname.lastname@example.org)