...and when the doctor said I didn’t have worms any more, that was the happiest day of my life.— Ralph
"Most grown-ups forget what it was like to be a kid. I vowed I would never forget," says the 40 year-old cartoonist. This very same man reared The Simpsons and helped bring them to life. Although, he prefers to think of himself as "a writer who just happens to be a cartoonist."
Matt Groening was born in Portland, Oregon on 15th February 1954. His father, a cartoonist himself, encouraged his son's primitive doodlings. Matt enjoyed drawing from an early age, but felt a strong loathing for coloring books, mainly because he was not able to stay inside the lines. In primary school, little left-handed Matt drew cartoons when he should have been paying attention, which left strange gaps in his education. To this day, he does not know his state capitals, and do not bother asking him to multiply any numbers between 7 and 13. He'll just stare at you blankly.
In high school, Matt continued his frivolous ways. He drew cartoons in every class, even Physical Education, injuring himself severely while doodling on the parallel bars. Until he was kicked off the staff, Matt drew cartoons for the school newspaper. Feeling the revolutionary enthusiasm of the time, Matt and his hippie pals formed their own political party, the Teens for Decency. Responding to the campaign slogan, "If You're Against Decency, Then What Are You For?" his confused classmates elected Matt Student Body President and immediately regretted it.
Matt attended the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, taking full advantage of the school's no-grade, no-required-courses policies. There he met fellow cartoonist Lynda Barry, who inspired Matt to keep plugging away at doing cartoons when he was unsure of himself. He graduated in 1977 and drove to Los Angeles to become a writer, where his car broke down in the fast lane of the Hollywood Freeway just above the Vine Street exit at 2 am, later inspiring "Life in Hell", Matt's first cartoon series.
However, things did not happen quite as he planned. Instead of writing newspaper or magazine articles, he worked as a chauffeur and "biographer" for an 88-year-old director of bad movies. Groening drove the man around and listened to his stories. In the evening, he typed up notes about the stories. This was not a very good start for a hopeful writer.
He lived in a small apartment. The guy downstairs liked to play loud rock 'n' roll in the middle of the night. At first, Matt tried to get back at him by blasting reggae music. He finally got his point across by dropping a cinder block on the floor, which knocked out his noisy neighbor's ceiling light. But this small victory didn't make up for his other disappointments. Matt could not stand the Los Angeles smog and unattractive vistas. In addition, his lack of professional progress was a big letdown.
So, for relief, he decided to send a message to his friends back home. It wasn't a boring letter telling about his unhappiness. Instead, it was a comic book about life in Los Angeles. He called it "Life in Hell". The comic strip starred Binky, the lonely buck-toothed rabbit (In 1985, he told Los Angeles magazine that Binky was the "stupidest" name he could think of) and it soon became an underground success in L.A. Matt found himself making 500 copies instead of 20. In 1980, the strip started to appear in the Los Angeles Reader, a weekly paper where Matt worked as an editor/delivery man.
But many readers were annoyed by Binky's habit of yelling about hip slang like "boogie" and ambience." To stir more interest in the strip, Matt changed the rabbit from a grump to a victim. "The second my characters began to be tortured and alienated, the popularity began," he told Newsweek in 1987. "The more I tortured them, the more the readers loved me." The adventures of Binky - and his girlfriend Sheba and one-eared son Bongo - struck a chord. The strip is not the best drawn in the world. That's OK. The words are the real attraction. Groening often crams every spare bit of space around his drawings with text.
The comic strip is still running and currently appears in about 250 newspapers around the world, much to Matt's amazement. There have also been eight "Life in Hell" books published, all but one with the word "hell" in the title. The book Matt was recently working on in the series is titled "Binky's Guide To Love", a cynical view of love and human relations, which is basically what the entire series is about.
In 1985, renowned film and television producer James L. Brooks, who also founded Gracie Films, showed interest in Matt's work and asked him if he would be interested in working on some animated projects in the future for his comedy series The Tracey Ullman Show. Matt accepted the offer, and a meeting was set to discuss it further. 15 minutes before the meeting took place, he was told he had to come up with something new and original. As the legend goes, while waiting in Brook's foyer he hurriedly sketched a quirky looking family consisting of one father, one mother, two girls and one boy - and named them each after his own family members (with the exception of Bart).
In the meeting, the executives liked what they saw, but they wanted to know a little more. Groening recalls: "They asked me: 'What does the father do?' and I answered, 'He works at a nuclear plant.' They laughed, and then I knew we were in."
Matt currently lives in Los Angeles with his radiant wife, Deborah Caplan; his sons Homer and Abe; and more pet ducks than you can shake a stick at.