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LA Weekly Cover Story Matt Groening: Life Is Swell

Simpsons News — Posted 25 Jul, 2007 by Scott

If you live in the LA area then make sure to pick up this week's free copy of LA Weekly. In his 30 Los Angeles years, Matt Groening has never been busier than he’s been over the past few months: The Simpsons recently broadcast its 400th episode and shows no signs of slowing down. Futurama’s back in production (although not necessarily for prime time). He’s got a new book out, an empire to oversee, his Life in Hell deadline each week, two teenage sons and, of course, The Simpsons Movie.

It takes us two months of scheduling, but eventually Groening and I arrive at his beach house, at sunset. I’ve been here once before, for late-night pizza and beer with six or seven others after a mutual friend’s art opening. This familiarity saves us a good 10 minutes of precious interview time — 10 minutes I’d otherwise have to spend jaw-dropping and eye-popping; it’s that kind of a house. Huge, but not ostentatious; just big and friendly, with high ceilings, good light, good art and beverages. We grab a few beers and head out back, along the stepping stones and past the pool to a pair of immense sliding walls. Groening opens one, I open the other, and we’re left standing on sand about 40 feet from the Pacific, with nothing between us and the water, and nothing between the water and the sky.

We stand there below the steps — two broad slabs of rough-hewn timber embedded in the sand, separating home from beachfront. We sip our beers. We say “Oh, man” and sigh several times.

Groening considers a nearby melon-size boulder.

“This rock has moved,” he says. “A few days ago, it was over here. The ocean is powerful.” I point out a set of seagull prints that lead directly to the rock. He nods.

Groening’s concerned about my recording device’s ability to distinguish our voices from the crash of extremely nearby waves.

“Want to sit in the kitchen?” he asks.

“Sure. But can we wait until . . . ?”

“Yeah. Let’s wait until the sun goes down a little bit more.”

We settle in on the steps and I notice, between us, a pair of mangled, lens-free black plastic sunglasses.

“These yours?” I ask, picking them up, examining, mumbling, “probably not,” and putting them down again, albeit not in the same place.

“Wait!” Groening tries to stop me.

“What? I put them back wrong?”

“Wow!” Groening picks up the frames and adjusts his glasses to better observe the source of the wow. “Wow,” he repeats — a different wow — as he seems to arrive at an understanding.

“What?”

“Aww,” he says. “How sad!”

“I’m not going to let it affect me.”

“There’s a story behind these,” says Groening, setting the frames aside. “When I was a kid, something like that would make me have to think about where they came from. You know?”

“I do,” I say. “I have a case of the pathological background empathies too. If someone starts crying — like a kid lost in Kmart — I have to suppress the urge to join in.”

“If I hear a kid crying, I go check and see if the parent’s abusing the kid.”

“Well, yeah.”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah,” I say, “I was not abused, physically, as a child.”

“Good.”

“Yourself?”

“No,” says Groening. “I was not abused.”

“That’s good.”

“My father did not strangle me, unlike with Homer and Bart. That came from The Katzenjammer Kids. I recall, vaguely, the Captain strangling Hans and Fritz.”

“Like this, or like this?”

“Like this.”

In 1977, after graduating from The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, 23-year-old Portland native Matt Groening (rhymes with “raining”) drove to Los Angeles to write and draw. He did, and ended up creating many fine and notable things, including a comic strip, Life in Hell, which has run in the L.A. Weekly for 20-plus years and, before that, in the Los Angeles Reader (where Groening also worked as a proofreader, paste-up artist, editor, critic and columnist); the cult-favorite television series Futurama; and the most subversive network show ever to launch a vast intergalactic merchandising empire, The Simpsons.

The subversion began to take form in 1985, when producer James L. Brooks (Taxi, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Terms of Endearment) contacted Groening to see if he’d be interested in developing a series of animated Life in Hell bumpers — short transitions between the main program and commercials — for The Tracey Ullman Show. Groening was interested, but also concerned about losing the rights to his beloved, rabbit-style creations. So just before a pitch meeting with Fox executives, he quickly sketched out some new characters — a family of five humanoids, which he named after members of his own family, substituting an anagram of “brat” for the character of the son, based somewhat on himself but mostly on his older brother.

In 1987, the Simpsons shorts began a two-year run on Ullman’s show, during which Groening, Brooks and Brooks’ colleague Sam Simon developed the half-hour version, which debuted on December 17, 1989, and hasn’t stopped since.

On the few occasions that we’ve spoken over the past 10 or 12 years, Groening has always appeared conspicuously and genuinely modest. No matter how fast he speaks, how excited he gets, something about him remains low key. This is not a man who set out to conquer the world and become a rich bastard. This is a neobeatnik surfer-scientist art-dude man, who, by his own estimation, was in the right place at the right time.

As the sun sinks lower and the bottles grow lighter, we talk of early comics and cartoons. I have a small collection of 16 mm shorts — mostly Fleischer Studios and early Warner Bros. cartoons, which I inherited from my older brother before the dawn of home video. I have no projector or room to store them in. Groening has both, and he offers the collection a loving new home and, perhaps, a screening later this summer.

“Most of my dad’s stuff is on 16 mm,” says Groening, whose father, Homer, was a professional filmmaker, as well as a writer and cartoonist. “Almost all of his movies had to do with water — surfing, mostly; skiing, underwater films. It was the 1960s, and he went back and forth between doing these very commercial, promotional films to pay the bills, and doing these kind of arty, sort of one-step-removed-from-underground films that were just abstract images of water and surfing. One of his best films is called A Study in Wet, from 1964. The soundtrack is a musical composition that consists only of water dripping into bathtubs, organized into a rhythmic and melodic composition. It’s an amazing movie.”

After more than 400 episodes over 18 seasons, there’s constant pressure on The Simpsons writers and producers to invent new ways to be funny, top themselves and surprise the rest of us. And while Groening hasn’t been the show runner since season three, he continues to oversee things as executive producer, creative consultant and all-around big cheese. The pressure’s still on.

“Do you ever see The Simpsons not being around?” I ask.

“If I got hit by a truck tomorrow,” says Groening, “The Simpsons would continue on indefinitely. There doesn’t seem to be any end in sight. And sometimes, you know, I go, ‘Is my work redundant? Am I just doing the same thing again and again and again?’ But I feel like every week I learn something new — I learn something about writing, I learn something about other people, I learn about storytelling, I learn new jokes. And it’s entertainment, for me. I get to be on the scene where these brilliant people are making this amazing show, and, Oh, yeah — I created it! That is to say, I got the ball rolling, and now it’s a snowball that keeps on picking up speed. It’s really fun! And . . . it’s not very charming to be having such a good time.”

“You with your fun — you’re not charming.”

“You need to be tormented! You’re supposed to be tormented!”

“I don’t know,” I say. “I’m starting to think torment’s overrated. What about . . . do you ever feel guilty? Like, there’s just too many good things?”

“Of course there’s guilt. But on the other hand, I think to myself, ‘Look. The world is full of talented people who don’t get the credit they deserve. And then there’s me: I’m one of those people who gets more credit than I deserve.’ So I go, ‘Well . . . very few people have that experience! It’s very nice!’ So do I feel guilty? Yes. Do I admit it? Yes. And then I move on.”

Groening adds that, in spite of all his success, he’s still a working stiff. As we speak, he’s past his deadline on his next Life in Hell comic strip, which was due yesterday and which he hasn’t started yet. He also says that, in more than two decades of writing the strip, he’s never once set foot inside the L.A. Weekly offices.

“Wait. You’ve never been to the Weekly?! Even the old building?”

“Never been to the Weekly offices. I’m sure very nice people work there, but! Here’s the thing: I used to work at the Reader, and I noticed — and also in hanging out at small radio stations, and any kind of operation where there’s a lot of very intense work for a lot of personal satisfaction but not necessarily great reward — that people go crazy. Maybe this is true of everything, but I certainly noticed it at small weekly newspaper offices. The office politics get really crazy, and they certainly got crazy where I used to work — so crazy that the Reader fired me. I had sold my comic strip to the Pasadena Weekly — which was nowhere near where the Reader distributed its paper — for $10 a week. And the Reader said, ‘You must quit that paper, because, contractually, you can’t be published anywhere else in Los Angeles County.’


Mmmm . . . movie promotional tie-ins are sprinklicious. (Photo by Michelle Ngo) “I said, ‘I’d understand if there was an overlap in the distribution — that would make sense. But this is 10 bucks! And that means a lot to me!’ They said, ‘Nope — a contract’s a contract.’ So I said, ‘That’s fine, but when my contract is up in two months, then I’m going into Pasadena.’ Then they said, ‘Okay, fine, you’re fired.’ And I said, ‘Well, then I’m gonna sell my strip to the L.A. Weekly.’ And they said, ‘Not for two months, you’re not.’ After that, I decided, ‘You know what? For all I know, they’re lunatics at the L.A. Weekly too. So I’ll just mail in my cartoon and not find out.’ All I know is that the last time I showed up at a newspaper office, I got fired.”

“By the way,” Groening says, “no one has noticed this, but if you look in the upper left-hand corner of my comic strip, it no longer says Life in Hell.”

“What does it say?”

“Life Is Swell.”

“No it doesn’t.”

“Yes it does. I changed it in 2007.”

“In the large type?”

“In my little Japanese calligraphy pen which I misuse to make that scribbly look. It says Life Is Swell. Why? Well, I got sick of the word ‘hell’ as a comedy term about 15 years ago. But it was my trademark, my thing. So I was looking for a positive election in which I would change the name. I even put it in the strip. I can’t remember which election it was — Gore or Kerry — but I said, ‘If the election turns out the way I want it to, I will change the name of the strip to Life Is Swell.’ Then I kept it Hell until after the 2006 election. I thought, ‘Okay, I’m happy enough with the midterms, so I’ll change it in 2007.’ Like I said, nobody notices. I just think ‘swell’ is a funny word.”

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