As a child and into his college years, Matt Groening was a sponge — yellow, if you like, to match the dominant color of his most famous creation, the Simpson family.
He soaked up everything — television, music, popular culture, unpopular culture.
And then, when Groening arrived in Southern California in 1977, fresh out of Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., he just started squeezing. It would be nearly a decade before he wrung out “The Simpsons,” but the show nevertheless was more a product of Groening’s youth and innate passion than any life experiences he absorbed as a grown-up.
“It’s not so much an autobiography as a fantasy of all the TV shows I watched growing up as a kid, combined with what I wished I’d seen,” Groening says. “I loved ‘Leave It to Beaver,’ but my favorite character on ‘Leave It to Beaver’ was Eddie Haskell, the sarcastic evil kid. And I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there were a show called ‘Son of Eddie Haskell,’ and it was about Eddie Haskell as a dad with a kid twice as awful as he was.
“I loved the idea of storytelling. I loved the idea of multiple characters. Another inspiration for ‘The Simpsons’ was ‘The Andy Griffith Show,’ with all the various characters in the small town, Floyd the barber and so on. It was fun to come back and see different people. I loved ‘SCTV,’ which had (the fictional city) Melonville and various TV shows.”
Not long after arriving in Los Angeles — “It was either going to be New York or L.A., and I thought it would be easier to starve in warmth” — Groening did get a meeting with a major studio producer. As much as he was driven toward the screen as a child, this encounter nearly drove him away.
“When I sat down,” Groening recalls, “he said, ‘I’m a completely duplicitous asshole, and nothing I say can be trusted. Now, what are your ideas for movies?’ ”
The effect of this “dispiriting” meeting was to reinforce in Groening that the joy of writing mattered more than the medium. He was a born storyteller. Although the last thing he suffered from was overconfidence, he was inherently motivated.
“You read biographies of successful people, and there’s sort of a faith that things were always going to work out,” Groening says. “I never had that. I knew that whatever happened in my life, I was going to continue to do my work, but I didn’t see any reason to expect it was going to turn out successfully.
“I was doomed to write. I did not even think of the possibility of making a living with my drawings, because I just didn’t think I was very good. There were no mentors standing in the background saying, ‘You know, you’ve really got something with those bulgy-eyes doodles that you’re doing.'”
Hell and heaven
As it turned out, Groening did have something, though the “Life in Hell” comic that first showcased his style didn’t put Groening in any Mr. Burns-style mansions — nor did it save him from other dead-end (if humorous) scribblings.
“I worked every month until I covered the rent,” Groening says. “I wrote copy lines for movie posters (at one point). They never got used — I wasn’t very good. The first job I was working on was ‘The Return of the Living Dead.’ My brilliant copy line was, ‘First they want to meet you, then they want to eat you.’ ”
“The other one was, ‘Why did the Zombies cross the road? To get to the other side — to eat some humans.’ ”
By 1985, producer James L. Brooks became familiar with Groening’s comic work and contacted him about developing animated bumpers for “The Tracey Ullman Show.” Keeping the “Life in Hell” characters for himself, Groening sketched out the Simpson fivesome — relying on his family to inspire the characters and his overflowing imagination for the stories.
“I do have a younger sister Lisa and younger sister Maggie, and my mother Margaret — not Marge — did have a quite tall beehive hairdo, but it isn’t blue, and it wasn’t quite as tall as Marge’s. I would say the autobiographical element of ‘The Simpsons’ from the very beginning was the sibling rivalry between Bart and Lisa; I guess I had some jousting with my sister Lisa. My youngest sister Maggie did have a blue sleepsuit and a pacifier, and when she would walk, she would trip over the blue sleepsuit. That’s about it.
“There are many tiny incidents that came from real life, but they also came from everyone else that has written from the show.”
Four hundred episodes after the Simpson family successfully spun off into its own series, Groening has been amply rewarded, creatively and fiscally. As much as anything, though, the success of “The Simpsons” remains a happy accident, one of a string of dominoes that began from his childhood.
“I spent so many hours wasting my time in front of the TV as a kid that unless I created a TV show, that meant that all those hours were wasted. But you know,” he adds, laughing, “I can say that was all research.”