About 25 years ago, aspiring cartoonist Matt Groening drove to Los Angeles in a beat-up car with dreams of being an “overpaid cartoonist or writer.” On the first day of his arrival, his car stalled in the fast lane of the 101 Freeway around midnight. Life-in-hellish, humble beginnings don’t get any better than that.
The story of how counterculture guru Groening caught the attention of James L. Brooks, who used his animated shorts about a dysfunctional family in Fox’s edgy “The Tracey Ullman Show” and changed the status of animation in primetime, is a tale wide-eyed dreamers like to repeat as a mantra.
“You can say that I provided the transition to today’s reality-show mania,” jokes Groening, creator of “The Simpsons” and its equally witty cousin from outer space, “Futurama.”
Obviously, the Portland, Ore., native is being modest. “The Simpsons” will start its 13th season on Fox this fall, making it one of the longest-running sitcoms in television history. Over-achieving toon (17 Emmys) has earned Fox’s parent company, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., well over a billion dollars and has played a significant role in Fox’s growth over the past decade.
“James L. Brooks reinvented the family entertainment by having jokes for different members of the family,” notes Groening. “We knew the show would be a hit with kids because of Bart and his personality, but we also write a lot of sophisticated jokes to make the grown-ups pay attention as well. We were also able to break a lot of rules because the show was staffed by people who hadn’t worked on animation before. I also work without notes from the network … and that’s a true recipe for purity of vision.”
After building a huge merchandising empire, Groening, along with former “Simpsons” showrunner David X. Cohen, dreamed up “Futurama,” which riffs on popular science fiction themes and ideas. Despite Fox’s fickle handling of the show (the net switched it around a few times, only to have it land on an odd 7 p.m. Sunday timeslot), the series has developed a faithful following. Groening’s work has also opened the door for other irreverent toons such as “South Park” and “The King of the Hill,” who arguably have never matched the comic and literate heights of Springfield’s lot.
At 47, Groening doesn’t show any signs of running out of ideas. He says he still enjoys squeezing in sneaky details for fanatics and coming up with new storylines, but he’s equally enthused about bringing his yellow-skinned family to the bigscreen.
“I have worked on three major projects in my adult life, ‘Life in Hell,’ ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘Futurama,’ ” Groening points out, “so the idea of getting off that weekly treadmill and doing something that has a definite end is very enticing to me.”