'The Simpsons': Q&A with Matt Groening on reaching 500 episodes
"The Simpsons" aired its 500th episode Sunday, in which America's brightest yellow household was cast out of their home town of Springfield, only for the rest of Springfield to follow them to their new life off the grid (bringing the grid with them).
The broadcast included a cameo from Wikileaks founder Julian Assange — really, it did — and a "couch gag" (the bit at the end of the credits where the family sits down to watch TV) cut together in rapid-fire form from all preceding couch gags.
A week earlier, I sat down with "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening for an interview that ran in Sunday's Sunday Calendar. What follows is more of our conversation than that article could hold.
On Valentine's Day you're getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In my previous life working for the Los Angeles Reader, I used to type up the calendar section, and any time any celebrity would get a star on Hollywood Boulevard I would type up the press release. But as an investigative journalist I would actually drive to the address where the star was going to be, and I would note what store it was in front of and write, say, "Curly Joe DeRita is receiving his star in front of the Pussycat Theater," or whatever it was — Joe's Bong Shop. And I remember getting calls saying, "Please don't. Please don't put what stores are at these addresses."
Years later "The Simpsons" got a star on Hollywood Boulevard, and that was a lot of fun, and last year I got a call from someone in Fox Publicity saying they want to give me a star and I said OK, because of the absurdity of it. I've been haunted since college by the book "The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America" by Daniel J. Boorstin." It was written in 1962, and it's analysis of fake media events, and this I would consider a fake event. But Paul McCartney did it, on Thursday. It'll be fun.
It can't be something you imagined when you first came to Hollywood.
I did not. That's why I did it. I tell myself to carefully consider things that are unique opportunities. One of the "Simpsons" writers was giving me a little bit of a hard time about it because "The Simpsons" already has a star. I said that the star was for "Life in Hell" [Groening's angsty comic strip, which led via one thing and another to "The Simpsons"].
Well, since they're the same as me, surprise. I knew that I was going to continue to cartoon and write no matter what happened, no matter what lousy job I had to have. But there was no indication that it was going to work, that it was going to pay off. I gave away "Life in Hell" when it was a little 'zine, and sold it at record stores for $1, and I knew from the time that I first did it that I would continue to do it, because it was fun. So now 32 years later I'm still drawing it as a weekly comic strip, and it costs me more to produce it than I make on it, it's in so few papers. It's a losing proposition.
Where is it now?
Locally? It's in the Pasadena Weekly. I was in the L.A. Reader for seven years and then in the L.A. Weekly for 20; then the owners of the L.A. Weekly fired all the cartoonists for all their papers — and somehow I was not exempt.
[Discussion of the comic character Tintin leads to talk of Steven Spielberg's "The Adventures of Tintin" and computer-animated effects.]
You can admire the technical bravura, but it doesn't do justice to the books.
Well, I have a problem with a lot of computer-generated special effects. They can't be too slow or it looks bad, so everything's too fast. Also, for me, as a viewer, perfection is unengaging. And when you see things that are physically impossible, there's so much physically impossible imagery that can be thrown at you before you stop caring.
"The Simpsons" uses some computer technology now.
It's still hand drawn and then it's digitally inked and painted. And they use computer-y stuff for backgrounds and pseudo 3-D effects.
Is the animation done here now, or does it still go overseas?
Still goes overseas. We were one of the last holdouts for conventional cel painting, but we had dwindling numbers of animators willing to paint by hand. For a long time we tried to duplicate the look of the old way we did it — we'd dirty up the picture so it looked like there was dirt on the frame or shadows. But there's been a rising level of quality of all the animated shows, so there's an expectation that it look better. Also people have bigger TVs, and it's a different aspect ratio, and they're watching in high definition, so you need to have more to look at.
Has that changed the speed of your production?
No, We had this idea that it was going to make things easier, and it's just an exchange of one kind of drudgery for another.
Not that "The Simpsons" isn't often ironic or sardonic, but it seems to me that some of the animated comedies that came in its wake settle for those attitudes but leave out the soul.
Well, nihilism in American comedy came along way before "The Simpsons." There was a fairly nihilistic point of view to "Saturday Night Live," for instance, back in the beginning, and a lot of really dark comedy had a really anti-sentimental take on life. "The Simpson' was a mix from the very beginning — a bunch of writers and animators trying to be as funny as possible and still tell stories with heart. As to what other people do, what I like about what's going on in animation since "The Simpsons" came along is that there are a few dozen series out there that look like nothing else -- they have their own pacing, they have their own point of view, they have their own style. Now, there's a certain kind of Dumb Dad with Family template, but I don't blame the animators so much as the executives who can't think of anything else but trying to copy that template -- which by the way isn't original with our show. What Seth MacFarlane has done with his shows is not an imitation of "The Simpsons"; it completely goes its own direction, and good for him. If it were, it wouldn't have lasted.
"The Simpsons" from the very beginning was based on our memories of brash '60s sitcoms — you had a main title theme that was bombastic and grabbed your attention -- and when you look at TV shows of the 1970s and '80s things got very mild and toned down and ... obsequious. And I loved the idea of Mayberry — how in "The Andy Griffith Show" you got to know Floyd the Barber and Goober at the gas station and so on. We can do that with Springfield even more so; in animation you create your own universe, so we could populate the show with as many people as wanted. I thought it would work, but it worked better than I thought.
What are the limits of reality within that universe? Is there a point where you say, "We're over the line"?
We debate it all the time. My attitude is that things can be improbable but not physically impossible; it's OK for Homer to fall off a cliff and survive, but he's got to be pretty banged up. There's got to be blood. I always say that we can put the Simpsons in whatever situation we want as long as they behave the way somebody in that situation would behave. I think I'm the only one who really cares about that rule; we violate that rule a lot.
But you can also have Homer turn into Glenn Beck [in this season's "Politically Inept, with Homer Simpson"].
I've always called it a rubber band reality: The show can expand and contract, Homer can become a right wing TV pundit for an episode, and then seem to have forgotten it afterward — but that may be due to brain damage from working at the nuclear power plant. But every so often we have self-conscious references too — Homer remembers, "Oh, yeah, wasn't I an astronaut?"
When you've gone 23 years without your characters aging you can't worry about continuity too much.
We had a dilemma at the very beginning of the show, because the way I had originally written it was that it was timeless. And then in order to tell a story we anchored the Simpsons in time and had Marge and Homer graduate from high school in 1974; if that were true, they're pretty old now. Bart has remembered a lot of things since 1989, and yet he's 10.
Can you remember what the 100th episode felt like?
Sure. But I don't even remember which one it was. Now I feel like every new episode crowds out my memory of some previous episode somewhere in the middle of the run. I can now watch reruns of shows that I spent months with and I don't remember how they come out. It's fun to be able to reevaluate a joke not remembering the punchline.
Because of the Internet, there is constant, criticism and analysis and reckoning of the show; every single episode, someone is writing--
How horrible it is, yes.
What's it like to be under that microscope?
I love it, people feeling that they can participate in something, I think that's great. The ones who are the most passionate are generally the most critical. I attempted once to have a conversation with them via an interview with the Onion, I think, in which I talked about how in any long-running pop culture enterprise it's hard to keep up with the audience's memory of their favorite experience, because you can never have that first time, first impression again. They got out the knives after I said that. And I really think that there is something about our culture, and maybe all cultures, where you want to be behind the new thing, the thing that's struggling, the thing that's on its way up. There's nothing more fun than watching a comedian come out of nowhere and capture the nation's attention. And then a couple of years later when they're onstage in a leather tuxedo, you go, "Eh."
So has "The Simpsons" put on the leather tuxedo?
It's just a matter of the perception. Success is not charming, and the show is successful. But within the show the Simpsons themselves are still struggling.
It's become an amusement park ride now [at the Universal Studios theme parks].
I love the ride. To me the ride is like its own episode you have to be there to experience. I told my kids, who are very critical of everything I do, I said, "The Simpsons Ride will blow your mind within the first three seconds. And they said, sneering, "Knock off the hype." And they had to admit I was right.
I remember the first time I saw a kids' drawing of Bart -- it was in a classroom at Sequoia National Park, as I recall — and thinking, "Wow, this has caught on."
Here's my experience of that kind of thing. I've gone all over the place, and I sometimes overhear people talking about the show and I think should I say something, it would blow their minds. I usually don't. One time I did, at a lookout in Hawaii overlooking Waimea Canyon, these kids were talking about "The Simpsons" and how much they loved it. And I said to them, "You know, I created that show" and they got a look of terror and ran to their parents and pointed out the creep who had just talked to them. So I don't do that anymore.
Are there things you want to make sure to do before the series is over?
Yeah, there's a few things we haven't gotten to yet. But mostly it's revealing back stories of some of the characters that we've never dealt with. A couple of times I've pitched spinoffs of the show; I wanted to do a live-action Krusty the Clown show with Dan Castellaneta as Krusty -- that went nowhere. Then I had an idea for a show called "Springfield Stories," which would just be all the other characters.
Like "Winesburg, Ohio."
But you keep "The Simpsons" alive. In fact, Homer's sort of like Superman; you could do Little Homer, the adventures of Homer as a boy, and teen Homer. I'd tune into that. Though the idea of thinking, "OK, what extra work can we do?" doesn't seem that appealing. We did "The Simpsons Movie," which took almost four years; it was the same people that do the TV show, and it just killed us. So that's why there hasn't been a second movie. But I imagine if the show ever does go off the air, they'll start doing movies.
Looking back, do you see the series as being divided into distinct eras?
I see it as having gone through basically three periods. One was the funky first season which all the Simpsonmania of the summer of 1990 was based on, when it seemed like every street corner in New York City had a bootleg Simpsons T-shirt for sale. And then the next two or three or four seasons we felt like we figured out what we were doing and we made it faster. And then the last long period, from Season 6 or 7 until now, is very, very confident: all-stars doing their best, actors knowing the characters, writers trying to not repeat what the writers before them had done, and the animators getting better and better at their craft. With a note that we're not the new kid in town and haven't been for a couple of decades now, so we have to we try to not fall back on catch phrases and things we done before which I think die-hard fans miss and at the same time keep the characters real emotionally, and even that we toy with because we can't resist a good joke.
How has the turnover in writers affected the show over the years?
Actually, very few leave — I don't know whatever happened to Brad Bird or Conan O'Brien. I think the writers enjoy the creative freedom they get working on a show where anything you can think of can be visualized, and the fact that the show operates completely without network interference. We hear nightmare stories of the nonsensical or contradictory notes that other TV shows get. It's hard enough just doing the work; but when you feel like you're one step forward, two steps back, I can't imagine.
We do have a few younger writers who have basically grown up watching the show, and one of their values, beyond being funny, is they have a real good memory of things we've done before. Although no one can beat Al Jean, the show runner, who seems to have every fact about the Simpsons in his head and can recite production script numbers at parties.
It was Al Jean who said "This means war!" when Simpsons dolls were recently banned in Iran. What are your thoughts?
It's easy to poke fun at the trivial nature of it, but I'm very troubled by the anti-art stance of the Iranian government. Right now the director of one of my all-time movies, "The White Balloon," a guy named Jafar Panahi, has been sentenced to six years in prison, is forbidden to make films for 20 years, along with his collaborator, Mohammad Rasoulof; they're under house arrest, as far as last I read. It looks like they're going to go to prison for six years each. For me the Iranian cinema is among the best in the world. This new film, "A Separation," by a guy named Asghar Farhadi., is up for best foreign language film at the Oscars; I think it's the best film of the year. So "The Simpsons" dolls being banned is, like, we can take it. They should just let their filmmakers make good movies.
Photo: Matt Groening and his "Simpsons" likeness. Credit: Fox.