Doh! The answers to life’s problems really are on TV
By Matthew Garrahan
As a child growing up in Oregon, Matt Groening spent so much time watching television – generic, widely lampooned sitcoms such as Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best – that his teachers told him he was wasting his life.
There was something about those TV impressions of buttoned-down, postwar Americans that fascinated the young Groening, who longed for a darker, more unpredictable portrait of family life. Yet while they were bland, the programmes and their one-dimensional characters ultimately provided some of the inspiration for The Simpsons, the anarchic, animated comedy show he created and which this week was saved from cancellation at the 11th hour.
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Fox, part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, had threatened to pull the plug on The Simpsons after an acrimonious pay dispute with the actors who provide the voices for Homer, Bart and other characters. But the network unexpectedly ordered two new series, so extending the hold Groening’s creations have had over US cultural and comic life for more than two decades.
The Simpsons has passed Gunsmoke as the longest-running scripted show on US TV and will reach the landmark of 500 episodes next February. Over the years the antics of the Simpson family, particularly Homer’s struggles with marriage, fatherhood and a dead-end job at a nuclear power station, have shaped how Americans see themselves – and how the rest of the world views them.
The programme has generated billions of dollars in advertising and merchandising sales, and spawned a Hollywood film, a theme park ride and a video game. It has attracted plaudits and criticism in equal measure: Time magazine hailed it as the best TV programme of the 20th century, while in 1992 George H.W. Bush said he wanted “to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons”. In an episode that aired shortly after the then president’s comments, Homer Simpson said: “Hey, we’re just like the Waltons. We’re praying for an end to the Depression, too.”
For Groening, the show is a celebration “of the idea of the American family”. As he once explained to the BBC, family, in this sense, means “people who love each other and drive each other crazy”.
Born in Portland in 1954 – he took names for some of his characters from the city’s street names – Groening’s own childhood was a model for The Simpsons, albeit in less exaggerated terms. Homer was named after his father, a filmmaker and cartoonist who made surfing movies and would take the Groenings to Hawaii. His mother, Margaret, was a housewife although it is unclear whether she had Marge Simpson’s trademark blue beehive.
Like Bart Simpson, Groening has a younger sister called Maggie and an older sister named Lisa. He decided not to use his name in his fictional family and chose Bart because it was an anagram of brat. When it came to naming his own son, Groening chose Homer (though his son these days prefers to be known as Will).
He loved cartoons, particularly the work of Charles Schultz and his Peanuts strip – a depiction of childhood riven with loneliness and insecurity that Groening has called “one of the great works of the 20th century”. Another influence was Ronald Searle, an English artist best known for his St Trinian’s school strips. “It’s very dark and disturbing ... but as a kid I loved it,” he told the BBC.
After leaving school in Oregon, where he had begun to fine-tune his skills as a cartoon artist, Groening attended The Evergreen State College in Washington state. “Every creative weirdo in the Pacific north-west gravitated to this school and hung out there,” he once said. He met other cartoonists and edited the college newspaper. On graduating, he moved to Los Angeles, in part to be close to the heart of the film and TV industry.
While living hand to mouth in a cheap apartment – and miserable at his lack of progress – Groening began to develop characters for his Life in Hell comic strip, which he sent to friends and family in Oregon as a way of depicting his frustration at life in Los Angeles. He landed a deal with the now defunct Los Angeles Reader newspaper, where he was an editor and occasional delivery man. Life in Hell was eventually syndicated to more than 200 newspapers across the US and, crucially, caught the eye of Hollywood producer James Brooks.
When the two first met, Groening panicked, fearful of giving away the rights to Life in Hell and instead sketched The Simpsons while he was waiting to meet Brooks. After a short Simpsons skit had appeared on The Tracey Ullman Show, Brooks and Groening never looked back.
With his floppy hair, goatee beard and owlish glasses, Groening bears no physical resemblance to any of The Simpsons characters. Over time, the focus of the show has shifted from the spiky-haired young Bart Simpson, to Homer, a wisdom-defying, beer-bellied everyman who spouts philosophical pearls of wisdom like: “Trying is the first step towards failure” and “When will I learn? The answer to life’s problems aren’t at the bottom of a bottle. They’re on TV.”
For Groening, cartoons are the perfect tool to capture the inherent comic conflict in family life. “Cartooning is for people who can’t quite draw and can’t quite write,” he once told an interviewer. “You combine the two half-talents and come up with a career.” He has also shown that, when done correctly, it can be very lucrative: The Simpsons has made Groening one of the wealthiest individuals in media with a fortune estimated at more than $600m, thanks to an ongoing share in the profits generated by the show and its spin-off activities. And yet he has described its blockbuster success as a happy mistake, a by-product of the great loves in his life. “I would be doing the same thing whether or not [The Simpsons] was successful,” he once said. “I just love cartoons and I love writing.”
The writer is the FT’s Los Angeles correspondent
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011