Matt Groening is sitting at the back of a sunny classroom in Ainsworth Elementary School, Portland, Oregon. He is ten and his teacher is asking the pupils to recite spellings from the blackboard. Matt’s eyes are fixed like darts on the chalk but his hands are fidgeting frantically. He is doodling. The wobbly shapes have bulging eyes and squiggly overbites – it’s impossible to draw straight lines without looking. No one has any idea that one day these blobby figures will become the most recognisable cartoons on the planet.
Forty-eight years later and Groening, now worth over US$500 million, is about to speak to us from his luxury studio in Santa Monica, California, the home of Matt Groening Productions. Cheery country music plays on hold before Groening bursts onto the line with a bouncy "Hi!". The image of a gregarious child, who drew cartoons before he was able to read, is easy to summon.
Groening grew up surrounded by art supplies – paints, paper, inks and brushes – that belonged to his German-American father, Homer, also a cartoonist. The middle child of five, young Matt would pore over his father’s backcopies of Punch magazine, studying the complicated and darkly whimsical imagery of British cartoonists Ronald Searle and Roland Emmett.
"I didn’t understand their cartoons because I couldn’t read, so I used to make up my own stories," says Groening. "Little fairy tales – 'and then the hapless child escaped and lived happily ever after on top of the hill'." Groening’s own story is not the most conventional fairytale, but it has seen him go from printing and distributing his own comics among friends to creating one of the most watched television shows on earth. Last month he became the 2,459th star to adorn the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Groening’s big break came in 1987, at the age of 31, when he was working on his self-published comic strip Life in Hell. (The comic, now in its 32nd year, has been syndicated to magazine titles around the world, including Time Out New York.) When James L Brooks, the Oscar-winning producer of Terms of Endearment, was shown a copy by a fellow producer, he approached Groening with the idea of adapting the comic for a series of short animated skits on the Fox Network’s The Tracey Ullman Show. Groening, reluctant to give up the imaging rights to Life in Hell, instead pitched an alternative concept – The Simpsons – in Brooks’ office lobby. The skits were a success and when Ullman’s show expired two years later, The Simpsons lived on.
Groening’s baby is now just a month short of its 25th birthday, so is he still a hands-on figure in the production room? In an interview with Time Out London in 2007, Groening stated that "I write every word and draw every cell." Five years later, he’s relinquished much of the control. "I still poke my head in when needed," he says. "I work mostly on the writing, but I try working on episodes at the very end and the very beginning." And yet Groening confesses to us, jokingly, that a trip to Shanghai this month is making him nervous about leaving the show unattended.
Groening has reason to be nervous these days. In October 2011 it was reported that the longest-running sitcom in the history of broadcasting might stop production at the end of its 23rd season, this spring. Owing to rising production costs, the Fox Network threatened to pull the plug if the team refused to take a 45 percent pay cut. The issue has since been resolved, with each of the principal actors – Dan Castellaneta (Homer, Grampa Simpson, Krusty the Clown), Julie Kavner (Marge), Nancy Cartwright (Bart) and Yeardley Smith (Lisa) – still set to take home a reported US$4 million per annum.
Nevertheless, it was a warning shot for Groening. "There are economic reasons that might compel us to stop," he admits. "There are people who are crunching numbers and making a case for stopping, but I love doing it and don’t want it to end for as long as it’s good. If the show end sit won’t be because of me. I’m determined to make it work as long as we can."
Not that such threats have seen The Simpsons cosy up to its network – the show regularly parodies the right wing agenda of Fox News and its owner Rupert Murdoch. In 2003, The Simpsons ran a spoof news ticker, ‘Do Democrats cause cancer? Find out at foxnews.com...’, inciting threats of legal action from Fox News, which were subsequently dropped.
Groening’s response is characteristically unapologetic. "It’s fun biting the hand that feeds us," he says. "We love making fun of Fox. It’s so laughable and over the top and plays to all the stereotypes you can imagine about right wing prudes. It’s about people who are snide and arrogant and pretend they’re victims at the same time" – he catches himself – "of course it’s nothing to do with the Fox Network." So have they ever got into real trouble? "We’ve never been asked to tone anything down. [Murdoch] has always been gracious on a personal level."
As with the Punch magazines that Groening loved as a child, subversive political satire has underpinned The Simpsons’ success, which has in turn enabled them to pull in cameos from figures like Tony Blair, Mark Zuckerberg and even Rupert Murdoch himself. The delicious irony of such guest appearances is not lost on Groening. "The fact that they love to do it makes me really happy; the idea that we have taken this cartoon that is very anti-elitist, and get some of the most sophisticated guest stars," says Groening, who cites his favourite as Thomas Pynchon, the author of Gravity’s Rainbow famous for his Salinger-esque seclusion (in the show he appears with a paper bag on his head).
Perhaps even more surprising than Pynchon’s appearance however, is the cameo in the recent 500th episode from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. "It’s an odd choice," says Groening, stressing that he had "next to nothing to do with" the inclusion of one of the world’s most controversial media figures and that Assange approached them rather than the other way around. Nevertheless, does Assange’s cameo suggest a tacit support for his actions? "I’m concerned about privacy and diplomacy and security and all the rest so I don’t know, but in general I would lean towards openness and lack of secrets," says Groening.
As absurd as The Simpsons can get, Groening says that a measure of sincerity and realism has been integral to its enduring success. "I always say you can put TheSimpsons in whatever situation you want, but they should react as one really would in that situation. If they don’t, which is how a lot of comedy works, then for me it’s not funny. The charm is that they always get their comeuppance, and there’s partly a bit of wish fulfillment on the part of you guys watching someone who is ruled by their impulses. We’ve found that pain is funny but anger is not. For example, when Homer is strangling his son, he has to go from zero-90mph in an instant. If it’s slow and methodical then Homer is considering the anger and it’s not funny – it probably says something very bad about our society."
Regardless of whether it reflects badly or otherwise, there’s little doubt that nearly a quarter of a century on from its inception, The Simpsons still possesses an uncanny knack for capturing contemporary life.