ARTICLE: Matt Groening, cartoonist, creator of "The Simpsons" (LONG)

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Mar 26, 1990, 5:18:27 PM3/26/90

For all of you Simpsons fans out there.

The following article is from Northwest Magazine, The Sunday Oregonian's
magazine section, March 25, 1990 issue. Reprinted here without permission.

-----Begin Article-----


First "Life in Hell," then "The Simpsons." Matt Groening's cruisin' now.
But growing up in Portland was a real gut ache. Radical, dude.

By Thomas J. Meyer

April 6: "7 people got in trouble today, including me."
April 22: "People got in trouble 26 times today."
May 3: "I have to write, `I must remember to be quiet in class,' 500
times and turn it in tomorrow."
May 7: "I'm making a graph of how many times people get in trouble in

Matt Groening sits in the principal's office at Ainsworth Elementary
School in Portland [Oregon], scribbling into a tiny green spiral notebook.
It is 1966. Matt is 12. He is driven by two forces: a strong sense of
drama and a strong sense of self-pity. He channels those impulses in
left-handed scrawl into his first diary, a daily chronicle of the crimes and
punishments of a sixth-grader.

For Matt, Ainsworth School is oppressive, stifling, a place where
anything that deviates from the homework assignment is discouraged. He's
often so afraid to go to school that his father, Homer Groening, gives him a
pep talk on the drive up Vista Avenue every morning. "Remember," Homer
says, "you are a good boy."

Matt's teachers don't always see it that way. They confiscate his
cartoons and send him out of the room for unruly behavior. He reads World
War II escape books, fantasizing that the school is a prison camp and
devising elaborate escape plans.

Today, 20-some years later, a grown-up Groening still spends his time
dramatizing the events of everyday life and wallowing in its angst. As a
result, he's developed two phenonmenally successful creative outlets -- the
weekly comic strip "Life in Hell," and the new animated TV show "The

His singular voice -- honed during his recalcitrant years in Portland
Heights -- suddenly is in huge demand. Virtually overnight, the show
Groening created has become the year's most acclaimed new program -- "the
first cathode ray of real brilliance on the horizon of '90s TV," according
to the Village Voice. His 10-year-old comic strip now appears in more than
200 newspapers nationwide, including The Oregonian's Friday A&E section.

At 36, Groening (pronounced "graining") retains the frowzy disposition
of a teen-ager: straight, light-brown hair in a rough cut that leaves his
bangs hanging over his eyes; glasses with chunky black frames that look more
like a toy than an optical instrument. His wardrobe -- always New Balance
sneakers, baggy pants and an untucked Hawaiian shirt -- occasionally
provokes security guards to stop him on his way into work to ask him for
identification. He keeps a Nentendo set hooked up in his office.

He speaks softly and thoughtfully and with great deliberateness. But
even in his most articulate moments, his sentences are laced with such
modifiers as "cool" and "groovy" and "amazing."

None of this is a coincidence.

In his youth, Groening's teachers and classmates constantly warned him
that he was wasting his life screwing around. Rather than give in, he made
a decision: to keep on playing for the rest of his life. As it turns out,
the attitude that didn't fly in his first childhood is playing to a packed
house the second time around.

His success comes in part because culture has come around to the same
ironic point of view that showed up in Matt Groening's boyhood diary. The
most critically acclaimed comedy shows on television -- from "Late Night
with David Letterman" to "It's Gary Shandling's Show" -- share the same
detached, subversive viewpoint Groening has expressed for years. The
popular hero of "The Simpsons," fourth-grader Bart, is the sort of smart but
troublesome kid who has to stay after school writing "I will not waste
chalk" on the blackboard -- a kid like Matt Groening was.

"Matt had a '90s sense of humor a long time ago." says his college
classmate and fellow cartoonist Lynda Barry. "He created his own element,
and then other people dove in."

These are the things that got Matt Groening in trouble when he was a

At age 5, he hopped on an abandoned flatcar on the Washington Park Zoo
railway and rode it until a police car pulled up and two officers chased him
through the woods.

In first grade, he once shrieked so loudly during school recess that
his teacher sent him to the principal as punishment for possession of a

In sixth grade, he was back in the principal's office for tossing an
encyclopedia out a second story window.

"That's what I remember from school, my history of getting in trouble,"
Groening says now, sitting in a corner of his home studio in Los Angeles,
recalling each incident with drama and clarity.

As a result of his unhappiness in school, most of his creativity
evolved outside the classroom. He started a group called the Creature Club,
whose members spent long hours drawing cartoons, building haunted housed and
devising complex fantasies such as the imaginary civilization called
Slugonia, populated entirely by slugs.

He got encouragement for his creativity at home, in part because his
father had been a cartoonist himself in the late '40s, mostly producing
single-panel gags. Later, Homer Groening entered the advertising business
-- he handeled the Jantzen account in the '50s -- and became a filmmaker,
producing industrial films for companies such as Thermos and Tupperware.

Groening was born in 1954 in Portland, the third of Homer and Margaret
Groening's five children. They lived in a five-bedroom house on an isolated
dead-end streen in Arlington Heights so close to the zoo that Matt could
hear the lions roaring at night.

On Christmas and children's birthdays, Homer Groening would stock up on
colored pencils and sketch pads at J.K.Gill. Rather than read children's
books to his kids, he'd make up the beginning of a story and they would
create the rest.

As a result, Matt wasn't the only one who ended up in a creative field.
Oldest sister Patty, who lives in Portland, is a graphic artist; younger
sister Lisa, now in Los Angeles, formerly worked as a TV producer at KATU;
Maggie, the youngest, is a children's textbook editor in New York. Matt's
older brother, Mark, drives a cab in Seattle.

By the time Matt was in eighth grade, Ainsworth's principal let Matt's
parents know that it was time to move on. The best thing that could happen
to Ainsworth and to Matt, he said, was for him to graduate. "He said it in
a kind of nice, friendly way," Margaret Groening recalls.

Matt Groening hit Lincoln High School at a propitious time. The
politics of the late '60s helped nurture the rebellious streak that still
shows up in his work and personality. "It was the most encouraging time to
be a kid in opposition to authority," he says. "All the groovy stuff was
going on with the disobedient kids."

He played football for two years but quit after teammates criticized
him for taking part in anti-war protests. He spurned the social
gamesmanship of high school but made enough friends that when he started his
own school political party, "Teens for Decency" -- a parody of a local
Christian group at the time -- he was elected student body president. (The
party slogan: "If you're against decency, what are you for?")

Disturbed by the oppressive nature of his early education, Groening
chose a college that had no grades, no exams and no required classes. At
Evergreen State College, in Olympia [Washington], he studied philosophy,
literature and history but put much of his energy into his job as the
school's newspaper editor. The paper became the first regular forum for his
cartoons, but more than that, Groening turned the sleepy Cooper Point
Journal into a muckraking scandal sheet that regularly attacked the state
legislature and public figures.

"It started to look like the National Enquirer," recalls cartoonist
Lynda Barry, an Evergreen classmate, and still one of Groening's best
friends. "It divided the campus into the people who would actually make
signs and march around, and the people who would laugh so hard they'd throw

As he left college and headed for Southern California, Groening had two
goals: He didn't want to do anything in life that required credentials, and
he never wanted to write a resume'.

Matt Groening's career started with a series of disasters. At midnight
on the night he drove into Los Angeles in 1977, his green '72 Datsun broke
down in the fast lane of the Hollywood Freeway. He found work as a movie
extra but nearly collapsed on the day he had to run around in a tight wool
suit in 100-degree weather. After responding to a want ad for a "writer,"
he ended up a chauffer for an octogenarian movie director who dictated his
memoirs as Matt drove. He quit after a few weeks.

The harsh transition from the Northwest to Southern California helped
inspire Groening's comic strip, "Life in Hell." "When I moved to LA," he
says, "I saw how ugly ugliness could get."

He recorded his observations about Los Angeles and sent them in the
form of cartoon books to his friends in Oregon. He sold photo copies of the
strips in the Sunset Boulevard record shop where he worked.

The star of the strip was a crudely drawn rabbit named Binky -- "a
stand-in for me ranting about what annoyed me." But after a few months,
Groening changed the rabbit's disposition, making him less an angst-ridden
complainer and more a victim. "The more horrible things I did to that
rabbit," says Groening, "the more people liked it."

Groening delivered newspapers and sold classified advertisements for
the Los Angeles Reader, then a new alternative weekly newspaper. In 1980,
he became an editor, and the paper made "Life in Hell" a weekly feature.

The comic strip has been marked by its subtle blend of the lighter and
darker sides of the human psyche. It features cute cartoon animals, but
they rattle on about very human depression and deep-seated fears. It
entertains and amuses not by lightly poking fun, but by hitting on piercing,
personal and universal human truths. It thrives on the humor of recognition
-- the pleasure readers take in seeing their own reflections.

"Is there a `Life in Hell' philosophy?" asks one strip, then answers
with four aphorisms: "Your days are numbered." "It's later than you think."
"We're all doomed." "Have a nice day."

The strip is full of the cartoonist's pet peeves -- which are too
numerous here. One installment, entitled "Warning Signs," lists a few:
balloon animals, sunglasses after dark, vacation slide shows and lower case

Cartoonist Barry, whose work runs next to Groening's in many papers,
says what distinguishes him is his ability to be annoyed. (Her own highly
regarded strip is reminiscent of Groening's for its simple, childish
artwork, its attention to the details of childhood and its ironic processing
of popular culture.) She provides her own litany of items likely to irritate
Groening: reciting a haiku, saying you believe in astrology, discussing
pyramid power or telling him to read "I'm OK, You're OK" and think it's

Deborah Caplan started selling advertisement for the Reader in 1982.
Two years later, after becoming the paper's sales manager, she started
dating Groening. The were both unhappy with their jobs at the paper; so
they began a business collaboration that led to the publication of his first
book, "Love is Hell," and start of ACME Features Syndicate, the independent
company that distributes the comic strip. (The strip appears primarily in
alternative weeklies and college papers, but also in a few dailies,
including The Oregonian and the San Francisco Examiner.) Groening and Caplan
were married in 1987, and their first son, Homer -- named for Matt's father,
not Bart Simpson's -- was born last April.

In starting their business enterprise, the pair bypassed major
publishers and cartoon syndicates and distributed the work on their own.
"We just kind of winged it in a major way," says Caplan, a Los Angeles
native with wavy, reddish hair. But the book generated its own attention,
and the comic strip continued to grow. The couple has expanded the
enterprise with the Life in Hell Cartoon Co., which sells "Life in Hell"
merchandise, including coffee mugs, greeting cards and T-shirts. The
combined operations employ seven people.

Groening has produced five books in all; he calls the collections
self-help books for himself. "Love is Hell" helped him get over a traumatic
breakup. "Work is Hell" helped give him the mental preparation to quit his
newspaper job. "Childhood is Hell," the most recent, helped him prepare for
the birth of his son.

When Groening is working, he almost always searches the room for the
most comfortable place to sit, then sinks into it. When he's called into a
producer's office to review a videotape of an upcoming show, he finds the
couch in a corner and lies down on it. On a Tuesday morning, he slumps in
the corner of a plush couch in a Los Angeles sound stage where a 24-piece
orcestra is playing "The Simpsons'" musical score. Behind him, a handful of
sound technicians operate a huge control panel that looks like the cockpit
of a 747.

The orchestra plays a few 10- and 15-second flourishes, and after each
one a technician calls out, "Matt? You hapy with that?" "Very happy,"
Groening responds, "Great."

Wearing his black Simpsons crew jacket, khakis and clunky high-tops,
Groening seems less like an influential Hollywood producer than a curious
kid who happened to wander into the room. "I think this is the coolest
part," he says. "I always feel like it's a little concert being put on just
for me."

In a way, it is. As a cartoonist, Groening spent years alone in a room
with a drawing board and a large collection of tapes and CDs. But
television is a collaborative medium, and Groening heads a small empire that
each week must yield 22 minutes of prime-time entertainment.

Along with fellow executive producers Sam Simon (producer of "The
Tracey Ullman Show" and the sit-com "Taxi"), and James L. Brooks (producer
of the old "Mary Tyler Moore Show," and the films "Terms of Endearment" and
"Broadcast News"), Groening oversees every step of the creation of the
program. He designed the characters, supervises the team of animators who
do the drawing at a Hollywood studio, then sends the work to be finished by
an animation firm in Korea. He works with a team of writers who do the
scripts, revising them to make them funnier. He oversees the sessions in
which actors record the scripts as though they're taping a radio show. And
then he sits in on the sessions when the music and sound effects are added.

"My main goal through all of that is to make people laugh," Groening
says. "If we can throw in a different point of view, I think that's fine,

Groening works long days that are filled with meetings all over town --
at the animation studio across the city in Hollywood, at the sound stage in
Culver City. Most of the work gets done in a small suite of offices i a
small two-story building wedged in a corner of the Fox lot, surrounded by
the studios where "L.A.Law" is filmed. Compared to his solitary work as a
cartoonist, his work now seems like one long party. "Except," he says,
"it's like a party where you can't go home."

The program started as a series of animated shorts that punctuated "The
Tracy Ullman Show," Fox's Emmy-winning comedy/variety show. Brooks, who
created the show, once had been given an original "Life in Hell" cartoon,
which hung on his office wall. When he wanted an animated segment, he
called Groening. The cartoonist created a rambunctious, contentious cartoon
clan: Homer, the grumpy, fumbling father; Marge, the good-natured but
befuddled mother with the outrageous bouffant; Bart, rebellious wise guy;
Lisa, the smartest Simpson, and infant Maggie, who does little more than
suck a pacifier.

As an inside joke, Groening named most of the characters after members
of his own family. But both the cartoonist and his family deny any
similarity between the TV family and the Groenings. By most accounts, the
Groenings are a more laid-back, less feisty bunch than their TV
counterparts. "For another thing," Margaret Groening says, "I don't have 3
feet of hair above my head, and it's not blue." So many reporters have asked
the Groenings about their links to "The Simpsons" that Matt jokingly told
his parents and siblings to say they can't comment "until the lawsuit is

"If I had it to do over again, I probably wouldn't name them after my
family," he says. "I imagine the guy that Fred Flintstone was named after
feels pretty bad."

When "The Simpsons" premiered as a half-hour show in January, it became
an almost immediate ratings success, quickly becoming the fledgling Fox
Network's No. 1 show. Based on the success of "The Simpsons" first 13
episodes, Fox recently ordered 23 more episodes for the next season.

In addition, it has received almost unanimous critical acclaim. The LA
Times, recognizing the show's anarchic appeal, recently called "The
Simpsons" "a guerrilla attack on mainstream TV."

"The Simpsons" is the sort of breakthrough comedy show that succeeds by
crashing barriers. "I always thought that after years of watching TV, `If I
had a show it, would be different, and people would like it.'" Groening
says, sounding a bit surprised. "And that turned out to be true."

Like "Late Night With David Letterman" -- one of the few TV programs
Groening himself regularly watches -- "The Simpsons" has an anti-TV slant
that may be the key to its success. Groening's model was Rocky and
Bullwinkle, Jay Ward's intelligent and witty '60s cartoon. But he was also
inspired by "Ozzie and Harriet" and "Leave it to Beaver" -- two shows he
seems to have borrowed, thrown into a Cuisinart and tossed back on the

Groening is bothered by the stilted, phony world of most TV sitcoms,
where family members seem always to be sitting around a living room tossing
insult gags at each other. He wants his TV show to be more like his comic
strip. The art is crude and simple, the material a blend of popular culture
and psychological realities with a humorous edge, and there's not an ounce
of glamour. As a result, the animated Simpsons seem more like real people
than most live-action TV characters. What's more, "The Simpsons" spend a
great deal of their time doing something you seldom see the Huxtables of
Cosby or even the Connors of Rosanne doing: watching TV.

Simon, Groening's fellow producer, says Groening's obsessive attention
to the details of childhood gives the show its sense of authenticity.
"Sometimes it's kink of eerie how in touch with his second-grade life he
is." (At one session, where technicians are polishing the sound effects for
a show that features Bart and Homer playing a video game, Groening
repeatedly insists that then engineers make the game sound less like a
cartoon and "more like a real video game.")

The program thrives on playing with the TV autience's expectations. An
early episode ends whit young Bart admitting to his father that he'd been
lying to him, but that "if something can possibly bring us that close, it
can't possibly be bad." Where another sitcom would have closed with a sweet
reconciliation, the revelation sends Homer flying off the handle, and the
last image of is Homer screaming, "Why you little...." as Bart flees into
his bedroom and slams the door.

In another episode, Homer decides "The Simpsons" are in need of family
counseling. "Sometimes I feel like we're the worst family in town," he
says. Replies Marge: "Maybe we should move to a larger community."

Still, though the show shuns Hollywood phoniness and happy endings, it
never stoops to mean-spiritedness. "The show does all sorts of outrageous
things," Groening says. "But it's also a celebration, I think, almost every
step of the way."

A Fox executive has arrived at Groening's office to show him the first
prototypes for the rag-doll knockoffs of the Simpson family -- part of the
army of Simpsons merchandize that will soon couwd the shelves of toystores
across the country. The cartoonist surveys the collection that's crowded on
his couch -- goofy-looking little Barts and Lisas, neatly propped up on the
cushions. Groening grow more animated with each new doll that's pulled out.
It all fits into his plan for life: the more toys, the better.

The exec keeps pulling a string on a small plastic box that will one
day be the innards of the Bart Simpson talking doll.

"Matt," he promises, "any kid in the world can pull this string, and
the messages will never come out in the same order." He pulls the string,
and the scratchy, distorted voice of Bart Simpson emanates from the box in
his hand, spouting the characters pithy catch phrases: "Au contraire, mon
fr`ere!"; "Kids in TV land, you're being duped!" and "Don't have a cow,

Groening is gleeful at the prospect of characters he created popping up
across the American landscape. Soon, there will be Simpsons trucker hats
and a Nintendo Simpsons game; a Simpson's auto air-freshener is planned.
"Most actual human beings would be appalled by being personified on a car
air freshener," Groening observes. "We don't have that problem."

"The Simpsons" were never designed to be cuddly creatures, and their
popularity amuses their creator. He savors the thought of stuffed Simpsons
replacing Garfield the Cat stick-ons on the rear windows of automobiles. "I
like the idea of injecting a little anti-cuteness into the market place," he

All of this merchandising -- combined with the syndication of the strip
and rich rewards of TV producing -- is making Groening a rich man. His
annual income probably runs to the mid-six figures, though Deborah Caplan
will say only, "The family is very comfortable."

The family recently moved out of their tiny two-bedroom beach-cottage
home on a canal in Los Angeles' eclectic Venice distric -- an area know for
its ethnic mix, its bizarre boardwalk rituals and its large artist
population. The house will be torn down, and in its place the couple is
building what Caplain calls The House "The Simpsons" Built -- a larger
California bungalow-style, two-story home with touches of folk art,
craftsman-style architecture and a canoe landing on the canal.

While construction is under way, the Groenings are living in a scenic
two-bedroom place atop a towering cliff that overlooks the ocean in the posh
Pacific Palisades area. As in the Venice house, Matt's studio is in the
garage, where he sits one Saturday afternoon searching through Bekins boxes,
trying to reassemble his life. Occasionally he's able to reach into a
random box and find exactly what he's looking for. "I'm the most
semi-organized person I know," he says.

He strolls from the cluttered studio, through the kitchen where Deborah
is playing with Homer and drinking coffee out of a "Love is Hell" mug, and
out into the grassy patch of back yard. It's nearly sunset. "Wow," he
says. "This is going to be really cool."

For a moment, Groening seems a bit too content for a man who has made
his career by whining about unfairness and discomfort, a man who has become
the voice for the struggling, underappreciated masses. Suddenly, Matt
Groening's Life in Hell looks more like life in heaven.

But Groening dismisses the thought. "I can now pay the rent," he
admits. "That's no longer a source of unhappiness. But there are other
sources of unhappiness that have grown much bigger."

Having responsiblilty for a weekly television show has absorbed almost
all of his time, and he hasn't taken a vacation in several years. (The
execessive load occasionaly is reflected in his comic strip. A recent "Life
in Hell" featured "The 24 warning signs of stress" including "cold sweat,"
"lingering anger" and "strange new clothes.") But chances are that in the
next few years he'll only get busier: He'd like to do feature films, both
animated and live-action. But he dreams about holing away in a cabin in the
Cascades and writing a novel.

In a moment, it becomes clear where Matt Groening's new inspiration
will be coming from. When he comes in from watching the sunset, he finds
Deborah watching baby Homer wheeling around the living room floor in a baby
walker. Groening looks at his son speeding across the hardwood floor with a
pacifier in his mouth. "Hey, Homer," he says. "Don't suck and drive."

In the past year, Matt Groening's professional dreams have come true.
But that, he says, "is a distant second to the thrill of having this kid."

For a man who has never really abandoned his own boyish self, the
prospect of watching a little Groening grow up presents a particularly sweet
moment. So much of his work has been from the point of view of the child
that it was a shock suddenly to find himself becoming, in his words, "the

The prospect scares Groening a bit, if only because he remembers so
clearly the foibles of the adults in his own childhood. Still, he's making
the transition. He's learning to record his observations of the universe
from a different point of view. "I know I'm going to make different
mistakes, and more benign ones." He pauses and smiles. "But I sure am
having a good time."


Side bar:


"School is Hell" -- Which includes some excerpts from Groening's
boyhood diary -- is literally and figuratively a page out of the
cartoonist's childhood. "Part of my motivation there," says Groening, "was
to make times of misery pay off." The book is full of witty observations and
savvy advice. A strip about kindergarten explains how to make a gun out of
a cookie: "Grab a cookie. Bite the cookie into the shape of a gun. Fire
when ready."

Several strips in the school book offer advice for the unruly student.
One is called "Trouble: getting in and weaseling your way out of." ("Many
youngsters attempt to avoid trouble by seeking refuge in a seat in the rear
corner of the classroom. Unfortunately, in recent centuries, many
authorities have become aware of this hideout.")

Another panel explains how to drive a teacher crazy if you get kicked
out of class. A method suggested is to "slam the door and make goofy faces
in the little window. Then run." But another option is listed: "Wait 20
years, then draw a book of snotty cartoons about school."

-----End Article-----

Kind of shows that cartoonists from the Northwest are always a little
warped (mind you, I do like them all), from Groening's "Life in Hell"
and "The Simpsons", Larson's "The Far Side", to the Portland guy who
does dark humor about handicaps (he's in a wheelchair himself, so don't
complain. Anyone at Portland State remember his name?)

Tim Forsyth, or
Intel Corp., OEM MicroComputer Platform Division, Hillsboro, Oregon, USA

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